Thoughtful Readers/Reviewers

I’ve been reading Fiction Fan’s book review blog for quite some time, but a recent post piqued my curiosity about why she found a particular novel wanting. For those only interested in writing “literary fiction,” I believe the discussion here is instructive for all writers despite the genre.

I asked in my comment:

Since it didn’t work this time (sounds like the subplots detracted from the tension), I’m curious to hear about when you think it does work for a book to reveal the “what” or “who” and then discover the “why” or “how” throughout the rest? Would it have worked without the subplots/length? Are there other flaws (you mentioned implausibility, but sometimes a little of that can be overlooked if the rest of the book receive high marks, yes?) that kept it from being engrossing? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately since I’m struggling with this issue in my own work.

Her response, as I should have expected, was insightful:

I can think of a few ways to do it –

Have the old crimes (lit fic writers use replace the word “crime” with “action”) leading up to a current crime that hasn’t happened yet with the tension coming from that. The emphasis would be on the psychology and motivation of the crime and criminal (lit fic “character”).

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That’s what this book tries to do and the reason it doesn’t work is that the author has put in an unnecessary and implausible twist at the end – namely, that the murderer actually failed in her last murder and was herself murdered by her proposed victim…who then went on to assume the original murderer’s identity and live as her for twenty-odd years. There were too many unbelievabilities in that – that both women were loners with no friends, that no-one ever met the second one masquerading as the first, that she managed to fool banks etc. It would actually have worked much better without that twist.

Second – make the tension come from the investigation (lit fic “aftermath”) rather than the crime (“incident”), so concentrating on the psychology

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of the (characters) detectives, police methods, maybe going off on the wrong track and chasing after an innocent person (wrong conclusion). Again there are aspects of that in this one, but the investigation was loose and sloppy – I felt they missed obvious clues for the purpose of lengthening the story.

Thirdly – make the aftermath the important thing. I’m thinking of Grisham-esque legal stories, where often the criminal is known and the question is whether they will be convicted – part investigation, part court-case.

And lastly, make the reader care so much about someone –

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detective in danger, or even the killer, that the tension is in knowing what happens to them. In this book, I felt I should really have cared about the killer because her motive lay in the abuse she had suffered. But unfortunately I found her very unlikeable and not all that much more attractive than her abusers/victims. And the detective hero was in danger at the end…but we know the series continues so not much tension there! Instead, he could have put a young constable in danger (lit fic  “psychological jeopardy”) – a bit like the people in red shirts in Star Trek – then the reader would genuinely not have known what the outcome would be.

Yes, implausibility really only bothers me if the rest of the book isn’t up to the mark…or if a sudden entirely unforeseeable and inconsistent twist is bunged in at the end – and that’s what happened here.

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Subplots are tricky – they can add quite a bit if well-done, but in this case there’s a running story-arc which a) means if you’re reading them out of order you don’t really understand what it’s about and b) it’s going on way too long – four books now and no nearer resolution. The other main sub-plot came from nowhere, wasn’t done at all well, was completely implausible and was left unresolved – presumably to be revisited in a future book. I found that very tedious and kept waiting for it to tie in with one of the other plots – but it never did…

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So you see, a thoughtful reader can be highly instructive. Now, I understand this response appears to be focused on “plot-driven” narratives, but I remind myself that literary fiction writers should keep readers turning the pages, too. Thinking about how to create tension and keep the reader engaged should be a primary focus for all fiction. Strategically placed “reveals” about the plot, character, or the “why,” helps to drive tension.

And I remind myself that plausibility is also a factor in keeping readers engaged. I recall writers in workshops sighing with exasperation and saying, “But it really happened that way!” when challenged on plausibility. Fiction must be plausible, while life has no such restriction. Whether it “really” happened or not, the reader should always feel that it “could” have happened that way. Or as Flannery O’Connor’s maid once said about one of O’Connor’s stories: “Well, that’s just how some folks would do.”

The platform you build for your reader should allow for the possibility of what inevitably happens. Call it

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Fiction Fan reviews a wide variety of fiction, all indexed by author and title. Take a peek at her blog. Readers like FF can tell us much about what works, what doesn’t, and why. Oh, and she and LadyFancifull (another fab reviewer) disagree considerably on Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled writing program…

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