9.22.2016

The Weight of Novelty

Many novels focus on a chosen field in which the author has developed expertise. This allows readers to explore an unfamiliar realm, expanding their knowledge of the world at large. The areas in which such fresh discoveries can occur encompass a wide range. The world of technology is frequently probed, as is the sphere of medical advances. An author is cautioned, however, not to rely too much on the gee-whiz factor.

The compulsions that drive the human species, even the cell phone–bearing version, have not changed much since we descended from trees. That is the continuing paradox of civilization. How can we still be ruled so completely by our base instincts? Those same urges govern the reading experience as well. Love, death, and their spinoffs such as titillation and fear of physical harm bring out the animal in us. That’s what we crave.

In a world populated by barely hairless creatures, an author who strays too far into intellectual abstraction runs the risk of being arid. A degree of drama can be achieved by performing a risky operation, such as one that will bring hearing to the deaf. The afflicted patient can be made sympathetic, the procedure can be described masterfully, and the suspense of waiting for the results provides tension. Yet the outcome does not provide that much of a bang. After all, what if the operation failed? The character was already used to being deaf. She’s not going to die because an impossible dream wasn’t realized.

In other words, you cannot let your own fascination in a subject rule your plotting. It may be cheap, but the fact is, if you put that deaf character in an isolated house where a madman outside will use his knowledge of her deafness to torment her, you’ll achieve greater suspense. A reader understands being vulnerable. We all fear the unknown assailant, especially in a world where young men can so readily stray beyond social bonds.

You can explore how great it would be to achieve an uber ability. You can really make us understand that patient. But you have to harness the opposing sides of our nature. That’s a tough feat to pull off, achieved by literary, not scientific, acumen.

Exercise: Be chary about explanations of difficult scientific procedures. Even readers of Michael Crichton have only so much patience. If I start feeling like a baffled student in high school chemistry lab, I’ll skip the rest. Readers aren’t necessarily stupid, but if you think of holding them by the hand as you walk them through dense material, you’re on the right path.

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
—Gertrude Stein

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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