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story craft #17 Thin vs. Fat Stories
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve had a few story sales to the pro and semi-pro markets now (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Ideomancer, etc..), plus dozens of rejections, and been trying to deconstruct the patterns that work. I think I’ve found the/a winning pattern, and it’s all about thin vs. fat.
First off, what do I mean thin vs. fat? Thin is plot, conflict, movement, Dan Brown style writing. There’s very little time spent establishing character or setting, so very little sense of stakes, little to care about- it’s all on the surface, so it’s thin. We’re skating on the thin ice of a borrowed or ‘understood’ reality. Fat then is is all about deepening character and setting, probably through long static paragraphs of adjectives, as we can see in China Mieville and Paulo Bacigalupi. This style is packed full of wordy goodness, but its slow to get through, and too much of it can make you sick. There is also a tendency for these types to break down along the lines of commercial and literary.
So which is better?
The obvious answer is both. We need a balance. Striking the balance is the challenge.
The epitome of thin stories may be Dan Brown books like Da Vinci Code. They give us cool little puzzles to unlock, but any time I read a Dan Brown book I start getting very impatient, even angry, that I have to read the whole book just to get to the answers to the puzzles, with nothing to care about while I wait. I think this is a bad thing. It may make me read his books rapidly, but I do it annoyed, angry that the answer is being withheld for so long, while there is nothing else going on to hold my attention.
The epitome of fat stories may be China Mieville books like Perdido Street Station. They give us an incredibly dense, layered, world where every little nook and cranny is described in purple passages ad infinitum, with a very slow (often absent) sense of forward momentum. I think this too is a bad thing, because it causes the reader (at least, me) to again get impatient, this time for something to happen. There are deep worlds, perhaps even deep characters, but nobody taking much action.
So what is the balance? It’s a fine line to walk. In his best books, Orson Scott Card walks it beautifully. Ender’s Game has depth, and also a racing plot line. The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins have the balance across the totality of each book- though typically her first halves are very fat, and the second halves very thin. Each beginning features a long section with Katniss at home, thinking about the past a lot, remembering her father, remembering what went before, talking about the cat she hates.
There is a lot of it, before we get anywhere near the games. But, and here may be the key thing I’m building to- she hooks us with her premise so well, that we swallow all that fat eager for the thin to follow, and then that fat enriches everything that comes later, because we’ve invested and care about Katniss.
This is also what I’ve found in my short story sales to the pro markets. Bone Diamond, which sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, opens with:
I discover the first bone diamond in a hunk of crocodile clavicle, lodged between the foramen and articular process.
This is a hook. There are enough unfamiliar words to intrigue us, and the notion of a bone diamond is totally foreign. Hook.
What follows, the next 5 paragraphs, just describe the diamond more, the world. After that point, the balance is set, and for every thin advance, there are an equal amount of fat expositions to give the advances meaning. An antagonist is introduced, and so is the protagonist’s back-story, which hopefully makes us like him and hope he’ll succeed. When he takes steps forward, we feel for him, and we care.
My other pro-sale, The Bells of Subsidence, which sold to Clarkesworld, began with:
The Bell is coming.
Of course this is another hook. It’s intriguing because what kind of Bell can come? The page that follows does not explain what a Bell is, instead sets up the story’s emotional stakes by showing the boy that the girl loves, and explaining that after the Bell, she’ll never see him again.
After that things happen faster, but there’s always that weight provided by the early set-up: hopefully we like these two kids, and want them to be together again. We feel for the main character as she strives to accomplish that.
So, maybe this is all obvious.
The thing is- I feel I’ve read a dozen books on writing that advise against any such early set-up, back-story, character investment. GET INTO THE ACTION, is the impression I gathered from them. ‘The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes’ by Jack M. Bickham has a chapter called ‘Don’t Warm Up Your Engines’ where he says:
“static or backward-looking approaches to fiction are probably lethal in a novel, and are certainly fatal in a modern short story.”
“If background must be given the reader, it can be given later, after you have intrigued him with the present action of the story.”
But if we look at the Hunger Games again, we’ll see there is really no present action for quite a long time. Katniss wakes up, thinks about her cat, thinks about Prim, goes out hunting, hangs out with Gale, thinks about her dead dad, hints at the coming lottery draw, but nothing actually happens until page 24, and Primrose’s name is drawn from the hat.
Until then, we have an interesting world, a compelling character, and the slow-burn sense of threat underlying that. But all that gets us invested in Katniss, and results in a thrilling story where we really care about what happens to her going forwards.
So, what am I concluding here?
I think it’s granting myself permission (and granting it to you too, if you want it) to start stories with a chunk of scene and character-setting (of course after, and contingent upon, a decent hook). Both of these will give meaning to conflict. Without that meaning, you have a Dan Brown-style action/puzzle opening. He opens with startling hooks: a dead and branded physicist in CERN- Angels and Demons; an oddly posed dead man in the Louevre- Da Vinci Code, but doesn’t ever go much deeper, keeping the story solely at the level of thin puzzle and romp.
I can also use this idea to diagnose fault in stories. My story Death of East has so far failed to sell, though it has drawn a few comments such as “there’s no single protagonist” from pro-magazines. What is wrong here? I think it needs that section of stakes/investment/world-building/back-story that the other stories have. It doesn’t have it, rather it jumps straight into a puzzle (East is dead), and barrels through without ever really stopping to explain what is going on, or who the actors are. That information is meted out through the story, but perhaps just too slowly. Perhaps it is needed at the start. Perhaps more of it is needed throughout the story. It needs to be fattened up.
So I’ll go fatten it up. I’ll let you know here if that works