JJ’s Galactic Musings – What makes a story readable?

Welcome to the galaxy! I’m J J Mathews, New Zealand science fiction author and dreamer of alien worlds.

This month we’re doing some Time Travel – with reflections on books, from shiny and new to very old: what makes a story readable – or not?

The following is a review of several traditionally published books that I have recently read, from the perspective of their readability. [Note: No plot spoilers below]

I received The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams (2018) for Christmas from my children (in paperback). I was quite looking forward to reading it (read: excited!) – it has a quirky title, enticing cover reviews, etc. It looked to be an interesting, futuristic, quirky semi-dystopian novel. And it was.

However when I started reading it, I found it to be a very slow read. I worked through it while I began recovering from my knee surgery, and at 438 pages I would normally have whipped through it in a couple days with that kind of rest time available. But it took me WEEKS to finish it.

The theme and concept were very interesting and novel. But it was hard to read, and upon reflection I found the WHY for me very interesting, especially for a mainstream novel bought from a retail store.

Technically it was a YA novel, so it should have been very digestible. And yet it was a struggle for me to get through more than a few pages at a sitting.

I found myself asking: WHY was it so hard to read?

I thought about it for a while after I finished the book, and this is what I came up with:

  • The back story for the book seemed to be huge. It was apparent that there was a lot of imagination that went into building the story universe, but it was too big to try and cram into one book.
    The reader received many small glimpses of the bigger story universe – but there was no time given to delve into these side stories, so these references instead served as mental distractions vs building onto the main story.
  • There were lots and lots of short chapters109 of them in fact, across the 5 acts. That’s just 4 pages per chapter on average, where a typical novel that you can get stuck into will have 8-12 pages for most chapters, and reserves the shorter chapters for when there’s a lot of action going on. The average chapter length in this book didn’t give you much time to settle into the scene before shifting context.
  • I regularly felt the presence of the author intruding into the story. That’s an odd thing to say, seeing as the author wrote the book. However, through many passages of clever text, I could sense the author pushing the story at odd angles away from what seemed to be the natural story flow, and these narrative nudges stuck out like little flags, at least for me. Transitions were sudden and short.

It’s like shortcuts were being taken to shift the plot in a desired direction, rather than letting it flow in a more natural way… but that would have required longer chapters and more dialogue.

Put together, the effect was one of being constantly pulled (or pushed) back out of the story. Most of the time I could only read a small handful of pages before I had to put it down again.

All of the interruptions presented by the book were very tiring on the brain. But I did, finally, finish it.

And it was clever, and interesting, and had a unique story universe with characters I mostly liked. But I had to work through every chapter, page by slow page. It was not a smooth read at all, but it could have been. Instead it was jumpy, like a “cleverly painful mexican jumping bean.”

Hmm. Most likely not what the author intended.

And then I had a random thought.

Surely, most contemporary, commercial novels should be easier to read for us ‘modern’ readers than some of the old classics, right? The nature of language changes over time, and when I read Beowulf in university it was like trying to learn an entirely new language – but it was all in English (written circa 975-1025 A.D.)

Okay, that’s really old, but even listening to the Audiobook version of Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851) was initially an effort of will to keep myself focused to understand the language. However, it was quite funny in many parts, and the descriptions were simply amazing, once you got into it. I listened to the book over a period of several weeks while driving this summer. I never read it when I was younger; it was just one of those classics that everyone knew something about. “‘You know Moby Dick?’ – ‘Oh yeah, the one about the guy and the whale? I hear it’s a great book…”‘

Anyway – I took the dive into Melville, and although it was initially hard, mostly due to the mariner language and period slang, it got easier and easier. I think it was probably better to listen to it rather than read it on a page, as the mariner accents became quite entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, all present-day feelings and mores about commercial whaling aside. It was a masterpiece in detail, and brought the reader right onto the heaving deck of the Pequod, salt spray drying on your skin, and you could imagine yourself as the harpooner standing on the unstable, blubbery head of a dead sperm whale as they got to work loading it into the ship, and the anguish of losing men to the sea. I’m glad I finally experienced the book.

I also re-read another classic dystopian novel a couple weeks ago. I remember the fear generated even in the late 1970’s by George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). It was, for a novel written exactly 70 years ago, still quite surprisingly readable, and a very good read. It had good detail, it flowed, it had its twists and turns. The language of 1949 was surprisingly not that far removed from today, and it had a good story ‘flow’.

Of course, some of the surveillance and monitoring described in 1984 is now so technologically primitive that it was quite humorous to re-read the book – we are constantly surrounded by and carry devices that can watch and listen to us at any time, far better and more ubiquitously than Big Brother ever did. And yet we ignore this for the convenience of being “online and connected”, and even pay hundreds or thousands of dollars over a year for the privilege. Hmm.

On the weekend, I finished reading When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910). It’s 39 years older than 1984, and for me it was probably one of the most flowery-worded, intensely-described, Victorian-era-embellished books I have ever read, to be perfectly frank. But in the end, it was very, very easy to read. A whopping 109 years since publication, and it still flowed very smoothly for a “modern” reader. In short, it was a classic “quick read”, even though the language was long-winded, formal and flowery. Perhaps I did skim over some of the repetitive descriptions in a few places in the last quarter of the book, but I didn’t miss anything essential from the story in doing so. When the final action kicked in, I was back to reading every single word, fully caught up in the story.

But now we come to the crux of it – we have four books spanning 167 years, and the book published less than a year ago was just as hard to read as the one published 167 years ago, but for very different reasons. Once I got going with Moby Dick, it became very smooth – but The Stars Now Unclaimed stubbornly remained a hard read right to the end.

And in between, the two dystopian novels published 70 and 109 years ago were both still extremely readable, even though they had quite different levels of description and styles of writing.

Hmm.

It was very surprising to find out that given such a huge time span, some of the older books are still extremely readable today. Perhaps that’s why they became “classics”. After all, Shakespeare wrote his plays using the modern slang of his time; they were purposely written to be accessible to the masses, rather than in the stratospheric literary tongue of the aristocrats. Maybe that’s why the plays have survived and thrived, even to the present today.

Perhaps that’s the key. All stories need description, they need their back-stories, their plot and their character development, but overall, the best stories may be the most enjoyable because the author goes to the work of intentionally making the writing easier to read. Let the story flow naturally, give the reader time to get to know the characters and work through logical transitions in the plot.

Of course there’s a lot more to it than that. The story needs lots of moving parts working closely together to make it all work.

But it also needs to be readable. Does it flow when you read it out loud? Are you pulled away from the story by typos or other intrusions, or are you drawn deep into the story world, so much so that you can imagine the look, the smells, the touch of a place and lose track of time out in the “real” world?

The text of a novel may be written in a spare, minimalistic way, or it may drown the reader in flowery Victorian descriptive prose, but if you make sure that the sentences flow off of the tongue and don’t trip you up, a book can be very readable, regardless of style, or the age of the book.

But enough of my literary musings. I’d like to know what YOU think.

  • What makes a good book tick?
  • What makes a classic tale’s readability survive for more than a century?
  • What is it about a favourite book that makes it better than lots of other books?

If you feel inclined to share, please send your musings to: jj@jjmathews.com.

I’ll feature the most intriguing contributions/opinions in an upcoming newsletter. (Deadline for contributions: April 30, 2019)

Thanks for being part of the galaxy!

J J Mathews

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