How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

Invitation

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Image: Björn Rixman
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

2 thoughts on “How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

  1. Wilene

    You are not the only one who wonders about questions like that.

    I do think that something modern writers and readers should keep in mind is that with the vast exposure to storytelling, films and books, we as humans grow in our perception of storytelling, storytelling techniques and visual communication such as graphic design, art, and so on. We grow, we perceive better, we learn what to like and what not to like even if we don’t quite know why (think of ignorant people laughing at how “bad” old films are. Filmmakers know that is not the case, but the average audience of today has been groomed to a specific perception of storytelling. I’m not saying modern storytelling is better than in the past. There are modern films that have almost no proper story structure at all in my opinion. But I am saying that we get “bored” of seeing the same thing the whole time. Hero starts journey. Hero fails once. We all know Hero wins in the end. A lot of this also has to do with the “standards” that is set by broadcasting stations and film companies: The good guy has to win, otherwise the masses won’t like it. The bad guy shouldn’t look too evil in kids television shows, and so on. Modern audiences can expect certain turns in those storytelling structures. They miss it if it isn’t there… but if it is there, they are bored.

    I’m not saying that the 3-Act structure is bad or that any “accepted” story structures are bad. I’m saying because people know them, we should work with these structures in new ways, in fresh ways. I love Heroes and their journeys. I love the larger than life obstacles and the adrenaline-driven adventures of them. And yes I admit that as a writer who is totally unknown to the publishing world with no existing book to my name that makes me pretty much a nobody. But I look to men like Johnny Depp who brought an entirely “unacceptable” appearance to the pirate Jack Sparrow. The filmmakers originally thought the character would never appeal to the audience, but he did. I look to people like Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Da Vinci who went with their hearts. They pursued their passion rather than existing rules.

    I believe that when you chase your passion (storytelling in my case), you don’t need to keep looking at what others are doing. You question, you inquire, you explore and observe, but you deduct yourself what matters. You listen to your heart. Talent and hard work will do the rest. I’m not Tolkien with fancy language. I’m not good with philosophical concepts like the Matrix or Inception. I do not have a degree in writing or publishing or English. I just write about what excites me. I write about what entices me – about what would make me come back and re-read my book again and again. And I know there will be a target audience out there who will love it.

    I say write what you love, who cares about the rules. Write what works for YOU. Write what makes YOU sit at the edge of your seat, and let Hollywood go read other crappy scripts. Break the rules (but make sure you know what they are first) and try new things. See what happens when you start breaking rules (It is fascinating!) Then you will grow as a writer. I don’t know if this logic can be applied to professional writers at all, but it works for me. And I know I’ve got an absolutely amazing story coming because of that kind of thought process. To me it’s about having fun – and when you’re having fun, your story will definitely be fun to read.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Yep. I pretty much agree with most of your sentiments. Also those about formulaic writing or structure. It’s bad when done badly. Yes, we have grown accustomed to a certain type of ending, which makes it predictable, and that should, and can, be avoided. Other than that, spectacle is not of itself bad or trivial. It’s entertaining and no one ever got bored being entertained. Thanks for your great comments!

      Reply

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