Have you ever read a book that felt like one long spiel of navel-gazing with a bit of plot thrown in?
I have. And I find it irritating. I’d like to read a story.
Readers are human; we all have feelings. We like it when our story characters seem human, too — even display some faults. When characters show their feelings and inner conflicts we can identify with them and sympathize with their trials. We cheer when they find their answer. In my opinion that’s what a story is all about.
Writers need to give their readers credit: we do “get” how the protagonist feels and we understand that attractions, fears and insecurities are going to be ongoing. But light touches now and then are reminder enough. The writer doesn’t have to tell us again and again and again how insecure, worried or resistant to some change the character feels.
Navel-Gazing: Contrived Conflict
Stories do need conflict, but is really effective in the long run to generate “internal conflict” by rehashing the character’s fears, self-doubt, and suspicions every few pages? Wouldn’t the novel be better if those efforts rather went into plot? Into writing in some actual conflict with life circumstances?
I read one novel where the main characters had joined a wagon train headed for a new life in California. They were going through unfamiliar territory, supposedly anticipating the new life they’d be living. But instead of the trials of their journey, scenic description, or speculation on their future home, the writer served readers a steady diet of the female MC examining her feelings for, and trying to generate resistance to, the male MC. And vise versa.
They spend so much time scolding themselves about their feelings, by Chapter 4 you’re thinking, “Get a life, people! There’s a whole world happening around you.”
I rarely read romance books or chick lit and this is mainly why. But I find this style of writing common in other genres nowadays, too, especially cosy mysteries. In one novel the protagonist finds a dead teen in someone’s empty house and, according to the writer, her thoughts are:
Why on earth did I have to find this body?
What will people think of me when they know I’ve found this body?
What will my family think of me when they hear I’ve found this body?
What will people think of my family when they learn I’ve found this body?
That a person died is pretty low in her thinking. Her fears prove overwhelming, so she jumps in her car and leaves the poor guy lying there. As the story unfolds all her angst gets played out with the mystery as a background. In all fairness, the writer did a good job of spinning out the plot, but the protagonist comes across as so self-centered.
Put More STORY in the Story
I know we live in a world that’s focused on navel-gazing. We’re encouraged to analyze our feelings and reactions. This is naturally going to spill over into the books we read. However, if writers were to delete the monotonous rehashes, I’m afraid some books might lose a third of their word counts — unless they filled the pages with actual happenings. And that takes work.
Maybe my problem is that I’ve been reading the old masters. There’s a lot more going on in Pride and Prejudice than how Liz feels about her feelings toward Darcy and how Darcy feels about his feelings for Liz. Jane Austin’s characters had lives to live, places to go and things to do. Her stories were woven around action as well as romance.
Without a lot of navel-gazing Charles Dickens’ characters managed to rouse people’s sympathies to the point of effecting positive changes in society’s attitudes.
For mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, “Who did it?” was the focus of their stories. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey rarely wrestled with self-doubt or anguished over what others thought of them. Yet they were very human — and often very humorous as a bonus.
The popularity of these writers has endured; you can still find their works in any library and most bookstores. That tells us something.