Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mark of Excellence (Part One)

Sometimes, paragraphs like the following leave a question mark in my mind:

Matt washed his face. Took a handful of paper towels and did what he could for his trousers and jacket. Glanced in the mirror. Looked away. Used his fingers as a comb. Washed his face a second time.
-Imposter, by Davis Bunn

I think the poor author forgot the grammatical rule of complete sentences. He. Chopped. His. Phrases. And. Clauses. Up. Into. Little. Tiny. Pieces. Everyone has a bad day once in a while, or even more realistic, just a bad paragraph. But this type of paragraph is Davis Bunn's trademark.

Which leads me to my new series: What constitutes true excellence, both in structure (the plot) and execution (the grammar) of the books we read? Today we'll be looking at plot structure.

Examples of Mediocre Quality:

The Skeleton in the Closet (Plot Structure)

One of the best illustrative quotes for my point here is in the Focus on The Family Radio Theatre drama "Father Gilbert Mysteries".  Father Gilbert, Anglican vicar and former police investigator, is talking to a really bad playwright about his work:

"Oh, Simon, since you want me to be honest, I’ll say this: I think the biggest problem with your work is that it doesn’t ring true…your characters are clichéd, your dialogue is a collection of mixed metaphors, and trite sentiments, and—well, your plotting is at best muddled, and at the very worst incomprehensible. It doesn’t ring true to anything anyone knows of life. I’m sorry to be so brutal, but you wanted honesty."  
-The Play's the Thing, Part 2

That just about summarizes everything, but let's go into those points in a little more detail.
1. Clichéd Characters
Have you ever read a book where the character is completely bland? The cliché part isn't necessarily wrong, but you have to have either or. Either the plot may be cliché, with memorable characters (Such as in The Hidden Hand) Or the characters may be cliché with memorable plot. But woe to the author who combines both. (The Immortelles, Gilbert and Lynn Morris) Why is this bad? Call it preference if you will, but its pretty obvious who's writing for writing's sake and who's writing as just another job.  The former will work hard to chose memorable details such as names, personal appearance, or unique courses of action; the latter will select tried-and-paid-for details that have made the bestseller list twice already.
2. Mixed Dialogue
You have to be a good author to include mixed dialogue, and even then you can barely get away with it:
"Oh, good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!" tittered Flora; "but of course you never did why should you, pray don't answer, I don't know where I'm running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it heads..."
-Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. I cut the paragraph in half for your sake. :)

3. Unrealistic Sentiment
I was looking through The Covenant by Hilda Stahl. While I would describe it as pre-packaged mental let-down, I thought it had some interesting elements. But I finally put it down when the girl's husband walks into their cabin after he's been in a fist fight and she says "Let me fix your face." He holds her to his breast and says "Fix my heart first."

(Honestly...what man would say that in real life? This was CLEARLY written by a romance author. Please excuse the passionate refutation.)
4. Muddled plotting
Let me pick on Imposter again. Here's a summary of the plot from the book flap:
In the midst of Paul Kelly's senatorial campaign, Matt Kelly returns home from the federal training academy on the brink of an identity crisis. His inherent ability to bury his personal feelings behind a mask of withdrawal is a professional blessing but a personal catastrophe that had left his closest relationships in shambles.
Matt's world is thrown into chaos when a bomb erupts at the Kelly home causing personal tragedy and focusing national attention on his father's rejuvenated campaign. This quest for justice takes Matt and his team of unlikely collaborators from the power chairs of transatlantic government and the cell blocks of inner-city America to the unturned soil of his family's hidden past.
Imposter is a mystery. Matt Kelly is out to find a criminal, and to do so, has to dig into his family past. But my bone to pick is not that I couldn't solve the mystery (I often don't) but that Bunn pulls out someone totally new at the very end. The solution is at best, muddled, and at worst, incomprehensible. Why? Because 'whodunit' is someone that's not even a character in the story. He's a 'ghost' from the past that suddenly appears, and Matt Kelly says "He did it!".  And in a sub-plot, here was even the question at the end whether his father was really his father or not... to tell you the truth, I think he was, but I couldn't really tell for sure. 
Every plot needs to have introduction, body, conclusion; especially if there is no sequel. It's that unfair.
But I won't just pick on Bunn. How about George MacDonald, in The Lady's Confession?
Juliet falls in love with and marries the honorable local doctor. The whole point of this book is the terrible secret she's hiding from him, and the repercussions after she finally tells him. But when we reach the climax--the point where she confronts him and will not let him go until he knows--what do we read?

"She drew his head closer down, laid her lips to his ear, gave a great gasp, and whispered two or three words."

And that, my friends, is all. Juliet makes a desperate appeal later on, in which she pleads "He was much older than I was, and I trusted him!" But that's not really a revelation. This book illustrates that if you must muddle the plot because the sin is too wicked to state in words, then you'd better switch it to a different sin. It's neither polite to the reader, nor good writing.

Note, however, that in the above point, I'm not referring to mysteries where the conclusion is revealed in the end. Those are supposed to be muddled. But stories which are muddled without a conclusion are not truly excellent.

5. It doesn't ring true
Many popular romance novels don't ring true to anything anyone knows of life. People don't meet and marry that way. Sci-fi can also come up against this obstacle. The same principle holds here that we discussed under clichéd characters, only slightly differently worded. Either the plot or the characters must ring true. Enduring stories ring true in both plot and characters, but occasionally an author strikes it rich as long as they follow the either-or principle. If your plot is fantastic, then your characters must be normal. If your characters are fantastic, then your plot must be normal. Take Tolkien, for instance, in The Hobbit. We all know that goblins and trolls and dragons and magic smoke rings (as well as hobbits, for that matter) are pretty fantastic. But Bilbo Baggins is real, because he's afraid and a bit clumsy throughout the whole story. Even Gollum, as fantastic as he is, shows twinges of insecurity and regret that make him more relatable.

Examples of Excellence:
If you'd like to further study out books where authors avoided these errors, then check out the titles below. I've selected the ones that I think best express excellence:

1. Original Characters
Pearl Maiden, by H. Ryder Haggard. This wins the award for characters who will make you laugh and cry, take your breath away with their audacity, and make you groan over their obtuseness. Well done.

2. Understandable Dialogue
This is a tough one, but I'll put down Gene Stratton-Porter. I really don't have to go back and read anything twice, (with some authors I do)  but she says some deep things worth remembering. Try The Keeper of the Bees or Her Father's Daughter. (Both of which I edit for occasional language.)

3. Realistic Sentiment
Jane Austen novels. Tales of true love without all the frilly glitter.

4. Clear Plots
Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens. There may be a hundred different plots, but he ties them all up beautifully and concisely.

5. Rings True
Depends on what you prefer. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, or Anne of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery are great examples on a dignified and complementary scale. Also Laddie: A True Blue Story, by Gene Stratton-Porter. 

I will conclude part one right here. If you have books that you think illustrate the above points of excellence, I would love to know what they are.

Lady Bibliophile

1 comment:

  1. Dear Lady B,
    I HIGHLY reccomend Father Gilbert Mysteries. Also, I reccomend my third favorite Pearl Maiden. Such good reading! Eeeehhhhh.


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