Monday Motivation: Don’t asphyxiate your story with your beliefs

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Novels are, first and foremost, stories. Their first job is to intrigue us, involve us, surprise us, jolt us, shock us – and entertain us.

The best novels of their eras – from Bleak House and Middlemarch, to Life after Life, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, The Nix, The Secret History – are all intensely entertaining. Maybe not to everybody. (A number of people to whom I’ve recommended Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, have confessed they simply couldn’t read it.) But in terms of a kind of loose consensus, these and a couple of hundred others, all deserve a place on the top shelf.

In each of these novels, the characters are vivid and memorable. The surprises are many. The suspense is ever-present. The sense of wonder we experience at being inducted into the world of the writer is immense.

No arguments here, yet (even if my favourites are not your favourites – and how could they possibly be?)

If we sat at my table with a good bottle of wine and a bowl of those large, dense green olives, to talk about what we loved about our favourite novels, my guess is that we’d be in accord on at least one thing: we loved the story.

We’re unlikely to say: I loved the story, but what does it mean? What is it about?

By the meaning of a story, I suspect people are asking what themes a story explores.

Themes are much grander-sounding propositions than plots and characters. Plots and characters, we all recognise, are the more interesting the more particular and distinct they are. The very specific story of Dorothea Brooke that dominates Middlemarch will not be found in any other book ever written. Reading Middlemarch for the first time is as beguiling and haunting an experience as it is because of the extraordinary particularity of Dorothea and her travails.

Themes? Well, themes are generic. The horrors of war is one well-worn theme; the vulnerability of youth, another. Increasingly writers are turning their attention to a future in which our poor planet, groaning under the burdens we have placed on her, becomes a less than pleasant habitat for us humans. The theme here is environmental dysfunction.  The #MeToo revolution will in due course give rise to many stories that explore the theme of women fighting back against the patriarchy.

And so on and so forth. We might approve of the sentiments or the ideologies of the authors of these works – but what we enjoy are the stories.

One of our era’s great story-tellers is Barbara Kingsolver. She’s an activist who believes that the best stories are those that promote or support social change. In 2000, Kingsolver established a prize that recognizes previously unpublished works of fiction that address issues of social justice.  Harper Lee might have qualified for Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird.

But here’s the thing, if the theme (however worthy, however admirable) sits too heavily on the story, the story will suffer.

Here’s what Dwight Garner, a critic with The New York Times, had to say about Kingsolver’s most recent novel, Unsheltered:

“(Kingsolver) lives to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, a good sign in any writer. But a novel isn’t an essay. Kingsolver’s politics, in this case, sit on the chest of her fiction and asphyxiate it.”

When the theme dominates, when the author’s beliefs take precedence over story, then story suffers and, ultimately so does the set of convictions that the author is trying, too hard, to foist on us.

So however passionately you believe in, oh, just about anything, don’t make your book about that belief. It’ll suffocate your story.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: If being a writer takes magic, here’s the spell

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