On interrupting the story for your brilliant philosophical ideas

I’ve had this interesting question:

My novel has plenty of story and character development but certain parts depend on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss. Some readers have said they could do without those parts, but others have told me they love the ideas. 

Are you an editor who worships storytelling above all else and can’t stand portions of a book that slow things down? Or one who likes thought-provoking portions of a book even if they detract from the action?

Simon

Hello Simon

What a provocative, chewy – and useful – question.

Every editor has a different idea of storytelling, pace, tolerance for philosophical materials that aren’t plot etc. So does every writer; so does every reader. This is my personal take.

Having said that, I’ve edited a lot of novels that do this, where the action seems to stop so that the reader can be given a lecture, where the characters appear to be mouthpieces for a philosophical or moral argument. I don’t think it works. I find it pushes me out of the characters’ world and makes me disengage.

Storytelling

You ask an interesting question about storytelling. Storytelling is much more than plot actions. It’s also your voice, the things you direct the reader to be interested in. Usually this is by sleight of hand, and by involving the reader in the hearts of the characters.

Pace

You speak of slowing a novel down, as if slow is bad. But not all parts of a novel have to move fast. Sometimes a slow passage is very welcome. Sometimes an entire book should be mostly slow, because that suits the material – especially for very interior books where we savour the detail.

Pace is not necessarily about being fast, although a well-paced book will hold your attention so well that hours will pass without you realising.

Pace is about balancing faster and slower, about judging what will keep your reader’s attention. It’s about judging what’s right for the tone and mood of the book. it’s also about balancing light and shade – humour and optimism versus darkness and peril or tragedy.

Passages that ‘detract’…

You mention passages that ‘detract’… I don’t like anything that ‘detracts’. Who does?

Personally, I see it as a failure of artistry. If a passage looks like it shouldn’t be in the book, it shouldn’t be in the book. I feel it’s your job as spellweaver to make everything belong. But we all have different tolerances. You might enjoy books that stop the action for long passages of philosophising in which the characters seem to have abandoned their own agendas. I find it looks preachy.

How not to preach

My preference is to knead this material into the story, to dramatise it – so that it doesn’t hit the reader as a lecture. I prefer to make it part of the texture of the characters’ worlds. The philosophical ideas become the rules of the story world – creating their moral dilemmas, their difficult choices, their obligations, their personality clashes, their lasting enmities, the things they aim for or fight for or want to break away from.

Certainly a great story can provoke thoughts, but the most skilful stories achieve this by provoking emotion too – a sense of right, wrong, difficulty, impossibility. The reader learns the ideas effortlessly, plays with them in their mind afterwards, and greatly admires the writer who planted these thoughts.

But you may not like that. We’re all different.

PS There’s a lot more about this in my plot book

Thanks for the pic Smackfu on Flickr

Guys, what’s your take on this? My way or Simon’s way? And if you have a question you’d like to put to me, I’d love to tackle it.

Meanwhile, If you’re curious about my most recent writerly toils, here’s my latest newsletter

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  1. #1 by Curtis West on April 22, 2019 - 12:40 pm

    I agree that if a novel comes to a dead-stop for a philosophy lecture that is a “failure of artistry.” Of course, that does not mean that philosophical ideas, comments and dialogue have no place in storytelling. It does not have to be 100% show not tell. Example? Alexander McCall Smith’s “The Sunday Philosophy Club.” The main character is a nosy amateur detective and editor of the “Review of Applied Ethics.” She muses (not lectures) on philosophical issues as she reviews submittals to the journal but also as she looks at her daily life and its ethical questions. Here is a philosophical perspective woven into a story but includes some short (maybe two page) philosophical commentaries and observations that are grounded in the character. And so here I offer textual evidence to amplify the comments in Roz’s response. Best of luck with your work!!

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 22, 2019 - 4:11 pm

      Thanks, Curtis!

      • #3 by Curtis West on April 22, 2019 - 5:06 pm

        In further consideration, if certain parts “depend” on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss that would mean that your characters are brilliant in their deep intelligence or fresh insights. That would be lovely and engaging! They are brilliant people in brilliant dialogue. Outstanding! If, however the ideas seem just to be inserted with no anchor to the character, I could see why some readers would consider that an interruption. Would it be productive to ask yourself: do my characters have brilliant minds? How and why are they brilliant? What is unique about their intelligence? Are they self-educated? Are they accomplished academics? What drives them to ask deeper questions and discuss them? What is the nature of their brilliance? And in this manner, you would, I think, find the keys to ensuring the “brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss” is integral to the characters themselves. I

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 22, 2019 - 4:12 pm

      Good suggestions – some of the info can be used cleverly in dialogue. It might make the characters seem clever or witty, depending on how it’s used. But I think dialogue won’t usually be enough on its own. It’s always obvious if the characters are being used as mouthpieces for ideas. And I think it will seem disappointing if the characters don’t also find themselves facing situations that challenge them more deeply than mere conversation will.

  2. #5 by DRMarvello on April 22, 2019 - 4:24 pm

    I’ve had to deal with this issue as well. In short, I eventually decided that the right way for me to handle it was exactly as you said: knead the philosophy into the story.

    Philosophical musings are like any other kind of info dump. The information is always more powerful if it is relevant to the story, directly effecting the lives and behavior of the characters. In most cases, I use the “just in time” rule of info revelation, which means revelation happens just in time for the reader to understand what’s going on. That’s when the info is most interesting and relevant. In some cases, I plant details earlier in the story so the revelation makes sense or has more power.

    Personally, I like to have philosophy woven into a story (Dune is one of my all time favorite books), but I know that some readers don’t. That’s okay. By definition, I am writing for readers who like my work. That’s why it’s useless to worry about what the people who don’t like my work have to say about it. They simply aren’t my audience. Trying to appease them would be a disservice to the readers who genuinely enjoy my stories.

    Granted, practicing this philosophy may limit the size of my audience, but I’d rather be genuine to a group of true fans than try to please an audience I don’t relate to. Fortunately, I don’t have to earn a living at this or worry about what an agent thinks the market wants.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 22, 2019 - 9:53 pm

      Mr Marvello! I would say ‘I agree…’ but you know that already! I like your use of the term ‘info-dump’ – this situation is very close. A good comparison!

  3. #7 by garilynn on April 23, 2019 - 2:03 pm

    Interesting post about getting ideas across vs. lecturing.

    Keep in mind that John Galt’s diatribe was 60 pages of
    “Atlas Shrugged.”

    love, gi
    ________________________________

  4. #9 by dgkaye on April 24, 2019 - 12:38 am

    Great article Roz. Thanks for sharing your way of thought for editing. Adding the book to my next purchase list 🙂

  5. #12 by Bryan Fagan on May 7, 2019 - 1:48 pm

    I can only speak for myself but the one thing I keep in mind when I commit myself to a novel is that it is no longer about me.

    I imagine someone driving to work on a cold February morning. It is an hour long drive and they are listening to my book. My job is to entertain them and make their commute a little better. A little warmer.

    Whatever we do we need to put the reader first. We need to ask ourselves: Are we entertaining them?

    • #13 by Curtis C West on May 7, 2019 - 2:05 pm

      Ah! Very interesting! When I am “entertained” and engaged and inspired by what I write I want to believe that is what my readers will find entertaining, engaging, inspiring. This is my hope. Someone wrote: “Write to be read.” And what get’s read? I think it is “non-stop” story telling.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 7, 2019 - 6:29 pm

      ‘It is no longer about you….’ well said, Bryan! Serve the reader, serve the work!

  6. #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 28, 2019 - 1:26 pm

    Thanks, Traci!

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