Is Compelling More Important Than Good in Fiction?

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

An epiphany about the importance keeping a reader reading

I recently posted a comment on an article covering the importance of using early readers for a quality check on your fiction. It described an insight I gained from a single comment from one of my readers of my first novel:

“One reader, when I nervously asked her what she thought said “I don’t know if it’s good but I want to know what happens next.” I happily told her I’d rather be compelling than good. That was a big lesson: realizing that pace and keeping things moving is incredibly important.”

I’d like to look at this a little closer since it was a really important learning experience as a writer, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the experience of completing my first novel: The importance of keeping the pace moving and the reader engaged. For me, as a reader and a writer, this may be the most important aspect of telling a story that people want to read.

We all know the meaning of a page-turner, a book that is hard to put down, even if it is inherently silly or perhaps not that well-written. The popularity of genre novels like dystopian futurism or romance is often based on their ability to help a reader escape from or into a situation, if only for a few hours. But how do you do this?

Some tools: likeable or unpredictable characters, pacing, and constant unexpected twists

“I want to know what happens next.”

If you can crack that code you’re probably on your way to bestsellerdom, if not literary fame. The distinction is important. My epiphany was my response that I’d rather be compelling than good. The reality of the fiction world is that there is often a dividing line between popular fiction and what I would call academically-accepted fiction that has been stamped ‘literary’, perhaps to be followed by a Booker or some similar accolade. This is not say that a Booker Prize winner or short list title cannot be popular. Estimating popularity is a guessing game. I often grab Booker titles at the library and find them slow-going. But titles like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a complex introduction to a series of books of serious historical fiction, was a justifiable best seller. The reader willing to navigate its complex POVs and intricate storylines was rewarded by a tale of intrigue, death, and complicated characters behaving badly in their own self-interests. A tour de force in other words. But how do you do that?

I guess I’d argue that until and if you develop Mantel’s skill and talent as a storyteller, it’s more important to focus on keeping things moving. Pacing is the key and it why writing teachers advise against long descriptive passages, series of long sentences, and scenes with little action. For me, one of the best pacing tools long-form writers have is the use of chapters, or perhaps more accurately, scenes. Consider how we have learned to consume stories from movies where the scene is the element used to organize and propel the story. In a film, being a visual medium, it is often not necessary to even have dialog in a scene. A scene is used to convey one plot or character beat, no more than one. The fiction writer can learn a lot from this. Each chapter has but one purpose: to further illuminate a motivation or provide a development that propels the story to its next stage.

Other pacing tools are unadorned dialog, elimination of adjectives and adverbs, keeping sentences mostly short and to the point. If you are fortunate enough to work with a good editor much of what they do is this tightening up of your writing.

Interesting characters

Among my reader friends, one of the favorite recent novels is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It covers the life of a Russian count imprisoned for life in a Moscow luxury hotel during the Russian revolution. On the surface of it, this sounds like it could get boring. A whole life in a hotel? It is the opposite because the main character Count Rostov is an incredibly interesting and unpredictable character. Everyone is rooting for him. A compelling character with a believable conflict is one of the rules most writing workshops focus on, for good reason.

Things were moving along smoothly when… [unpredictable twists]

Think of the beginning of the Harry Potter series when Harry, an abused youth we don’t know, receives a letter delivered by an owl, inviting him to attend a wizarding academy, because he’s a…wizard! Yikes! Or Frodo Baggins discovering a ring he has carried on a chain around his neck is the most dangerous object in his world? These twists set the scene in both stories for an entire unfolding milieu that requires multiple volumes to reach a climax.

In the novel I’m currently working on, we open with a woman entering an empty apartment in an unfamiliar city. She has a suitcase and nothing else. But this move is her first step in recovering from a horrendous suicide, a fact we only learn through a series of reveals as she gradually returns to life. Because she is rediscovering the world after being muted for several years, each short chapter shows an observation or offers a learning moment, however small. They are designed to keep things going so the reader wants to know what happens next, page after page.

Going back and reading favorite novels with the eyes of a novelist

As a formerly voracious reader who had lost some of my taste for reading as I got older and more alluring distractions on screens sucked up my attention, writing my first novel led to a bit of a breakthrough. I started reading differently, being more analytical and curious about how successful writers made compelling stories. It has been a major benefit to me as a writer to see things from this perspective. Take a look at your work and identify the points where these kinds of things push the story along, and where things like long descriptions (show don’t tell!) slow down the rhythm. Then try mercilessly cutting them* even if it means killing your babies…your storytelling skills will improve and you’ll become a better writer. After all, who says you can’t be compelling and good?

*Make a copy so you can A/B the versions. I think you’ll be surprised how much better they read.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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