Blood, love, and rhetoric

PLAYER: We’re more of the blood, love, and rhetoric school. [...] I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood.  Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.

These lines, from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Hamlet fanfic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are the text of the Livejournal icon I use for posts about my writing progress. (Courtesy of LJ user “wanderingbastet,” who made the icon.) It’s a fun line, as many of Stoppard’s are, but late one night, my brain decided — like it does, when the hour is late and I’m eyeball-deep in a novel and not thinking too straight — that this is, in fact, a universal statement of narrative theory.

No, bear with me here. If you interpret the words with sufficient breadth, it actually makes sense.

Let’s take “love” first. Sure, romance is a component of many stories, but let’s give it a broader scope: emotion and character more generally. Some stories focus heavily on this; others relegate it to the sidelines. Inner state, emotional growth, relationships between characters. Not all of it positive, either — hate is love! (In this context, at least.)

So what’s rhetoric? Ideas. Neat themes the author is playing with, or messages she wants to convey. Brainless action flicks aren’t so keen on this, while literary fiction is. (Or at least likes to think that it is.) You can get good entertainment with or without the rhetoric, though of course with is generally better, just because there’s more going on.

Which leaves blood. “They’re all blood, you see,” the Player tells us. What is it that every story has? I was originally tempted to say blood is spectacle: people dying, stuff blowing up, etc. When I post progress reports on my LJ, that’s what I tend to classify as “blood.” But you can get good stories without spectacle, can’t you? Blood has to be something more universal. And so, for this theory to work, I think we have to say that blood is conflict. Blood is stuff happening, because the status cannot stay quo. Blood is the engine that propels love and rhetoric forward.

Without blood, you don’t have a story.

What I like about my late-night “OMG Tom Stoppard EXPLAINS EVERYTHING” revelation is, it helps me understand my lack of interest in a certain kind of literary fiction: insufficient blood. They’ve got love and rhetoric, but no sense that anything’s really happening outside, no meaningful conflict giving the story motion. So those books may be nice and all, but really, I just find that I don’t care. I don’t see a story there.

Blood, love, and rhetoric. Conflict, character, and idea. What do you think: are those the essential building blocks of story? Or what other metaphors would work? I’ve heard people comment on stories as “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby,” or even (yikes) “more dinosaurs, less sodomy” — what other triads of story-stuff can we make up?

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  1. 1. Benjamin Carnys

    I can’t answer the challenge to come up with a “triad of story-stuff”, and I can’t resist this…

    > These lines, from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Hamlet fanfic play

    I, for one, am thankful for the perceptive soul who said to Stoppard, “More absurdism, less Hamlet/Polonius slash.”

    (Ah! I thought of one after all: tragedy, humour and hope, not necessarily in that order. But I like Stoppard’s better.)

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Well, it is fanfic, depending on your definition. And I like making people’s heads explode by calling it that. :-)

    (He’s even written real-person fanfic, with Shakespeare in Love. But all historical fiction involving real people is a kind of fanfic.)

    Tragedy, humour, and hope are an interesting trio. My brain wants to plot those spatially; it’s putting tragedy and hope on one axis, with humour haring off to the side somewhere. Which is probably appropriate.

  3. 3. Benjamin Carnys

    What makes you think Shakespeare was a real person? ;)

    Humour can orbit anything, I think, so I like your spatial arrangement. But which, if any, is the compulsory factor?

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I want to say hope should be, because man, I hate the misery porn that masquerades as True Literature. But I think it’s more philosophically interesting to say humour is compulsory.

  5. 5. Alexandra Morris

    That’s quite an useful concept, thanks for sharing – I’m of the same mind regarding not enough ‘blood’ in that kind of literary fiction.

    My own personal story triad is world-character-plot. To my own mind, these are inextricably linked, with each influencing the other – the context in which something happens defines what actually can happen, and also tells you something about the people in such a setting, and vice versa, etc.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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