A novel never sleeps.
We’re on vacation. As my family plays, I’m working on yet another round of rewrites for a young-adult novel, trying to add a scene about half of the way through.
This has had me thinking quite a bit about the idea of justification—not as in left, right, and center, but as in setting up a scene properly so that a reader neither feels as if it came out of nowhere nor as if it was far too long in coming. Getting it just right is obviously every storyteller’s goal, and one of the more challenging aspects of storytelling. Aristotle said that the end of an effective plot must be “unexpected but inevitable.” I’d say, though, that the same can be true of any good scene, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to mess it up in one direction or the other.
The reason that I’ve had this on my mind, other than my on-going story addiction/obsession, is that the last two books I’ve emerged myself in were Victoria Roth’s Divergent and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Both of these are very, very fine books, as I know I’m not the first to tell you. But in each case, I have found myself feeling as if the author missed that justification sweet spot.
I first picked up Game of Thrones about six years back. I had driven a good family friend back to the train station from my late mother-in-law’s memorial service. While we waited for the train, he had given me a copy of the book, which I had heard wonderful things about but hadn’t had a chance to read. I started reading that evening and got as far as a scene about seventy pages in where—this almost certain isn’t worth warning as a spoiler, but…
Consider yourself warned.
A seven-year-old boy gets tossed out a window.
Was this scene justified by the plot? Yes. Did it move the story forward? Yes. Did I keep reading? No.
It wasn’t the right book for me at the time. I’d just lost a second family member in two years (and would lose two more in the next year and a half), and I had a seven-year-old of my own.
This year, however, I picked the book back up (actually, I’ve been listening to it on audio). I kept going past my earlier bail-out point, and have found that the writing is really, really good—original, compelling… But the idea driven home by that first death—no one is safe—gets re-sounded with such force—subtle force, but force nonetheless—that at the point that I’ve reached, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I get it: just about everyone that I have gotten attached to is going to have horrible, horrible things happen to them, and many of them are going to die.
This doesn’t make the book any less compelling, but it sure makes it a heck of a lot less enjoyable. I find myself wondering why I’m reading. I don’t need it to end with a heroic triumph, but I do feel as if I can see where everything is headed, and it’s none of it good. I find that picking up my headphones gets less and less appealing every time.
I remember having the same feeling reading 1984, though Orwell manages to make the main characters’ struggles uncertain enough, leaving just enough of a niggling hope that Winston Smith might actually find some kind of happy ending, unlikely as it seems, that in fact the ending is all the more effective.
Though Divergent is also a dystopic novel, it doesn’t suffer from the oppressive gloom that blankets Orwell’s masterpiece. Roth gets us deeply involved in the teen struggles of the heroine, Tris, as she joins a new faction in her fractured society, and as she undergoes initiation into a new way living and thinking. The book is a first-person-present rocket sled ride from the first few pages.
Then, about three-quarters of the way in, the plot takes an abrupt right-angle turn. (Since I’m discussing a later event in a more recent book, I am going to be a little more circumspect here and avoid giving too much away.) Much of the momentum that Roth had built up gets jettisoned as a new plot-thrust comes not out of nowhere, but out of the deep background, to sweep away whole characters and unresolved plot threads.
The turn of events isn’t entirely unjustified, but it did leave me—as well as a couple of the other readers that I’ve spoken with—feeling as if the book had been hijacked.
Does this make either of these books less compelling? Hardly. In each case, the characters are compelling and the situations deftly drawn. Martin’s fantasized medieval England and Roth’s post-Apocalypse Chicago are richly imagined.
But as I struggle to add this scene of my own, I can’t help but worry that I’m going to emulate these novels’ failures more than their many successes.