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Steak as well as cookies

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?

26 Comments
  1. Hmm… I think I’d say steak–er, I mean, *stakes* is a huge one for me. Not necessarily Huge Stakes, or even Moderately Large Stakes, but some concept that what’s going on is important and that there’s something that the characters are working towards.

    Also, because I’m really finicky on these sorts of things, a sense of time. Not, like, how much overall time is happening, but narrative time–are we in the part where we’re introducing everything, building tension, having setbacks… I have a really narrow tolerance for acceptable pacing, it seems, because that’s the #1 thing that tends to throw me out. (And… why I can’t seem to get into any Netflix series, more or less–the fact that the individual episodes don’t really matter as divisions and you’re just pacing as though everyone’s watching the entire season at once *really* messes with me.)

    October 3, 2019
  2. Carrington Dixon #

    And… why I can’t seem to get into any Netflix series, more or less–the fact that the individual episodes don’t really matter as divisions and you’re just pacing as though everyone’s watching the entire season at once *really* messes with me.

    I have the same problem with the book ‘series’ that the really just one, long novel divided into book-sized chunks. Used to, most series books were satisfying as stand-alone novels. Many recent example still are, but I see more and more were the division between book N and book N+1 seems to have been determined solely by word count. David Weber got it ‘right’ with the early Honor Harrington books; not so much with the series of books named after hymn tunes.

    October 3, 2019
    • Mary #

      In a trilogy, you can easily have three parts: discovering the extent of the problem; running around trying to ensure your knowledge doesn’t kill you; regrouping with your discoveries and counter-attacking.

      The thing with stories much longer is that it’s impossible to have a real structure like that because it’s just too big. Aristotle warned that the story could not be so long that it could not be perceived as a whole.

      October 3, 2019
      • Margaret Ball #

        One of the few that worked for me was Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear, and I’ve always suspected she wrote that as a single very long novel and the publisher made her break it into two separate books neither of which would be too heavy to lift.

        October 4, 2019
    • Hmm. I read the latter much as I have read “complete” histories of the World Wars. The series (and I thought it was the Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named, not the series?) is split, pretty much, into campaigns, or campaign seasons.

      The problem in writing such a history or series is trying to weave the different fronts/campaigns/seasons, which don’t directly affect each other, into a coherent whole that marches through time and shows the indirect effects. This is even more difficult when you try to give the viewpoints of all sides (which is where histories frequently fail – for WW2, especially, you tend to get the American viewpoint, or the British viewpoint, or the Russian viewpoint, or…)

      I do admit that I enjoyed the series far more when I could read it from start to finish (insofar as the end of the war against the Church). Reading each as they appeared, I felt that I was stopping at, say, the liberation of Tripoli (do the Allies go on to invade Italy and France from the Mediterranean, or do they shift to invading over the Channel?) and also wondering what the next step was going to be with the Japanese. Waiting a year to find out was annoying.

      October 4, 2019
  3. Ted Ung #

    It may be a function of my late, late, late middle age (sorry Ammogrrrl), but I seem to focus on “poison pills”, rather than “cookies”.

    Poor grammar, unless intended, is one. Prepositions in English ought require the objective case: For reflexives, it is never, “Jane, Joe, and myself gobbled the goo”, nor “Fred gave it to myself”. I recall the simple rule as “his/her/their/myself requires the person be both the subject and object, as in “He/she/they/I hurt his/her/their/myself”.

    Overuse of unobtanium, or handwavium lights me up. “Xix tripped over stingberry vines, dropping xems crackleflop reader into a port in the frammis.”

    Another is misuse of military protocol. I can’t stay easily in a story where female officers are addressed as “sir”. Referring, informally, to a Lieutenant Commander Smith, Staff sergeant Jones, or Second Lieutenant Wheeler, except as Commander ___, Sergeant ____, and Lieutenant ____. In fact, I expect to hear “Smith smack that bug”, ” I don’t think so, Jones”, and “Take a break, Wheeler.”

    Then again, I may just be an old fart.

    October 3, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      The kind of malapropisms that Spellcheck skips over are not quite deal-breakers for me, but they do yank me out of the story. “Populous” for “populace”, “disburse” for “disperse,” “principle” for “principal,” etc… they may be typos but they distract me into wondering whether the author even knows the correct word.

      But then, I’m way past middle age and firmly planted in old fart territory.

      Somebody should do a post on finding spinach where you expected cookies. If nobody else jumps in, maybe I’ll tackle it next time.

      October 4, 2019
      • It is possible, when the writer is otherwise good, to train oneself into making such into rocks, or even pebbles, where they were boulders before.

        I say this as one who was once caught by a teacher crossing out “colour” and writing “color” in the margin…

        October 4, 2019
  4. Joe in PNG #

    One thing that stops me is when the Author is trumpeting Just How Clever They Are! – “Redshirts” comes to mind.

    By way of contrast, PTerry could do that kind of constant humorous tone, because he was really good at making solid, interesting, and likeable characters. People you want to spend time with.

    October 3, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      John Updike.

      October 4, 2019
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Mmmmmm, steak . . .

    October 3, 2019
  6. As a watcher of American television I’ve got that A/B plot structure ingrained in my head. There’s the plot that covers the whole season and a plot for each episode. I watched a British SF show, Humans, that was just the one story spread over all the episodes. It made things go very fast.

    I do like the Netflix approach because it’s more like reading a novel.

    October 3, 2019
    • Actually, that is Newstyle A/B. The original structure is to have A/B, or even C, within a single episode, and mayyyybe a larger arc story or two.

      What is really nice is when the A and B stories mirror or comment on each other, with one more dramatic and the other more comedic. If C exists and does a third POV, that is just showing off. (But you do not get bored.)

      October 3, 2019
      • JAG had some very intricate episode structures, especially in seasons 2 and 3. I did not even notice until I started diagramming them.

        October 3, 2019
        • Draven #

          *doodles something*

          no, that’s not a plate of spaghetti, that’s the plot structure for Babylon 5.

          October 4, 2019
  7. Plot, at least one likeable main character, internal logic. Those are all the steak. I don’t like confusing things told out of temporal order. Flashbacks are fine, but telling the story inside out kind of loses the tension.

    October 3, 2019
  8. I can put up with a lot for a Character I like. But even so, a purpose to the narrative is nice. If it’s just random things happening, well, I’ll just go back to Real Life.

    October 3, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      Precisely. I get quite enough randomness in reality. Books are my escape into the fantasy of an ordered world.

      October 4, 2019
      • thomas Monaghan #

        GRRM killing off all the characters I liked killed the series for me. I stopped reading it!

        October 7, 2019
  9. I felt this way about the TV series Gallivant

    October 3, 2019
    • That actually makes some sense, although at least the characters were likable, especially by the end once they’d gotten some character growth.

      That having been said, it was virtually inaccessible to people who don’t read fantasy, because, like you said, there were too many cookies crowding out plot and characterization.

      October 4, 2019
  10. Mary #

    Likeable characters are important. Worse than not caring what happens is wishing they could ALL LOSE.

    October 4, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      You mean, like wars in the Middle East?

      October 4, 2019
  11. I lead a support group for young authors and we recently touched on this. Great story ideas, excellent writing (and they’re only teens – imagine when their wonderful talent gets extra polish over the next few years!), but for several of them, the story doesn’t *click*.

    So we talked about engaging the reader by making one *care* about the characters, and explored various ways to do that. Do you know how exciting it is to see kids bouncing happily about writing?

    October 4, 2019
    • I generally see them bouncing happily about not writing, as in “There’s no essay on this test.” *weary kitty grin*

      October 4, 2019

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