I could have titled this post “What stops me from reading,” but I haven’t found too many things where I just set something aside and say “the heck with that one.” Which is to say that I finish most of what I start. As a wannabe-writer, I read articles and blogs when they deal with craft, and a common theme seems to be that we need to keep our foot on the pedal throughout our works of genre fiction. Is that true? I’ve been thinking about it after reading Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. Because as I read that book, there were a few times early on where I almost set it aside and moved onto something else.
Why? Well, if you read my review on Goodreads of the book, you’d see that I felt there were times the author, like his father Stephen King, bogged himself down in narrative details that were designed to add richness to the setting, to the character, to the plot. But unlike his father, every instance of this in Hill’s novel did NOT work. They just pulled away from the main thrust of the story. I can’t get specific on it, because 1.) I don’t have the book with me and 2.) I didn’t take any notes. I just knew that I was considering putting the book down without finishing. (I’ve had that feeling in Hill’s father’s works as well, notably recently with UNDER THE DOME.)
So I started thinking about what I, as a reader (a former VORACIOUS reader who did about ten books a month, currently a less voracious type who maybe does three or four books a month), look for as I read. What keeps me reading? I already stated that one thing that MIGHT stop me from reading is having too much extraneous detail added into the narrative. Another might be an inconsistent plotline.
So far, I haven’t thrown anything across the room for grammatical/typographical errors. (Good thing, too, because I’m reading so much on my Kindle and it might break if I threw it.) So I think I can safely rule them out as what makes me stop reading. And the converse, that it is excellent grammar and absolutely clean, perfect typing that would KEEP me reading, is also out. I believe that these things appear or disappear based on the reader’s (my) involvement in the story. If a story has really pulled me in, I tend to skip over the grammatical/typographical errors. Now, I admit that I haven’t really found a single work that is LOADED with the things (apparently contrary to Amazon’s reviews, which seem to find typos everywhere they look in a lot of indie fiction…are those people who are actually reading, or are they people from big publishing houses and bookstores and such who have an axe to grind against indie writers?). Most every book has a few. Some more than others. No pattern as to whether it’s more prevalent in trad-published fiction or in self-published fiction. Most pass by my eyes while registering in a very superficial way with my brain. (Like, “oh, they meant ‘wind’ and not ‘mind.’ Got it.)
Yet, I can definitely notice differences in what keeps me reading. What calls to me when I put it down, making me want to get back to it as soon as possible. What I can leave for days or weeks at a time and come back to it, not feeling much urgency. And mostly, I feel it comes down to plot.
If an author gives me a compelling plot, I’ll keep reading. If I have to know what happens next, I will think about the story until I can get back to it. Story by itself isn’t enough. I think that there are stories in everything. Plot is what makes them compelling. The difference between these two might be summed up by this quote:
A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order.
A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.
(The quote is from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 5th ed. Longman, 2000, by Janet Burroway, and paraphrases E.M. Forster.)
The best history gives us both story and plot. The most boring history simply gives us the story of what happened. So I can fully agree with this quote. I forgive a lot when a plot sucks me in and makes me want to read until I can’t keep my eyes open or I’m finished, whichever comes first.
But what about characters? What if you have a great plot, but you’ve put the most boring characters in it that you can imagine? Is it still compelling?
I would suggest that you need both. Plot is first, but the characters cannot be cardboard cutouts. This is not to say that everyone needs to be a superhero, or a CIA spy, or something like that. In fact, in my opinion, there is something compelling about reading a character who is ordinary. Someone about whom you as a reader might say, “I know people like this guy or girl.” That’s what works for me.
Great characters with a less-than-compelling plot will be less readable, for me, than a great plot with okay characters. You have to care about the characters, but you also have to be interested in the situation they find themselves in.
The third important element for me is setting. I’ve often felt that setting can almost act as another character in a novel. Stephen King does that as good as anyone. As I read his early novel SALEM’S LOT, I came to know the community of Jerusalem’s Lot as well as I knew Ben Mears or Barlow or any of the other characters in the book. It’s the same with other King novels as well. Castle Rock and Derry became almost-characters in King’s fiction, staple settings that worked for multiple stories, and their quirks and their denizens were almost as important as the actual characters.
That said, setting as an element of fiction falls to third in importance. While masterful description of setting is a huge asset to a story, a generic setting doesn’t kill said story IF the characters and the plot are there.
When I review books, I tend to try to look at them in this manner. I try to mention all three of these elements in the review, and discuss whether they were great, good or average. (If they’re bad, I usually don’t bother reviewing the book. I usually don’t like to say anything bad about a book. The exception is those authors, like King, Koontz, Coben, etc etc, who have a track record, and whose works I find myself comparing to other works by themselves and not so much to other works by other authors. Often, I think that a second tier King or Coben novel is better than some novels which I’ve given high marks to, but how can I rate UNDER THE DOME or THE WOODS the same as the best novels by those authors?)
So in summary, for me, it’s:
So why can’t I seem to finish DROOD by Dan Simmons, whose works I normally love? I don’t think it’s the characters or the setting, so it must be the plot. Unless the pacing is dragging it down so far for me that I can’t seem to bring myself to resume reading it… Length can be daunting, and if you don’t see an end in sight, it can be hard to pick up something that’s really dragging for you. The aforementioned books by King and Hill both have that issue with length.
But maybe that’s a discussion for a different day, and a different post.
Also, there is the promise that a book makes as I read it. If it doesn’t live up to that promise; if it ends up being something other than what I believe it is based on the promise it makes with its descriptions, its cover, its early chapters, even its characters and setting…again, maybe that is a different post. And is about as close as I can get to craft, since I’m a far more accomplished reader than I am a writer (whether I’m a critical enough reader is debatable, but it is what it is…)
Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t done so, go buy one of my books and see if I live up to the things I talk about in this post. 🙂
Sounds like Joe Hill violates my Goldilocks Principle. All the story elements you mention (yes, story is the overarching category–I don’t buy your quoted definition) are important, but an author can really muck things up if there’s no balance. I cringe when someone recommends a fiction book because it’s a good character study. I immediately ask myself: does that mean it has few or none of the other elements you mention?
Your story, The Inn, achieves great balance. I suppose if we call a short story a dash and a novel a marathon, it’s easier for an author to achieve balance in the shorter races. But it’s essential for all of them, albeit done differently, depending on length and genre.
Hi, Steve, as always thanks for reading and commenting. I still think that story by itself isn’t enough to make me read something. For example, I could tell a story about some event as a chronological listing of things that occurred, and that would be boring. Maybe not for the people involved, it wouldn’t be, but for others, it probably wouldn’t be a compelling read. Now if I weave information about relationships and how they affect the things that happen at this event, or maybe describe what might happen down the road because the events occurred the way they did, that might be shaped into a compelling tale that I’d want to read about. Do you have a different definition of “plot?”
Agree that a character study probably wouldn’t be as interesting as a good story, but then again maybe a character’s background and description is good and interesting, maybe it is readable. OTOH, maybe then you’re getting back into “story,” as it relates to only these characters…
Thanks for the props for THE INN. I was rereading it (skimming, really) after doing some corrections (got rid of “matriculate” and replaced with “graduate” and a few other tweaks that you suggested and a few that I noticed) and I thought that it flowed pretty well. 🙂
Whoa! I think you’re still confusing my definition of story and yours. 🙂 Yours is more akin to plot. A story needs to contain a balance of story elements–plot, characterization, dialogue, settings, background, etc–that balance is often genre specific, of course. We’re doing a semantics dance around the same concepts. I’m realistic enough to know I sometimes fail at achieving this balance, but I opine every author should strive to attain it in order to make a good story. Of course, the weights each author gives those story elements represent a subjective choice by the author, and how each reader reacts to that choice is also subjective. That’s what makes this so much fun!
Yeah, I agree that it’s probably simply semantics and we’re saying the same things. I keep looking for a difference between story and plot in my own head, and often don’t come up with one. Am I understanding correctly that you’re saying “story” is the overarching thing that includes all of those things…that without plot we have no story? I can buy that, I think. I should probably read more on the subjects…