Give Me Narrative or Give Me Death

Well, not entirely.  I suppose if someone actually gave me the choice, I’d settle for bad poetry in a heartbeat.  But, in the comfort of my favorite reading chair, there’s no question this is the way I feel. 

I was a lit major in college.  I am not entirely unmoved by the effects of beautiful language.  In fact, my idea of a perfect read is a well written book with a great story, vivid characters, and deeply felt emotion.  Note, however, that I said well written rather than beautifully written.  Beautiful language is all well and good, but as far as I’m concerned, it better not get in the way of the story. 

But not all books are perfect reads.  Does that mean I should give up reading?  Of course not.  Plenty of books are good and enjoyable even if they’re less than perfect.  So, when confronted with the choice of imperfect reading materials, what do I pick?  The lyric work of art that’s weak in story?  Memorable characters who don’t really do anything?  Or action, action, action? 

Well, if my choices are really all that bad, I wouldn’t pick any of them.  I’d go back and reread something good.  But if you really did put a gun to my head, I’d go with action, action, action.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Maybe because that’s what I cut my teeth on as a child.  My parents tried to get me to read The Yearling and Island of the Blue Dolphins, but all I wanted was E.E. Smith and Burroughs.  It was the stories that meant the most to me and made my heart pound.  Stories, not language or character, that had me sneaking into the closet with a flashlight to read past midnight.   

I may appreciate subtler pleasures now, but the small boy seeking adventure I once was still has access to my internal throttle.  Every once in a while he still gets his way. 

What about you?  What would you read if someone put the proverbial gun to your head?  Lyrical language?  Memorable characters?  Or action, action, action?

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  1. 1. NewGuyDave

    I would agree with action, action, action first, then memorable characters that sit and do nothing. Lyrical language without substance really does nothing for me.

    If I wanted beautiful images without story content I’d look at my vacation photographs. No wait, they have content attached…

    My preference is a story with well drawn characters doing something adventurous.

  2. 2. Jay Franco

    Great post Sam. And I agree with most of what you’re saying but if the proverbial gun was to my head, for me, it’s always been about the characters. They are the ones that bring me back, even sadly when the stories felt a bit lacking. But if an author does their job and makes you care about the characters, then you’ll weather the storm with them through the action or lack of, through the thrilling plots or lack of, and even through the beautiful or poor writing. In my opinion that is where it all starts, and that is why I love stand outs like Conan regardless of incarnation, why I can go back and read Flash Gordon comic strips from decades ago and feel connected, and why so many sf and fantasy novels stay in my head long after finishing them. Ok, end rant. Hope to see you soon.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I’m with you. I just read Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, and while it was extremely well-written, I was bored almost the entire time because so little happened. (It probably didn’t help that I was expecting Classic King Horror).

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I’d probably go with you, too, if only because I can’t conceive of memorable characters without *some* amount of action for them to be memorable *in*. But character is my major entry-point into a story, I’ve discovered — which, as it happens, is something I’m talking about in tomorrow’s post!

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Four comments so far, and everyone’s leaning toward character or action. Just what you’d expect at a genre site, right?

    Dave – I come from a long line of content providers to vacation photographs myself. Action, action, action!

    Jay – I’ve never thought of Conan or Flash Gordon as characters who are separate from their actions. But then, what great characters are? Plot is character, as someone once said.

    Adam – I’ve never read the book, thought it’s hard to imagine King writing something where nothing happens.

    Marie – Can’t wait to read your post. You’re absolutelu right, of course. See my note to Jay.

  6. 6. S. Megan Payne

    I’m selfish. I want it all. I want the writing to be beautiful, the characters to be real, the action to be edge of the seat. And most of the time, I get it too! Be discriminating long enough and you tend to find what you want.

    However, gun to my head. Action, characters, or language.

    If this is a book of prose…

    Character! All character, nothing but character, and intense character, if you please. I’ll take it. I can do with relatively actionless stories if something internal is happening instead. It’s got to be deep and real though.

    If this is poetry or music…

    I’ll take the beauty. Couldn’t care less about anything else. :)

  7. 7. James Enge

    I guess I want stuff to happen and the main character(s) to do stuff. It doesn’t have to be explosions and car-chases (or the equivalent for a given genre), but I don’t want to read about them sitting around Being Wonderful or Being Wicked or merely being acted upon by others.

    John Hocking puts it well, I think: “Character is action.” (Or maybe it was the other way around.) Characters are what they do–not what people (including the storyteller) say about them.

  8. 8. Alma Alexander

    A story is a character with a problem. So long as you remember that it should come out okay in the wash…

  9. 9. Tim of Angle

    Interesting characters doing interesting things. Without that: No story.

  10. 10. Memory

    Character, all the way. I’ve often said I’d read a poorly written cereal box if I loved the characters, and I stand by that.

    (Of course, I rarely find that I engage with characters who don’t do a durned thing, and good writing generally helps push ‘em along…)

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Megan – Yeah, I want it all too, but I find that, the older I get, the harder it is to find it all. And I agree with you about poetry and music, too.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    James, Alma, Tim, Memory – “Character is action.” You’re right, it is. Jay and Marie pointed it out too. The question I then find mysef asking is, “Do plotless literary novels therefor have no characters?”

  13. 13. Adele

    Action is one of those genres where a mediocre book can still be a lot of fun. Trad fantasy and sci fi, in fact most other genres, if it’s poorly written it’s a really hard slog to read. I find the same with movies, a bad action movie can still be enjoyed on the basis of the action scenes alone, a sci fi that fails to build a believable world throws you out of the mood of the film so often as to be unwatchable. So yes, if you lined up ten really mediocre to poor books in front of me i’d pick action, if they were really good books it wouldn’t get a look in.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Adele – I can read badly written sf if the ideas are good (but just barely). Trad fantasy, on the other hand, puts me right to sleep no matter how good the action, if it’s badly written.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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