A Lesson in Bad Writing – Why it’s Good to Read Books that Disappoint

5 Oct

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

~~~

You know that feeling you get when you read a great book? The one where you cling to every single word, and fight to keep your eyes open because you feel as though you’re on an adventure (and don’t want it to stop)? Where you lay in bed and find yourself still in that place, with those characters? Where you can feel your heart beating with adrenaline? Those books where you find yourself laughing and crying; where you can swear that your heart ached a bit? Where you close a book and it felt right, no matter how happy or sad it was?

Yeah… that didn’t happen to me the other night.

I hate when I see a book with so much potential that ends up being a huge let down. In fact, the first half of the book I’m referring to was amazing. Each chapter was from a different character’s point of view, and their voices were incredibly strong and compelling. The story kept me turning the pages. There was this incredible lead-up, and a wonderful world I was able to explore. And yet somewhere along the way, I began to find myself knitting my eyebrows together. Something wasn’t working anymore. The spell that had been woven so brilliantly at the beginning was lost to me.

And try as I might, I couldn’t find it again.

But why? The prose was wonderfully lyrical (and I even jotted down some absolutely BRILLIANT lines that I came across); the shifting P.O.V. was exciting and intriguing; the voice was strong; the characters were well-rounded; and there was a wonderful fairy-tale quality to it (in fact, it was a fairy tale retelling!).

Here’s why: The second half of the novel was preachy. There was a moral to be told, and that author was determined to make sure we understood the lesson being told to us. It became less about the story and the characters, and more about the message.

I was being lectured at.

Imagine my indignation, then, at realizing that I was expected to gain from the story a lesson in morality! No one reads a fairy tale looking to be sermonized. I was not looking to read a YA fairy tale retelling that pounds into my head the idea of God and miracles and heaven over and over and over. I was not looking for an anti-climactic, happy ending. I was looking for a story. I was looking for a character who would win my heart, and take me on a journey of learning and discovery with them – without it being obvious that I should walk away with an ethical message.

Characters are supposed to grow as the story continues. Somehow, I felt the opposite was happening; they were becoming less than they had been in the first half of the story. They were no longer real to me; I could tell that they were becoming shells of morality. They just weren’t believable. I was losing them; and they were losing me.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against God or religion in literature (or in YA). This wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I felt as if I were at Sunday school. And while some people might think, “well, what’s so wrong about that?”, I just want to say that a truly GOOD story doesn’t preach. It had become a two-dimensional parable – everything that happened seemed so contrived for this one purpose of teaching me a lesson; and it just wasn’t ringing true. The characters I had loved, the world that had mystified me, and the voices that had propelled the story became monotonous, repetitive, unbelievable, and annoyingly preachy.

If you can tell that an author is trying to teach you something, then the author has failed. No story should be written with a moral lesson in mind. A story should, first and foremost, resonate with readers. It should resonate with people who are constantly plagued with doubt, and fear, and even hatred at times. The most compelling characters aren’t perfect examples of morality. If your story happens to be a reflection or commentary of society, then great; so long as you focus on the characters first and foremost. Without them, your story is nothing.

The best books are stories first and foremost, and lessons or social commentaries second. That’s what makes them enjoyable to read. Otherwise, your reader won’t be able to invest in your characters or the world you’ve created. It doesn’t matter if it’s historical, or fantasy, or sci-fi, or contemporary – it all comes down to whether or not your reader will want to continue the journey with your characters.

As disappointed as I was, though, I’ve gained understanding into what doesn’t work. Being able to identify how a story goes wrong is a great way to understand how your story might perhaps be going awry (or, even, how your critique partner’s story might be heading off the rails). If you’re able to figure out what it is that doesn’t work, you’ll become a much better writer, and a much better critique partner. So as painful as it is to think of those novels that you just couldn’t get into (or that just fell apart, in my case), think about them a bit longer. Even after you’ve sighed and put it down, figure out what wasn’t working for you; once you’re able to find the specifics of what you didn’t like, you’ll be able to be a much better critique partner, and a much more capable writer.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

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30 Responses to “A Lesson in Bad Writing – Why it’s Good to Read Books that Disappoint”

  1. October 5, 2010 at 1:41 AM #

    Having this with a novel I have to force myself to finish. Second one this month where the plot takes 25, 50+ pages to take off in the slightest. Makes me dive for my own writing to make sure I start off strongly.

    And your reading experience shows another fate, and reminds us that a strong beginning is just that. A beginning. The rest still needs to be woven and plotted well.

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:01 AM #

      So true! Everything needs to be strong – your beginning, your middle, and your end. Your MS isn’t ready to be queried until you feel that all of it is strong, IMO!

      • October 5, 2010 at 5:39 PM #

        Oh, that classic saggy middle.

        • Vanessa October 6, 2010 at 9:11 AM #

          Gotta trim and tone it!

  2. Aurora Blackguard October 5, 2010 at 6:36 AM #

    Great post, Vanessa! I’ve noticed a lot lately that a lot of romance novels seem to end with this little paragraph re-relating to the reader that the character has finally put aside her fears and found true love in the process when she didn’t think she would and blah blah blah and that really kills it sometimes. Whatmore, it’s the ending. not necessarily in the same vein as what you’re preaching (excuse the pun) but that’s it.

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      Thanks Aurora. And LOL, I suppose I was kinda preaching myself, wasn’t I? :p

      Over-explaining is always a bad thing. If you aren’t able to convey it to your reader through your characters actions and words, then you need to fix that, not add in a “she put aside her fears” etc etc.

      • Aurora Blackguard October 6, 2010 at 1:07 AM #

        EXACTLY 🙂 I mean, how many times have you loved a romance novel and then want to pitch it out the window when you reach that paragraph?

        Maybe a hyperbole, but yeah!

  3. Carradee October 5, 2010 at 6:47 AM #

    “No story should be written with a moral lesson in mind. A story should, first and foremost, resonate with readers.”

    You say that like the two are mutually exclusive. Something can “resonate with readers” while still conveying a moral lesson. The distinction is, does the book show the moral lesson or tell it? It sounds like your recent disappointing reading experience was a tell-er.

    I’d give an example of a book that’s a fantastic story while still teaching a moral lesson, but last time I mentioned it I had some folks grump at me saying they had loved that book and now couldn’t enjoy it because I’d pointed out the lesson in it. I’ll settle for pointing out that the satire writer in particular must craft their works with their lesson in mind. Animal Farm, anyone? “A Modest Proposal”?

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 11:31 AM #

      I suppose moral lessons don’t particularly resonate with me. What does resonate with me are great characters and a compelling voice.

      I see moral lessons and satires/social commentaries to be different. The goal of a moral lesson is to teach a “truth”, of sorts – a set of standards concerning right and wrong, what to believe and what not to believe. A lesson in the goodness or correctness of an individual, if you will. A satire, or social commentary, is a reflection of society or a group of people (or whatnot). And as such, it is up to the reader to come to their own conclusions. It points things out. So I see a reflection as being different from a lesson. One asks you to look at something and discern from it what you will, and the other tells you what you should take away from it. I see them as two different things.

      So to me, Animal Farm does not try to teach me a lesson – it is simply a commentary on society, and I take from it what I will.

      But yes, I agree that a satire writer crafts their work in the hopes of getting across something. But they are never preachy. They might use comical figures and irony to get across their point, but they don’t demand that the reader learn a set of moral standards. Satire makes a reader question a lot of things, and prods them to form new thoughts – but it never tells them to do anything or believe anything specific.

      I totally agree that one should always show, not tell. But if it is a moral lesson, both will end up conveying what the reader is supposed to take away from the story, rather than letting the reader come to their own conclusion.

  4. Marc Vun Kannon October 5, 2010 at 8:06 AM #

    All fairy tales are created with a moral lesson in mind, that’s what they’re for. But you’re quite right, if it becomes obvious what the lesson is, or worse, if you’re told what the lesson is, that kills the story. It was Ayn Rand’s problem (not to mention that the lessons she tried to teach were crappy lessons), and James P. Hogan’s, that the whole story would come to a screeching halt while Joe X lectured the room about ‘the meaning of life’ or some such and every one else just hung on his every word.
    When I started writing Unbinding the Stone that was one of my principles, not to lecture the reader about how to live but to show characters who lived that way.

    Excellent post.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:16 AM #

      Thank you Marc!

      Definitely – when it’s obvious, it kills the story.

      I thought fables have lessons and morals though, not necessarily fairy tales.

  5. svonnah October 5, 2010 at 8:29 AM #

    Perfect timing for me to read this article… one of the things I’ll struggle with is not getting preachy with Antebellum.

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

      Thanks Savannah. I know this is something that children’s writers often have a problem with – not all, but I guess people think that teaching kids something should be the main goal of a story. I’ve always thought that the main goal is to get kids to enjoy reading, and to get them thinking about the world they live in and come to their own conclusions.

      I suppose writers of social commentary fiction/ speculative fiction might find it a bit difficult too.

  6. Rowenna October 5, 2010 at 8:50 AM #

    So true that, if the lesson is obvious, it’s not as effective. I think it’s fine to have a moral or theme in mind while writing, and to hope the reader walks away with a newfound appreciation, understanding, or fear of something. But it’s tricky work weaving that in without bopping the reader on the head with it.

    And I love the point that you can learn what not to do from badly done books. I’ve written a few posts on my blog about what I’ve learned from terrible 1950s scifi movies. Lots of lessons in those old clunkers!

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:15 AM #

      I suppose I see a moral and a theme as two separate things. A moral implies (to me at least) that the goal is to teach your readers to do things a certain way (otherwise, bad stuff happens).

      And I also distinguish social commentary and moral lessons as well. I feel as though a social commentary looks at a society, or a problem with society – but ultimately it’s up to the reader to get out of it what they will. The reader is asked to come to a conclusion at the end. It is a reflection, not necessarily a lesson. Of course, people walk away from social commentaries with a newfound appreciation or understanding – but the goal of a lesson or a moral is to tell your reader what is right or wrong more forcefully.

      But that’s just how I see it :p

      I’ll have to check out your posts! I’ve always believed you can learn a lot from stuff done wrong! Your posts sound great 😀

      • Rowenna October 6, 2010 at 9:11 AM #

        I see–looks like we’re talking symantics 🙂 I consider a theme an overarching concept or idea and a moral a concrete takeaway–not necessarily a lesson on morality. So, for a terrible example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has the theme of slavery and how people treat one another, and the moral/takeaway is that slavery dehumanizes both parties. And I say terrible example because Stowe is probably the preachiest writer I can think of! I found that book painful to read for how pushy it was with the message–the message overshadowed the story. But I guess it did its job…

        • Vanessa October 6, 2010 at 9:59 AM #

          I like your definition of a moral!

          But then, I might argue that perhaps writing with a moral takeaway in mind can harm one’s story and thus risk it becoming preachy.

          And then again, maybe not :p But it certainly seems to get in the way of a lot of stories.

  7. Susan October 5, 2010 at 10:00 AM #

    Great post! This was something I always found to be an issue with Huck Finn – I loved the beginning part of the story, but by halfway through, I wanted to shake Mark Twain and tell him that I got it, he’d made his point. Which is frustrating, because I always liked Huck a bit more than Tom, but Tom’s story just ends up being more fun.

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 10:08 AM #

      Susan, that is such a great example!!! I’ve always felt the same way with Huck Finn.

      Writers just need to give their readers some credit, you know?

  8. Hayleigh October 5, 2010 at 11:15 AM #

    This is so funny, because I was watching an episode of Full House last night and I thought to myself “how on earth did I used to watch this show?? How did anybody watch it!?” The last five minutes of ever Full House epidsode went something like this:

    “You’re right Joey, maybe I was being too strict.”

    “And you’re right too, Danny, maybe I was being too goofy.”

    “But when we work together, we can accomplish a lot! Yay! Let’s hug.”

    …ummm. Thanks. I could have worked out that the point of the episode was to illustrate team work on my own, I didn’t need the debriefing.

    But anyways, that got me thinking about books that do that. Above anything else, I don’t want to be told what to do. I certainly don’t mind being shown other’s points of view, or have my attention brought to things I hadn’t thought about. But that’s just it. I want to be able to think about them, and work it out for myself. I want to make my own conclusions and applications to my life, when I’m reading. I don’t want to be told what they are.

    Great post!

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 11:56 AM #

      EXACTLY Hayleigh! You took the words right out of my mouth (but said it in a much clearer way). It’s all about being able to walk away from a book with new thoughts and ideas. Being told is never fun, or enjoyable – it really kills the story if an author does that.

      And you know, I’ve never watched Full House (BLASPHEMY, I know! Haha). But I think a lot of older shows are like that :p

  9. Theresa Milstein October 5, 2010 at 12:16 PM #

    It’s disappointing to devote time to a book only to have it fall apart later. If I enjoy it to page 30, I’ll keep reading. If I make it to 100 and I’m still interested, it’s the point of no return to me. If I don’t like the book after that, I tell myself there’s a lesson for me as a writer in it. You’ve just confirmed that for me.

    Every book has a lesson to teach, but I don’t want to be whacked in the head with it.

    There was a series I recently finished and the last book was such a disappointment, it made me question my belief in the first book’s brilliance.

    • Vanessa October 5, 2010 at 12:47 PM #

      The best stories make you think once you’ve closed its pages. The ones that really affect you. So even though a writer hasn’t written a book with a specific lesson in mind, often you’ll walk away learning something new, or seeing things in a new way.

      I hate being disappointed, especially if there’s so much potential. But I always think of why it isn’t effective – after all, I don’t want people to feel the same way about my MS!

      Sucks about that series. Maybe the author just didn’t know how to end it?

  10. Biljana October 5, 2010 at 11:14 PM #

    There’s nothing I can’t stand more than a preachy book. Great post.

    • Vanessa October 6, 2010 at 9:59 AM #

      Thanks B! ❤

  11. Olga October 6, 2010 at 7:48 AM #

    I can’t make myself finish a book that doesn’t resonate with me. I really can’t. I’ll struggle through more pages than I strictly want to, but I’ll always put it down way before the end.

    And fairy tales are pretty darn preachy. They usually go along the lines of “Don’t be a snarky little bitch and you might land a prince!”

    Might have to go read a bad book now. *sigh* The things I do for love!

    • Vanessa October 6, 2010 at 10:02 AM #

      I think fables are much more preachy than fairy tales! But I suppose it depends on the fairy tale :p

      But no, don’t go and forcibly read a bad book! (That would be horrible! I’d feel like the worst person ever!). I just meant, if you start reading a book and it starts to turn sour, don’t just put it down without another thought – analyze why it’s failing. But definitely don’t go out of your way to look for stuff you won’t enjoy!

  12. Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 10:35 AM #

    Hey V! This post really illustrates the trouble writers get into when the primary goal of their writing is to teach a lesson. I didn’t realize it before reading your post, but you are so right when you say it comes down to characters first, social commentary second (or 3rd, 4th, whatever!) When I read the HUNGER GAMES series, it wasn’t until I came to the end of the trilogy that the social commentary was so evident to me. HG is a story about compelling characters in compelling situations. The author’s view is thoroughly sublimated to those story elements. And it works perfectly! Thanks for such a great post!

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio October 22, 2010 at 3:01 PM #

      Thanks Julie!

      I think that might be why THE HUNGER GAMES is my favourite of the trilogy. The characters and story were put first, followed by the social commentary. I think by MOCKINGJAY (which, don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoyed) I noticed that the message was much more apparent. Not so much that I lose interest in the characters, but enough for me to pick up on it. I still love the entire trilogy though, and agree that her characters and world were incredibly well written.

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