Reading for writing: reflections on a recent read

Coffee time

I finished one of my latest reading-for-pleasure ventures recently, and it gave rise to some useful reading-for-writing introspection and analysis I thought might be interesting to share. The thing was, it certainly had its flaws – some extremely annoying ones at that. But, even so, I found it an overall satisfying read and I’m even keen to seek out the next one in the series and give that a go.

So what’s all that about? How does that work?

And, more importantly (and in keeping with the theme of my earlier reading-for-writing posts), what can I learn about this for my own writing?

First, the flaws.

The story was a whodunnit. Not an actual murder mystery, but a tale of two people trying to solve a spate of serious crimes, in which their lives were very much at stake if they failed.

The villain turned out to be someone known to the protagonist – in fact, someone the protagonist knew well and admired. (OK so far. A bit standard-operating, but solid.) The villain also turned out to have an intimate connection with the arch-enemy of the protagonist’s off-sider and potential love interest. (More interesting.)

What bugged me about the way the plot was constructed, however, was that the villain didn’t get any screen time (so to speak) until the big confrontation at the end. Sure, the narrative had mentioned this character, and had even done so in conjunction with an important clue. But the reader never got to actually meet the villain in her lamb’s clothing, never got to witness the relationship between her and the protagonist, and never even got the slightest hint about the existence of someone with this kind of relationship to the arch-enemy.

The effect of this was that:

  1. The reader couldn’t involve themselves in unravelling the mystery with the characters by pulling together their own theories and testing these against the characters’ sleuthing abilities. There was no Ah-ha! moment where we saw how the puzzle pieces fitted together, because we never knew half the pieces existed.
  2. The reader was unable to engage with the protagonist’s sense of gut-punch betrayal when the identity of the villain was revealed. Further, during the climactic scene, when the villain behaved in a way calculated to provoke a particular emotional reaction from the protagonist, the reader had to be told she was experiencing this reaction, rather than experience it with her (which we would have been able to do, had we been able to build our own relationship with the villain earlier in the story.)
  3. The connection to the off-sider’s arch-enemy came off as ridiculously convenient. It could have been a revelation. But it was essentially meaningless.

So what did I learn from this?

Seed key plot devices early, whether they’re characters, emotional connections or information.

But why did I like the book?

This is actually more important than the book’s flaws, because it’s this that has me hooked and interested in getting hold of the next one. I have to say, it’s embarrassingly simple.

Frankly, it was all down to the two main characters and the relationship between them. I’m not sure it was exactly a romance, but it was intriguing, and emotionally charged, and I want to know where they go next.

And what does this teach me?

Make my characters, their relationships and their emotional journeys arrestingly interesting. (Note: interesting does not mean tortuous or outlandishly dramatic. It means relatable, charismatic and one step away from being completely satisfying.)

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