Planets are boring; they only have two poles. Books are interesting, because they have at least five or six poles, which define the shape of the whole.
Here they are:
In a huge number of books, the possibility that a big bad thing happens animates the entire reading experience. If you’re reading a thriller, or anything in that zone, the external jeopardy (eg: will the baddies blow up the White House?) is likely to be the single dominating component of your overall structure. The question provoked in the reader is, roughly, what happens next? That’s the basic question underpinning all suspense novels.
In pretty much all crime novels, but in plenty of other books too, there’s also a big element of mystery. Here, the question isn’t what happens next, but what did happen? Who killed Colonel Higgins in the library? Why where there no footprints in the flowerbed? Why was the butler seen with an unwaxed moustache and an unbuttoned waistcoat? Why did the library smell of burned almonds and gently warmed honey?
Mystery is not as powerful a driver of story as suspense, but it’s still reasonably powerful (ask Agatha Christie) and it’s particularly successful when combined with plenty of suspense.
Most books involve a bit of love interest, or some other powerful emotional centre – a missing child, a dying parent.
Plenty of novels have that emotional interest as their object of overwhelming concern. So, yes, most romances will have some notes of external jeopardy: for example, in Pride & Prejudice, there’s the question of whether Wickham will debauch the silly Lydia and ruin the family. But these things are deeply secondary to the big emotional question of whether he/she is going to get it together with him/her.
These emotional questions are one of suspense – that is, they look forward, not back – but they’re worth separating out from the issue of external jeopardy, simply because most novels (including all of mine) have issues of external jeopardy playing alongside more traditional romance. They feel like, and are, different elements.
Pretty much all novels (and again, all of mine) also run up against significant moral questions. Those moral questions are typically entangled with other aspects of story. So, in romances, the Mister typically needs to prove his moral worth (eg: ride to Lydia’s rescue) in order to give the romance its final delicious bite. Or in crime novels, the detective/investigator is typically confronted with taxing moral challenges en route to solving the crime.
At the more literary end of the spectrum, there’s another element to take into account: how beautiful is the writing? How deliciously quotable are the sentences? This is book as objet d’art: something you almost want to hang on the wall and coo at.
Last and probably least, there’s humour. A bark of laughter is so different from everything else we’ve considered, that it’s worth teasing out into its own category. A romance or a thriller or a ghost story or a literary novel could be glumly serious from start to finish, or it could make you gurgle with laughter. You can have romantic comedies, and romantic tragedies, and romantic adventures, and they’ll all have a different feel. Same thing with any other genre. Some books make you laugh, others don’t. There’s another pole right there.
Now I mention all this partly because it’s of interest in itself to lay these pieces out on the counter for inspection.
But I was also inspired to write this email by watching my kids cook. They are still of an age where they think that more of any ingredient must be better. We made lemon and ginger tea this morning, for example. Lemon is good, so they added plenty of that. And honey, so plenty of that. Ditto ginger. And obviously mint is good, so handfuls of that were added. There was no sense of proportion, balancing this ingredient against that one, so the result was a very full saucepan and a brew so thick it needed loads of dilution before it was actually palatable. If I’d let them add salt and mayonnaise and pineapple chunks, they’d probably have added them too. After all, who doesn’t love mayonnaise?
Now I’ll admit: my approach to writing is broadly the same. Humour’s good: I want plenty of that. Romance: yep, bring it on. Mystery? I write detective novels, so I need plenty of that. But my books need to thrill, so I want a very high jeopardy climax. And I want my writing to shine stylistically, so I work at that too. And inevitably, given the kind of stories I write and the character I write about, moral issues creep in there too, and I do what I can to make real space for those too.
It’s probably true that my books are above all suspense novels: if they weren’t exciting, nobody would read them. It’s the proper delivery of that element which allows me to get away with everything else.
And that basic model does work. In fact, it’s probably the primary way to write a book. Choose your lead element (suspense in my case, with a heavy dash of mystery) then see how much you can ratchet the other things up.
But it’s not the only model. If you write a really funny book, for example, the laughter is likely to drown any more subtle shades. Likewise, you can certainly slot a romance into a thriller with some end-of-the-world type hook, but the romance is almost certainly (and ought certainly) to be secondary.
More interestingly, there’s quite a lot of high-end and critically lauded literary work where the beautiful writing tends to shove aside everything else. I’ve just finished reading a book, Lanny by Max Porter, where the writing is unquestionably stunning. It’s original, poetic, versatile, funny, surprising – everything you think you might want from a literary novel.
But the book told a story about a boy vanishing from his home, and possibly abducted. The denouement reveals the true story and delivers (small spoiler) a happy ending. But honestly? The writing overwhelmed the story and the characters too. The boy himself never quite felt real. The parents’ own feelings creaked under the weight of lovely writing laid on top of them.
To my mind, those failures spell disaster. If you tell a story about an abducted child and you don’t feel much resonance with either the child or the parents, then something’s gone wrong. (That is, I accept, a personal view: plenty of people love those books, or say they do, or give literary prizes to them. But how many of those people actually read every word of those books, I wonder?)
The question I have for you is where does your story score on each of its dimensions? Are you a shove everything in kind of writer? Or do you have one very clear lead element with the others left trailing in the background.
I suspect that most of us should take one of two approaches:
Choose a lead element and make it exceptional. If it’s about beautiful writing, then be really beautiful. If you’re writing a thriller, then make it utterly thrilling. If your book isn’t going to be rounded
Choose a lead element or two, and see how much of the other elements you can bring in without breaking things. The trick here is keeping the coherence of your lead elements intact, while bringing other things into play. It’s good if your book is funny – but you can’t let too much laughter kill your high-jeopardy denouement, or take away the sweetness of that finally fulfilled romance.
And one of the purposes of this email is to nudge you if there’s anything you’ve forgotten.
There’s some Woody Allen film where he’s getting ready for a big night out. We see him checking his jacket, adjusting his hair, building his confidence. Then he’s ready – he leaves the room – the camera stays running – and we see him rush back in: he’s forgotten to wear trousers.
This email is asking you to check that you are wearing trousers. Have you just forgotten to tease out the morally difficult areas of your story? Is there a mystery you are neglecting? Is your handling of that secondary romance just lacking?
Because, as writers, we concentrate so hard on getting our lead elements arranged correctly, we can som1etimes forget to think about all those other things. So think about them, right?