December 18, 2013

The Catch: When And How Does A Book Grab You?

This is something that I've thought about before, and discussed with people when the topic of books comes up.

When you're reading a book that you like (and I won't flatter anyone here and say that we've never liked a book that we knew wasn't good), there comes a point when the book has either grabbed you to the point that you know you want to read on and finish it, or has failed to grab you and you give up on it. I've read in various places that some people will select an arbitrary threshold in terms of page numbers—usually somewhere in the range of the first 50 to 70 pages. If the book hasn't grabbed them by then, they'll give it up.

I've never set such a limit. In fact, very rarely in my life have I ever started a novel and not finished it (aside: I've started plenty of non-fiction books and not finished them, but I consider them differently at a fundamental level). Almost invariably, there is something about the book that I will encounter very quickly, within the first chapter or two, that will make me finish the book. I've come to call it "The Catch".

It can be any number of things, but for me the Catch is usually one of three things: a clever or witty line, an intriguing mystery, or just plain good writing. 

Wit Beyond Measure Is Man's Greatest Treasure

The first time I ever really gave some thought to the idea of the Catch and the role it plays in books that I read was after reading the first chapter of Brent Weeks' The Black Prism:
Another wolf answered, farther out. A haunting sound, the very voice of the wilderness. You couldn't help but freeze when you heard it. It was the kind of beauty that made you shit your pants.

Alright, this isn't exactly the pinnacle of wit and cleverness that you'll come across. In fact it's quite crude, but poop humour has it own kind of wit to it.

This quote came up on just the second page of the book, but I found it so unexpectedly humorous that I laughed out loud. Even then, even consciously, I acknowledged that this one small paragraph was enough that I knew I would read the whole book. Part of it was an assumption, that because the author managed to produce a quick turn of phrase that amused me so greatly I trusted that he would have a similar ability to craft a whole book that I would enjoy. As it turns out, that assumption proved correct. I ranked Brent Weeks' Lightbringer books #15 in my list of favourite fantasy series (It might not seem like that high, but I included 33 different series in the list and have read several more that I didn't like enough to even include them).

There are other books that have had a similar Catch to them. Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself has one of my favourite characters in any book, Inquisitor Glotka. The second chapter in the book is Glotka's first POV chapter, and contained enough clever writing and internal dialogue that I made the same assumption.

And again, that assumption proved correct. The first time I read one of Terry Pratchett's books, it only took a few pages before I found a big grin etched into my face that didn't fade until several hours after I finished reading the final page. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, which I reviewed in my previous post, achieved the same feat in its first chapter.

It Is Only Through Mystery And Madness That The Soul Itself Is Revealed

The second type of Catch that regularly succeeds with me is some element of mystery. Who is that shadowy character? What's his/her story? Will the guy get the girl? What's going to happen? And so on.

You can probably sense a pattern with those types of questions, they're all character and/or plot based. If an author does their job well, either in introducing a well-crafted character or foreshadowing an interesting plot development, I'll want to keep reading to find out more about either, or both.

One example of this is Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings. In fact, it succeeded in both ways... multiple times. 

First and foremost is Kaladin, one of the main POV characters that the book follows. A brilliant young soldier, leader and hero, turn dejected and vilified slave. The little that is immediately revealed about him is full of mystery: how did such a young man come to be such a well-regarded warrior, especially given the derision heaped on those from his class in the society Sanderson introduced? What happened to him between then, and when he is considered a dangerous slave? What will happen to him as a slave? Will he ever again show the same kind of heroism and importance that he did in that one chapter?

Each of the main POV characters achieved something similar, though not as powerfully for me as with Kaladin. Adolin, Dalinar, Shallan, and Szeth all had their own pasts and mysteries and intriguing futures. 

But Sanderson also presented various plot arcs for the book, and a main plotline for the series, that were just as captivating. The cataclysmic Desolations that happen every few thousand years, the Knights Radiant and their Shardblades and Shardplates, the war with the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains, Shallan's quest to save her family, and more. All were introduced as at least mildly interesting concepts, written into the book with well-crafted prose, and with enough mysteries foreshadowed and hinted at that I wanted to find out what would happen. 

Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind, Django Wexler's The Thousand Names, and George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones provide other examples. The first using a seemingly ordinary man with a very intriguing backstory hinted at; the second with a military challenge—that would an undermanned army already beaten in battle having to defeat a much more numerous enemy in hostile territory; and the latter with the White Walkers, the mysterious murder of one of the main character's friends, and the looming civil war hinted at almost in the beginning. 

All Good Writing Is Swimming Under Water And Holding Your Breath

The final category for me is just plain good writing. Technically, the two above examples would also be considered "good writing". However, what I mean by good writing in this instance is when I'm reading a book that doesn't have a single identifiable catch. There isn't some clever phrase or dialogue, there isn't some kind of character or plot development that makes me want to find out what will happen, I just find it so well written that I want to keep reading for the sake of reading what's on the pages. There are a few examples I can throw out there off the top of my head.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is just an all-round superb book. It does have an interesting setting, and a good main character: Shen Tai. However, the book takes its time to get into the main plot or show any kind of character development. And Shen Tai, while he was good character, didn't really grab me. What grabbed me was the writing itself. 

Here is a bit from the synopsis on Goodreads that describes the beginning: 
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
The setting for the first portion of the book has Shen Tai in a small cabin in the midst of the battlefield mentioned above. The prose used to describe the battlefield is simply fantastic: the landscape itself, scarred from the battle and strewn with a seemingly endless number of bones; the ghosts of the fallen (that are real, in the book) that come out at night to wail their pain and sorrow, yet who accept Shen Tai for his efforts on their part; the painstaking labour that Shen Tai goes through, gathering up the bones, digging enormous mass graves for them, and filling them in; and how the soldiers in the opposing forts nearby the battlefield are inspired to bring increasingly grand gifts in thanks for giving their comrades peace.

It is only after a fairly lengthy period in the book that Shen Tai is visited by another human being, and the main plot involving the Sardian horses and their impact on his life is introduced. Even before that happened, I was hooked into the book almost as much as any other book has managed to hook me. 

There are other examples: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. It is two books into the trilogy and yet I still read on for the writing more than the plot or the characters. Coincidentally, the setting is also inspired from historical Asia and the story also begins in the aftermath of a battle. Bear simply does an incredible job bringing her world to life by painting simple yet elegant scenes of the landscape.

Another is Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is not a fantasy book, like the others, but a historical fiction taking place in Barcelona, Spain in the 1940s and 50s. It follows the life of Daniel, from when he is a young boy, as he tries to find out what happened to the author of his favourite book. Like Elizabeth Bear above, Carlos Ruiz Zafon is amazing at establishing and describing his setting. His descriptions are quick but vibrant, and manages to bring to life the city of Barcelona and its people. Even something as simple as describing the awe one of the supporting characters feels as he sees a movie in a theatre for the first time is made to seem like an event of profound and beautiful significance.

All of these examples give descriptions that aren't too long and dry (see: Rings, Lord of the) yet are full enough that my imagination was able to see the settings as if I were there in person. On top of which, the settings that they used were beautiful to begin with. 

If One Thinks, One Must Reach Conclusions

My conclusion is simple. In fact I've already said what my conclusion is: witty phrasings and dialogue, good characters and plot with some aspect of foreshadowing or mystery, and plain and simple good writing acts for me as a Catch. When I encounter them, even within the first few pages of a book, the author has won my trust over completely and I'm in for the entire journey.

Not that I never wind up being mistaken in my assumptions. Sometime this year I read a book called Beyond the Storm.By the end of the first chapter its Catch was, I felt, the writing. The first chapter described the tragic death of a young woman as she awaited her lover to return from a sea voyage (actually, it was a lake voyage, but "lake voyage" sounds stupid). The rest of the book, which I didn't read until after I bought it, was about a man and a woman with troubled pasts meeting on their way to their high school reunion. They had two previous amorous encounters, once in high school and once years later during a chance encounter in New York. In this final meeting, they come to realize they're perfect for each other. There are many... intimate moments, and much waxing poetic about coincidence and fate.

Honestly, after the first chapter the good writing I thought I read disappeared completely. There was no subtlety, no good characters or plot developments. I kept reading to find out what the hell the point of the first chapter was, which had no obvious bearing on the rest of the book. Only near the end was it revealed that the two of them were some kind of reincarnated souls of the tragically killed woman and her heartbroken lover, only for it to be revealed that the two of the main characters were actually dead from a car crash and their spirits were what had met... or something. 

So, in conclusion, I've found that the Catch is a very useful tool. But like all tools it isn't perfect. 

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