People left some very thoughtful posts in response to my last blog, but somehow the discussion (including my own contribution!) veered into the polemic-vs.-non-polemic ("entertaining") novel, which wasn't what I intended. So now I'm trying again to order my thoughts, since this is a topic very much on my mind just now. I've started to write another novel. It's a fantasy, which I haven't written in twenty years and thought I'd never do again, but this character has been gnawing at my mind for two months now, so I've given in. You really can't argue with these people.
But what I intended to muse about in my previous post is less a question of ideology than of narrative tension. What is it that actually keeps a reader turning pages, and how closely is it related to predictability? The late John Gardner, whom I quoted before, thought that the ability to predict a plot was irrelevant. In one sense, he's right; there are only so many basic plots (Heinlein put the number at three, Polti at 36). But if one can pretty much guess at how a plot will end, what else keeps readers going? And they DO keep going. Romance readers, for instance, always know how the plot will end (lovers united). So, usually, do mystery readers (crime solved). Many other readers (including me) have no objection to having been told the entire plot by a review or by another reader, or to rereading a new take on an old story (King Arthur, say) where I know pretty much how it will all turn out. So what keeps us all reading?
That's not a simple answer, of course. But I think the thing that makes a book a page-turner is wanting to know how a character will handle the immediate situation in any particular chapter. That's the "Omigod, what is she going to do about that?" factor. In other words, not the overall thematic material of the book, but the immediate situation right here, right now.
All this came to mind because I'm rereading Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling's novel that I will teach in Germany. I adore this book; Bruce throws off ideas like sparks. It's also subtly funny. But it's very episodic. This happens to Mia, then this, then this. Tension does not build in the way that, say, John Grisham can build tension by constantly raising the stakes for his characters. Mia's stakes are never really high; she can always just leave Europe and go home and there will be no negative consequences if she does. Sterling makes this point often. So the book offers much, but it is not full of dramatic tension. You don't stay up all night reading it. As a result, it got less attention and fewer sales than books that do offer that tension, as well as other joys.
I'm rambling. These are not simple questions to answer. But vital, I think, to both writers and teachers. I see a lot of student stories that just don't work because although the pay-off at the end may be good, the story does not create enough desire to know what will happen in the rest of this chapter, right here, right now.