Monday, 27 May 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Idea

This is the fifth part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

In previous installments, I covered character, setting, and plot—based on librarian Nancy Pearl’s description of appeal characteristics—and craft, an expansion of the characteristic she calls language.[1] This week, I cover the first of two extra characteristics I use to understand the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show: Idea.

Pearl identified her four characteristics for mainstream literary fiction. However, the appeal of some narratives lies outside these, when the main enjoyment to be found in the work is the presentation of some interesting idea or concept. Neal Stephenson put it like this in an interview when asked to define science fiction:
‘Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.”’ [2]
Science fiction, and, more broadly other speculative fiction, often asks ‘what if...’ when establishing a setting outside of our real-world experiences. And often, the answer is what readers or viewers find compelling. For example, the seminal dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World are not renowned for their memorable, three-dimensional characters or intricate and clever plots. Their settings are developed only to the point where they allow Orwell and Huxley to present their ideas, and it is for these ideas that these novels are famous.

When I started thinking about idea as an appeal characteristic of fiction, I had thought exclusively in terms of speculative genres. However, a friend (thanks B!) pointed out to me that the appeal of particular narratives in all kinds of genres might also lie at least partially in its presentation and exploration of ideas. For example:
  • A romance might revolve around an extremely unlikely couple. 
    • The idea explored might be ‘how can true love blossom between two such different people?’ 
  • Historical fiction set in the Wild West or in the Age of Chivalry might present an honourable character with conflicting loyalties. 
    • The idea explored might be ‘how is it be possible to satisfy both?’
  • A contemporary literary novel or art film might follow the ripple effect of a dispute through a community.
    • The idea explored might be ‘how could such a small thing end up dividing so many people so completely?’
In each of these cases, the reader’s reaction of ‘that’s interesting. I never thought of that before’ identifies an idea-driven story every bit as much as in a science-fiction story driven by ideas. However, removed from the necessity of fitting into the real world as we know it, speculative genres do allow authors to ask more abstract, hypothetical questions, like:
  • What if wars were fought entirely by computer and casualties of simulated attacks just stepped into disintegration chambers when ordered? What would that be like?
To generalise: the more far-fetched and hypothetical the idea, the more interested I’ll probably be. Also, everything else being equal, I’m probably also more interested in questions with bigger repercussions than smaller ones: issues that affect a whole society or civilization instead of just a town or even only a few individuals. For example:
  • What if people suddenly stopped dying?
is prima facie more interesting to me than:
  • How might the death of one person affect a whole town?
  • How could we talk to aliens who only communicate by tasting subtle but rapid chemical changes in each other’s skin?
interests me more than:
  • How could an avowed pacifist and an officer in the military overcome their differences and find true love?
 And I’m much more likely to read or watch a narrative that asks:
  • What criteria will we use to judge whether we have created computers with consciousness?
than one that asks:
  • Should it matter whether the prize-winning cake at the town fair was created from raw ingredients or from a packet? (although the depiction of the fallout from this dispute might be perversely entertaining)
I highly value idea-driven narratives. Interesting ideas are the fuel for my life-long devotion to Star Trek, for example. I like to think that idea is what matters to me most of all; that provided with a suitably interesting idea, I don’t require much in the way of believable characters, well-realised setting, compelling plot, or even good writing or production. However, recent encounters with a couple of science-fiction novels that failed to deliver me anything but a few interesting questions reminded me that sometimes a cool idea might not be really enough to sustain my interest in a narrative!

Next week, I’ll conclude this series by considering affect as an appeal characteristic.

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