Friday, January 21, 2011

What Charlie Said

My husband just read a book I warned him not to read. We'll call the book NAME OF THE BOOK (not the name of the book). He said, "You didn't like NAME OF THE BOOK, did you?" I said, "No, I didn't. I not only didn't, I way didn't."

But he wanted to try it. I had disposed of my copy, so I bought him a used one.

Day One
Charlie: I like this book! The characters are real, believable and authentic. There's a lot of detail. It makes the characters and the setting come alive.

Me: Keep reading.

Day Two
Charlie: It's getting a little tedious. The author has already established credibility; now the author is just showing off how much the author knows about the setting.

Me: It gets worse.

Day Three
Charlie: These characters don't make any sense! Why would they do the things they do? The kind of people the author has set them up to be wouldn't do this or say that or put up with the situation. And why do we need all this history of the area?

Me: It gets worse.

Day Four

Me: I know what part you just read.

Day Five
Charlie: I finished that damn book. I just skimmed the last part of it. It had no integrity. The author didn't stay true to the characters or the storyline established in the beginning. The characters kept doing things, but none of it meant anything.

Me: Maybe we're not giving it enough credit. Maybe it's meant to play the male exploitative acquisitive principle off against the female personal nurturing principle.

Charlie: Well, it doesn't do it.

And so, fellow writers, let us keep in mind, as we write our stories, these guidelines:
  • establish the setting with authority at the beginning and then only touch on it as necessary
  • establish the characters, their strengths and flaws; if the character acts out of the general personality you've given him/her, make it reveal depths rather than letting it outrage reason
  • make the storyline make sense on its own terms: in real life, things happen and then other things happen; in a story, things happen for a reason and to a purpose; the reason cannot be "because the author made it happen" and the purpose cannot be "because the author wants it to"
  • the best stories say something about life or an aspect of life, and work as story and as commentary

Don't let your book be one that Charlie and I agree is a waste of paper (or electronic power). It doesn't happen very often. Don't let it happen to you.

Marian Allen


Debra Purdy Kong said...

I loved this post! Your husband sounds a lot like mine. Mine doesn't read as much fiction as nonfiction, and he has a hard time staying with most fiction, probbaly for many of the reasons you identified.

Joanne said...

I'm glad you both saw, ultimately, eye to eye on that book. And what good, sound advice came from it. I especially like the bit about establishing the setting early, and then only in small ways. That also lets the reader use their own imagination too in picturing the setting.