The Power of the Narrative Line

ImageLast night I finished a crime novel by an author whose works I had not previously read.  I’d picked it up because it had just won one of the most prestigious awards in this field and consequently I was hoping that not only was I in for an immediate treat but that I might also be discovering a writer whose back catalogue I could enjoy and whose future work was a delight to be anticipated.  A long leisurely Sunday was on the horizon and the phone was off the hook.

I rattled through the story, drawn on by the power of the narrative line.  The writer is an expert in all the devices that keep the reader moving on to the next chapter, rather than going and doing tiresome tasks like weeding or washing up.  I was completely engaged with the question of ‘what happens next’.  At least I was until I reached the point where the lead detective was handed the clue that enabled him to finally discover the fate of the victims.  At that point I was brought up short by a plot device which, for sheer cheek, rivalled all those stories written by eight years olds that end and then I woke up and it was all a dream.  Actually if the vital fact had come to him in a dream I might have been less concerned.  I could have consoled myself with the thought that the vital piece of information had been floating around in his subconscious all the time and had simply chosen that moment to reveal itself.  No, this smacked quite simply of a writer who couldn’t think of any logical way to bring about the denouement and so went for the supernatural instead.  It is possible, I suppose that this author’s other books are resolved in a similar fashion and that they consider it a legitimate narrative tool.  I’m not certain, however, I’m going to find out because whereas up to that point I was intending to read the earlier novels now I’m less inclined to do so.

This isn’t just because of the way in which this particular book came to its conclusion.  The problem is that having recognised one specific problem which the impetus of the narrative line failed to conceal, I began to think back over the story and recognise several others, moments when the logic of a character’s behaviour lacked consistency, occasions when the gaps in the lines of thought were large enough for an entire police force to vanish into.

I love a good plot.  Over the past three or four years most of the reading I’ve been doing has been plot driven.  However, I’m beginning now to ask myself just how often I have let the power of the narrative line draw my attention away from poor and unfinished writing. One of the reasons for this blog is to try and put a stop to such mindless reading on my part.  The writer might not get it right in the first instance, but the reader who goes on reading without questioning the quality of what is being read is definitely a complicit participant in the defect.

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8 thoughts on “The Power of the Narrative Line

  1. I understand what you’re trying to say here, but I’ll be honest – sometimes I allow myself to read books that aren’t quite polished in the writing domain. It still says something if a book is so successful at drawing a reader in that it takes retrospect to figure out that it’s “badly written”. I’m not saying a badly written scene can’t shake you out of a book (alas, how many times has this happened?), but I think it’s fair to cut some slack if you’re knowingly going in with some expectations suspended.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean. I think I was being especially hard on this because it was supposed to be the best of the year – I dread to think what the other contenders were like:)

    1. How true – and just right for a lazy Friday night. I have one lined up for this evening. The difference being that this time I’m not expecting anything great:)

    2. Another way of saying this is that some people can be entertained by writing that dulls the mind. Which is not to say that a brain-vacation isn’t welcome now and then.

      However, recall Emerson: “People do not deserve to have good writings; they are so pleased with bad.”

      1. Do you find that after a while you need a vacation from the ‘brain vacation’? I start each holiday period thinking I want nothing that I’m going to have to think about and last for about three and a half books. I don’t know the Emerson. Where is it from?

        1. I have always wound down any vacation, be it intellectual or Caribbean, with a period of wishing I was back at work. The trick I learned to improve my vacationing skills was not to uncharacteristically modify my behavior to effect a giddy preference for roller coasters and Dan Brown books, but rather to not constantly remind myself of all the better or more intellectually nourishing things I should be doing instead of going for early skin cancer with a paper umbrella in my tomato juice.

          A vacation, brain or otherwise, is not necessarily the better part of life but if done right it can oil your bearings and let off a little steam … and that ain’t bad.

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