Reading & Ranting - by Debbie Bennett

So I’m reading and ranting again. This one shall remain nameless – and actually I finished it last night and already I can’t remember the title or the author. That’s how memorable the story was. A trad-published book, too, which surprised me.

So why am I ranting? Because it’s the second book I’ve read in as many weeks with exactly the same two ‘faults’ – in my opinion, of course. The lack of cause-and-effect and the inappropriate dissolution of tension.

Let’s take the first one. Our unlikely and unreliable narrator (this trend is so fashionable right now, it hurts – and unless it’s done really well, it’s largely ineffective …) heroine is caught doing things she shouldn’t. She’s trapped, together with a couple of young girls and the bad guys are pissed-off and about to do Unspeakable Things. But we never know or see these Unspeakable Things, because – guess what? – the chapter ends and suddenly our heroine is free and wakes up in hospital! What?

Cause and effect. Rule number whatever in the writer’s handbook. Thy protagonist shall escape thy antagonist by reasons of his own doings. Or more basically – our heroine needs to escape the bad guys herself and not because of something somebody else has or hasn’t done. No deus ex machina for me, thank you very much, and I don’t much like the white knight in shining armour either. In this case, apparently one of the teenage girls snuck out and called the police. It’s not really cricket, is it?

It’s something I try very hard not to do myself in my books. Sometimes it takes me ages to figure out how my characters are going to get out of whatever predicament I’ve dumped them in this time, but they always do it themselves by using their initiative or because of something they’ve already done or not done – and not because of something happening off-screen.

What about the inappropriate dissolution of tension? I’m guilty as sin of that, as my editor will love to point out. He always picks me up when I spend ages building tension in a chapter and then let it go like a rubber band snapping. I can see it when he points it out. So our next heroine (who again spends most of the novel wandering around uncertainly and not knowing who to believe) is again trapped. Stuck in her husband’s ex-wife’s house, pregnant, and locked in a small room, she’s scared for her life and the life of her baby. Ex-wifey or even hubby may or may not already be a murderer … So let’s build the tension as she searches for a way out before she falls asleep until hubby arrives and in a few lines she hits him on the head.

And then ... and then … we’re in a new chapter nine months later. Baby born, everything now pink and fluffy and we get the what actually happened bit related to us retrospectively. Told not shown. Elastic bands pinging all over the place as the tension has sprung somewhere off-planet.

Maybe it’s me. I like a novel to be a satisfying experience. I like something to happen to our hero or heroine and I like them to deal with it themselves and come out the other end changed in some way. Is that too much to ask? Am I reading the wrong novels? Maybe I need to get back to writing them instead.


Dennis Hamley said…
Spot on, Debbie. If authors can't think through the implications of the situations in which they put their characters, they should take up another profession.
Umberto Tosi said…
Yes. I hate when that happens too. I had a lot more fun reading your rant than you did reading that book, thank you. I find the best way to dissolve a tension is to superimpose a scarier tension. Oh, it wasn't this; OMG it was THAT! Of course, as you know, that little trick just kicks the problem down the road. (I hope in a way that entertains the readers for a while longer.) Sooner or later, though, we have to face the music. As you point out, the protagonist has to get her own self out of her pickle, gracefully or not. Else readers feel cheated. Nevertheless, I tend to be more forgiving of an author can prolong the suspense to the very end, particularly if the writing charms me. I don't know why some writers ignore this, much less their publishers. Writers take heed. Read Debbie's rant! :)
misha said…
Thanks for this Debbie. Now I have to go back and take another look at my current WIP, as I have a horrible feeling that I've been building up tension, then moving on, exactly as you outlined.
Jan Edwards said…
I admire your fortitude in finishing the book because I'm not sure I would have done. Life is too short

Popular posts

Publications or Proceedings? by Julia Jones

Splendid Reintegration by @EdenBaylee

A poignant memoir of the Spanish Civil War - but where is Miranda? wonders Griselda Heppel

Mixing Memes and Memories - Umberto Tosi

Reading for Research by Wendy H. Jones