Narrative fatigue

A personal plaint.

According to that fearsomely encyclopaedic source, TV Tropes, a story, any story, is dead from the moment the audience utters the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ This is a specific instance of a larger class of story-killers, which I propose to call narrative fatigue. Some other forms that it may take:

  • ‘I know what is going to happen to these people, and I’m not enjoying the ride enough to stay till the end.’ My reaction to any fiction by David Eddings. Other writers tried to waste my time with predictable stories. Eddings bragged about it in the text itself.
  • ‘I care what happens to these people, but I’ve lost all faith that I will ever find out.’ One of many possible reasons to give up on A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • ‘I care about these people, but nothing that is happening to them makes any sense.’ The #1 pitfall of magic realism.
  • ‘The things that are happening make sense, but the people themselves don’t.’ The #1 pitfall of those ‘slice of a Manhattan neurotic’s life’ stories so beloved of The New Yorker.
  • ‘I’d like to find out what happens, but I don’t want to work this hard for it. Cliff’s Notes, please?’ The #1 pitfall of self-consciously ‘literary’ exercises in stylistic weirdness.
  • Perhaps the worst killer of all: ‘It’s blatantly obvious that nothing is ever going to happen to these people.’

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Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.


Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners. [Read more…]

Sowell on editors

If there is any rhyme or reason to the way editing varies from one editor to another, it seems to be this: The less the editor has written under his own name, the more he wants to write under someone else’s name.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Thomas Sowell on writing methods

My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Work has resumed!

I recovered from most of the concussion symptoms a few days ago, but all the bed rest required aggravated my spinal injury and gave me neck spasms. Now I am on a witch’s brew of Robaxacet and assorted pain medications, which are allowing me to function well enough to write a little, but not well enough to sleep all the way through the night. Last night I got up about midnight and wrote a chapter for the second episode of Where Angels Die. I post it here, as it might amuse some of my 3.6 Loyal Readers.

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The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3.

Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:

As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.

Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.

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The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words.

Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection. [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still.

So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success.

All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

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‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon.

I found myself strongly moved to reply:


Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’

I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you.

All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.