One of my favorite books is Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. Sometimes, in conversations when I mention this, I find myself stumbling over a description of the book. “It’s about two elderly ranchers,” I’ll say, “and the small Colorado town they live in.” If the listener’s eyes start to glaze over, I’ll add some sensation and plot. “A pregnant girl comes to live with the ranchers,” I’ll tell them. But the thing about Plainsong, the thing that’s almost impossible to explain, is the effect of the book, the way it grabs and holds the reader with spare prose and everyday wisdom, with steady momentum and quiet revelations.
As a writer, I’m continually thinking about style and plot, about things like pacing and structure and the methods other writers employ. We’ve all read “page-turners,” books that fly along at breakneck speed; like a one-night stand, they rush along to the conclusion before you’ve been properly introduced to the characters. They might be fun for a while but they leave me feeling empty afterwards. And we’ve all read books that are all character and description, someone wallowing in their environment and thoughts, trying the patience of even the most indulgent and introspective reader.
So what’s a good balance? Like all artistic matters, it’s subjective. But in Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds, I noticed and appreciated something he did to strike a very good balance between style and plot, the way he used anticipation.
Chapter Three of the book starts with this:
“It wasn’t enough that their father was Roy Goodnough or that their mother died early; there had to be at least one more thing to clinch matters, to fix them forever, to make Edith and Lyman end up the way they did—two old people, a sister and a brother, living alone out here in a yellow house surrounded by weeds.”
Haruf then takes eighteen pages to tell the story of how they were “fixed forever.” Eighteen pages, not so much, but a plot-seeking reader might feel the desire to flip through and get to the main event. There is something delicious about the anticipation, though, something so engaging about the way the story is told that it actually made me want to turn the pages more slowly to savor it.
Haruf takes this technique even further in the ninth chapter, which begins with a longish paragraph about whether six years is a good stretch of time or not:
“Now I don’t pretend to think that a mere stretch of six years is anywhere near enough time. But I suppose if that’s all you’re given and no more, then six years will have to do. In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun.”
The implication, of course, is that at the end of six years the fun ended. After this introduction, Haruf takes thirty-six pages to draw out the story of just how, why and when the fun ended for Edith. Again, there is a primal urge to speed through, to see “what happens,” but there are also goose bumps, a desire to slow down and enjoy the anticipation, the details of it, the feeling of the waiting.
Have you ever relished the words, the feel of a novel so much that you actually felt yourself stalling? Have you ever known from the first few chapters that you won’t want the book to end? This effect is a good goal to have for your own work.
Over two millennia ago, Aristotle listed the six elements of drama: plot, character, thought, diction, song or melody, and spectacle. His theories are trotted out mostly in discussions about plays (and more recently, films), but I think they’re a good foundation writers should review and contemplate once in a while. Aristotle believed the most important element to be plot (followed by character), and he described the necessity of increasing anticipation within the plot. I can’t help but think that when a story moves too quickly, one thing racing after the other, it’s depriving readers of this basic satisfaction. In the hands of a great writer like Kent Haruf, anticipation can be more satisfying than the resolution of any plot point.
If you’d like to review the basics of Aristotle’s Poetics, these sites are good places to start:
Mary Vensel White is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.