Combining Beauty of Language with Plot
Last post, I was writing about The Nutshell, a novel by Ian McEwan to point out how a master craftsman can break all kinds of literary rules on the way to a compelling story. In this post, I want to particularly highlight a feat which McEwan accomplishes in this novel: his ability to combine beauty of language with a plot which has momentum.
When the language is arresting and gorgeous, you want to stop and savor it. Roll it around in your mind to touch all its points of sweetness and sharpness. And there are plenty in the novel. Almost at random, I have chosen a few examples.
..the unweeded garden of their marriage (p. 13)
In my mother’s usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not synonym. For being selfish, devious, cruel. (p.15)
Usefully, each successive effort of memory removes her further from the actual events. She’s memorising her memories. The transcript errors will be in her favour. They’ll be a helpful cushion at first, on their way to becoming the truth. (p.169)
But all this savoring does in fact slow the reader down and might even almost kick him out of the continuous dream to admire. To minimize the problem, I often find that authors do one of two things. They either write flowingly and evocatively with only minimal plot or they do the flowery bit up front and then drop mostly into plot for the rest of the novel. McEwan is able to sustain both insight and plot.
Here is a plot that works in all the ways a plot should. It has forward action, suspense, and even an ending which is a clever surprise. It’s a mystery, for heaven’s sake and we keep wanting to know how it turns out.
Some of the success comes from the right pacing of the novel. McEwan knows how long he can tarry on an image or an insight and when he needs to introduce the next step in the murder plan and commission.
Writing to aspire to
I used to say that I didn’t like to read other writers’ work when I was writing because it had a deleterious effect. If the novel wasn’t very good, I’d get all puffed up and superior, sure I could do better. If the novel was wonderful, it would depress me so much that I felt it was encouraging me to give up the pursuit and get a good job.
Having realized that this was a kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot stance, I have toned it down to admiration. Something to aspire to—beauty and plot together. Right now, I’m mostly all plot. But I aspire, I aspire.
As to poorly written novels, I’m still working on my outlook. I’m trying for pity but isn’t just the flip side of superior? Still a work in progress.