Where Are We Going?

In my last post, I commented on disconnected or random conflict and the problems it can cause a writer.

I don’t mean the kind of story where seemingly unrelated problems arise, but then at midpoint begin to fall into place and connect, leading to discovery of the true villain’s identity.

I mean the kind of episodic, disjointed sort of story that rambles around without a true central antagonist at work and depends on shock or mayhem to propel the plot instead of cause-and-effect.  Imagine the events of THE WIZARD OF OZ transpiring without the Wicked Witch.

My writing students are gravitating more toward this awkward plot structure.  I find it increasingly difficult to correct.  What is the root of this problem?  I can find several things that, in combination, are affecting how story is perceived.  Is it an evolution or an erosion?

1) The invention of the World Wide Web.

2) Video games

3) Role-playing games

4) Book series that are open-ended

None of these four factors is negative or undesirable; however, their prevalence helps generate a different audience expectation than perhaps some writers have dealt with before.

Recently, while having dinner with another author, I expressed frustration in getting my students to understand cause-and-effect plotting.

“That’s because you’re a linear thinker,” my friend said. “Your students are web thinkers.”

It explained a lot. I am indeed a linear writer. I grew up reading linear stories–meaning plots that move from a beginning point through a progression of tougher obstacles to an objective.  Every action compels a reaction to occur, and the story advances with logic underlying its emotions and conflict.

I was trained to be linear.  My writing craft is founded on cause-and-effect principles.  Characters in my stories may be puzzled or baffled for a while, but they sort things out.  No one is acting without a reason, whether or not those motivations are apparent to the protagonist at any given time.

The last time my agent shopped a prospective book synopsis around for me, one publishing house rejected it because it was “too linear.”

Of course, the project sold to someone else.  But that particular rejection has haunted me since.  Initially, I didn’t understand what it meant.  My agent was likewise baffled.  Yet since then, I’ve come to suspect that the fiction world is being assaulted by a quiet revolution.

Not the self-publishing versus legacy publishing debate currently raging among authors.

But instead one that speaks to the very heart of what story is and how to present it to readers.  Is anyone paying attention to this?  Is this issue the tiny leak that’s going to eventually crumble the whole dam?

Linear story is based on a construction that dates back to antiquity, to the very first stories ever told.  It pits protagonist against antagonist in a step-by-step, cause-and-effect progression of attempts and partial failures until the story’s climax, where sacrifice, risk, and heroic action lead to victory . . . or defeat.  At its best, this type of story is engrossing and cathartic.

Non-linear stories, however, aren’t concerned with an arc of change for the protagonist. There may or may not be a central antagonist.  Events are random problems to be solved that may or may not lead in any particular direction.  Sacrifice doesn’t often occur, or it happens to anyone but the protagonist.  Poetic justice is ignored.  The characters rush from here to there.  They encounter danger and solve problems, and if they ricochet long enough there’s an outcome of sorts.

As an example, let’s consider a series of teen thrillers by Alexander Gordon Smith that begins with a novel called LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE. 

It’s fast, creepy, and shocking.  It deals with a boy who’s framed for a brutal murder, tried and convicted, and incarcerated in a horrifying prison.  There’s just enough linear structure to hold this story loosely together.  The rest of it careens from one shock or problem to the next.  There’s a hint of an unseen antagonist, but the shadow force is so vague and nebulous that the story can’t hinge on it.  The ending is left open.  The protagonist doesn’t change significantly.  Readers are supposed to read the next volume and the next, hoping–presumably–to eventually get answers.

LOCKDOWN serves process-oriented readers, those who are entranced by the grim story world and are so determined not to reach an end to this experience that they’re willing to be cheated by the story’s last page. 

Compare Smith’s tale to THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan.  In this wildly popular YA story, the construction is definitely linear. 

The protagonist is a dyslexic boy named Percy, who discovers he’s the son of his human mother and one of the Greek gods of antiquity.  Percy and his companions go on a quest to recover the stolen lightning bolt of Zeus.  They constantly encounter traps and obstacles, but their unknown antagonist’s hand is clearly working against them.  Eventually, Percy identifies the villain and confronts him.  Percy also discovers the identity of his father.  And although this book is the first of a series, its plot is resolved.  Percy goes through a significant arc of change.  He fulfills the story role of hero through his sacrificial and courageous actions.  This story serves results-oriented readers, those who expect a definitive outcome to Percy’s adventure.  These readers may wish for another story about Percy, but they’ll continue because they’ve received a solid, rewarding reading experience.  Their time spent in this story world has been worthwhile, and Riordan hasn’t used tricks and shock just to keep them there.

I try to comfort myself with the economic outcomes of these two books.  Riordan’s classically designed story has–so far–outsold Smith’s shocker.  I’m glad, but not because I’m out to disparage Smith’s work. I read LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE with curiosity and got a certain amount of entertainment value from it.  But it must always been seen for the type of book it is and not presented as a model of writing that should be emulated. 

No, I’m glad for Riordan’s success because it shows that an audience will still respond–and respond well–to the linear, classically designed story.

However, I think it’s unwise to be complacent.  If we’re going to preserve cause-and-effect tales as the foundation of modern fiction–of all fiction–then we’re going to have to fight for this construction and stand diligently for its defense.


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16 responses to “Where Are We Going?

  1. That’s fascinating. My first reaction was to just consider this an aspect of the modern/postmodern divide, but then I started thinking through all the novels I’m familiar with that fit the non-linear pattern.

    They’re all unfinished. They’re mostly by unpracticed writers (just like your students’). I think, even in a postmodern world, story works best when it’s linear.

    I think the problem isn’t that people are writing more of them, or that there’s a new audience hungry for non-linear story, but that more unstructured stories are slipping through the cracks, essentially unfinished, because non-linear doesn’t look inherently broken anymore.

    That’s pretty encouraging. And I like that the examples you referred to are young adult works, because that’s where the audience shift would show up first. Good to know kids these days still like a modern tale.

    • Yes, I think the stories that are getting published are slipping through the cracks, as you put it. Young editors are perhaps responding to whatever element such stories offer instead, thinking they’re fresh or original. In fact, they’re neither.

      Thanks for your response. I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon who can’t move with the times, but what’s trendy isn’t always what’s best.

  2. If video games and RPGs are the main sources of this, then I don’t think the novel is in long term trouble. Both of those include some sort of buy-in where what happens, happens to “me.” Which means I may be more willing to accept somewhat disconnected happenings that amount to a loosely-connected narrative since that’s one way of describing real life. With the distance of a novel, it isn’t happening to “me” and I may continue to want a more cohesive narrative.

    That said, my best guess is that some sort of hybridization will occur between the modern and post-modern novel. After all, the modern novel came from changing tastes causing a total upheaval in the way stories are told and digested. It’s been a good long ride for the modern novel, but we will still crave some sort of over-arching narrative even if it isn’t born out by direct cause-and-effect. This is a place that will likely see a lot of experimentation until the proper balance or new way of doing things is found.

    This is an interesting trend, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  3. I’m not someone who comments on things often, but I found this to be an intriguing post. I’m not sure I agree that linearity has dominated all through history. What do you make of novels such as “Anne of Green Gables” or “Little Women”? I would argue that novels like those are inherently non-linear and episodic in nature. There’s no antagonist, no clear over-arching plot or message, just a series of events as the characters grow from childhood to adulthood. Also, older work such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Odyssey” seem episodic in nature as well.

    I’d say that a non-linear approach could work, but one has to want to follow the characters through each adventure, the way one does in episodes of a television show. In this case, I’d argue that the plots are not only non-linear, but predominantly driven by inventive worlds and strong characters. I’m curious what your take on this is.

    • Hi! Thanks for diving into this discussion. You mention some fine examples of episodic fiction. There will always be exceptions to any position writers stand on. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and LITTLE WOMEN both fall into the “coming of age” sub-genre. They are linear–not in the sense of protagonist vying with an antagonist for a desired objective–but in the sense of the protagonist going through an arc of change in leaving childhood behind. Each of the little events or tribulations push the protagonist forward into maturity. Jo’s fight, if you will, is against growing up. She’s against change, and that’s a fight she must lose.

      I won’t defend or explain ALICE IN WONDERLAND. You’re right. It’s absolutely non-linear. It happens to work. As writers know, the rules can always be broken as long as you pull it off. Carroll did. And I don’t consider THE ODYSSEY a novel.

  4. Actually going someplace, as opposed to presenting an endless string of serialized reality-show journals, is really crucial to my enjoyment of a novel. The main character can fail, of course, and the bad guys can get away, so long as there is some resolution — at least, of the major plot elements.

    I gave up on a writer whose early books all had real plots with resolved plot problems, when their decline fell to the point I no longer could find resolved story problems. The last straw was a pair of books that consisted of (a) a pamphlet that was a shadow of the author’s early work, followed by (b) a rambling book whose unresolved issues list basically left the reader with a vague prayer that the next volume would contain the second half of the book.

    As for the Odyssey, I would say there were many different chapters but one (resolved) story about the king’s trip home. The story problem was resolved: pestilent guests had filled his hall and were trying to eat his kingdom’s wealth while deciding amongst themselves who would take his wife; while his son struggled against his mother’s authority because he wanted to confront them while she wanted him kept safe. The king returned, ascertained who was and wasn’t on his side, had his servants bar the doors, and fulfilled the task the Queen had set as the condition for her hand. When he was attacked by the suitors, he revealed his identity and led his son in the slaughter of their unworthy ranks. It was everything I like to see in a climax, and in a resolution. It wasn’t part of a going-nowhere serial.

    (As for the various places the crew and their king were put to various trials, I am reminded of those long, long jokes with the big buildup to a short and unrelated punch line. They work best when the buildup is played straight. In this case, we wouldn’t appreciate the king’s return if we hadn’t seen how he’d suffered while away or how his family had suffered in his absence. We needed those chapters to believe Homer’s climax.)

    • There was a time when a novelist thought of characters and built a story around them. The story’s purpose was to move the characters–or attempt to move the characters–along a trajectory of change. Readers expected to see the protagonist affected by the story events, and there had to be a crisis building into a climatic confrontation that resolved the story problem.

      Such a structure has been delivering good, solid, satisfying entertainment since Homer’s day. Like you, I want to read stories like that. I was trained to write that way, and I still believe in it.

      However, the publishing industry in recent years–and for a number of reasons I won’t go into–has become increasingly focused on a “sure thing.” So if readers liked a book, the publisher wanted an author to write a sequel to it. And if the sequel was successful, publishers wanted a series built. From that, publishers have begun pushing authors to write trilogies from the get-go. Writers have to think open-ended, which defeats the cathartic experience of a classically designed plot.

      It’s not enough that we are expected to juggle the plot events, have them make sense while surprising readers, and bring our story to a logical, unanticipated, and exciting conclusion. Now writers must concoct a book climax that answers only a few questions without resolving the trilogy or series. Some ideas lend themselves to the big view. Most do not. Asking writers to whip out vast, open-ended story lines on a steady basis is why there are weak, lame, meandering, meaningless stories … or good books that lead to an ever-weakening series.

      • “Some ideas lend themselves to the big view. Most do not.”

        I noticed recently on re-reading Jim Butcher’s “about Jim” page that his first publication seemed to have been pushed off the fence and into action by the fact he had three books already. Assuming the repeat pitch is now part of the ideal sales package, there’s a problem for people who offer one big story that actually ENDS. On the other hand, with some thinking there are ways to make more adventure. Nalini Singh has stories in which the main characters aren’t main lead, and the development of the side-characters makes the whole universe more interesting. The fact that the side-characters can be explored has been mined by Butcher (looking at Murphy, Marcone, Thomas, and I understand soon Molly) as well without disturbing the plot arch of his “regular” books.

        Publishers surely don’t want to experience Disney’s problem when it discovered its Jim Bowie movie had sparked a big fad — and had already killed its protagonist. And they want to be able to leverage marketing success in one book in the sale of the next — brand-building. I understand this very much from a business point of view.

        From an artistic point of view, I’ve been suffering from several incomplete story ideas fighting for time in my head, and realized some of them really summed things too well to support sequels. On the other hand, I’d been interested in developing a cross-genre plot arc that could be leveraged to connect several otherwise self-standing novel-length story ideas. Maybe interlinking otherwise self-standing novels with the addition of elements of larger-than-novel-length plot threads is a way to solve both. If Butcher’s series plot were less ambitious, one might have created a series climax at the final battle in Changes and made the series about the destruction of the enemy involved in that battle. But he’s got more unsolved plots still developing, and we’re eventually looking forward to the End Of The World. Nice anticipation 🙂

        One UNSATISTFYING way to solve the problem was the one I saw in the otherwise very enjoyable Blackout/All Clear “pair” of novels, which appear to have been one story arbitrarily cut in half to support two sales. As one novel it’s wonderful. If I hadn’t had both halves on me when I was reading, I’d have felt really cheated at the end of Blackout.

        I’m still working on making a single novel-length work that satisfies me. I’m beginning to adopt specific tools (checklists, drawn plot arcs, etc.) urged here and in other places, and I’m moving toward something that people are now telling me they want to see the next chapter of. Without being asked 🙂 So if I’m to avoid hypocrisy, I need to work very hard to make sure those chapters really go somewhere — and do it with gusto.

  5. Deb

    Hey, you make some very salient points. I know that Jim began writing STORM FRONT with a series concept in mind of maybe 20 books. Because he had a big idea, he could design each book to fit into place much more effectively than those writers who are caught by surprise when asked to “write another.”

    And, yes, writing spin-offs about the secondary characters is a really smart way to keep going. Robert Crais has done that with his Joe Pike novels.

    As a reader, I prefer a series that has stand-alone novels featuring a continuing cast of characters. I don’t want to be hemmed in by having to read the books in order, but it’s hard to find that kind of thing written new these days.

    • CD

      The Stephanie Plum novels can largely be read out of order, but I would have a hard time saying the same of the Dresden Files or Codex Alera. But is that a problem?

      To start with a series concept of ~20 novels seems brassy. Tim Pratt’s badass sorceress Marla Mason got her walking papers from Tim’s publisher in 2009, and subsequent publication and promotion have been affected as a result. With current crowd-sourced funding opportunities they’re publishable, but it’s not going to have a publisher’s marketing effort and I would fear for shelf space, etc..

      The best crowd-sourced funding I’ve seen depended on an artist with an established following, so it’s not something a new name seems likely to do successfully. But assuming successful crowdsourced funding of a large print run (e.g., through pre-sales) how would one get it onto shelves? Do publishers do deals (for different percentages) with authors willing to take financial risk on a project, or who want marketing support rather than funding of the product’s printing or editing overhead? I have no idea how this works — or how it will be working in a few years as current trends shake out. Thoughts?

      • Deb

        I know that Butcher planned a large series. I don’t know whether he pitched the series that way or not. Thinking through a long arc of story has helped him develop his characters as he’s gone along, but he’s built his success one solid novel at a time. Not all at once.

        The writers that take up an entire bookstore shelf with their backlist go one book at a time. Sales have to stay large and steady enough for stores to keep their backlist in stock.

      • In further response … a risk for a series of any length is always that the publisher will cancel it partway through, leaving the readers hanging and the author fielding complaints and inquiries. It’s happened to me with my Nether/Mandria fantasy series.

        At least, writers can now continue a dropped series via electronic self-publishing, if their readers demand it.

      • Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series was cancelled when his editor was fired during his publisher’s post-crash-of-08 rearrangements. He had ended his last book with a cliff-hanger, and readers wanted to revolt. He’s self-published, e-published, and published donation-supported since. They’ve been good books since, with increasing stakes and characters developing in interesting but true-to-the-character ways.

        I’m sure Butcher didn’t pitch a 25-book series at the outset, but he did report that his publisher was encouraged to publish him by the fact that he had three novels completed already. Your point is exactly right-on, though: you don’t succeed with a long string of titles, you succeed (if at all) one book at a time. Each title is a new battle — when writers slack off on the craft and turn in something that isn’t up to the standard readers expect, they risk the loyalty built atop their previous (good) work.

        I’m used to writing nonfiction (there’s one right answer and the exercise is about communicating it successfully/persuasively), and short fiction (easier to hold the whole thing in my head if it is chapter-length or a poem only a few pages in length or shorter), so the exercise of writing a novel I’d be happy to pay to read is both a change and quite a bit of work. I’m still hammering out things like which characters will survive, and whether I’m trying to cram certain plotlines into one story or whether they should go in separate books. I am having quite a bit of fun with my idea that my (urban) fantasy character undergoes a change that leaves him speaking in iambic pentameter forever. When I went back to correct a poem he recited in challenge to some antagonists, I discovered every verse was already in rhyming iambic pentameter. But it’s not the details that are my big barrier, it’s the big picture: book-length conflict is really new to me as an author.

        Do you teach anything online I could join to take advantage of worksheets, craft-drills, etc?

      • I don’t do online workshops. I’ll consider incorporating some drill suggestions into future posts.


      • Hm, I didn’t mean online workshops as much as I meant, are you still teaching University classes somewhere that might offer a class to distance-ed students. I don’t want to harass people on the Internet but joining a formal class of someone with a track record for teaching seems attractive.

        Designing the “you make it up” tale is very different than designing a nonfiction tale. The latter is about communication, but the former is about … well … everything. I’m concerned I might be missing part of the “everything” 🙂

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