As some of you know, I’m a Doctor Who fan. I was rewatching a two part episode from season 4 the other night (‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’) and found myself trying to identify why I thought it was so good. I won’t waste space here with a lot of plot summary (which you can find here). Suffice to say that the Doctor and Donna are investigating the universe’s largest library where all the people have disappeared, when they run into an archaeological team which is promptly preyed upon by an alien monster which lives in shadows. The plot is complicated by the possibility that the library seems to be an illusion created by a disturbed child who is currently undergoing psychotherapy in an entirely different and more ordinary world, and by the fact that the head of the archaeological team claims to have intimate knowledge of the Doctor which he cannot remember.
It’s a complex story with a number of classic sci-fi elements: time travel, the uncertainty about what is and isn’t real, and a lethal, chilling monster which can strip flesh from bone in under a second. These facets are made more compelling by some genuinely creepy elements, such as the inspired idea that the voice relays in the space suits the humans wear retain the imprint of their wearer’s final moments, so the corpses continue to talk after death.
The whole is intricate and cleverly constructed, a great model of what the show—at its best—does so well. But what makes it great is finally neither the smart plotting nor the unsettling effects of the shadow killers. Rather, the core of the episode is the pervasive sense of mortality and loss. This is manifested both by the poignancy with which the deaths of minor characters are handled, and by Donna’s growing certainty that her time with the Doctor is running out. The time travelling archaeologist who seems to know so much about the Doctor’s future, doesn’t know her at all…
What I love about all this is the blend of the cerebral (the central mystery of what is going on), the visceral (the unnerving talking corpses and the shadow beasts), with the emotional (the pathos of real lives lost). The episode is fun, thrilling, scary, satisfying in the resolution of its core mystery, and–finally and most importantly–quite moving.
TV delivers this blend rarely, and I think that the two hour format of the double episode is an important aspect of the way this story weaves its various strands together without being heavy handed. Books, however, are well suited to precisely this kind of multi-level approach.
Yet all too often, I find myself reading novels which drop one or more of these crucial elements. Some are all action (viscera), some all romance, say, (heart), and some are stacked with cool ideas or plot intricacy (head). But this focus on one or two elements of the three limits the range or type of the books’ success and, I suspect, their readership. For me, a level of creative inventiveness in all three areas carefully balanced produces the best results.
Finding that balance is not easy, however. In my case, I know that—perhaps because I am an academic—I want to rely too much on clever ideas. Though I am all too aware that clever books which lack the other elements often feel dry, abstract or otherwise alienating, I’m reticent where the emotional stuff is concerned. I also have to challenge myself to come up with the material that, when done well, produces a gut-level response in the reader. But I know that I need all three elements to make the story work.
As with other aspects of writing, it helps to know your own strengths, your own bias because they need counteracting. I wonder if my pro-intellect bias is actually fairly typical of sci-fi/fantasy writers who often seem to privilege thought and imagination over emotional weight. Whether that’s true or not, it’s helpful to be aware of your own proclivities and to have beta readers who you can trust to redress this and other imbalances, making you be more alert to those parts of the story which are less in your natural wheelhouse.
So, what do you think? How do you like the balance of head, gut and heart in your reading, and are your tastes as a reader reflected in your strengths as a writer? If not, how do you find the right balance?
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