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Many publishers are struggling at the moment. With so many bookstores across the world closed, sales of paperbacks and hardbacks have fallen. But reports have shown that ebooks sales are stronger than ever, and many independently published authors (who tend to focus on ebooks over print versions) have reported strong profits over the last couple of months.
Many, but not all. I’ve sold far fewer books since March than I did over the first couple of months of the year. My sales aren’t exactly high at the best of times, and my current dip could be down to any number of reasons, but I did wonder if genre is a factor in this. While people are reportedly reading more than usual, there might be a bias toward certain genres. Maybe the particular niche my books fall in is simply not what many want to read at the moment.
To investigate this further, I took a look at the top Kindle ebook sellers in the UK, and a few types of book dominated the list—feel-good reading, crime and thrillers, and biographies and memoirs.
Feel-good books make perfect sense—this is reading as an escape from the worries of real life. But crime and thrillers can be violent and disturbing—at first glance, not exactly an antidote to real-world troubles.
These connected genres are still selling well, I believe, for a couple of reasons. First, they are incredibly popular in ‘normal’ times, and so many crime and thriller fans will keep reading what they know and love. But secondly, these stories often end very positively. Yes there are dark crimes and twisted motives, and the characters (and, vicariously, the readers) are placed in increasingly tense situations. But at the climax, the crime is solved and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice. The hero defeats the evil antagonist. Everything turns out well.
When real life is messy and uncertain, we look for something reliable. We want to believe that good will always triumph, and that wrongs will be set right. So these genres give us that feel-good ending, and do work as an escape from our real-world troubles.
Then there are the biographies and memoirs. The appearance of non-fiction doesn’t surprise me—on top of the ‘usual’ non-fiction readers, there are many who struggle with fiction when times are tough. But we’re all drawn to story, and stories of people’s lives fulfil this.
Consider too the nature of biographies and memoir. Many of these stories involve the narrator facing and overcoming some obstacle. They fight against the odds, emerging stronger at the end, the pain and depression and hopelessness becoming the lessons and motivation to succeed.
What better antidote to all the doom and gloom than reminders that there is hope, and that it is possible to not only survive adversity but come through stronger than before?
So the bestsellers are filled with books that offer either escape or the promise of success.
But what of the very obvious absences in this bestseller list? Where was the horror and science fiction? Where was the darker stuff? In short, where were the type of books I enjoy reading?
It’s clear to see why darker books aren’t too popular at the moment (although I contend that horror is generally a positive genre, with good triumphing over very powerful evil, and you can read my thoughts on this here). Readers who dabble in these kinds of books might be staying away from anything disturbing, wanting instead to use reading as a booster to their positivity. And those of us who find enjoyment from darker books even in hard times are not numerous enough to push these titles into bestseller lists.
Maybe this is why my own books aren’t selling too well at the moment. Maybe I need to work harder at finding suitable potential readers, those who would enjoy science-fiction horror or dark Dystopian thrillers.
There might be trends in reading, but every reader is different. There’s an audience for every kind of book. Asking what the best books to read in trying times is impossible to answer in any but the most general terms. One reader’s engrossing Dystopian tale is another’s bleak trudge through depression. One reader’s buoyant romance, where love shines through, is another’s saccharine overdose of tweeness. One reader is drawn to cosy mysteries where the amateur sleuth and friends solve the murder, while another is pulled toward gritty stories where the criminals and those chasing them are all riddled with flaws that threaten to destroy them from the inside.
So the best thing to read is whatever will make you feel better, whatever engages you, whatever gives you the enjoyment, escapism and mental stimulation you seek.
But, most importantly, keep reading. Reading always helps.
I often find that dialogue can make or break a book. It might be snappy and sarcastic, or rich and evocative—and I’ll feel I’m in the scene with the characters. If the dialogue feels realistic, and drives the story on, I’m willing to forgive plot holes and clunky prose.
I also find long passages of prose rarely work (unless very well written). Even internal dialogue can help propel a scene forward.
But writing dialogue is hard. For starters, it needs to feel realistic, but it can’t be too realistic.
I recall an Kevin Smith interview, where someone commented on the natural way the characters in his films talked. He responded by saying that there was nothing natural about their dialogue. His characters go off onto rambling monologues while others listen—something that very rarely happens in real life. They’re not constantly being cut off, or using strings of filler words and sounds (‘um’, ‘er’, ‘like’ and so on), they don’t repeat themselves too often (‘So I said…and he says…then I say’). But his dialogue still feels natural, and that’s the important thing. He uses character-appropriate words and phrases to bring the spoken lines alive.
And this shows another aspect of good dialogue—it has to serve a purpose. In Smith’s case, much of the actual stories the characters tell one another seem only partially relevant to the story, but they reveal character, both in the words themselves and the way they are delivered. The same can be done in books—what a character says can reveal so much about who they are, in a far more natural way than simply being told.
For instance, a male character who peppers their conversation with words like ‘love’ and ‘dear’, especially when talking to younger women, comes across as condescending and sexist, even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on this. Likewise, a character who says ‘maybe’ and ‘I think’ a lot will often appear indecisive—so when they step up and make that all-important decision in a moment of crisis, we understand that they’re finally overcoming their inner demons.
Dialogue is also important for moving the story forward. Unfortunately, I’ve read far too many books where this is done poorly. Characters will say things like “Hey, you remember that time Bob broke into that old factory, and had to face all those vampires?” or “As you know, the master is due to return from his sojourn in the tropics any day now, but his mother still refuses to have the east wing redecorated, meaning she’s still in the suite next to his—and this is bound to cause a great deal of friction.”
Yes, these examples tell the reader possibly important information. But do they sound natural? Not at all. The characters are mentioning things other characters already know, merely to give us, the reader, information.
Another problem I’ve noticed with poorly written dialogue is the use of grammar.
Most people don’t talk with correct grammar. They use slang, and part-sentences. They’ll misuse words, or string words together in bizarre ways. It might be grammatically correct to say “We will leave as soon as we can,” but it sounds far more natural as “We’ll leave as soon as.”
Of course, some characters will speak ‘properly’—but even then, each character will have their own vocal idiosyncrasies. This is something I know I need to improve in my own writing. Some characters will speak in long, complicated sentences, others will use simpler constructions. Some will use dialect words, or enjoy showing off an extended vocabulary.
Dialogue can also indicate things about how each character experiences the world. One who focuses on visuals might say “I see”, whereas a character who’s more auditory might say “I hear you.”
With well-written dialogue, it should be clear who is talking from the spoken words themselves, and tags (“Bill said”, “Sheila asked”, and so on) are only needed as occasional reminders.
Writing dialogue that works well is hard—and it stands to reason that authors who can pull this off, who can use natural-sounding dialogue to develop characters and drive story, are also skilled at other areas of writing. After all, books are simply a means of telling stories. When we read a novel or a short story, we’re allowing the author to speak to us. Even when no characters in the story are talking, we’re still listening to the voice of the narrator.
The trailer for the upcoming (at the time of writing) Batwoman series came out recently (click here to watch it yourself), and I’ve found myself watching a lot of reaction videos. Most of the reactions are pretty negative (don’t think I’ve come across any that are positive), but there’s one (on the ‘Heel vs Baby Face’ channel) that goes deeper into the trailer’s problems This video argues that, rather than portraying Batwoman as a hero, the trailer actually shows her as a villain. It’s wonderfully argued, by someone who clearly understands character arcs in stories, and I recommend you take a few minutes out to watch it. In fact, stop reading this and watch it right now.
The video makes a great deal of sense (and I love his reimagined version, where Batwoman has to be encouraged to take up the mantle of the Bat). But what struck me is how the difference between hero and villain can be so small.
Both strive to get what they want, often against huge odds (even the ‘cartoon villains’ of Bond films have spent years building up their money and power, often weaving complex deceptions to get their own way). However, we want the villain to fail, and we want the hero to win—and the reason for this comes down to sympathy.
We also feel sympathy for a hero because of their flaws. A character who is strong in every way is hard to relate to—flaws make a character more human, more like us, especially when their imperfections threaten to impinge on what they are trying to achieve. This is why we love the ‘everyman’ hero, the average person who is thrust into unimaginable dangers—because we can relate to these characters, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes.
This is why Harry Potter works as the hero—he might have innate magical ability, but the whole wizarding world is new to him, and he struggles with so much of it. Then there’s Ripley, just another worker who finds herself battling an alien as it kills off the rest of the Nostromo’s crew. There’s Katniss, taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and being thrust into a whole situation she is totally unprepared for.
The list goes on and on.
Motivation comes into play here. The hero’s struggles are often down to the battle between what they want and what they know is the right thing to do. Where the villain is consumed by entitlement and superiority, the hero constantly battles with doubts, and has to push hard to do what they feel they must. They put their lives on the line, or their reputation, or their own happiness, because they know, deep down, that there are higher stakes.
And this is why we root for a hero. They might have similar doubts and imperfections as us, but they don’t give in. They fight for what is right, just as we want to imagine we’d do in the same situation. They don’t have everything handed to them, or take whatever they want.
In the trailer, it does appear that Batwoman simply takes everything Batman has built up, and demands credit for it—and so it’s hard to sympathise with her. But it’s worth pointing out that this is only the trailer, and might not be a fair representation of the series itself. It’s always possible to pull scenes and lines of dialogue out of context, and to create the illusion of an alternative story (as the Scary Mary video demonstrates so well, trailering Mary Poppins as a horror film, or the ‘happy’ trailer for The Shining).
Or maybe this trailer shows highlights of the first act of a redemption story, where Batwoman initially allows her internal villain to take over, but as the series develops we’ll see her forced to confront this. Maybe she’ll fight through as she learns what made Batman who he was, and in the final act we’ll see Batwoman helping others for their sakes rather than her own ego, finally becoming the superhero Gotham needs.
There’s a thin line between hero and villain.
It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.
This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great—it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass—it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation—the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?
The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.
At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending—the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.
One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.
And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise—the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.
But he didn’t. The promise was broken.
And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.
That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race—then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert—and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.
As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.
Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.
In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?
Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.
If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.
I read genre books. Yes, I read literary fiction too (whatever that actually means), but because I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, the occasional thriller and so on, I’m predominantly a genre reader.
As I both read and write more, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of tropes in different genres. These are those scenes or events that are expected, those parts of the story that almost define it as a certain genre. Thrillers have the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, the ‘speech in praise of the villain’. There’s often a false ending, too—and this crops up in horror as well. In romance there’s the first kiss, the misunderstanding that appears to ruin everything, but there’s always a happily-ever-after (miss this and endure the wrath of countless romance fans). Then there are all the internal genres, those that follow a characters development (either positive or negative)—the moment when they have to make a choice from which there is no going back. In a maturation story, there is that moment when it becomes clear to the main character that the world they believed to be true is based on a lie of some kind.
So different genres have different tropes. But what about science-fiction stories? What defines a sci-fi story?
It has to be set in the future—unless it’s set in the past (like Star Wars), or an alternative present.
There has to be some kind of cool technology—unless there isn’t (think Planet Of The Apes.) And the technology doesn’t have to play a major role in the story either—it can be simply setting.
What about action? Well, there’s action in a lot of sci-fi—but not all. There might be battles in space, or there might be duelling in dialogue between two characters. Some sci-fi is fast-paced, but other stories in this area are slower and more reflective.
And are there any set scenes in sci-fi? Erm…no.
The more I think about this, the more I realise that science fiction is not a genre, at least in the same way that horror or thriller or crime or romance are genres. Science fiction refers more to the setting than the type of story being told.
Maybe a few examples will help:
BladeRunner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) is a philosophical detective story, with musings on what it means to be human, and also has many noir tropes—downtrodden detective, questions over who are in fact the good guys. Oh, and there’s a love story underneath all this. But it has replicants, and it’s set on an Earth that many people have abandoned to travel to the stars.
Ender’s Game is almost a sports story, with Ender starting off in the little leagues and working his way up to the big time. Ender takes his team and uses their weaknesses as strengths, overcoming all the obstacles in his path. It could almost be viewed as a coming-of-age story, too. The fact that the games involve space battles is secondary.
Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is comedy, full of bizarre happenings and loads of satire. The plot is secondary to the humour, and the science fiction setting simply gives Adams more scope for letting his ideas run riot, and allows him to satirise many things in our current world/time.
Asimov’s Foundation books (at least in the original trilogy) tell the story of a civilization over time, with much of the action involving political shenanigans and business dealings. The technology is used in trade, rather than in space battles, and the most important science is social science. And then, in the third book, there is the Mule, the lone individual who throws a spanner in the works, and proves that even the greatest minds are not infallible. Science-fiction is simply the setting in which Asimov tells his generation-spanning saga.
Dune is another saga, with all the political and familial intrigue of a historical novel. Like the best sagas, it draws the reader into a rich world populated by diverse characters, each with their own motives and desires. It just happens to be set on a desert planet.
Six science-fiction books, and all so different. Many sci-fi readers will enjoy them all, but there will be those who love getting embedded in the world of Dune but can’t stand the apparent frivolity of Hitch-Hikers. Those who become engrossed in Watney’s constant struggles in The Martian might be turned off by the socio-political dialogue in the Foundation books. These books area all undoubtedly science fiction, but they are very different story-types.
Have a look at the science-fiction sub-genres on Amazon—alternative history, first contact, metaphysical & visionary, military, time travel, space exploration to name a few. There is a science-fiction subgenre in romance, another in action & adventure. There’s science-fiction erotica, and there are technothrillers (where science-fiction and thriller meet). And that’s just the official categories. The film Alien uses the sci-fi setting to tell a classic horror story. Another film, Gattaca, is basically a society story (different classes of citizens and so on), but told in a future world.
I think this is a great strength of science-fiction, and it is something that sci-fi writers have utilised for years. In the late 1930s, L Ron Hubbard, already a successful writer of adventure stories, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction magazine to write for them. He was initially reluctant, saying that he didn’t write about ‘machines and machinery’, but about people. The publishers of the magazine told him that this was precisely what they wanted. His first story for the magazine was a success, and led to more and more people-based sci-fi stories, by writers such as Isaac Asimov.
There are some sci-fi stories that are primarily concerned with the science aspects (hard sci-fi, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama), but the majority use the setting to tell other stories, and may use this further to reflect on our present-day world. Science-fiction gives a writer great scope for asking ‘what if…?’ and then crafting a suitable story around wherever that question takes them. Or it gives them a vast canvas on which to tell a myriad of stories, drawing on whatever influences and preferences they have.
And this is one of the reasons I love reading science-fiction—the whole ‘genre’ gives me such a huge array of different stories. When I read sci-fi, I can explore types of stories I wouldn’t normally consider, but without stepping too far out of my comfort zone. I can escape to new worlds while still, for example, being presented with an intricate puzzle in the form of a crime/detective story. I can be entertained while being challenged, made both fearful and hopeful.
Much of this relates to fantasy, too—unsurprising, as the two ‘genres’ share many similarities. There are fantasy action stories, fantasy romances, fantasy thrillers, fantasy sagas—the list goes on.
Of course, in the end, the setting is only secondary to the story. A cool world is fun to visit, but without interesting characters being thrust into intriguing situations there’s little to hold us beyond a brief visit.
This is why, as a writer, it’s important that I understand tropes, and that I understand different kinds of stories. My own stuff fits in science-fiction, but to make the stories work, I first need to know what kinds of stories I’m telling.
Douglas Adams has many great characters in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but one of my favourites only exists for about a page—the sperm whale that is suddenly called into existence a few miles above the planet of Magrathea. Of course, the ending is fairly predictable.
“Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like…ow…ound…round…ground! That’s it! That’s a good name—ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?”
I remember reading interviews with Adams where he explained how this whale came about. In cop shows on TV at that time there would often be chase scenes with both heroes and villains firing guns. Naturally, the villains were never the best of shots, and innocent bystanders would end up dying. What annoyed Adams about this was how nobody on-screen appeared to care—there was nobody to cry over this loss of life, or even say ‘Hey! I was going to play tennis with that guy this afternoon!’ (apologies if I’ve got the quote wrong—I’m going from memory here). In short, these characters were only there for one purpose—to be killed.
So Adams decided to write a character whose only role was to die, and make sure the reader cared about them.
I think it’s safe to say he achieved this.
But this points to the importance of characters in stories. Often, stories are viewed as primarily plots (the stuff that happens), with characters simply being the ones this stuff happens to. But in a good story, the plot is driven by the characters—initially through their reactions to events (like the thoughts going through Adams’ whale’s head), and then through their actions (although the whale’s meeting with the ground prevents anything in this example). Story is not so much the events as the characters’ reactions and actions. In fact, I believe we can go a stage further—characters are story.
To illustrate this, I want to compare a couple of books—Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Both are hard sci-fi, and as such both dive into scientific details. Both give the reader a sense of place through their scientific world-building.
Rendezvous… is about a team of astronauts investigating a huge alien artifact that has entered the solar system. We follow this team as they uncover various mysteries, learning more and more. Occasionally, things go wrong, but the team are professionally competent, and they soon solve any issues.
This is one problem I had with the book—there’s very little tension. Yes, there are the constant questions about Rama, but the whole ‘story’ is more like a narrative documentary than an adventure into the unknown. The characters (and I can’t remember their names, nor anything distinguishing about any of them) are simply tools through which Clarke can describe this fantastic world he has created.
Now compare this with The Martian. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, and right from the start we’re with him as he struggles to survive. We ride with his ups and downs, feeling the tension of his struggles and the release as he solves problems. Yes, there’s science and maths in his solutions, and he’s competent and professional, but we relate to him as a person. What might have been a guide to survival on Mars becomes, through the character of Watney, a story of survival in a hostile environment.
Story comes to us through character, not through situations or environments.
Think of any successful book, and chances are you think of the characters driving the story.
The battle for Middle Earth is huge, too big for the average person to hold, and so Tolkien tells his story through the struggles of a few characters, primarily the hobbits. The fight between good and evil is made personal in Frodo’s struggle with the power of the Ring. Sam, his stout friend, gives us hope because he’s someone we can relate to—not particularly skilled, terrified much of the time, but with a firm belief in what is right, and a drive to do what he can to help Frodo. The story exists not in the vast sweeping history but in the struggles of these characters.
There are many other examples, of course. The conflict in JK Rowling’s wizarding world is brought to us initially through a young boy’s introduction to his own abilities as a wizard, and continues through his struggles both with his power and his develop into a young man, culminating in his confrontation with Voldemort. In the Hunger Games books, a whole world’s struggles are made real through the constant battling of Katniss Evergreen. Dune’s political intrigues are grounded in Paul Artreides, and his understanding of exactly who (what) he is. The battle against the Empire is shown through Luke Skywalker. The wonders of Douglas Adams’ bizarre universe are shown through the hapless character of Arthur Dent, confused and often wanting to simply have a lie down and a nice cup of tea. The fight against thieves in an office block is made personal through the character of John Mclane (and, to a certain extend, through Alan Rickman’s character—not a common thief but an exceptional one).
Without these characters, would these stories be the same? Would the stories really exist? Maybe they could be told in other ways, but they’d still need engaging characters. Maybe without Harry Potter, we’d have Neville Longbottom’s fight with Voldemort. Without Arthur Dent, maybe Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would be Trillian’s story. We can’t know for sure. But we can say that, without characters, these stories would simply be stuff that happens.
Because characters don’t inhabit stories, they are stories.
I recently visited Beamish, a ‘living museum’ in the north of England. Set in rural land, it has different areas depicting life at certain times in history—a 1940s wartime farm, an 1900s town and pit village, and so on). Many of the buildings are genuine period properties, transported to Beamish and rebuilt brick by brick. Staff all wear period costumes, and play the parts of everyday people in these different areas—in the bakery, they make the bread and cakes using 1900s methods (and then sell them to visitors), and the guard at the wartime farm asked our children for their ID cards (and happened to have a couple they could take). Transport between the different areas is either by walking, or on restored buses and trams, complete with uniformed staff playing their parts.
Rather than giving loads of information, it goes for an immersive experience. This approach allows visitors to experience these times and places, giving a more ‘real’ understanding of day-to-day life as it once was.
But, as we explored the place, one thought kept on coming back to me—it could never be totally realistic, because I was seeing all this through modern-day sensibilities. I couldn’t forget the ‘real world’, with all its tech and modern societal issues and so on. No matter how accurate the costumes and the settings and the acting, it was not my own reality.
And that got me thinking about fiction, especially any story that is not based in the here and now. It reminded me of the difficulties involved in making a story-world realistic in a genuine way.
Take historical fiction. The characters in the story should be used to the time period they are in, but as readers we might not be familiar with, for example, some of the social ‘rules’. So when, for example, a character removes their hat, this might mean nothing to us, but to the characters in the story it could be a sign of disrespect, and will colour their actions toward this character.
Then there is science fiction. We might take mobile phone technology for granted, and think nothing of texting or Tweeting or updating a profile, but these simple actions would be alien to someone from a hundred years ago. Now imagine how things might change in another century’s time—what will people then do that is normal to them, but unheard of to us?
So what’s the problem? Why not give us a bit of background info in the story so that we understand?
But that’s where the problem lies. How does a writer do this, without it coming across as a clunky explanation? How does a writer get this information across without shooting off on a tangent, or interrupting the flow of the story?
Surely, if the story concerns the characters, we need to remain with them as much as possible. We need to see both the story events and the story-world through their eyes, and experience it through their senses.
There are a few ways to solve this issue.
One that is possibly the easiest to pull off (and, unsurprisingly, one that is used a great deal, especially in fantasy stories) is to make the main character an outsider, someone who doesn’t initially know about the world.
The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Yes, Harry is a wizard, but at the start of the series he doesn’t know this. He discovers this whole other reality, and has to learn how it works—and that allows us to learn through his story. It’s even pointed out in the books, most often by a frustrated Hermionie bemoaning Harry’s lack of knowledge.
The Lord Of The Rings does something similar, through having hobbits as the central viewpoint characters. Although they are different to us, their world is similar to a kind of rural idyll we can relate to. This allows Tolkien to teach us, the reader, about the world beyond the Shire as the hobbits experience it.
Another example is Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. By having one of the main characters as an apprentice, Eco is able to have the master giving information in a natural way, helping us, the reader, make sense of what is happening. Similarly, in Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes has to explain himself to the less quick Watson, allowing us (the even slower readers?) to keep up too.
But what if there are no characters close to ‘us’? What if there is no in-story novice who requires explanation?
There’s a thing called ‘maid and butler’, from stage-plays. Two servants appear, cleaning or whatever, and they talk about the current situation of the main characters—but often, it comes over extremely false. “As you know, Ethel, the master is due to return from his recent sojourn to the south of France, where he has been wooing young Miss Forester.” Yes, it gives us information, but it sounds unnatural—both characters know these facts, so why are they talking in this manner?
So, how do authors avoid this?
One way is simply through good writing craft.
An example of this is in Iain M Banks’ Culture books. The main characters are not human, and so they have alien (to us) ways of doing things. There are many references to characters glanding various compounds, but I don’t believe this is ever overtly explained, but context makes it clear that Culture residents can artificially introduce various drugs into their bodies by manipulating internal reservoirs. In a short phrase like ‘she glanded Bliss’, Banks leads us to understand that this character is giving herself some kind of euphoric ‘high’ as a way of coping with her situation.
Sometimes, an author will throw the reader in at the deep end, and force the reader to think. Michael John Grist does this in his Ruins War trilogy (beginning with Mr Ruin). Right from the start, we’re diving minds, and fighting the Lag in sublavic ships. There’s very little to explain these terms, but as a reader it is clear that these things all mean something, so we go along with it, trusting that things will become clear eventually.
Books like this aren’t necessarily light reads, but good ones (like Mr Ruin) are worth the effort, because our perseverance is rewarded. Also, we are in the characters’ world from the start, totally immersed.
But sometimes there is need for explanation. There are books where a little up-front understanding will help the reader appreciate the story far more. And there are a few ways an author can do this.
Isaac Asimov uses one common method in his Foundation books. He starts each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional encyclopeida, giving some background information while still leaving questions, and all without disrupting the flow of the story. Other authors include extracts from ‘historical’ documents.
Some authors delve into the details, but turn a possible distraction into an effective part of their writing. I’ve recently read The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton, and there are long passages of explanation, far more than the story actually needs. But it adds to the whole world, and in a genre like hard sci-fi, many readers actively want these details. Similarly, Neal Stephenson, in Seveneves, provides so much technical information that at times it reads like a manual—but that is one aspect of his writing that his readers like. In the wide realm of science-fiction, some readers are drawn to the ‘fiction’ side, while others thrive on the ‘science’.
Of course, JRR Tolkien did this too, but on a far larger scale. The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings are the ‘stories’, but the details of the world he created fill up not only a lengthy appendix, but also many more books. And this is another way of doing things—write the stories so that the average reader can appreciate the story, even if they don’t quite get all the references, but provide additional writings for those who want to dive deeper.
Ultimately, though, the method used is not as important as the end results—to allow the reader to experience as fully as possible the characters’ world. Maybe, as with the Beamish museum, total immersion is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s one of the joys of reading fiction set in different places and different times, filled with characters who are different to us—it gives us an experience we cannot get in our normal lives. It helps us see a world, be it real or imaginary, in a new way.
I don’t know who said it, but this quote is perfect:
I read books not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.
That’s a very ambiguous question. To narrow it down a bit, I’ll only consider fiction here, and will define a book as an object containing a text version of a story. Generally, this is either a physical book (paperback or hardback) or an electronic version (audiobooks have another layer of performance, so I’m discounting them for this discussion.)
One measure of worth is money, so how much do we pay for books? In the UK, a paperback is generally between five and ten pounds, and a hardback around twenty. E-book pricing varies considerably—there are the free or 99p books, right up to about twenty pounds.
Why the difference in prices? So let’s consider what we are actually paying for.
When we buy a paperback or hardback, we exchange money for a physical object. Yes, we can read it, but we can also display it on our shelves. We can admire it as a thing in itself.
But with an e-book, we received a string of zeros and ones that are stored on a hard-drive somewhere. Our computers (phones, e-readers or whatever we use) translate this information into the words we read and the pictures we see. But ultimately, it’s just data.
It’s the same story in both versions—the only difference is in the means of delivery. Any difference in price should therefore reflect the costs involved in creating and distributing these different versions.
Think about what it takes to turn a story into a book. There is all the work the author puts in—planning, research, writing, re-writing and editing. There are external editors and proofreaders. This goes for all books, electronic and physical.
But after this, things diverge. For a physical book, the pages are formatted, then proof-read (in the original sense of the term—checking the proof copy, and not just looking for spelling and grammatical errors). These pages are then sent to the printer, who creates the physical book itself from materials the printing company purchases. The book is bound, with a cover that includes front, back and spine. The book is stored and, when requested, shipped to stores. These stores have their own overheads to cover—rent on the building, wages for staff, store furniture and power etc. This is true for both bricks-and-mortar and on-line sellers.
And all this, apart from the creation of the original proofs, needs to be repeated for each book sold.
Now consider an e-book. Once the text is completed, it is formatted, and a cover designed. These files are then uploaded to a seller, be that an independent website or a company like Amazon or Kobo. The seller requires a server etc., but the costs are far less than for the storage of a physical object. And there is no need to create a new e-book for each sale made—the original is simply copied digitally.
From the above, it seems pretty clear to me that the cost of bringing an e-book to a reader is far lower than getting a physical book in their hands, and for this reason alone it makes sense that paper books should be priced higher.
Yet this is not always the case. I often see e-books priced the same as paperbacks (normally by traditional publishers). I have seen e-books priced the same as a hardback, even though the paperback is under half that amount. And I can see no possible justification for this.
But that is only part of the question I first posed. This is price as a reflection of the manufacturing cost. This is the price of the book as an object.
Books, as a means of conveying a story, have a value in the words themselves, and the artistry and craft that are displayed in the writing. What we value in a book is the experience of reading.
And this is where things become far harder to quantify. How much would you pay for entertainment?
We could consider time. If we are willing to pay, say, ten pounds to watch a two-hour film, should a novel that takes five hours be worth over twenty pounds? If that were the case, a book like War And Peace might be over a hundred pounds. I can imagine someone paying that much for a rare edition, but I’ve seen paperback copies for around £0.99.
But it would be wrong to assume there is a correlation between quantity and quality. Is Stephen King’s It worth five times the value of Animal Farm? Much as I enjoy both books, I wouldn’t agree with this statement. In fact, many smaller books outclass longer stories. To me, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Fight Club are far more enjoyable than, say, George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones / Song of Ice And Fire books. And I know that sentence will upset some people, but that’s just me and my reading tastes.
Which gives us another issue to consider—everyone is different. One person’s life-changing entertainment will be wasted hours to another. The same books could be considered a thrilling roller-coaster ride or a hideous excuse for gratuitous violence and bad language. A thrilling tale might be gratuitous violence and bad language to someone else. One person might value well-crafted prose, but another might find more of value in a finely-tuned story. One person might get swept up in rich descriptions, and another might be drawn into snappy, sarcastic dialogue.
In other words, two people will consider the same book to have different worth. I might baulk at buying the next book Martin release, even if it was on special offer, but others will gladly spend twenty pounds on the hardback version, then buy another copy when that one wears out. To them, the book is worth far more than it is to me.
Because value is about more than money. What we pay for something, and it’s value, are not always connected. Some of the best books I have read—the books that I value—did not cost me a great deal, but there are other ways I can pay the author, and other ways I can demonstrate how much I believe that book is worth. Some of my new-found favourite authors can rely on me to keep buying their books. I can tell others what I think, and I can write reviews (or mention books and authors when I’m writing here). Some fans draw art based on their most valued books, or write fan-fiction. Some buy electronic, physical and audio versions. Others frequent author websites, or follow the author on social media.
So the question ‘how much is a book worth’ now encompasses more than money. It involves time and effort. A good book is worth our undivided attention for a number of hours. A good book is worth thinking about, and maybe revisiting.
It has been said that any object is only worth what someone will pay for it, but this needs to be extended. A story is worth the money you pay for it, the time you spend reading it, and the effort you expend in thinking about it.
What is a book worth? Ultimately, it depends on both the reader and the book.
Summer is over. Nights are stretching out, and days are growing colder. Leaves are falling from the trees.
It’s the time of year for Halloween stories.
But what makes a story scary? What is it in these tales that makes us shudder or gasp? How do scary stories work?
Trying to answer those questions in a thousand words or so is impossible, but I have a few general thoughts on this. I’m going to focus on a couple of films, but this all applies to books as well—I’ve kept these thoughts close while writing my own sci-fi/horror series. The films I’m going to mention most are Alien and An American Werewolf In London, and there will be spoilers below.
Scary stories are usually fairly extreme—undead creatures, different realities, powers that run counter to how physics tells us the world works. For this to have an impact, there needs to be something we can relate to. Horror is always worse when it is played out against an everyday backdrop. The creepy haunted house can work, but only if there is some kind or normality about it. Take Stephen King’s The Shining—the setting might be a large, seemingly empty old building cut off from the rest of the world, but it’s also a hotel, where people go to relax and enjoy themselves.
But the more mundane the setting, the greater the impact of the horror elements. The Exorcist is set in a normal house, with a single-parent family. In Poltergeist and Ring, TVs play an important part. Then there are the stories where dolls come to life and cause havoc, like Chucky in Child’s Play.
Why does this work well? Because we’re used to the normal stuff. We’ve probably all had good times in a hotel. Many of us live in regular houses. We watch TV. Our children have dolls and other toys. And in a scary story, these normal settings and objects take on new, frightening aspects.
In American Werewolf, we start on the Yorkshire Moors (slightly creepy because it’s night-time, but still relatively ‘normal’), and then go to London. It is relatively easy to imagine a monster stalking a dark, misty moorland, but surely not in a modern city.
Even a space-ship can seen normal. In Alien, there are no shiny control panels, and things look used. The crew are workers, and we can relate to them—yes, they might be in outer space, but they’re just doing a job. They’re just like us.
That familiarity helps us relate to what is happening in the story, but it also forces us to see our own surroundings in a new light. When a werewolf is staking people in a city, we start to wonder what that noise coming from outside might be. When toys come to life with murderous intent, those glassy eyes in the bedrooms of our children send a shudder down our spine.
Scary stories work best when things are left to the imagination. When all we are presented with is shadows, and maybe some kind of noise, our minds fill in the blanks — and our minds know just what terrifies us.
In Alien we don’t see the complete monster until the very end of the film. We see parts of it, in shadows. We see what it leaves behind. We see some of the characters’ reactions to it. But we don’t come face to face with it for a long time.
That’s one of the reasons the sequels don’t work as horror films—we see too much of the aliens. By the time we get to Alien Resurrection, and have two xenomorphs swimming effortlessly towards the camera, we know what to expect, and there is nothing like the same sense of dread.
Jaws works the same way (and that film borrows heavily from the horror genre). We never see any part of the shark until the second half of the film, and even then only see the whole thing near the end.
In both cases (Jaws and Alien), some of this was down to practicalities in the film-making process — there were not the resources to effectively show the whole monster. But the film-makers used this limitation to their advantage. Rather than try to show us everything, they left it up to us to create our own monster.
This is a classic case of ‘less is more’, and I’d like to give another example. In the original version of The Grudge, there is a scene with the main character having a shower, and a hand appears, rubbing her hair. There is no indication where this hand comes from — it’s suddenly there, touching her. She’s in the shower (an enclosed space) and she’s naked (and vulnerable), and suddenly there’s something else in there with her.
This scene doesn’t work as well in the American remake. Here, we get to see the hand growing from the back of the main character’s neck before it touches her head. This is grotesque, but it’s not nearly as scary as the original—precisely because what we don’t know can be worse than what we see.
Those who tell good scary stories understand that less is more, and that when our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, it taps into our own fears to conjure up something personally terrifying.
Something jumping out and going ‘boo’ might make us jump, but that fright is gone as quickly as it appears. For longer-lasting terror, there has to be a build-up. There have to be small clues that tell us ‘something’s not right’. The dread must creep up on us, like dark mist, until we suddenly realise that we are being smothered.
The Monkey’s Paw is a great example of this. (Again, there’s going to be spoilers. If you haven’t read this story, it’s in the public domain, so you should be able to get hold of a copy for free. Check out Project Gutenberg.) The monkey’s paw grants wishes, and at first that seems like a good thing. But the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true here. The couple who find the paw wish for money, and it duly arrives—as compensation for the death of their son in a workplace accident.
This is the set-up. We learn that wishes come at a price.
The mother wants her son back. The father had to identify the body, so he knows just what the accident did to their son. He tries to stop his wife, but she grabs the paw and makes her wish.
There’s a knock at the door. The mother races down the stairs, and struggles to free the latch. Meanwhile, the father is scrambling around, dreading what will happen when his wife sees the abomination at the door. She’s thrown the monkey’s paw down somewhere, and he has to find it. He needs to stop what’s about to happen.
We never get a description of the son, but that doesn’t matter. We can imagine it (again, the power of imagination), but what gets our hearts pumping is the race between the mother and the father, and the fear of what will happen when she opens the door.
It is the anticipation that drives the horror.
I’ll give another example, from one of the most memorable sequences in American Werewolf. We see a commuter stepping off a tube train. The train disappears into the tunnel, leaving him alone on a platform. He hears a noise, but he thinks nothing of it, and he carries on his way. The noise repeats, and he calls out, telling whoever it is that he doesn’t find this funny in the slightest. But there is definitely something around. He starts to get nervous. He walks faster, and then he starts to run.
We do see the werewolf, briefly, but by that time the commuter has collapsed on an escalator. The werewolf appears at the bottom, and starts to climb. We cut back to see the commuter, as he watches this thing approach, and the terror grows on his face.
I can’t remember if we see the attack. But I can remember the build-up, because that is the scary part.
This occurs in thrillers a lot, but works very well in horror too. It’s usually the moment where everyone in the cinema jumps out of their seats at the same time.
There’s an example part-way through American Werewolf, in a dream sequence. The main character watches his family being slaughtered by monster-soldier things, and when one of them pulls a knife across his throat he wakes up with a jerk. He’s in his hospital bed, with a nurse watching over him. It was only a dream. The nurse, seeing he’s awake, goes to open the curtains.
And as she reached the window, one of the monsters leaps out and stabs her in the chest.
It’s a shock because we never for a moment suspect that he’s still dreaming.
Alien saves the false ending for the final moments of the film. Ripley sets the Nostromo to self-destruct, then races to reach the escape pod (after finding the ship’s cat, of course). There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and the alien is somewhere on the ship. It’s a great sequence, and when she finally seals herself into the escape pod and ejects, and the Nostromo explodes, we feel her relief.
And then something moves in the shadows. She has not destroyed the alien. It is in the escape pod with her.
False endings are often the most memorable parts of stories. We already have the build-up of adrenaline in the tension-filled scene before, and then we have that fake release, followed by the sudden shock that makes our hearts leap.
It’s the perfect scare.
So there you have a few reasons scary stories work. Of course there are more (like the fate worse than death, and the corruption of innocence), and I’m interested on your thoughts on this. What gets your heart racing in a story? What makes you jump out of your skin in a book or a film?