Emotional and Intellectual Closure

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There are many ways we can talk about and/or analyze a novel’s structure.  But one of the blunt tools I use when writing a novel is to think of two broad threads that run through the narrative.

There’s an emotional thread, which is more or less the emotional pace of a book, the way in which events in the book, by way of the characters’ experiences, resonate with a reader’s emotions.   This is the thread that causes your heart to thump, that makes you grit your teeth, flip pages rapidly, clench a fist, and, in the end, hopefully breathe a satisfied sigh.

Then there’s an intellectual thread, which is more about how the events in the book tie-up the questions raised by the story.  This is the thread a reader analyzes in the calm light of reason to determine whether the story is resolved in an intellectual satisfying manner.

Obviously the divide between these threads isn’t clean in practice.  They overlap, intertwine, feed off one another, and so on.   And they’re quite blunt analytical tools (as I mentioned above).  But leave all that aside for the moment.

Achieving closure for each of those threads is a distinct process.  I always, always, try to give the reader emotional closure, a scene or scenes that give a cathartic release to the emotional tension built up over the course of a book.   I regard that as essential to a good book, largely because I think that creating and building-up an emotional resonance between the reader and the story is one of the key functions of fiction — a hyperreal exploration of human emotions, as it were.

I don’t regard intellectual closure the same way, though, and when I look back at some of my novels (say Midnight’s Mask, or the forthcoming Riptide), I see books that close out the emotional thread, but whose intellectual threads leave important questions raised by the story open for the reader to ponder.  Used judiciously, I think an open intellectual thread often adds to a reader’s enjoyment, as it gives them something to chew on and discuss with other readers (typically I try to do this by actually answering the book’s primary question(s), but, in giving that answer, raising another question or questions that go unanswered).  Used badly, it detracts from that enjoyment (one example where this was true for me was The Da Vinci Code–the whole intellectual thread of that book is left open and dangling).

Any thoughts on this?  Assuming you buy into this analytical model, can you think of books that handle these threads badly/well?

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2 Comments

  1. I think the best books balance either tool. That said, I also look for language; diction, prose. While it might seem redundant to have this as a standard (one would think that the emotional aspect of the novel is conveyed through words), there’s something to be said about craftsmanship.

    • Agree completely. This idea of two threads is more of a view from thirty-thousand feet. We could examine other things like prose and so forth, too, and those are (obviously) just as important. That said, I’ve read a lot of books by writers with excellent command of language but whose stories move me emotionally not at all.

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