Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Importance of Story Questions

Over the weekend, I checked out an upper middle grade/lower YA novel from the library for my 10-year-old daughter. Although the premise was intriguing--as well as similar to other books she's read and enjoyed in the past--she didn't care for the book enough to get past page 5. Wondering what the problem was (since I thought the book sounded great), I read it.

Right away, I could tell it had the following problems:

1. Too sophisticated language and vocabulary, calling to adult sensibilities, not a middle grade voice.

2. Repeated distinctive catch phrases. If an author wants to say, for example, that someone's gaze "glinted with malevolence," s/he should only say it once. In the entire book. Not four times.

3. The adults probably played too large a role in the story.

Yet...I continued reading, although I couldn't stop asking myself, Why? since this book was clearly a clunker. And that's when I realized it had two essential things going for it:

1. Likable, funny characters, and, more importantly,

2. A hearty string of of story questions.

I kept thinking, But what's going to happen with X? How will the main character resolve her problem with Y? Will she get the boy in the end? And then I'd read another chapter.

Published by a Canadian imprint, I found myself wondering if this book would have flown had it been sent to a U.S. publisher. Maybe, maybe not. From her bio, I could see that the writer is plenty experienced (although not with MG/YA), so my guess is that the repetitious stuff was laziness on her part. The story questions and tight plot-point structure, expertise. Another mark of craft: she left no dangling threads. Each and every clue/mini-subplot was eventually picked up and developed to completion. Also, there was a sense of justice in the end, with antagonistic characters subtly getting what they deserved.

So what do you think? Are there books you've read to the end even though you know they're lacking on some front?


Catherine/Suburban Vampire said...

Great post, Ara!

The book I'm reading right now lacks strong enough story questions for me to pick up the book whenever I can and stay up late into the night reading. But the world building is impressive and the prose is gorgeous, so I'm trying to stick with it before I move on to something else.

LuAnn Schindler said...

As a reviewer, I've read a few books that don't have strong story questions, but maybe a book has a strong character or a great tone. And, since I review, I have to finish those books - or I FEEL I have to finish those books and give them a fair chance.

It's a tough situation, but I have a feeling it's a common problem.

Ara Burklund said...

Cathy~Thanks! Interesting about the world building and prose. I have books on my pile like that, too.

LuAnn~You're a kind soul to finish everything! I'd be tempted to skim ahead. Thanks for stopping by! : )

Suzanne Casamento said...

I usually ditch 'em. I don't have much patience for stories that don't grab me on the first page. ;)

Ara Burklund said...

Know what you mean, Suzanne. Who's got time, right?