I’m currently reading a book so that I can review it for CatholicFiction.net, and to be honest it’s… mediocre. Admittedly, I’m only a few chapters in and everything is still being introduced. But if I hadn’t chosen to review this book, I would have already stopped reading it!
It’s not that it’s a bad story (a secret Vatican group that hunts vampires!) or bad characters (a priest with a tortured past!), but it still somehow falls short. And I worked this out after the first couple of pages. How? What is it that told me ‘This isn’t a great book’? And why is it that something like The Lord of the Rings is a great book?
First, I think we need to compare a book to a film. A film can tell you things in many different ways: speech, music, background, colour, cinematography, costumes, and heaps of other ways I can’t think of right now. On the other hand, a book uses only the written word. Sure, it can use conversation or description, different styles of writing can be employed, but everything comes down to what the author writes. This is both a curse and a blessing for a book. I look at it like this: a film reveals a painting to a person’s mind, while a book actually paints that painting. (This is a crude metaphor, I know, but try to love it for its simplicity!) Thus the book has to reveal information in a very different manner to the film.
Herein lies the issue!
It seems to me that many authors these days (particularly first-time authors) try to write their books like a film. So instead of describing things in detail, they simply introduce things. I know that things should be left to the imagination, but our imaginations need a springboard! Here’s a quick comparison from two books of new characters being introduced:
With her was a black priest, a healthy looking forty year old maybe, in a cassock and biretta, and Lucy had never seen one dressed like that, not even when she’d gone to Rome with the whole family a few years ago. “Old school” was such a trite phase, but it seemed to match the clerical outfit. God, Lucy thought. Old fashioned, okay?
– ‘Mysterious Albion’ by Paul Leone, pg 15
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much ear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched over the hobbits.
– ‘The Lord of the Rings – Book One’ by JRR Tolkien, pg 152
Recognise that description?
Notice the difference? Mysterious Albion spares a few words on the character being introduced, then moves quickly to the protagonist’s reaction. On the other hand, Tolkien gives details about the character. Many of these details seem to be meaningless, and yet they all give our imaginations some ‘reality’ to stick his character to. The description of ‘Strider’ from LOTR actually goes on for another few paragraphs, with his character slowly revealed through conversation. It may seem unfair to compare a book to what has been hailed as ‘The Greatest Book of the 20th Century’, yet wouldn’t it be better if we had fewer books but all of them were great?
What I think makes LOTR (and many other great books, as diverse as Les Miserables and Harry Potter) such an engaging read is the huge wealth of words. Not meaningless words; rather, words which are like tiny strokes of the brush on the canvas, creating lines you don’t notice individually but which come together to create an essential part of the image.
This, I think, is the key: using less conversation and more description. Conversation in novels is extremely important, and in films the only words are those which are spoken. But a great piece of fiction is about creating something! Novels need more than just the thoughts and words of the characters; it is essential to give the imagination an outline of some sort to work from. Not having this instantly gives away a beginner or mediocre author (myself included).
This trap for authors stems from, I believe, a great passion for their story. In their own mind, everything is so clear – so what is the need to describe it? They just want to share this story, get down the ideas, write. I fall into this same trap. I’m currently working on a piece of fiction and I keep on having to go back to ‘fill in the blanks’ so that the reader will have more than just a transcription of a character’s mind – they’ll have a living, breathing world.