A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book. I asked why that was a bad thing.
Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical or contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.” But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human. Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments. And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them. I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.
Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens. For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.
Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op. We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led. He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks. The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator. It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves. But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not. Maybe he’s changed by the experience. Maybe he’s not.
In short, nothing happens. It does it quite beautifully, but . . .
I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone. But most readers need something more to keep them going. They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about. They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.
They want plot.
This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular. The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon. He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [Read more…]