Sunday, April 1, 2007

Bane of My Existence, Part the Second: Style Over Substance

By Badgerdaddy

Often, if I reveal to the world that I think, say, Dan Brown has very little talent – if any – but is a very clever writer, people look a little baffled. Same for James Patterson; really, the man has nothing going for him except for one simple talent. Both writers share this talent, and it is a peach. I bet their agents love them; I wonder if either writer actually knows they are doing it though.

They write in such a way as to distract the reader from their writing. It’s very simple, and it leaves the reader feeling thrilled. And not, in my opinion, in a good way. How do they do this? It’s so, so simple: Short chapters.

How many chapters does The Da Vinci Code have? 106, including epilogue. The edition I have next to me is 593 pages long. Divide the whatsit by the thing and you end up with an average chapter length of 5.59 pages per chapter. That sounds like a fair amount, doesn’t it? It’s not though. Count in huge chunks of dead space at the beginning and ends of chapters, and you start to worry about the future of trees on the planet. So many of the chapters are two to three pages, and every chapter in the book ends on a cliffhanger.

Patterson does exactly the same; read his Alex Cross novels, and every fucking chapter… The first few chapters, you’re gripped; the second batch, not so much; the third, you’re feeling insulted that this writer is too lazy to build plot or suspense with character and depth but instead resorts to the kind of sensationalist writing that many of us turn our noses up at in the so-called ‘red-top’ newspapers in the UK, or the National Enquirer in the US. It’s cheap, and requires no patience. It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers – they provide the canvas and a cheap set of brushes and paints and we add everything else.

Patterson and Brown both use this short chapter so we, as readers, don’t look too closely at what we’re reading; they can be super-lazy because we’re almost ripping the pages, we’re turning them so fast. It’s effective, sure – but only for about five minutes. Some of the cliffhangers are utterly forced, some are red herrings, some are just crap.

Sometimes, a short chapter can be effective. Barry Gifford’s The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula leaps, laughing, to mind; it’s a collection of six short novels following one couple through their lives, and sometimes incidental characters. It’s exceptionally filmic in its form, if not in its content (two of the books have been filmed – Wild At Heart and Perdita Durango), but I would never describe the content of the books as being terribly cinematic, therefore it’s hard to view the stories with the same cynicism I reserve for Brown and Patterson, whose books often read like screenplays with the directions taken out. It’s like they planned to sell the movie rights before they even finished the first chapter. John Grisham’s early stuff read exactly the same way (though without the terrifically short chapters) until I suspect even he got bored of churning out yet another ‘hot-shot young lawyer learns the ropes and sees things no-one else has despite them being better educated and with a huge team of researchers to back them up’ kind of story. His sales figures may be down from the heady days of The Firm, but I bet his dignity and self-respect as a writer are soaring. Of course, his enormous bank balance from writing pure tat doesn’t hurt. My problem is not with tat – if I didn’t like reading tat, I would never have read Patterson, Grisham or Brown, after all – it’s with insulting tat.

Stephen King also uses short chapters where necessary, or breaks a long chapter up into digestible chunks while keeping an overall linearity – Salem’s Lot is a great example of this, as many short tales are interwoven into the story of a town’s death.

I like authors to build suspense because I give a flying fuck about a character and what happens to them. I like my stories to have peaks and troughs, not just peak after peak after peak. If The Da Vinci Code was an ECG readout, they’d have sedated the fucker by now. There is little skill in writing in such a way, and certainly very, very little talent, but it is clever – after all, they’ve both sold about a billion books and I’ve sold nonel.

And to follow on from last issue’s feature, the cover quotes on Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code are from Robert Crais, Clive Cussler and Harlan Coben. Oh, and there’s one from the New York Times, so that’s alright then.

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