One of the slowest and most painful part of downsizing for a move to a much smaller house is the process of evaluating our books: what to donate, what to keep? The First Reader and I are accumulating a stack of once-loved books that we just want to read one more time before giving them away. This led, last night, to his abandoning an old novel of Roman Britain halfway through. “There are just too many words for too little action,” he told me.
Hmm. What about the reverse? For instance, I read a lot of urban fantasy because that’s sort of what I write. Well, I try to read a lot of urban fantasy, ok? And I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve discarded after a couple of chapters because they’ve got too much action for too few words – or, specifically, for too little character and setting. Nowadays I check out the free samples from Amazon rather than downloading the whole book – even if it’s “free” with Kindle Unlimited – to weed out a type I know I won’t like.
It’s a cliché by now: the young woman with various supernatural skills engaged in no-holds-barred magical and physical battle with werewolves, or vampires, or evil mages, or what have you. Page after page devoted to descriptions of lights and magical auras and this spell and that spell, plus a generous helping of wounds and gore… By the end of the sample, at best I’m thinking that I don’t really care about what magical trick the author pulls out of her sleeve next; at worst, I’m rooting for the protagonist to go down, because the werewolves are more interesting.
I feel that there’s been a steady progression over the last couple of hundred years from words to action in novels, and if some of that is an improvement, now a lot of new writers have taken it too far for my taste. I’ll admit that I find it hard to read some of Dickens’ novels without muttering to myself, “Paid by the word, paid by the word!” There are huge chunks of Trollope that make me feel that his vaunted work ethic wasn’t always a good thing, that on some days he must have been thinking, “I have no idea where this story is going, so I think I’ll fill up my allotted pages with ruminations on architecture in this century.”
They were, of course, writing without the competition from movies and TV that modern-day writers have to deal with. Probably most of their audience liked a big thick book because it would last longer. (In the case of the early three-volume Gothic romances, I frequently felt as though the book would outlast my projected life span. I read a lot of them for Salt Magic. Research isn’t always fun.)
Now? Well, we’re advised to start with an opening that grabs the readers immediately and draws them into the action. We notice that a lot of TV shows depend on orchestrated fist fights to pad out the plots, because evidently the scriptwriters can’t think up a mere forty-five minutes worth of story. One shudders to think what they would have made of the requirement to come up with three volumes of words. And so a lot of writers don’t bother setting the scene or letting readers get to know the characters. They start in medias res. If it was good enough for Virgil, it’s good enough for them, right?
Trouble is, I get bored after too many pages of constant sword-and-spell play if I don’t have a reason to care what happens. It’s as bad as too many pages devoted to the early lives of the protagonists’ grandparents.
What’s the approximate blend of action and setting that gets you interested enough to continue reading? Or, what blend do you aim for in writing?
Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay