The Ratio of Story to Prose

I’ve been struggling through a science-fiction novel that I thought would take me just a month to knock out. Three months on I’m still hacking my way through the jungle of an overgrown first draft. All this started when I picked up a book of Robert Silverberg short stories from the 1950’s. I’d never heard of Silverberg before, but have a soft spot for classic pulp sci-fi. Silverberg, as his introductory notes frequently remind us, was very prolific. He would knock out short stories in a day and longer works in a matter of weeks. He was a reliable producer for the numerous sci-fi magazines of the era, and the more he wrote, the more he was paid.

Must have been a great era to be a writer.

Today you can count the number of sci-fi magazines on one hand with fingers to spare. But anyone can publish online and being productive is still a great skill. I wish I had it. Silverberg’s early short stories are always readable and active. The first sentence grabs you and the meat of the story holds you. Where his early stories often disappoint is the endings, which often fall flat, rendering much of what came before less important. Sci-fi at that time was geared toward the ending. Think of Bradbury’s best work. Think of the great endings of “The Twilight Zone,” a series inspired by the sci-fi of the 1950s.

If Silverberg’s early stories were, in the parlance of writing, a long walk for a short drink, at least the walk was brisk and diverting. There is a nice balance between the plot information and the amount of prose deployed to convey it. Events are neither rushed, nor do they drag. This balance a key instinct for prose writers to master. We’ve all read some books that are too verbose. Every Stephen King novel I’ve read feels padded to me. Too many details and digressions into the lives of subordinate characters. But what editor is going to cut 20-30% of a King manuscript? Other novels are too spare. I can’t think of a handy example, perhaps because the prose was so spare that I can’t remember reading it. I started “Lincoln in the Bardo” but found its experimental style lacked a tangible sense of place and time.

Finding the right balance between plot-information and prose is something I can only do by writing and revising over and over again. That takes time and that’s why I’m not Robert Silverberg.

About Deke

Writer and filmmaker Dale Kutzera is a recipient of the Carl Sautter Screenwriting Award, the Environmental Media Award, and participated in the Warner Brother Writers Workshop. His credits include the TV shows "Strange Frequency" and "Without a Trace" and the independent film "Military Intelligence And You!" He is the author of five novels and the popular "Plot Machine" story-structure guides. He writes about writing and filmmaking at www.DaleKutzera.com.

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