Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bad Writers, Good Stories

  1. is
  2. can be said
  3. is
  4. has
  5. had
  6. turned
  7. nudged
  8. sits
  9. has
  10. used

Those are the first ten verbs from a novel I recently read (The Straw Men). More specifically, read and finished -- unlike a number of other novels that I began reading and quit about one third to halfway into.

This novel had four main characters, a female cop in her 30s I figure, then three men. All men were about the age of 40. One was an ex-cop, one ex-CIA, and one current-CIA. Making one of them, I don't know, a Japanese tree surgeon, would have helped me keep them distinct.

This novel, despite its fascination with passive voice, and way too similar characters held me all the way through, whereas I struggled to get to one-third in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, with its eloquent language, quirky people, and glowing recommendation from Neil Gaiman.

The thing The Straw Men had for me was pull-through. In part that came from the cheap, but effective tactic of using short chapters and ending them with nice little cliff-hangers.

But I think the real trick came from the writer's ability to regularly bring in surprising twists and reversals. They came along just often enough to keep me going -- and when they hit I'd want to stick around a bit longer to see the consequences of this new state of affairs.

And one thing I worry about is that when I comment on others' writing, or see comments on a story, that too often the pull-through part is not discussed, in favor of talking about mechanics or intricacies of character. And, while one's skill at prose and characterization are important, none of that will get you anywhere if you don't generate enough pull-through to get the reader through the novel.

Dan Brown seems to receive an abnormally large volume of criticism from writers on the internet for being an awful hack. And what worries me about this, is that it implies that these writers drastically undervalue the ability to create pull-through -- as if maintaining suspense and surpising the reader were easy or cheap.

But that's a huge part of storytelling, right up there with richness of characters and important or interesting ideas. Frankly, I think even more important than richness of characters. We've got plenty of enduring myths about one-dimensional gods and characters.


Konrad West said...

Dan Brown is a frighteningly bad writer. He is, however, as you say, quite a skilled storyteller, in that his use of short chapters and twists keep the reader wanting more (despite the ridiculously bad prose).

wcdixon said...

Of course we'd all prefer to read a great story by a great writer...but I'd rather read a great story by a bad writer than a bad boring story by a good writer

Emmett Walker said...
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