Monday, February 28, 2011

H. G. Wells and writing about plot

I had not really planned to write more about H. G. Wells, and tomorrow I will move on to an even duller writer, but I thought of something I want to say about the plots of the Wells novels.

Plots are information delivery systems.  Wells has cooked up a mixture of ideas, images, set pieces, cool things, and, potentially, at least, characters.  He needs to arrange them in a sensible manner.  With The War of the Worlds, a number of steps are pretty well fixed by the choice of story.  The Martians arrive, spread, are resisted, defeat the resistance.  These two steps can be repeated as long as the writer thinks the reader can stand it, although the scale of the threat and the ingenuity of the resistance have to ratchet up each time.  Wells really only does this twice.  Two more steps: victory belongs to the Martians!  Or not!

But the problems have only multiplied.  How does Well describe each of these steps?  Does he tell the story as if he is floating in the air, going wherever he wants?  Is he a historian, retrospectively assembling imaginary sources?  How about an eyewitness account?  Wells chooses the latter, which allows a lot of immediacy and surprise, but creates new dilemmas.

The narrator is present at the point of invasion, and presumably survives long enough to write up his account – in fact, Wells tells us on the third page that the “storm burst upon us six years ago now,” so we know the narrator will give us a complete story.  No “and as I pen these last words, they come for me” and ominous final sentence fragment.

How likely is it that one person observes all of the steps of the story?  Not too likely, so Wells has to bend a bit.  In particular, Wells wants to see how the invasion looks from London, leading to the great “Exodus from London” chapter.  He switches to the narrator’s brother, or, really, the narrator switches to tell us what happened to his brother.  He also, as he sees fit, refers to newspapers and some “as we now know” information.  Wells also drops the narrator into one extraordinarily unlikely coincidence which gives him some privileged information, and explains why he, of all people, is writing this particular book.

Some features of the plot make Wells’s life easier.  Characters, fleeing the Martians, wander the countryside, allowing Wells to have his narrator meet anyone he wants.  The reader won’t mind the coincidence – any encounter is coincidence.

I could repeat the same exercise with the efficient The Island of Dr. Moreau.  In the two and a half pages of the first chapter, we have a shipwreck, the threat of cannibalism, and the delivery of one piece of mysterious information, “a disconnected impression of a dark face with extraordinary eyes close to mine.”  No island yet, and no doctor, but Wells lets us know how we’re going to get to them, and gives us just one little clue about what to expect when we get there.

Readers, bloggers, often claim to care a lot about plot, even to read for plot.  I never quite believe them, because they so rarely write about plot, meaning the decisions a writer makes about plotting, which decisions are better and worse, what the consequences are.  Book bloggers write about characters, mostly; book groups discuss characters.  The creation of plausible imaginary people who we can get to know in a uniquely intimate way is the greatest achievement of prose fiction, so this is as it should be.  Plots give those characters something to do. 

Except in, for example, science fiction novels by H. G. Wells, where the characters are simply useful cogs in the plot machine.  The three Wells books I have read all feature nearly identical narrators, dullish fellows.   Dull first-person narrators result in occasional dull passages.  Or do the dull passages result in dull narrators?   Perhaps, in the kind of wild stories Wells writes, a dull narrator is a necessity.  I mean, the dang Martians are invading!  What more do I want?


  1. Hi AR, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you. Have a good week. Cheers, Kevin

  2. My ulterior motive - and I always have one - is that I wish more people would write about plot. I'd learn a lot.

    You have a good week, too. Enjoy Edith Freud.

  3. Ha!

    This is my a-watched-plot-never-spoils, and it hasn't generated one bloody comment.

    Nor have I been properly Nicoled, i.e., credited by an academic for advancing Wharton scholarship.

    I have miles to go before I sleep.



  4. Good, I'm glad you find HG Wells dull: - I did wonder after your last post(s?).

    I might write up one or two things about plot on my blog some time; - it also seems to me something people "talk about", but never actually talk about.

    One observation: it's often said that "genre" novels are concerned with plot. I find this to be a deceit. I think "crime" novels are, in general, concerned with plot (that being their only focus), while Sci-Fi is largely concerned with "ideas" and is utterly, utterly useless at plot.

  5. I am easily pleased, and Wells is outstanding in passages, in particular sentences. But then there are those other passages and sentences, and those narrators are draining. I had The Invisible Man checked out from the library with the WotW and Moreau, but I could not bring myself to read three Wells books in a row.

    The most exciting book I'm reading now is The Stones of Venice, a great mind unleashed on a great subject, even though long chunks of the book are extraordinarily tedious.

    I've been reading too many second-rate books. I see you just read St. Petersburg - I should start something like that. Recalibrate the scale.

    Kevin - I can only speak for myself, but I am too ignorant of Wharton and too ignorant of Freud. You need a Wharton & Freud specialist to stop by and stir up discussion. Don't expect anything from Nicole anytime soon - her neighborhood has turned into the The Wire as directed by Tarantino.

  6. Oh yes - completely agree about the genre differences. Someone should elaborate. Probably not me.

  7. I can think of a lot of exceptions to the notion that science fiction novels are useless at plot. Take Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, for instance. Practically nothing but plot (the characters make it more fun, but the plot's the thing.) Same for several others of his pre-bloated-Stranger In a Strange Land novels. Connie Willis is another, contemporary author who does plot up a treat.

    Mysteries, as you say. Seafaring adventures. Westerns. (Romances? Not sure, I don't read those much.) Certainly horror novels. These are all about plot. Instead of being extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances, they are ordinary people in dire circumstances.

  8. Sorry, that comment above was me.

  9. To be clear, Jenny - those books, books in those genres, all have plots. Does that mean they're concerned with or about plot?

    The story of most mysteries is determining the correct order of events of another story, the story that happened before the story we're reading, the story that created the mystery. The plot of the standard mystery is about plot.

    Is that true of science fiction, etc.? It's been a long time since I read Have Space Suit, but if the Wiki summary is right this is not the example I would want to use. I see a lot more arbitrary nonsense than elegant solutions.

    obooki might mean something entirely different, and in any case, I'm likely quite wrong.

  10. I agree with your assertion. And possibly I might be one. Don't know yet. When I started reading novels, I hated stories written in the first person. Reason? I know that the narrator never died, else how would he/she be writing. Later, I came to appreciate the first person narrative.I also see what you talking about plot and coincidences. Characters easily pop up to meet a certain fate, create a scene and quickly vanishes... Your kind of reading is very intellectual, I must say. Thanks for discussing such topics always.

  11. John Dies at the End (by "David Wong" who is himself fictional) is at least partially about plot. I think there's a trend with novels in which you know the main character dies (Skippy Dies? I haven't read it yet) that are about plot.

    And aren't the second, nonexistent Buckaroo Banzai movie and William Goldman's "sequel" to The Princess Bride supposedly entitled Buttercup's Baby kind of digs at the idea that plot is the thing?

  12. Outside of genre fiction, at least out in the world of Modernist fiction and its offshoots, there's an enormous amount of messing around with plot and story expectations. Metafictions, metafiction about metafictions.

    At the beginning of Lolita, Nabokov reveals the fate of every major and many minor characters, and does it in such a way that most readers never remember any of it, to the extent that they forget the entire section exists and misstate the first line of the novel!

    As Nana says, it's all just another tool for the writer to play with. Different tools give different results.

    In science fiction, or, to stick with what I know, a standard but hardly comprehensive set of classic science fiction novels, metafiction is quite rare. Maybe now there's more than there used to be? Recommendations? I know about Dick and Malzberg.

    Anyway, if it's a trend in literary fiction, it's an old one. Machado de Assis published The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, title meant literally, way back in 1881.

    I thought those jokes about sequels were jokes about too-prevalent sequels! Not that they can't do more than one thing.

  13. her neighborhood has turned into the The Wire as directed by Tarantino

    Too true...seems to have died down at this point, fortunately.

    But this:
    I wish more people would write about plot. I'd learn a lot.

    Well now, this is something to think about. I'm going to work on this.