Is It Relevant?

I want to give a shout out to Pat Rothfuss  index.asp.  There is a very valuable writing lesson in his novel A WISE MAN’S FEARS.  I had read THE NAME OF THE WIND when it first came out, and now I finally picked up Wise Man’s for my trip home to New Mexico for the holidays.

I’m very much enjoying this book.  Kvothe is a terrific character, and the framing device selected by Rothfuss works beautifully.  But today I’m here to praise a choice that he made in Wise Man’s Fears.  The set up is that our young hero is told that perhaps he ought to take a break from his studies at the arcane university because of a court case.  A friend sets him up to work for a nobleman in a different country.  There is a discussion about the dangers of a sea voyage versus a land journey, and I thought “oh no, here we go.  There will be shipwrecks and pirates and sharks and god knows what else.

And then Rothfuss surprised and delighted me.  He skipped it all.  Because it wasn’t relevant to the story he was telling.  The framing device is that Kvothe is telling his life story to a chronicler.  He is hitting the important thing.  The things that made him into the man he is today.  So Rothfuss dispenses with the journey in literally a paragraph.  He basically says there was a storm at sea, pirates, robbery, the upshot being that he arrived in the new city broke and dressed in rags.  I literally jumped up and gave a shout of joy over this elegant choice.  Because none of this so-called-action was relevant to the theme of the story he was telling.  Instead we got to see how Kvothe used his actor background to bluff his way into the palace so he could present his letter of introduction.  How his arcane training helped him serve his new lord, etc. etc.

Some may argue that he skipped over events that would have been exciting.  I don’t agree.  It’s only exciting if it’s important to the story.  Otherwise it ends up feeling like filler.  How many movies have we seen recently where you can hear the audience give an annoyed sigh when yet another CGI action extravaganza begins when all they really wanted was to see if the girl and guy get together, or if the hero finds his father and learns his identity — in other words something real that matters.  That is about human connection.

Think about the latest Hobbit movie.  The only authentic moments in that movie were the ones with Bilbo when he tries to reason with Thorin, when he takes the arkenstone to Bard the Bowman and Thranduil, king of the woodland elves.  The rest of it is sound and fury signifying nothing.

I had made the decision that in my current space opera I’m going to jump two years to two really important scenes between my hero and heroine that occur as they are graduating from the military academy.  I’m skipping two years because while I could make up some events to fill those years what happens during them is not relevant to the story.  And who really wants to read about the classes characters are attending?  I was pretty sure about my decision, but after seeing what Rothfuss did in THE WISE MAN’S FEAR any doubt I might have had about my choice was swept away.

I think the “show don’t tell” meme has been taken too far in writing and it can lead a beginner into a swamp.  Sometimes a simple declarative sentence is really what’s needed.  Not a detailed description of every step in a journey.  Or as my old boss on Star Trek used to say to me.  “Just say the words, Melinda.”

7 Responses to Is It Relevant?

  • Paul Genesse says:

    Hi Melissa, Great post. I completely agree and was glad Pat did that in the book. I write epic fantasy and sometimes I’ve fallen in to that trap, writing out the journey, when I really didn’t need to. Good luck with your space opera.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      It was like a lightning bolt when I read that paragraph. I’m a screenwriter by nature so my tendency is to sometimes be too brief, but overall I think brevity is better then writing what amounts to a diary. Tolkien did it too. If you look at the start of the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring he doesn’t get specific about slogging until they get to the attempt to take the pass at Caradhras. That’s important because the failure dictates the decision to go through Moria. All very relevant. He skipped over the lead up. Just had Frodo think about how he was cold.

  • Georgino ludwog says:

    Your right about how he used the time skip to push the story forward. He hints that there are more things in his life. It also allows him a new freedom. In the future of this story as he writes it he can decided that maybe a person from that time is relevant and have them show up not as just a random person. Or it might never come up again.

    Just remember as you are skipping time that life for them and the universe is still passing

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      While there are big events and my characters are part of them I’m keeping the story very focused on my hero and heroine. It’s a very personal story against a large backdrop. We’re all the protagonists in our own stories, but what’s happening in Paris or Istanbul might attract my attention briefly it’s not relevant to my day to day life. Like everything in writing it’s a balancing act. How much backstory? How much description? How much internal dialog? Too much of any one thing and not enough of another and you either bog down the story or it feels cursory.

  • Russell Smith says:

    I know the very part of which you speak. In one of our tabletop roleplaying games we often come across this, the thing whereby the journey has to be eventful. Our GM’s way of dealing with it when it isn’t relevant to the story is to handwave it as, ‘…and, after adventures too numerous to mention…’. And it’s great, because we’ve enough to do on the main story as it is. What Rothfuss does tell us there about Kvothe is that he doesn’t have anything he particularly learns from the journey. Stuff just happens, and sets up a bunch of small things he just deals with as part of the main tale. Very nicely done.

  • Yep, sticking with what is important to the story seems to sometimes go by the wayside these days. Zelazny (as I’m sure your well aware) was a particular master at this. “Lord of Light” could easily have been 10 volumes of a 1000 pages each instead of 1 of 257 pages. But then, it would be a rather different story.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      Roger’s books were very tight. When you look at a lot of the older writers that was the case. Now some of that was because publishers were very stingy about page length, but the Heinlein juveniles were very slim volumes and for my money the best books he wrote. You could make the argument that Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not a “juvenile”, but his adult work I found unreadable. Give me Have Spacesuit, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast, The Rolling Stones, etc.

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