Plot Problems

Lately I’ve been having trouble reading novels. Some books are so awful that I toss them aside quickly, but lately I’ve been finding that even when I like a book at the outset, somewhere along the line it starts to irritate me.

Life is too short to keep reading books that irritate you.

One possible explanation is that I’m jealous of the author’s success, but I don’t think that quite explains my feeling. Possibly it’s because the author isn’t writing the story the way I would write it, which gets me frustrated by what I see as the book’s failings. That may be closer to the truth, but it still falls short.

At a deeper level, I think, I’m just irritated by people’s personal predicaments. I just don’t care.

A novel has to propose a problem with which the character(s) will struggle. This is as true of literature as it is of plotted genre fiction, though the problems in literature tend to be more subtle. The plot problem is more often referred to in the how-to-write literature as “conflict,” but that’s just another word for the same thing.

Hamlet’s problem is not, as it might at first appear, that his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother. Hamlet’s problem is that that bothers him. It eats at him. He can’t let it alone.

And actually, that’s boring. Let go of it, guy! Your father is dead. Nothing you can do is going to bring him back. Your mother and your uncle seem to be happy. Maybe there was stuff going on in your parents’ marriage that you didn’t know about. So relax. Go on a nice long vacation. Get a grip.

Most of the plot problems in fiction, it seems to me, boil down to the lead character’s inability to relax, take a deep breath, and accept reality for what it is. The exceptions, I suppose, are stories where the hero and his friends are attacked by creepy monsters through no fault of their own. But those stories tend not to be very interesting. If anything, they’re even more aggravating. You know perfectly well the hero is going to win the battle against the monsters, so the plot is really, to coin a phrase, much ado about nothing.

Music is more interesting to me right now than fiction, precisely because it’s abstract. There are no people in it, no problems, no annoying human frailties. Other intellectual pursuits are more pleasant too. I’d rather read a nice book on cosmology or archaeology than a novel.

I don’t know whether I’m just burnt out, or whether this is the beginning of wisdom. And I don’t much care.

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