Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pacing, Structure, and Anger

I’m mad at a book, but I’m not going to tell you which one*.
The book I just finished had so much buzz about it that I read the first part of it online, desperate to get a glimpse of the novel that, “is the new book for the Hunger Games crowd.” Then I preordered it, hoping it would deliver to my Kindle early so I would be able to read it before today’s release date. The book downloaded yesterday. I stayed up most of the night finishing it.
So, if I read most of the book without putting it down it must be good, right? Right? 
Wrong. Not completely wrong, but big lots wrong. And the ending?!?! So. So wrong.
The main problem was the pacing. The book is the first in a trilogy, but it read like the first third of one book, not the first installment of three stories.
Look, I love book series. I get that not all stories can be told in one go, that you need more than one book to resolve the overall conflict and fully discover the world the author creates. But each book in a series needs to have all components of story structure.
We all know the basics of story structure, right? It was drilled in to us in high school. You’ve probably seen this graph, but I like the one further down better.

You start with exposition, which sets the tone and scene and introduces the main characters.
Then on to rising action. The initial conflict occurs, the main character now has a story goal, and more characters enter the story. Either the main character is working with these other characters or against them (antagonist) to complete their story goal.
And then …

There. That big black vertical line. You see it? Tension. Right smack in the middle of the story (or at 50% on Kindle). Let’s remember that we can have conflict throughout the story, but the reader needs more than that. A major revelation, a game changer that raises the stakes. It’s a figurative car crash scene after which everything changes. Characters see each other more clearly or they learn something significant about whoever is oppressing them. Then, after this event, a plan begins to form based on our new knowledge. We now know our enemy better, and our goal becomes clearer. There is something to work for, and a plan begins to form.
Continuing in the rising action portion of our story, our main character plots and plans. She struggles against adversaries, but has alliances, too, who help her with her story goal.
Then, finally, at about 85%-89%, it is time to execute the plan. This is the climax. We are riveted as our main character takes the risk. She utilizes the strengths she has gained throughout the book, overcomes challenges, she may realize something she hadn’t thought of before, but the plot points were leading her here all along. She triumphs.
Then, right at about 95%, we get our falling action and our resolution. The story goal is met, the future is described or alluded to, the lessons learned are delineated. In a series, there would also be a set up of the next part of the story with some kind of antagonism.
I checked. All of my favorite books have these elements, including the tension right at the half way mark. In Twilight, 50% is The Meadow scene. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth exactly half way in to the story. In The Hunger Games, Katniss fights off the Career Tributes for the first time.
In the book I just read, the halfway mark simply represents the end of one type of challenge and the start of a new, more mysterious challenge for our main character. We are taken from two of the characters we were invested in and then introduced to new characters. Our main character does not have a clear story goal, a coherent plan, or even an idea of who the enemy is. There are no important revelations, in fact, we are given very little information, and our heroine has lost her motivation. Don’t get me wrong, there’s action, a lot of it. It’s intense at points, especially in the beginning. This is what kept me reading. But without a stronger structure to the story there is no climax, and one challenge simply blends to the next.
And the ending! OMG the ending was infuriating. Near the end of the book, I’m talking at 93%, the main character finally gets a clue as to what is really going on. She decides to leave the crazy place she is in (this is where we should have been at the 50% point). Then, at 99%, she finally does leave, but discovers that the world she was in was even crazier than she could imagine. That’s it. No real answers. No resolution. Just part of an unfinished story.
Now, I like a good cliff-hanger, but you have to have a story to back it up. There has to be tension, clear consequences, a known opponent.
Here’s how the story should have gone. Keep in mind this is a contemporary young adult fantasy/apocalypse story.
0-10% - Main character “A” intro, disaster happens
10-20% - Struggles/conflict (lose supplies, strange creatures attack, etc.), intro little girl character “B” who relies on main character, something strange is happening, no real info, scary times, need help
20-30% - Intro love interest character “C”, seek shelter, get info on what is happening, ABC characters grow closer, go through challenges together
30-40% - ABC decide to leave current shelter to learn more about what is going on in real world, little girl B is taken, then love interest C gets hurt
40-50% - Main character A goes to find help, love interest B disappears, main character A enters strange town. A’s story goal: get ABC back together.
50-85% - Main character A realizes strangeness of town/danger right away, learns concrete information, creates a clear plan to escape, grows connected with some people in the strange town, even has a new love interest “D,” but feels ever stronger about her purpose and finding B and C.
85-95% - Executes plan, lots of tension and challenges in escaping, internal conflict b/c of those she’s leaving behind. Learns the strange town is even crazier than she thought, fuels her to keep going but makes her even more scared. Working for her story goal – to get back to B and C.
95% - Finally she reaches B and C. She rescues B (or they rescue each other?), then she finds C in a new town. So grateful to be back together. She describes the strange town to the new town, learns quickly how things operate in the new town, which is better because it’s a military structure and B is a leader. She expects the strange town people to come for her.
98% - Set up for next book. The strange town invades the new place. The new place is outnumbered, but led by military strategy and home field advantage give them the upper hand. Main character A is fighting and breaks her opponent’s arm. It’s her love interest D from strange town. Shock. Then she has a gun pointed at her and it goes off.
I know you didn’t read the book I’m talking about, but trust me, this would have been better. The author still could have maintained the characters, writing style, nuances, etc. that make the story good, but we would have had a complete book with anticipation for the next one in the series.
If they’re touting this as the next book for Hunger Games readers, it falls shy of the mark. Each of the HG books had a self-encased, fully fleshed story. Yes, each book included a set up for the next book and a cliff-hanger, but that was after the story was resolved.
There were other things that bugged me about the book, and lots of things I liked. I won’t detail them here. From the reviews I’ve read, everyone else loved this book, so maybe I expect too much.
I don’t have an MFA in creative writing and I’ve published exactly zero novels, but I read a lot. I can tell what works. And I’m telling you, readers should expect more than this.

*I chose not to name this book because writing is hard and I'm not a book critic, although a tiny bit of Googling will lead you to it.

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