An author has many jobs to do when writing a book. They have to set the scene, introduce the characters, relay information pertaining to the plot, make it all as real as possible. They have to convince the reader to buy in, to believe.
But they also have another job: To entertain.
That’s one of those interesting words. Most people think of entertainment as something unimportant, frivolous, what we seek in our spare time. In reality, the definitions are a bit broader:
1. vti to engage a person or audience by providing amusing or interesting material
2. vti to offer hospitality, especially by providing food and drink for people in your home
3. vt to turn something over in your mind, looking at it from various points of view
I think much of what I read falls under #3. A classic example is TO THE POWER OF THREE, because it’s written from so many points of view. We circle the main event, moving backwards and forwards in time, getting each person’s perspective until we have the whole picture. It isn’t ‘grab a bowl of popcorn and settle in for two hours of lite fare’ entertainment, but it’s entertainment nonetheless.
Ask yourself: Do you want to be a great writer or a great storyteller? There is a difference. What do you want to read? Well, ideally I want both, but at the end of the day if there’s no story to hold me, it’s all just words on a page. From classics such as HEART OF DARKNESS to modern works of art such as THE GUARDS there is a journey we’re on, a chapter in the protagonist’s life we get to tag along for and we have to want to be there.
At the end I want to feel like the journey we set out on has been completed, or the reason for it has been nullified. There needs to be some conclusion.
What I find difficult is to strike the balance between all of these components. The last thing I wrote has a break-neck pace. There is a ticking clock, and therefore a sense of urgency.
So, how do you balance the speed of the story against the descriptive details and character development? I don’t want to read books that are short on character (happy birthday Rebus – 20 years today since the first book was published) but the middle of a chase scene isn’t really the right time to insert the protagonist’s thoughts on his feelings towards a woman, or observations on how nicely the lilac bushes are blooming this year. On the other hand, nobody wants to wade through pages of description at the beginning and inserted backstory so that they have it and it won’t get in the way later.
From what you’ve read or what you’ve written, how do you work on striking the balance between maintaining the pace a story demands and not skimping on the details? Any examples of works that do this brilliantly that spring to mind?