We read for two reasons. Information or entertainment. Informational reading has no competition. The various media do, but not the reading itself.
On the other hand, recreational reading, entertainment reading, has an ever increasing array of competing activities. Video games, computer games, board games, TV, Netflix and Amazon streaming, movies, sports activities, plays, concerts, and the list goes on.
Today’s writers, particularly indie writers, it seems to me, feel the need to compete with today’s cinematic pyrotechnics, and the ever increasing graphic sex and violence the visual entertainment media are portraying.
Today I just want to focus on pacing. I’ll talk about sex and violence another time. Of the books I’ve recently read, the pacing falls into two distinct camps. I’ll call them thriller-paced and literary-paced.
Everywhere we readers look, we see books advertised as fast paced, as page turners, or that the pages even turn themselves. The thriller is everywhere. It’s taken over the mystery field, it’s gone into outer space, it’s pervasive in science fiction, and it’s even moved into horror.
Frenetic pacing is in. To the detriment of the reading experience.
Recently I read a space opera by a supposed USA Today bestselling author. I say “supposed” because writers are scamming the system by riding to “Bestseller” status in boxed sets where their name doesn’t even appear in any of the advertising.
Anyway, I read an advanced reader copy of Book One of the series, which had recently been rewritten and expanded, with the intent that I’d write a review. I’m not sure that I will, because I don’t have much good to say about the novel. And Book Two wasn’t much better. I eventually just stopped reading it.
I can’t say either book was bad. But I can’t say either one was especially good either. The writing, on a technical level, was fine.
What torpedoed the reading experience for me were the characters. They were flat, insipid, and pretty much lackluster. To the point where I didn’t really care what happened to them.
The author spent the entire book doing nothing but piling on crisis after crisis. There was no breathing room. And his paltry attempt at trying to establish a romance element fell flat on its face for me because even that seemed to be nothing more than following the “insert romance here” point on the plot outline.
When I finished the first book I was so exhausted from the pacing, I almost wished everyone would die just so I could get some relief.
Now I know a writer must make his characters suffer, otherwise there is no story. But ask yourself this: how often in real life do you have days where not a single thing goes right? I’d hazard a guess they are darn few. So why in these “thrillers” are we asked to accept an entire book where the good guys have nothing but bad hair days for days and days and days on end? Because even on bad hair days something usually goes right. But not for the fictional characters.
Quite honestly, I don’t really care about plot. If the characters are interesting — real people, with real problems — whatever the story is, it will be the story of the characters. Ray Bradbury said, create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story. Why don’t writers follow this?
Instead, they focus on trying to write a well-crafted plot and then insert the characters into it. The end result is that the characters are no better than marionettes and even less interesting.
Today’s plot-driven thriller is wooden and uninspired and, frankly, exceedingly boring.
I’ve made a deal with myself. Thrillers and USA Today bestselling authors are off my reading list. The books I’ve read by bestselling authors and those marketed as thrillers are mediocre at best. And why read mediocre or bad books when so many good ones abound?
What I’m calling “Literary Pacing” is normal pacing. The pacing employed by Isaac Asimov, Rex Stout, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Lawrence Block, and Edgar Allan Poe. Or the pacing you’ll find in such books as Costigan’s Needle, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, When Worlds Collide, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hidden World, and The Day of the Triffids.
The above mentioned authors and books (and the list barely scratches the surface) have one thing in common — characters we care about. Comte Saint-Germain. Archdeacon Grantly. Scrooge. Nero Wolfe. Matt Scudder.
Literary pacing doesn’t mean there’s no excitement. There may be fight scenes, or car chases, or gun fights, or tense escape scenes. These, however, are scattered throughout the story. Occurring naturally as the characters go about their business of telling us their stories. And that’s the key: the characters are telling us their stories. Not the author.
Literary pacing occurs when the writer writes character-based fiction. It’s not about the plot. Good fiction is never about the plot. It’s about the characters.
We don’t remember Gone With The Wind for the thrilling plot. We remember Scarlett and Rhett. “Hills Like White Elephants” isn’t remembered because of the plot. It’s the characters that make the story. We don’t remember The Lord of the Rings because of the plot. It’s a ho-hum quest story. We remember the book for the characters — both good and bad. Because both the good guys and the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are memorable.
Plot-Driven vs Character-Driven
Many of today’s indie writers are so concerned about cranking out the next book, all they focus on are the story beats and the outline. Making sure they’ve hit all the plot points at just the right time. The resulting fiction is mechanical at best. A fast-moving piece of mediocrity. An eminently forgettable book.
On the flip-side, even mediocre character-driven stories can stay with you for decades.
Who remembers the 1956 sci-fi novel Tomorrow And Tomorrow by Hunt Collins (aka Ed McBain)? Yet that book has stayed with me ever since I read it when a kid some fifty-plus years ago. Why? The world Collins created and the characters. Especially the characters. I don’t remember their names, but I remember them.
Recently I read the Dave Slater mysteries by PF Ford. I like Dave and his sidekick Norman Norman. They are “people” I care about. And what makes the stories good is that they are the stories of Dave and Norman.
Ford’s novels aren’t just plots into which he plunked down some characters. No, he did the Bradbury thing: created his characters, let them do their thing, and the result was their story.
The late Elizabeth Edmondson’s A Very English Mystery series is the same. Real people doing their thing — and we get to read the delightful tales as a result.
I think today’s rash of thrillers is the result of indie authors trying too hard to make a buck. It seems to me they think if they can just throw more action, more sex, more blood at the reader they’ll get more fans and more money.
Unfortunately for them, this reader has been turned off. Anything labeled fast-paced or thriller won’t get my buck. Neither will anyone spouting off they are a USA Today bestselling author. The books are disappointing and my time is too valuable to waste.
Comments are always welcome, and until next time — happy reading!Share This!