Sometimes, it really sucks being a writer. Like when you’re just trying to enjoy a book.
I recently read a book, a YA fantasy with a fairy tale feel to it, partly as “market research” but also because this is the kind of book I love.
It started out in a rather promising way, with a queen and a commoner linked until that all-important sixteenth birthday, political winds swirling around them and a handsome knight caught between them.
But after a hundred pages and more, nothing much had happened — or rather, things were happening, but the main character didn’t know much about what was happening, and rather than being tantalized and rapidly turning pages to learn more, I found myself getting frustrated and annoyed.
You know the feeling you get when you’re watching a poorly written romantic comedy, when all the guy and the girl need to do is to TALK, for goodness sake, and all their misunderstandings will be resolved? That’s how the bulk of this book read. Any conversation that could have led to a greater understanding by the main character was cut off prematurely by hurt feelings, the awkwardness of budding romance, and worst of all, by sudden, contrived interruptions. These were so manifestly the design of the author, and not organic to the flow of the tale or the motivations of the characters, that I was growling and rolling my eyes as I read.
Why did the writer do these things?
I checked the book jacket. She’s a writing teacher, so I don’t think she did it out of ignorance or inexperience.
I think she did it because she wrote the book in first person, she needed to keep her main character in the dark, and she couldn’t figure out how else to do it.
There’s the problem: the words have to serve the story; the story can’t serve the words. I know that first person is popular in young adult right now, but as an author, you can’t make decisions based on what’s popular. You have to make decisions based on what is right for your book and for your characters.
In first person, it is extremely difficult to conceal information from your main character without also concealing it from your reader. While your narrator may remain blithely ignorant, it is doubtful that your reader is willing to remain so for long. We don’t read to be deceived unless we know that we are reading a thriller or mystery, and no one likes to be talked down to. If the narrator is constantly avoiding asking that ONE QUESTION that would deliver the goods, the reader is just going to walk away.
Suspense doesn’t come from withholding information because a character doesn’t ask the obvious questions. It doesn’t come from a character being willfully blind, or stubborn, or constantly interrupted at the moment of discovery. That leads to frustration, not suspense.
In case you are wondering, I did finish the book because, as a writer, I had to know what the author would do. When and how would she let the narrator in on the facts? Eventually (somewhere around page 250), the girl was told, and the truth was as I had suspected since around page twenty-five. No big surprise after all that waiting.
This book should have been about a hundred pages shorter, and the big reveal should have come around fifty pages in.
Have you ever had this experience? Where you couldn’t switch off your internal editor and it really wrecked the book for you? What was the issue, and what do you think the author could have or should have done differently?