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:

en·ter·tain v
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?

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I think I agree with you Karen, about that balance.
IMHO, the middle of a chase scene may be the precise moment to insert those things, just as a fast musical passage might be interrupted by a floaty interlude.
Yeah, the middle of the chase can be a great place. The first Terminator movie explained all the time travel stuff (and time travel almost never makes sense) in the middle of a car chase. Unfortunately, it then gets repeated at the police station...

I always prefer stories that are about the characters. It's not what happens in the story, it's what happens to these specific people, what they do and what they think. So I'm never bothered by the story slowing down, or taking a crazy turn, if it reveals more about the characters.
But imagine if they started doing voice overs in Bond films, so while Bond is chasing the bad guy through crowds and across skyscrapers etc. etc. we're getting his internal monologue on how being an orphan has brought him to this point. Would it have the same appeal? Wouldn't you find it distracting? I think I would visually.

I had this with something I read not so long ago, where in the middle of action they went into this great, long thought about something. And in another book over and over with the same things with the characters - you want to scream, "I got it - she's lonely" or "he's sick" or "he's a psycho".

At the risk of getting knocked over the noggin for it... well, never mind. I'll save that thought for another thread another time.
No matter what s/he is trying to accomplish, no matter the genre, a writer's absolute first job is to entertain. The only definition that really applies is #1: To hold the attention of; amuse.

Without the ability to do that, the novel is a bloated purple corpse floating down the river Styx and waiting to sink.

Entertainment (definition #1) is, of course, relative. If you want to sell books, though, your best bet is to entertain the masses.

When someone asks what my book is about, I don't go into grand themes and complex plot twists. I reply with a single word: Murder. That usually elicits an eyebrow raise. If we first strive to entertain, perhaps the reader will also absorb some of the good stuff.
Well, when someone asks what this book is about I'll answer with one word as well: sex.
We should collaborate, Sandra. What could be more entertaining than sex and murder? :)
If there's something that is more entertaining, I can't think of it!

Although I have to confess that I do my research on sex reading John McFetridge's work.
... and I thought my stuff was all about money ;)

It's true, a lot of voice over in a Bond movie probably wouldn't work. But books and movies are different. I prefer books because they have the ability to go off on tangents, to fill in the details to get inside so many characters' heads (I'm speaking as a reader here). A lot of times I don't like a book when I find it reads too much like a movie. I think too often we look at the story telling in movies and books as being the same and it isn't. Not every story can be told visually, as in a movie. Not every story can be told in words.

Now, TV shows, that's different. Another discussion here was talking about TV shows being run by writers. It's possible there are even producers (yikes) who know something about storytelling.
I mentioned Bond because you mentioned Terminator - since I haven't seen those movies I don't know - were they based on books?

But here's an example where too much can bite you in the ass. I read a book where there was always lovely description of every scene. Two, three paragraphs of details about shades, plants, structures, whatever was appropriate. Always very detailed.

In one scene, the clue after the fact is something that the protagonist saw at a location he was just at - it clicks and he goes back... But when he was there before he never noticed it. He noticed the amount of wear on the frickin' truck tires but didn't notice this particular item leaning up against the trailer?

No, it was omitted. For obvious reasons, and to me, that's not playing fair with the reader. In review I'm well within my rights to bash the stuffing out of that as unfair, but in doing so it gives something significant away about the story.

It got me thinking. If people are going to be extremely descriptive (and I would put this on the lush side in terms of level of description, not spare) then they need to play fair. I can think of a few books I've read recently where this happened, and I did see that one of them was raked over the coals for it. In a passage of narrative they clearly omitted a very significant detail - something the character was well aware of at the time.

That's part of why I got thinking about balance, anyway. If you have a history in the book of describing to a certain level, I think not doing that in order to give yourself a holdback is cheating.

Conversely, if you omit too many details you aren't giving the reader a fair shake to work it out.

It's lunchtime. I'm hungry. I might think better once I've eaten, since I missed breakfast.

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