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The maximum absorption theory

I got a fair few responses to my “Curse of Cool” email last week.

The majority of replies, obviously, were people disagreeing with my “Tom Cruise, I am not” statement. Indeed, the email triggered another set of annoying calls from Barbara Broccoli at Eon Productions badgering me – again – to take up the Bond role. (And, Babs, no means no. This is getting silly now.)

But I also got this (from someone who was grappling a bad guy and hanging by one hand from a speeding train as he wrote.)

Nothing can be substituted for depth and character work … [But] there is a difference between an archetype and the end product in my view. It's not the what of it, it's the writer's chops. Raskolnikov is the original bad boy from every teen book and uses tropes popular at its time (a 'pure' fallen woman), but hardly anyone would consider Crime and Punishment shallow.

And he’s right, of course. You can take what looks like a battered old archetype and just write it well. The result won’t feel battered or old at all, while still generating power from the depth of that cultural history.

Which brings me to the actual point of this email, which is the Maximum Absorption Theory of Writing.

What makes a book good? I mean: there’s a purely literary set of criteria which work (kind of) for separating the kinds of book that compete for Pulitzer and Booker Prizes. But there are good crime novels, good literary novels, good SF novels, and so on. What makes a good book good? What do they have in common?

I think the answer is a simple – and illuminating – one.

A book, in any genre, is good to the extent that it absorbs its audience.

That’s partly about the book’s afterlife. If you lay a book down, reluctantly, and find yourself thinking about it later in the day – as you drive, as you wash up, as you walk the dog – then that book has absorbed you.

But it’s also about the experience of reading itself. Do you read every sentence with intensity, keen to break open the richness of each one? Or do you already roughly know how this scene, or this character, or this bit of dialogue will unfold? Because if you do already know, you’ll find yourself scanning forwards to get to the next juicy bit of plot, or whatever else keeps you engaged.

Once you think about writing in terms of absorption, it clarifies every task you approach.

This week and next week, I’m going to unpack that theory a little bit more in terms of its implications for the way you write. Today, I’ll show you what I mean in terms of dialogue. Next week, we’ll look at the same issue in other aspects of writing too.

In the bit we’ll look at now (from This Thing of Darkness), the two people speaking are Fiona Griffiths and her boss, Dennis Jackson, a senior and capable detective.

‘You hurt your hand,’ he says, exhibiting the observational prowess of a seasoned officer.

‘Yes, sir. I splidged myself in a car door.’

‘Did you now?’

‘Sir? That stuff in Rhayader. You and DI Watkins. I want to say that I really appreciate the way you handled that. I couldn’t have managed it if we’d gone down official routes. So thank you. You really helped.’

‘You’re more than welcome.’

This isn’t hugely remarkable or significant dialogue in some ways, but it’s mobile. You can’t predict its next move. So:

  1. He notes the injury to her hand
  2. She narrates a sarcastic comment about him stating the obvious …
  3. But she also answers the implied question, using a word – splidged – that isn’t a real word.
  4. His ‘did you now?’ comment implies some scepticism, but not really an intent to take the issue any further.
  5. She jumps on the opportunity to change the subject and does so via a statement of gratitude that’s perhaps intended to appeal his emotions or his vanity.
  6. He accepts her thanks, but this is now the third of his comments which is so flat as to be almost opaque. It’s as though he hasn’t yet shown his hand.

Those numbered comments are twice as long as the text itself, but that’s good. Because there’s a lot going on in that dialogue, the reader can’t safely skim it. And although readers won’t consciously remark on, let’s say, the repetitive flatness of DCI Jackson’s comments, they will somehow notice them and integrate that flatness into their computation of what’s going on in Jackson’s brain.

Sure enough, what we have is the start of a much longer bit of dialogue, which ends up with Jackson virtually accusing Fiona of being one of the crew-members of a trawler that sank – the crew-member in question being a woman of approximately Fiona’s height and build, and with a damaged hand.

As he loops back to the accusation, Jackson notes the hand issue again:

‘Remind me, Fiona. You “splidged” your hand?’

‘In a car door, sir. I know “splidge” isn’t a real word.’

‘Odd though. The same injury.’

Here, you start to feel the weight of Jackson’s interrogation technique. He doesn’t bang the table and shout. He just returns, forensically but neutrally, to the challenging facts.

You also note the little reward for attentive readers. Anyone who was paying attention to the earlier bit of dialogue would have noted the use of ‘splidged’ and probably also noted that it’s not a real word. Here we come back to it, find the reader’s previous attention rewarded with a nod, and encounter Fiona’s characteristically deflecting comment about it not being a real word.

That deflecting comment is kind of funny, but it also signals a ratcheting up of the pressure. Fiona looked like she won the first round of interrogation (she gave nothing away; Jackson didn’t push), but the weakness of Fiona’s deflection here suggests that Jackson is winning this bout.

The key thing here is that our early bit of dialogue didn’t just yield absorption-rewards as the reader first read it. It is paying off again, several pages later.

It’s as though the book is trying to say to the reader, “The more you pay attention to this text, the greater the rewards you will collect.”

Just contrast that with a non-absorbing version of the same rough sequence:

‘How did you hurt your hand?’

‘I hurt it in a car door, sir.’

‘You have the same injury as the mystery woman on board the trawler. Are you that woman?’


The non-absorbing version here is much, much briefer, because it replaces all the text I’ve already quoted, plus plenty more. And brevity is good, right? I personally bang on about brevity a lot, and prize it greatly.

Except nothing trumps absorption, and there’s nothing here to hold the reader – literally not a single word. So yes, the reader might be intrigued to see if Jackson can stand his accusation up. (Not least because Fiona is, of course, the mystery woman.) But really, this is the kind of dialogue that an intelligent reader would want to skim through. Should want to, in fact. 

The more you absorb the reader – with hints of emotion, with humour, with unexpected words, with unspoken conflict, and so on – the more intently the reader is forced to read.

Which means the more they attach to the book.

Which means the more likely you are to find a publisher and make sales.

We’ll come back to all this next week.

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Comments (5)
    • Entertaining and informative as ever, Harry. I'd just add that for absorption you need the right reader - I reckon I get virtually every nuance of Jane Austen and Mary Renault, but definitely not Dostoyevsky. (I read Crime and Punishment as a student while suffering a bout of flu, which didn't help. My older self wouldn't bother to finish reading.)

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      • Point taken, Harry!

        But if the reader is exposed to endless absorption, might they not crave respite? A few more superficialities?

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        • John Gardner's 'vivid and continuous fictional dream' in The Art of Fiction? 

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          • "A Martini please, one olive and one onion - agitated."

            "You're agitated Guv?"

            "Not me, the martini, agitate it gently.  And the name's not guv, it's Bond, Harrison Bond."

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            • Grabbing the reader's attention and sustaining it so it becomes a page-turner, is certainly what every writer should aim for. I think you once said that it applies equally to fact and fiction. Dry only works if you are a desert and a drinks vendor. But I wonder at the merits of concealing so much depth in a work as it leads to a far longer story, but not necessarily a better story. One can have a page-turner, sustaining and fulfilling story at 40,000 words as well as 100,000 words. Playing to a particular audience seems to be the reason, which is of course not wrong. Maybe that is why certain books retain a niche audience or more likely daunt/put off readers/buyers?

              Anyway, a very interesting post again, Harry, much appreciated and what makes Fridays not just another 24 hours. Look forwards to part 2 next week. 

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