Showing, peril

Several adventure stories and thrillers have found their way into my reading, lately. In the lead up to writing Cheating, Death as I was increasing my reading (with some focus on reading zombie novels) I read quite a few popular thrillers. I’d had an inkling before that I don’t like thrillers, but reading several of them in a row solidly confirmed it. In the years since I’ve been thinking more and more about what I like and don’t like about books, but also about how books are written. I’ve mentioned it here before, but that’s something I hadn’t much considered before the last year or two; the structure, style, and intentions of the books I read. Prior to writing Forget What You Can’t Remember, I didn’t think much about them in the books I wrote, either. I’ve been beginning to identify some specific things about most (not all) thrillers and adventure stories I don’t enjoy, and key among them is the ever-mounting, ever-present peril required in every scene and sequence.

I’ve seen other writers, and people giving advice to writers, describe in detail the absolute requirement of this ridiculous, frustrating, and annoying feature in all fiction. Every scene must have challenges to overcome, they say at the less-ridiculous end of this ridiculous religion. In thrillers and adventure stories, those challenges must be thrilling in order to engage the reader (so they say) and as the story progresses, each thrilling challenge must me more thrilling and challenging than those which came before it. In modern books (and other media; I bemoan the same thing on TV and in the movies), I have found, that this leads very rapidly to quite ridiculous levels of peril, usually in parallel with stakes so high as to be totally out of scale with the capabilities of the characters involved.

((For example, in the YA series which began with Uglies, in the first book the stakes ramped up from danger of getting caught breaking the rules to risking the lives of the protagonist and her close friends. The second book ramped the stakes up from risking a few people’s lives to risking an entire city. When the third book ramped the stakes from endangering one city to the equivalent of international war, to be resolved by a 16-year-old girl, I predicted that the fourth book would have to threaten the entire world population to keep with the ridiculous requirements of this writer’s religion… and indeed, very quickly in the fourth book the stakes are raised to the annihilation of the entire world, with only a fifteen-year-old girl to save everyone. With her video-blogging prowess as her primary tool to do so.))

Some writers handle this better than others. Within each book of the Uglies series, Scott Westerfield handled the escalating peril reasonably well; it was only as the series progressed that things got so far out of hand. Other authors get their characters too rapidly into life-threatening situations in the beginning of the story, and find they’ve nowhere reasonable to go – they must depart from reason to keep readers interested. Narrower and narrower escapes. Increasingly dire situations. Protagonists disarmed, injured, in foreign, inhospitable places, facing more (and/or tougher) enemies than they faced in the last dire situation. Yech. I have a really hard time maintaining suspension of disbelief in the face of such dire peril. The story could be firmly grounded in present-day, real-world events, histories (accurate or alternate), or outlandish fantasy, but if the situations become unreasonably perilous I simply can’t maintain immersion. I can’t buy in. It’s too silly. Especially when the protagonists are the ones whose lives are supposedly threatened; I know another tenet of this religion of writers is that their main characters are protected from true/permanent harm, especially if a book is to be part of a series. Side characters may die or face serious injury, but certainly never the main characters. Which means that the peril is all false; it’s only a waste of time and effort, a waste of words and pages. I don’t like it.

I’ve also oft-seen/read from these writers-religion-believers the repeated chant, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around. I didn’t understand it at all, at first, though I’m beginning to. Like most anything else, there are ways of doing it well and ways of following the command as mindlessly as it’s repeated by and to writers. When it’s done well, the reader tends to be unaware of it – and the writer usually hasn’t stuck religiously to it. Alternatively, when that tiny idea is too religiously followed… books go bad. One of the adventure-type books I’ve been listening to of late, which has raised the stakes within the first third to the total annihilation of all life, is also so religious about “Show, don’t tell” that I keep finding myself unable to tell what’s going on. Rather than tell me what’s going on, what the characters are thinking or communicating or planning, sometimes even what the characters are doing, the author describes (in detail) the fashion and fabrics of their clothes, the shape of their nose, the color of their eyes, the look on their face, the way they stand, the tone of their voice, where they stand relative to one another while they speak… except the author never tells the reader what they mean, they only imply and the reader is expected to infer.

I’m not being clear here, partially because I don’t get it. Without quoting long sections of a book and breaking it down sentence by sentence I’m not sure I’d know how to accurately describe how, by showing me how the characters feel and what they want by the way they act, by the twitch of an eye and the speed of their step, say, or by stilted dialogue interspersed with descriptions of body language, rather than simply telling me, you’re leaving a whole chunk of your story out… And I keep getting lost. Hundreds of words will pass where nothing sticks, as I listen. ((I’ve run into this a few times in paper/eBooks, too, and I have to go back and re-read, sometimes whole pages, again and again because it’s so show, with no tell, and I just … get lost.)) I recently finished a several-book SciFi series and had to listen to the last 15 minutes three times because the author never actually states what the protagonist’s decision about what to do with his life has been; he simply shows how the characters react to that decision, never telling what the decision was. I was supposed to infer the answer. Except that, based on the words in the book, it’s unknowable. Either answer fits the behavior, as far as I understand it. I only know what the author believes the answer was because I’ve seen the author talk about the books/character in such a way that it can only be one way, not because the author put the answer in the book itself.

My brain maybe doesn’t work quite like other people’s. (Except I’m pretty confident that lots of people must be in the same boat.) ((Or the opposite one.)) I’d had similar problems absorbing books, or sections of books, in the past, but it wasn’t until I’d tried to understand the religious litany of “Show, don’t tell” that I began to understand what it was I was having trouble with. Again and again in recent years I’ve found that those difficult sections are, in fact, too strictly trying to avoid telling me what’s going on. It’s not an elegant mantra (yet), but I keep finding myself exclaiming to books (on their authors’ behalfs) something like “Stop trying to show, just tell me what’s happening!”

Sadly, it seems that the more closely authors hew to the tenets of this strange writers-religion, the more likely their books will find popularity and broad audience appeal.

I increasingly believe I’ll never write popular books.

I don’t think I could stand it.

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