Sarah has mentioned the importance of “reader cookies” – those genre allusions and tropes, or better, tropes turned upside down, that keep the reader happy as he goes through the book.
But what happens when you get a book that’s nothing but cookies? How long does that keep you happy? In my case – not very long.
I recently came across a case in point, a comic novel written around the Norman invasion of England in 1066. You might think that’s not a great subject for comedy, but the writer pulled it off… sort of… tongue firmly planted in cheek, in the style of 1066 and All That, but applied to fiction. For the first few chapters I kept chuckling at the irreverent views and up-ending of conventional wisdom, reading specially good bits aloud to the First Reader.
Those cookies continued throughout the book, but somehow, as I read on, reading it began to feel more like a hard slog through the mud of Senlac than a light dance over the surface. Why? Well, I noticed two missing elements that turn out to be absolutely necessary to my enjoyment of any genre novel.
The first problem was the absence of any character that I could like. Okay, it was funny for a while to characterize the knights as empty-headed and brutal, the peasants as empty-headed and conniving, the Vikings as downright moronic… but after a few chapters, I began to feel that I was reading a version of Lolita that was crammed with characters as revolting as Humbert Humbert. And I never cared for Lolita precisely because I hated spending so much time in that creep’s head.
The second was the absence of foreshadowing. Okay, you have a handful of Normans headed north and screwing up as they go. You have other people headed south and screwing up as they go. The implied promise that they’d meet eventually, sorry, it just wasn’t enough to hold my interest through chapter after chapter after chapter of the difficulties each group encountered. The fact that I didn’t have a clue what was supposed to happen when they met could possibly be excused by the author’s desire to end with a really surprising plot twist. But the promise that in a couple of hundred pages something interesting might happen wasn’t enough to make me want to keep reading.
So those are two basic elements that it turns out I need even more than cookies: somebody to root for, and promises of interesting stuff in the near future.
What does it take to keep you reading a story?