Writing Deviation from forward momentum

Conversational Characters

I’ve attempted to read the Lord of the Rings on three different occasions and on all three occasions I have not made it through. The reason why dawned on me during a recent night on the town when Gretchen asked, “What keeps you engaged in a book?”

The answer was immediate and definitive: “a conversation tone which moves the story along.” This means I’m not huge fan of complex description or wandering plots because HEY I’M IN HURRY HERE AND MY TIME IS VALUABLE. I’m impatient with my reads and this means there are huge categories of books which poor the socks off me.

For example, Lord of the Rings. What if I told you a story in the following fashion: “I’m a regular guy with a regular job. My parents took good care of me and I have a dog named Ralph who loves me as well. Except, one day, everything changed. But, first, let me tell you how I built my house for the next two hundred pages. You’ll notice this really doesn’t have much to do with the actual book, but, boy can I build a house. Let’s start with the roof…”

Such deviation from forward momentum in books frustrates the hell out of me. One of my favorite authors, Connie Willis, did just that in a very painful read called The Doomsday Book When I realized she’d succumbed to the art of talking about nothing in particular, I walked out of my house and threw the book in the lake. Bitch.

Now, Gretchen’s answer was vastly different. She’s about character development and if plot happens to tie things together reasonably well, great, but the characters had better leap off the page. For myself, as long as the character is talking and moving things along without pages of introspective, that works. A perfect example of this type of character is Spenser from Robert B. Parker. These books are defined by conversation characters and, oh yeah, there’s probably some type of mystery, but, who cares, Spenser is fucking funny.

Conversational character driven plot may not be your bag of tea. You might really like reading those one hundred pages on house building because, chances are, they actually do matter to the message being delivered by the author who really spent a lot of timing picking just the right kind of nails because they reflect on the socio-economic status of the character blah blah blah… next book.

28 Responses

  1. Blake 21 years ago

    I too have tried reading LOTR. I still think I’ll make it through one day. But the flow just doesn’t go. I’m wondering what’s going on in the minds of people who say, “Dude, that has got to be one of the best books I’ve ever read!!!” Maybe I’ll say that one day, or maybe I can forget the peer presure.

  2. YHBT YHL HAND 21 years ago

    Too bad you can’t write in the style of your preferred reading.

  3. Stonewall Jackson 21 years ago

    Try anna karenina or something.

  4. Have you tried Robert Crais? His Elvis Cole books are a good match for Parker’s Spenser stories, in terms of tight plots and characters who don’t are pivotal to the story, but don’t stand in the way it.

  5. This makes me wonder Rands, do you or do you not like Kurt Vonnegut? His books decidedly revolve around the characters, but they’re so goddamn good to read that you might not even notice. So, um, got Vonnegut?

  6. Klaatu 21 years ago

    Dear Rands;

    I read LOTR every year since I was 15. I never get tired of it. I like it because the settings, the characters, and the plot are given even weight that weaves a tapestry of tremendous imagination. The same with Jules Verne’s stories.

    On the other hand, I don’t care for the “hyper-realism” novels that are currently in vogue. I like Thomas Pynchon, but I couldn’t finish Mason Dixon.

    i too like characters that pop out, like Yossarian in Catch-22. Our different appreciation for reading styles is much like one’s preference for ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia vs. Chunky Monkey or Doritos vs. cape Cod kettle chips.

    Peace Out, Swanky Mode!

  7. Stonewall Jackson 21 years ago

    Vonnegut is fantastic. Try Slaughterhouse 5 or Slapstick. You can read Slapstick in 2 days, easy.

  8. kingBooze 21 years ago


    I had your problems starting LOTR also. I would get about 100 or so pages in and yell “BOOOOOORING” and just not get any further.

    I recommend watching the movies, and just skipping the first book. That way you have faces to go with the hundred or so characters, and it’s a lot easier to keep them all straight in your head.

    This is probably blasphmeous to true LOTR fans, but if the begining bores you, give it a shot.

  9. Gabrielle 21 years ago

    I read LOTR when I was in kindergarten. I’ve tried to re-read it a few times since but get about as much out of it as I got out of other stuff I read at that age (Pippi Longstocking, Narnia, the Oz books, The Princess and the Goblin, Nancy Drew, James Bond, Swiss Family Robinson). Some of it wears well but it’s mostly a nostalgia trip — though I do remember being old enough to realize “Pussy Galore” must have some slang connotation but too young to know what. One exception is Kurt Vonnegut — I read Breakfast of Champions when I was around ten and it’s still the Vonnegut I like best.

    Tolkein did something reasonably significant — as significant as, say, Stoker did with Dracula or Mary Shelley did with Frankenstein. In each case they consolidated, imprinted on, and ultimately popularized, mythologies with long traditions. For whatever reason, that these books are fairly unreadable by modern standards is not considered important. Nor is that they have subtexts that we’re not casually equipped to translate (ie, that the scene where all four of Lucy’s suitors ar giving her blood transfusions would’ve been understood to be symbolic of group sex in Victorian mores — according to my profs, anyhow — but in modern times, we’d more wonder if untyped transfusions wouldn’t just kill her, etc).

    (Any discussion of sex and Tolkein is necessarily short as nobody in it appeared to ever have any)

  10. rands 21 years ago

    There are two authors I’ve been told I’d like that I haven’t read. Vonnegut is one and the Phillip K. Dick is the other…


  11. Yes, read Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse 5 is probably the best read, but Breakfast of Champions is probably the most accessible, and most likely to appeal to Jerksters.

  12. Vonnegut Wanker 21 years ago

    Don’t forget Galapagos, which isn’t very accessible, but also has a strong Jerk-vibe.

  13. Klaatu 21 years ago

    Dear Rands;

    Yes, Phillip K. Dick r00ls. Check out the movie “blade Runner” that’s a screenplay adaption of “Do androids dream of Electric Sheep”. If I am not mistaken, the art director was Ripley Scott

    (1 of my favorites).

    Pease out,

  14. Klaatu 21 years ago

    may I add:

    I started reading Phillip K. Dick’s novels after I read an article about him in Heavy metal magazine — not the new one, but the old one (the cool art college ‘zine in 1981). Heavy Metal was the Classics Illustrated for science fiction and fantasy fiction. Classics Illustrated – now that’s an old chestnut, lol.

    Peace Soul Brother,



  17. Sans Trousers 21 years ago

    If you do not love the character, you will not be interested in descending his family tree or exploring his inner workings over forty pages. If you love the character, you will be thrilled to read every inch dedicated to them on page. For example, I can’t say I give a shit what happens next to Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, not for being squeamish, but rather because Patrick has no taste. Characters you love become far more interesting when you roll around in their minutia.

  18. Gabrielle 21 years ago

    I fell asleep during the first LOTR movie, and have no plans to see the second.

  19. rands 21 years ago



  20. yojauta 21 years ago


  21. Rands 21 years ago


  22. dhalgren 21 years ago

    You’d like Crumley’s _The Last Good Kiss_. It’s got a beer-drinking bulldog in it that reminds me of you.

    Stay away from Eco’s _Foucault’s Pendulum_.

  23. Sorry to be filling the comments with my Shrikey goodness, have you, Rands, red Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson? Damn good book. Way better than his other stuff (unless you are a cipherpunk).

  24. rands 21 years ago

    Both Snow Crash and Diamond Age fall dangerously close to the same curse of LORT in that we wildly deviate from what appears to be the core plot…

    Still, they are both good, content rich, reads… I would would not define them at at’ll lightweight… both involve serious cerebral commitment.


  26. Shadowsinger 20 years ago

    Just as an aside:

    Coles Notes/Cliffs Notes makes a condensed version of LotR and the Hobbit as a single book (I used to have it somewhere). If you can’t get into his writing, but still want to know the backstory to the movies, this might help you.

  27. Popinjay 20 years ago

    I love the LotR books.

    However I have no patience for boring description. What I do is: I read the first sentence in every paragraph and decide if the paragraph is description or plot. I only read the plot-related material. It can be tricky sometimes because the characters get into a pickle and you have to go back a paragraph (or two) to figure out why they are there … but the books are a lot more enjoyable.

  28. You are hilarious! I agree completely, a total waste of time. Why can’t people understand that??