A few days ago I stayed up late finishing Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I think I finally went to bed at 4am (a perk of being freelance that I’m grateful to have). I’m not inclined to do this for all, or even many, novels – even if I’m down to the last 40 pages, for most I’ll still put it away and go to bed if it’s bedtime or I have other things I should be doing.
A few days before that, I was listening to The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak on audiobook while I finished up some work work. The recording is in 11 parts, each just over an hour long. I got through three during the time I was working; that’s more than three hours of listening to the story (I’m not sure what that works out to in pages of book). And yet, even after so much time with it, I really felt no strong pull to keep listening. I liked the characters well enough, I liked the slightly humourous narrative voice, the story was well-written. So what was the difference? (I won’t discount the possibility of the medium affecting my appreciation of the stories, perhaps, although there have been many audiobooks that I itch to be able to return to, and sit at the car/desk/whatever even after I’m done, just so I can hear a bit more. But…)
I think the main issue was a lack of tension in the second book. There was no obvious goal to the plot, and without a goal, there are no stakes. There is nothing at risk, there is no tension over the possibility of something being lost or not achieved. The story in The Book Thief meandered, describing various events that happened to the character without any particular sense of direction. Which is enjoyable, for a while, but then I lose interest. In Code Name Verity there’s a clear goal and stakes – she’s been captured by the enemy in WWII and is being interrogated, and we don’t know what will happen to her. In The Book Thief she’s… discovering the marvelousness of books, I guess would be the best way to sum it up.
I feel it’s a little like the difference between watching horses grazing (or even frolicking) in a field, and watching an equestrian sporting event. In both cases you’re watching horses; and watching them graze is nice and relaxing but you can leave at any time without feeling you’ll be missing anything, even if you care deeply for the individuals. But in the latter there’s a situation with an unknown outcome for which you’ll only have the answer if you stick around; and once you’ve become invested in the characters, you want to know the answer.
There are lots of people who like meandering reads. They like enjoying it in small pieces, perhaps, dipping in for visits with a character before putting it down again for a bit, taking their time. I’m afraid I’m not one of those people. I want my stories to be going somewhere, with purpose. Which is probably also why the stories I write tend to be fairly quick-paced. I get restless if I’m going slowly or wandering distractedly about.