Novel Talk


Saturday I gave a talk and reading at the Newport Public Library—a fine room, a lovely audience of sixteen. I sold two books, to old friends. (New Englanders are not into spontaneous purchases, a parsimonious crowd.) (Don’t forget that their Revolution was about not paying taxes.)  But listening to me was free. What I made on sales paid for drinks and a shared dish of fried calamari after at the Fastnet pub for Connie and me. I’m not complaining. Good squid, good Guinness, good company. A receptive audience at the reading as well. For those of you who missed the talk, here’s an excerpt, about writing novels.

I would like to read you some excerpts from the novels; but, given this opportunity, I would first like to throw in my tuppence about what makes novels work, whatever their pigeon-holed genre.

There is structure, of course. That’s a given. You’re telling a story, and in our Western tradition that means a beginning, a middle, and an end, however managed. That’s not a universal, by the way. It’s a requirement lacking in the folk tales of many cultures, and it is pretty much totally missing in the books of the Old Testament. But American readers are trained to have expectations they liked fulfilled. I think in three acts—set it up, fuck it up, resolve it.

For me, inside that structure there are three major areas of creative concern—character, place, and plot. In that order of importance. For me, novels are where I get to meet new and hopefully fascinating people—characters I want to hang out with or at least observe in true erratic human fashion, whose dialog both confirms and surprises. When I remember books, I remember characters.

Two, place. Real places, places closely observed and described. Places I can feel and see and smell. Nothing fantasy—no distant planets, please, no Narnias or Middle-earths or antiseptic Starships—but rooms I might sleep in, trails I would like to walk, real city streets that could not care less about me.

Plot is last, but you got to have one. By the way, plot is also not a universal in folk narratives, at least not plot as we think of it. I had a friend whose favorite put-down line was, “And your point is?” She watched a lot of television. Everything had to have a point, had to reach some previously hidden but predetermined dénouement. Every story was some sort of morality play.

The very popular success of the detective story has led to this. Those seemingly infinite hours of cop-show reruns on cable has pushed plot to the forefront—its twists and decoys, red mackerels and clever deductions. Plot has come to be synonymous with suspense, which is fine for a TV show that has to hold the viewer’s attention through multiple commercial breaks. (“Ask your doctor if this snake oil is right for you.”) But now that standard is being applied to novels as well, so that Grisham and King are the largest names on book covers—authors who admit the only way they can hold their readers’ attention is by scaring them or holding them hostage to the next secret. What was the name of that Dan Brown blockbuster, the one they made into a movie? I can never remember its name. The pacing of an international perils of Pauline. The language, the author’s voice has been drowned out by the suspenseful music on the soundtrack and the next staccato burst of automatic gunfire.

My Samoan mentor, the great playwright and screenwriter John Kneubuhl, who wrote episodes for many serial TV shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s, once pointed out to me that there are only four or five basic plots (which I have forgotten). “Boy meets girl; boy looses girl; boy gets girl back.” Think about it—are any of the novels in your personal pantheon there because of their plot? Reading a good novel should be more than finding out who done it. There is this garden of language and insight, character and place where a book can take you.

Plots are nice. Plots are necessary. So is popcorn at the movies, but you don’t judge the quality of your night at the flics by how fresh the popcorn was.


One thought on “Novel Talk

  1. Nothing short of brilliant, John. Just what I would expect form you. I, too, believe that characters are most important–plots evolve around the characters. I actually let my characters tell me the story–it’s a whole lot richer that way. A sense of place where the reader is immersed is engaging.
    The obsession in modern novel writing about never doing one thing or the other ( e.g. never use an adverb, never use any word but said, etc) I think diminishes the story.
    You might enjoy my novel, Loving Christy.


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