I think I have probably said this before, but do you ever feel like once you’ve read one fantasy novel, you’ve read them all. I suppose someone could say the same thing about most romance novels. Probably mysteries and thrillers as well. Lets throw horror novels in there also (you know, all those awesome vampire and zombie books that have been coming out). Oh, and just for giggles, lets include action and adventure novels on this list as well.
In reality, one might find this dilemma with any of the formulaic genres of writing. You’ll get pretty much the same story arc. The protagonist will be the same. That antagonist will have many of the same qualities. You might find yourself in outer space as opposed to some fantasy land with fairies and dragons. Your protagonist might be a grumpy blue alien with four arms rather than a cheerful Hobbit. And your protagonist could be an evil, imperialistic human general rather than a dragon, but isn’t it all the same. Won’t there be some odd, humble, or unlikely beginning to the story. Right, the protagonist will, just by chance, come across a map, a mission, or an opportunity. He or she will have a run in with some unlikely allies. You’ll know who the bad guy is right off the bat. He’ll have every quality you despise. You’ll hate him. You’ll never have sympathy for him. The odds will seemed stacked against the protagonist. The mission is doomed for failure. As a result, the world is doomed as well. The bad guy is just too powerful. But, wait, just at the last minute, the hero truly understands he’s a hero, discovers some object, person, or emotion that helps him or her to make this transition, and defeats the bad guy. And, hey, I love it.
I think you can find this with mysteries, romance, action, horror, etc. And if you are a lover of that genre, you love the story lines. You pick up a book knowing that it will be similar to one you’ve read before. In fact, you expect it. So what determines a good read, from a great read, to a terrible read? How do you determine whether or not the last mystery, fantasy, or romance was one of those ones you’ll really remember, life changing almost, and which one you’ll forget about in a week? Are Nicholas Sparks’ books really so different from any other romance? James Patterson, are his works different than any other mystery/thriller? Tom Clancy and action, R.A. Salvatore and fantasy?
My answer would be no. I’ve never read through a romance novel. Not my thing. I’ve read some Clancy, some Cussler, a lot of Crichton. I’ve read Patterson and Grafton. I’ve read Card and Zahn. And, of course, a ton of fantasy. The stories really aren’t that different. So, then, the questions remains, what separates them from the rest of the pack?
Writing. Its simple. These guys are, in many cases, spectacular writers. What do I mean by spectacular writers? I know, it may seem like a simple answer, but it really isn’t. They write action sequences that make the reader feel like they’re there, in the thick of things. They write love scenes that make you sweat. They write tragedy that makes you cry. At the end of the book, you jump up and shout “Yes!” at the top of your lungs with a fist held high. Ok, but how? Why?
One of the things that I have found with many modern novels is just simply poor writing. Those of you out there, those few of you that are writers and happen to be reading this blog posting, do you remember your creative writing classes, either in high school or college? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you didn’t take any. One certainly doesn’t have to graduate with a degree in Creative Writing to be a good writer. But if you did, do you remember that saying your teacher or professor repeated over and over again? Do you remember the red outlines on all your short stories with that same saying written in bold red pen? Do you remember asking yourself, “What the hell does she mean by…” Remember? Show don’t tell. So, the main gist of showing and not telling is writing in active voice versus passive voice. Showing the action of a scene rather than just telling the audience what happened. Can you imagine watching a movie that was a dialogue, just some guy sitting there telling you what happened in the movie? Or has anyone ever told you about a movie and you’re thinking, “Wow, that sounds great,” or “Wow, that sounds like it rally sucks,” then went to see the movie and walked away with the complete opposite opinion? But it goes even further than just passive versus active voice. As Ashley Ludwig, a friend who has very graciously served as my editor recently, put it, “Don’t memory dump. Show through dialogue and action. Tease the senses.” It was great advice. Don’t you, as a reader, want to pick up a book and hear, feel, taste, smell what’s going on? What Ashley was getting at was, in my own books, I have a tendency to write three or four thick paragraphs of information. It may not be passive voice, but it’s a lot of info in a short period of time. I’ve transitioned to relaying that info through dialogue between characters, or action sequences. I think it has worked out very well.
I picked up a book and, literally, within the first ten pages set it down because it was all passive voice. Really? This author broke the one cardinal rule you don’t break. Don’t write in passive voice. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get over it.
What else makes a novel so-so versus great. How about pages and pages of prose. Just thick paragraphs of info. I’m going to be honest, as a reader, if I get more than three or four paragraphs before any dialogue or action, I start glossing over. I start missing info because I am now skimming. How about grammar errors? Now, I am, as a write, as guilty as anyone and I have to say a few errors here or there are going to get past even the best copy editor. They don’t really irritate me too much when they’re scarce. But I’ve seen a lot of that lately as well. Or, this one really throws me for a loop. Character so and so gets hit with an arrow in his left arm, but is getting his right arm patched up. Someone stabbed him in the ribs, but needs magical healing on the gash on his chest. What? That kills a story for me. And not really lastly, but the last thing I want to talk about, would be simply writing a story arc with nothing special, nothing divergent. Like I said before, I expect to read very similar books when I pick up any fantasy novel. But the really good ones also have those difference, however minor, that separate them from the rest. If you’re going to just create a typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure and then write about it in 400 to 500 pages of very, very long and poorly written prose, don’t bother.
Great authors are students of their craft. They find ways not to necessarily change their genre, create new genres, or even buck tradition, but ways to be creative and great within those boundaries. Their writing is spectacular, not flawless but close, driving, action and dialogue driven, fresh. They understand the English language. They understand important writing conventions. They break rules that okay to be broken…like writing sentence fragments, starting sentences with And or But, and writing two sentence paragraphs, and they don’t break those rules that one really shouldn’t break, like writing in active versus passive voice. So bravo to those authors aforementioned and any others you think have created a successful story within the boundaries of their genre.
If you’ve enjoyed the blog posting of Christopher Patterson and like good fantasy, good adventure, or just a good story, please check out A Chance Beginning: Book One of the Shadow’s Fire Trilogy either on kindle or in paperback.