Thursday, August 28, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Stories August 28, 2008
If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next?
Or, um, is it just me?

This kind of question is not one I usually think about. Perhaps I'm too shallow and too much the good-time girl, but I tend to read only books that "grab" me within the first 50 or so pages and make me want to keep on turning those pages.

Now that it has been brought to my attention though, I would have to admit that I do enjoy a good story, but it's also imperative that a novel have good characterizations, is believable (within itself ~ I like fantasy and sci-fi too), is well-written, and believes in itself.

Too many characters are one-dimensional, and that will ruin it for me no matter how exciting the story (think The DaVinci Code). If the protagonist has no faults, if he or she doesn't strive for some purpose and grow, or learn, by the end of the book, then what's the point? If the antagonist is evil with no redeeming virtues (unless it's horror, of course), then a storyline alone is not enough to hold my interest.
Oh, yeah, one more thing. I have to have at least some simpatico with at least one of the characters or, again, I'm probably not going to finish the book, no matter what the storyline is.

And speaking of that, a believable storyline does not use coincidence to excess. It doesn't allow the actions of one or more character to strain my credulity too much. Everything eventually ends up making sense within the world in which the characters and action exist. I can't tell you how many novels I've throw against a wall because one of the characters, out of the blue and without any foreshadowing or explicable driving force, does something so foreign to their nature that it is ludicrous. A timid woman begins to worry that life is passing her by and suddenly dresses like a slut and seduces a perfect stranger she meets in the first bar she goes into. Alone. A craven thief who's been on the grift for 20 years meets a gorgeous woman and suddenly turns honest, singlehandedly stopping a murderous gang from destroying the woman's business. A savvy kid knows there's something really really bad in the basement of the haunted house but goes down there anyway on the dare of a bully for whom he has no respect. A young girl is the only person in the City of Magicians who doesn't have magic though she's been tested eight ways from Sunday but saves the Master Magician against the Evil Necromancer by suddenly discovering her magic power. It doesn't rain in Regency London the entire Season, or at least not whenever the handsome rogue is trying to seduce the innocent but incredibly alluring debutante behind the bushes in the park of his Hampshire estate. One after another serial killer single-mindedly goes after the forensic pathologist in a procedural mystery. Yeah, right.

An interesting storyline is, of course, subjective, but for me, anyway, angsty maundering is anathema to a good story. One does not need to go on and on about the emotional trauma a character is suffering to tell a deep story: witness The Stranger by Camus.

Okay, decent writing. Cliches, too many metaphors (unless they are there for a purpose, which I suspect is the case with, for instance, Special Topics in Calamity Physics), too much exposition, i.e., a lot of setting up at the beginning of a book ~ Magyk by Angie Sage, which I recently read, comes to mind here (just get on with the story and let me figure it out as we go along), misspellings/misused punctuation (sorry, I know it's trite, but a comma used in the wrong place or a "to" when it should be "too" can throw me right out of a story) ~ all these things make for bad writing, but the lack of those things doesn't necessary mean the writing is good.

Good writing doesn't have to flow like honey (think Hemingway). It doesn't have to sing (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). It doesn't have to use creative ~ or any ~ metaphors (again think Hemingway). It does have to speak to me of things that are important, at least to the characters in the story. It's nice if there are meanings within meanings, depending on the kind of novel, but it's not necessary. Twists are good too, but the story must fulfill its promise. If it's a murder mystery, the mystery should be solved by the end. (I think that may be why I was vaguely dissatisfied with Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, although I loved The Road, so that may not be completely accurate, or perhaps I'm mistaken and No Country is really a horror story.) If it's a romance, then happily-ever-after better be at least implied at the end. If it's a literary novel, of course, anything goes, but even there, a promise is a promise. To paraphrase Chekhov, "If there's a gun hanging over the mantle in Act 1, then it better have been fired before the end of the the last act."

A good book has a purpose and believes in that purpose, even if that purpose is only to entertain. The best, most memorable books have depth and meaning that come clear sometimes only long after they have been read and "digested."

Never Let Me Go is that kind of book. Another that fits the bill, both as entertainment and for the deep meaning that is perhaps partially masked by its form as science fiction, which in itself is a cleverly twisty device, is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In fact, The Sparrow is a perfect example of a good book as delineated above: It has multi-dimensional characters with whom one can identify and care about, and these characters get caught up, very believably, in unexpectedly deadly situations and act (and react) in highly complicated yet totally understandable ways. It has a storyline that keeps you turning the pages to find out "what happens next" and has an ending that is anything but pedestrian. It has some of the best writing I've read recently ~ nothing high-flown or pretentious, just solid, from-the-gut, honest writing. And a deep, emotional impact whose even deeper philosophical meaning only became clear after the reverberations of the end faded.

Yeah, the story is important, and without a good story I don't usually feel much compulsion to go on reading, but I need all those other things too.

I know, I am so demanding!

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