Blood, Love, and Rhetoric

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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?