Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Addict's Scorn

Since my students often borrow books from me (particularly books that the school library doesn't have), they also share their opinions on those books. Sometimes it's just a quick, "Yes, this was good!" or, "Eh, it was okay," when they return it. They know that if I haven't read it yet, I don't want to know details. If I have read it, we'll chat a little more about what they liked or didn't.

Yesterday, one of my students walked in and declared, "I hate this book!"

I spotted the bookmark. She's halfway through. And she's still reading.

If she really loathed it, she'd have quit earlier and traded for another book. They do that all the time. Since it's one I haven't gotten to yet, she didn't get specific. But from what I can gather, she's frustrated with something about the course of the plot. And/or it's not giving her what she wants when she wants it.

This particular book is part of a series. The same student has been very vocal in her opinions (both positive and negative) on earlier books in the series. Overall, she likes it. But that didn't stop her from passing through my room on the way to lunch and shouting, "I hate the book even more now!"

There's another series the same student has read. That one, she really hates for very particular reasons. But she's said, "Will they just finish the stupid series so I know how the stupid thing ends?"

She hates it, but she'll still finish it.

In both cases, the author has her hooked. She's addicted, and she can't let the stories go until she knows how they end. There's a difference, though.

When the author of Series 1 begins a new series, my student will probably buy in and get hooked on that one, too. With Series 2, I don't think my student will give that author more opportunities to torture her.

They have something in common—they're both addictive.

They're polar opposites—one makes you revel in the addiction while the other makes you curse the person who got you hooked.

I wish I could put my finger on the key to that addictive quality. I'd bottle it up and pour copious amounts on my manuscripts. My best guess is it's some bit of magic balancing characters that feel real and a compelling plot.

So where do the two series diverge? I think it's a matter of those qualities slipping away as the series goes on. The authenticity of characters is weakened when they make unrealistically stupid choices for the sake of plot. Consequently, the plot may start to feel obnoxious and contrived.

With Series 1, my student may not like some turns the characters and plot are taking, but those turns must still feel authentic. She still believes.

What do you think makes some novels so addictive? What pitfalls have you noted that make an initially addictive novel fall flat?


Mike Lewis said...

This goes for stupid movies I see on late at night on our sole movie channel (we have cheap cable...). The plot will be terrible, various "twists" are obvious from "miles away", and the acting is terrible. The only thing you don't know is what miracle will happen to save the main characters from complete failure in their dilema, and that's why you watch it to the end. Afterwards, when you've witnessed said miracle that came out of nowhere and is totally unbelievable, you kick yourself and say, "Well, there's 160 minutes of my life I'll never get back..."

... And then you wonder how it made the cut to be shown on said movie channel in the first place.

T.L. Bodine said...

Ah man, I totally know how it feels to be caught in that web. It used to be a point of pride for me never to give up on a book before I'd finished it. I don't do that any more (life's too short) but I still feel compelled to finish a lot of books I didn't really enjoy reading.

With a single book (or your Series 2 phenomenon) the answer is always, "How does this thing end?!" where it doesn't matter how bad it is, you're hooked enough -- invested enough -- that you want to see it through. Even if you suspect that the ending will be dissatisfying, you still just have to know.

But with a long series, I think it had more to do with characters. You start to view book characters as being sort of like old friends. You don't even care that much about what's going on in the book anymore, you just want to hang out with your friends the book-people.

R.C. Lewis said...

Well, the student finished the book and basically concluded that she loved it and hated it, and can't wait for her friend to read it so they can talk about it already. :)

Mike, movies. Oh, yeah. Wouldn't it be cool if there were SOME kind of compensation we could get for movies that con two hours of our lives from us?

TL, very true with the characters in series. You just want to know what they do/what happens to them next.

E.B. Black said...

For me, what hooks me is a combination of two things: lovable (or at least fascinating) characters and not knowing what is going to happen next. Since I write plot twists, I know a lot of tricks to use to mislead a reader and I tend to pick up on those and give the plot twist long before it happens. So when an author starts stumping me, I get super fascinated by them and the way they write because I can't figure it out.