My in-laws used to winter out west. Their goal was to get from Point A (eastern Wisconsin) to Point B (southern Arizona) at breakneck speed with not a wasted moment at sub-points between.
When my family vacationed, Dad chose every road less traveled, and stopped to read every historical marker. We were fortunate to get out of the county.
Some authors write like my in-laws travel.
They gallop the plot along, leaping from high point to high point, pounding deep-seated emotions and backstories into dust. They might squeeze in a pit stop at a motivation way-station or grab a snack of love interest, but these are primarily fuel to hurl on toward the next adrenaline rush till eventually—BOOM! The story slams directly into the climax. Ian Fleming, Zane Gray, Clive Cussler and the like have written books brimming with action. If you’ve read The Three Musketeers, Hondo or The Bourne Identity, you know the type. Want to impress your friends? Refer to these as ‘plot-driven’ books.
Then there are the novels in which the storyline is so incidental, the author sometimes loses track of it all together. Like my father who found much of interest right where he stood, these writers grab a spade and dig deeply into their characters’ psyches. No recess of a protagonist’s or antagonist’s brain is safe.
No emotion is taken for granted, no sidelong glance is without meaning and context, no childhood event has less than earth-shattering ramifications. For obvious reasons these novels are known as ‘character driven.’ The Great Gatsby, The Help, The Catcher in the Rye, even many of Shakespeare’s plays—you know WHO these stories are about more than WHAT happens.
Between the galloper and the digger we have a range of writers who craft various combinations of dashes, pauses, probes and stops. Jane Austen, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien all wrote memorable scenes. But their characters are three-dimensional complexities able to tuck the plot in their fully-formed arms and nourish it to intriguing fruition. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Once and Future King, Fahrenheit 451, the Harry Potter series, all have a strong storyline accompanied by strong personalities.
These mid-range novels are my favorite. It is the writers at the far ends of the spectrum who baffle and bother. Constant cliff-hangers with routinely strong-jawed heroes and/or stunning size-nothing heroines with the strength of ten Grinches plus two—after a few hundred brushes with death I find myself hoping that the next inescapable predicament will truly be inescapable.
Or take those authors (please) who dig so deeply into the hearts and minds and histories of their characters that they scrape bedrock but burrow further. After disgorging countless words, pages and chapters of secret emotions, hidden happenings, fruitless longings and repressed scars, the writer can’t persuade these characters to do anything. They just sit in the rubble of their exposed innards hoping the author will type ‘The End.’
It’s a wide world out there. We can read books that buckle us in and careen across mountain peaks and seven seas in 300 pages or less. The world is also deep, and some authors require that we get down on our haunches and appreciate the riches below the surface. A truly skilled and passionate writer can make folks like my father appreciate whirlwind tours, or help people like my in-laws linger at a previously-overlooked pitstop.
Bless these authors. They are in the business of bringing us places we never would have visited but for them.