Monday Motivation: Good idea, but where’s the blood and guts?

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I’ve been accused of being a cold fish, of imagining that a logical or intellectual argument is the right response to an emotional crisis. Well, it’s not for me to say whether the accusation holds water – but I do admit that I find stories that lack an intellectual dimension just slightly… soggy.

I think this is true of many readers, of course. What is it but their intellectual architecture that attracts so many of us to mystery stories? Being presented with the evidence of a crime and challenged to work out the author of that crime, is an intellectual puzzle – and even if we fail to solve it before the criminal is revealed, we enjoy the pleasure of generating hypothetical solutions.

Does the same hold true of other genres? What ideas support a romance? Or a thriller? Or, for that matter, a western? I rather suspect that it does. Any book worth its salt operates on the basis of a number of assumptions that have to mesh and be internally consistent. This constitutes their idea.

There’s no doubt that science fiction writers have come up with some great ideas to underpin their fictions. Iain M Banks springs immediately to mind. His Culture novels are set in a future which depends on a number of very large assumptions: that, for instance, faster-than-light space travel is possible; that AI has advanced to the point that so-called Minds take care of all the mundane needs of human- and extra-terrestrial kind; that the economy is independent of human activity, and so can support an infinitely large population whether they choose to work or not… And on and on.

All of these speculations, and their consequences, are worked out in great and greatly satisfying detail.

But – and this is a big but – if all you have is ideas, then what you’ve written, or are reading, is not a novel at all, but more probably a work of speculative non-fiction, perhaps philosophy, perhaps psychology, perhaps futurology.

When people sit down to read novels, they expect to engage with the story on a number of levels. Perhaps the most crucial of these dimensions is the emotional.  Unless we find the emotional dimension believable, unless we enter into the characters’ emotional lives, we will feel disappointed.

I am, as I mentioned last week, busy with Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1, a novel built on a simple but intriguing premise: that a single fictional character can be imagined in a number of different ways. Depending on a variety of circumstances, that single character can live a number of entirely different lives.

It’s a great idea. The contrast between the Archie Ferguson living this life with the Archie Ferguson living that life allows us to explore ideas like the role of continginency and chance in any life. It prompts us to consider how our lives might, but for some chance incident, have played out in an entirely different way. It’s triggered thoughts in me about what my life might have been had I not, when I was seven, contracted polio. Who might that Richard Beynon have become under those very different circumstances – circumstances, moreover, that were brought into being by something invisible to all but an electron microscope.

So Auster’s idea is a productive and provocative one.

But how about the emotional connections he makes possible between the reader and his various protagonists?

Well, I might be in the minority here: the book was, as I said last week, on the Man Booker Prize’s shortlist – and it has received sterling reviews in all the best journals. Well, not all – some. Laura Miller in The New Yorker points out that Auster has failed to engage our sympathies for his character/s by adopting “a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings…” She goes on to say “His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue…” while “(h)is prose, even when impassioned, has a bland, synthesized quality…”

Anthony Cummins in The Guardian complains about the tedious nature of so much of the book. Auster focuses on the most quotidian of details: how much Ferguson enjoys couscous, of how good he was at parallel parking, and so on and so exhaustively forth. (“You can fill 864 pages pretty quickly writing like this,” he says.)

And then, tellingly, Rob Doyle, in The Irish Times, writes,  Auster “seems to have lost sight of evil, malice and corruption – elements that could have made this insipid novel sharper. One craves for him to get his knives out and hurt something.”

(Not enough conflict, I say.)

If you’ve got a great idea for a story, or if your story springs from a richly entertaining premise, then for goodness sake don’t screw it up by forgetting the most important precept of them all: give us a hundred good reasons for engaging emotionally with your hero.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: The case for showing, rather than telling



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