Last week a couple of writers posted that they were trying a new process that I’ll call “writing the fun stuff.” That meant trying to infuse each day’s writing only with the cool stuff. At the same time, I read a review of a well-known literary author’s latest book, about which the reviewer said, “Well written, but boring.” And not an hour later, I saw another review accusing a popular writer of urban fantasy of pandering to publishers—writing for the money.
So here are these writers, two talking about what they try to put in their books, and two whose books are talked about. I will lay a bet of any sum you care to name that neither of the latter two writers sat down to the desk saying, “Well, time to write a boring book.”
Sometimes I think that defining dramatic tension is about as easy as sculpting water. But still, thinking about it and discussing it with others I think is worthwhile if for no other reason than stirring an exchange of ideas.
One of the reasons most of us read is the fun of trying on different mental states and exploring different places, or by outguessing the characters. The expectation of resolution. I don’t mean just the plot resolution—the case is solved, wedding bells for hero and heroine, the ring gets tossed into the volcano—but emotional resolution, sometimes philosophical resolution, intellectual resolution, answers to the questions raised, even if the answers turn out to be more questions. It’s that sense of completeness, heightened by the snap of the real.
I think the question gets vexing when trying to quantify which resolution is important, and why. A book can be criticized by one reader for being full of boring monster fights when the next reader is loaning the book to his best friend, and standing over his shoulder to watch the friend read those pulse-pounding monster fights.
Moby Dick is considered boring by some readers for its many side trips into the details of the whaling industry, but that’s the best part of the book for other readers. Jane Austen’s work is constrained and frivolous for some, deeply ironic in its sharp observations about human beings and emotionally satisfying for others.
Some of that might be attributed to taste, and some to experience. When a new reader encounters that slight young thief with the emerald eyes and discovers that underneath the dirt and the scruffy clothes ‘he’ is really the lost princess, the story becomes delightful. For an older reader who has traveled alongside many lost princesses who dressed as street urchins before recovering their thrones, that discovery causes a sigh, because the old reader knows where that story is going. But a second old reader lauds the familiar storyline, and settles down happily, trusting that the tale will go as expected. So the first and third readers love the book, but for the second? Bor-ring.
I think it is safe to say that no author decides to include a boring part in a book. There is dramatic tension in all aspects for the writer who sees the shape of the story from inside. Beginning as well as experienced writers strive constantly for new ways of getting the reader to feel that tension. Some say “better prose” or “Show! Don’t tell!”; others say “snappier pacing” and a third set will say “I want twists, I want to be surprised.”
Dramatic tension may or may not be fun stuff, ‘something happening.’
About three quarters through the first season of the Vampire Diaries, a TV show I’d begun enjoying for the witty turns and the twists on the whole vampire thing, I began rapidly to lose interest. It seemed that the screenwriters had decided that there had to be an emotional fight with the bad brother every episode, whereas the good brother would feel betrayed, and the girl would swing between the three. No one ever learned anything from all these angst-fests, which began to feel repetitive, all noise signifying not much of anything.
Obviously millions of viewers disagreed. That angst can be exactly what people tune in for. It’s their ‘fun stuff.’
It seems to me, anyway, that what we expect from all this high-energy action and emotion can differ. Some love it for its own sake. Others want it to add up to some kind of insight, or skill.