Interesting!

That’s the word I use most often to describe a piece of writing that has impressed me. If I can apply that word to a novel, I will likely remember it for a long time.

I just finished reading a historical mystery by P.B. Ryan, Still Life With Murder. The central matter of a mystery novel is “Who did it?” In this case, that question was overshadowed by the setting (Boston in the “gilded age”) and the principal characters (Nell Sweeney with her problematic past and Will Hewitt with his addictions and scarred psyche). These people were interesting. I wanted to know how things turned out for them, never mind who did the murder. That revelation, when it came, felt almost like a distraction.

The novel contains two or three fairly lengthy scenes consisting of dialogue between the two principal characters, Nell and Will. Their focus is Will’s self-destructive impulses, his reasons for them, and why he should consider alternatives. These scenes almost verge on the repetitious and possibly tedious, except that one of them takes place in an opium den and includes a detailed description of the rather complicated process of smoking opium. That is interesting and memorable. P.B. Ryan has clearly done her research, on that topic and others featured in this novel, making it more than a run of the mill “whodunit.”

Writers are always told to “plant a hook” in the opening paragraph of a novel — something that will keep the reader reading by raising questions in his or her mind that need to be answered. “Who is this person, where are they, how did they get into this situation and what will happen to them?”

Well, I admit to a somewhat jaundiced view of the ever-popular Rules for Writers. I suspect that many of them are formulated primarily for the convenience of jaded editors and others who perforce have to plough through dozens or hundreds of “submissions” by hopeful writers seeking publication or prizes. The tolerance of these folks is low for writing whose pace is a little slow, in which dramatic action and dire situations aren’t presented on the first page. Some ordinary readers share this attitude, but not all. Many are quite willing to take the long way through a piece of fiction, but only if it’s interesting.

Whether or not the writer plants a hook doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to grab the reader’s attention in the opening scenes of your opus. You have to earn it on every page, and cliff-hangers and chase scenes aren’t always enough. You need to create interesting characters doing interesting things, quite apart from the plot.

Remember Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?  Some consider it a wonderful read, full of action and gripping situations. Given that it was inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a mess of crackpot but interesting (there’s that word again) theories about Jesus Christ, the Knights Templar and the Merovingian dynasty, you would expect that it couldn’t fail to be a fascinating read. But I found it a great disappointment, mostly because the main characters were cardboard cutouts. Mr. Brown should have taken up more pages making them into real people with intriguing quirks and bumps, and included more substance about the Knights Templar and the Merovingians instead of dragging us through the streets of Paris pursued by an albino monk wearing a self-torture device.

It’s a tricky business, creating and sustaining interesting stuff. Characters may be brought to life with distinctive characteristics and speech habits and hints of interesting backgrounds. Yes, hints. Giving a curriculum vitae or a mini-biography is not usually recommended, but weaving in details, memories of important incidents in the person’s life, and opinions coloured by their past experiences can build up a multi-coloured and textured individual that a reader will care about. Even more problematic is the business of working in facts about some topic; from intriguing tidbit to the dreaded “information dump” is a small but crucial step. I will note here, however, that “information dump” may just be a term meaning “stuff I’m not interested in.” It depends on the individual reader and his or her tastes. The writer always takes a chance by veering away from the plot to introduce stuff about, say, sheep-shearing or winemaking or undertaking. Think of Victor Hugo’s enormous digressions into history in Les Miserables. Some may have found the history of the Paris sewers utterly fascinating; most, I’ll bet, skipped over that part to find out what happened to Jean Valjean and Marius. And Les Miserables was published in 1862. These days, it’s probably best to keep one’s digressions short or even to make them unrecognizable.

One criterion is how fascinating the writer finds that extra topic. Chances are that if you yourself are passionately interested in something, that passion will find its way into your writing about it and generate interest in your readers. When I was writing my novel The Friendship of Mortals, I was reading about alchemy, especially its symbolic aspects as expounded upon by Carl Jung. Something of that subject found its way into the novel. So it may be with whatever interests a writer has — gardening or bowling or violin making. Use them in your writing to give it heft and texture.

In a way it’s like cooking. A good novel is like a well-prepared dish, with pleasing combinations of flavours and textures. Spices should enhance, not dominate. A certain amount of crunch is good, but too much makes eating into hard work. Above all, the dish must be one to be savoured, not gulped down as quickly as possible to get to the bottom of the vessel in which it’s contained. Don’t make your novel a smoothie that goes down fast without intriguing aromas and flavours. Make it interesting — create a feast for the mind and imagination.

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