Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Attracts; What Repels

My writing group talked last night about what it takes to suck us into a book so that we become immersed and feel that we must keep reading, and what kicks us out of the work early and lets us toss it aside. Our discussion suggested that three main elements were important: 1) Character, 2) Situation, 3) Quality of Prose. Although I can’t speak for all our members, and you might find other input or comments at C. S. Harris and Sphinx Ink, I believe I can extract a general consensus.

First, most group members seemed to say that “Character” was more important than the other two. Great characters will cover up some sins in the other two elements, but having those elements working won’t make up for shoddily constructed characters. I know that, for myself, even if I’m attracted to a piece because of the opening situation, I’ll lose interest quickly if the characters don’t click.

Second, “Situation” is not quite the same as plot. The situation is what we are introduced into, before we have time to figure out what the “plot” is going to be. I know that I want a dramatic scene to open a book, and I suspect that I put more emphasis on that than many of my other writing group colleagues. The writer needs to put me immediately into a place where action or emotion abounds. Unless something is happening already, I cannot learn enough about their characters from a few lines of opening dialogue to keep me going.

Third, I have read stuff where the prose sings even if I don’t consider the characters terribly realistic and don’t find the situation exciting. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian comes to mind. But I read such works slowly and I don’t think I can claim to be “sucked in” by them.

Fourth, the works that click on all three cylinders are the ones that create the biggest vacuum effect and become the ones that we truly call page turners. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about some of those page turners in my life.


Steve Malley said...

Situation and/or character get me from the back of the cover (or inside flap of the dust jacket) to a quick flip of the first few pages. Prose quality is what takes me up to the register.

Character is definitely what makes me buy the next book, though. The dust jacket copy is a bit like, "Hi, this is my friend with the unicycle. You two talk." The time we spend between the pages is the meeting that results.

I either come away wanting to know those people better or glad that's over.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

That's fascinating. I want more time to think about the issue before committing to comment, but I'll tentatively say that I think it's a die roll. Many people read under the worst conditions. They grab a book and read a page, put it down, read again. They read with television, people talking to them, and a million other distractions. They read when they are angry, happy, bored, etc. They read when emotionally the words run together and make little sense.

So what am I saying? I guess it
s that one of the elements is the commitment the reader brings to the work involved. I have fought my way through some tedious works of fiction, and sometimes I recognize its my own bias, attitude, etc that makes the work tedious.

JR's Thumbprints said...

As a writer, I've always felt a certain fondness for creating a situation first; however, this doesn't always help the reader to connect. With that said, my stubborn side says the reader will identify with a character more if he/she can sympathize with the situation the character is in.

Very insightful piece.

RK Sterling said...

Hmm... I always think when I pick up a book that it's the situation that grabs me, but the truth is, if I don't find a character to like and identify with, I lose interest.

Drizel said...

I also like a real exiting begining......the character can be way interresting but if he does not move with the story it will be all blan:(
I like your blog lots:)

Michelle's Spell said...

I'm a character person, but I also love setting. When the setting becomes a character, that's when I love the book -- Affliction and it's ice cold misery, Last Picture Show and the dead Texas town, and the list goes on. And an interesting voice will keep me reading forever.