I saw an indie movie yesterday that was so indie it could actually be considered self-produced. Well, truthfully, it was self-produced — and it went straight to video without a big screen debut, which is something you should all be thankful for. The only reason I watched it was that it was filmed near where I am staying, and I had fun trying to figure out where all the scenes had been filmed. There was no other reason to watch it. The actors were terrible. (I’d read once that a good actor was one who acted natural on the screen. These folk were so unnatural as to make paper doll cut-outs seem life-like in comparison.) The plot was derivative. (You know the story — drug dealers, undercover cops, only one cop left alive at the end and you wish he’d died along with all the rest.) The camera work was appalling — looked as if it had been filmed with a cell phone (as one of my fellow movie watchers put it).
So, here’s my question. Why did they make that particular movie? What were they thinking — “Let’s make a movie that’s been made a zillion times before, but let’s see how bad we can make it”? I know they weren’t trying to showcase talent — there wasn’t any. They weren’t trying to have fun with dialogue — it was stilted and silly at best. They didn’t show the drug dealer vs. cop conflict in any new light. So, what was the point? I still don’t know.
This is the same question I ask myself about many of the books I read, and I get the same response — I don’t know what the point is.
But here’s my point — there has to be a point, especially when it comes to books, because if there is no point, why would anyone read it? A writer can write for herself, of course, which might be the point of writing the book, but we readers need a reason to read it. Even if it’s a light romance or a cozy mystery written only to entertain, there still has to be a reason for it. People do read for entertainment, but if a book gives a reader nothing new — no new experience, no new understanding, no interesting character or situation, no wit or humor, just a rehash of what has been written too many times already — there’s not even any entertainment value in it.
I recently read a well-touted book from a debut author, someone I had met on facebook. I looked forward to the book since this woman posted such interesting and witty remarks that I thought for sure her book would be as interesting. It was, to a certain extent — it was well-written, the dialoque was sort-of snappy (though it often came across as contrived) and the story was okay. But it was only okay, nothing special. There was no spark of originality, no reason to care about the character, nothing that explained why hundreds of people wrote glowing reviews. I might be getting to be a bit of a curmudgeon, since obviously I was one of the few who found the book disappointing, but the truth is, I was disappointed. All the way through, I kept thinking, “Why am I reading this? What’s the point?”
Books don’t need to have a message — in fact, books with messages are often not worth reading — but there has to be a reason for the book to exist beyond an author’s imagination, even if it’s just for us readers to see what happens to a character we care about.
November 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm
Great post, Pat. And right on target, too.
When I am writing, I not only ask myself what the point of the book is, but also what the point of every line is. Does it advance the plot or the character? Is it funny? And on and on. Keeping that in mind (why am I writing this?) helps me create and to edit as well.
November 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm
Lisette, As writers, we tend to forget that readers need a reason to read what we wrote, so it’s good that you’re aware of the point of your story. Thanks for stopping by to comment!!
November 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Really important point made here. I’m just starting to write my own first novel and reading this threw me. Believe it or not, I’d not really considered why people were going to care about what happened enough to spend a significant amount of time reading to the end, and whether they’d get anything new from it. I’ll certainly keep it in mind from now on.
On the “books with messages are often not worth reading”, I agree – I loved the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind up to the sixth book (Faith of the Fallen). Sure, there was a message behind the stories, but I felt like the story was the main thing. From there on, I felt like they put more and more emphasis on his philosophy until the narrative was drowning in it. In the final book I remember disbelievingly reading a rant by the hero at the villain that went on for something like 3 pages. It was like an essay – totally destroyed my immersion.
November 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm
I’m glad I made a point that helped. It’s fine for a writer to write just to write, but if you want readers, you have to give them a reason for reading — generally a character they care about with a dilemma they can identify with is enough, but if it is just a me-too, a rehash of what others have written, it might not be enough. My suggestion? Write for yourself. Then rewrite for your readers.
November 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm
I know what you are saying. I often wonder myself, “what is the point? why am I reading this?” and I think the universal point that needs to be in any work of real literature is the presentation of characters that the author cares about (and thus hopes to make the readers care about). I once drew some nasty criticism from a judge of a contest who asked me who I thought I was and that I appeared to be using my characters to “make a point” . . .omg what a concept!
November 13, 2011 at 7:26 pm
Sandy, I do sometimes use my characters to make a point, as you well know, but that point is always part of the story. For example, in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I use examples of biological warfare tests and experiments to show how terrible biological warfare is, but that is not the reason for the book. The point of the story is to show how sometimes, in our darkest hour, we find a spark of fire within us that makes us greater than we are. The bio-warfare info is supposed to push the point home of the horror of the red death. It is not the point of the book.
November 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm
I read a book recently by an author who was supposedly popular in Australia and in the USA. After three chapters of absolute misery for the main character I was happy to ditch the book figuring life is too short. I think the message was that war is hell. I already knew that. Having some kid wander aimlessly through an American Civil War battlefield with no plan, no real direction and the view that he really could make himself invisible didn’t sell me for long. I wanted out.
In my own writing I like to mix the good times with the bad times. My characters at least have to see a way out of their troubles. They may not get there but there has to be hope otherwise it is just misery guts stuff for the reader and there is too much of that in real life.
My characters sometimes have a sense of humor the reader will hopefully appreciate and they are based roughly on people I have known. Is there a point to my writing? Well, I would like my characters to live on and I would appreciate it if readers come to appreciate the things I appreciate in this world. Any sermons? I hope not. I haven’t been accused of that sort of thing.
I have the travel bug and that comes through in Ghost Dance as does my interest in history. Lessons? If you find them and enjoy them good luck to you.
Right now my inspirations are Lewis Carroll and Aldous Huxley. One great British writer and one great American writer. The book I am working on right now, Desk Job, has a lot of dark moments but there is also whimsy. growing up I appreciated the surf and the sun and they feature strongly in this new novel despite the setting being an office in Sydney in the 1990s.
Sometimes the point of a book is to work out where we have been and where we are going. Disco Evil and Ghost Dance do this while keeping the reader and the characters on the hop.
Recently I read Kim by Kipling. It is a magnificent novel that captures a time in the life of Indian and her people not likely to be seen again. It was written lovingly by someone who was obviously there. This seems a fair enough point to me. I wouldn’t ask more from a writer.
November 13, 2011 at 7:33 pm
Rod, you make very good points about what is the point of reading. Without something in a book for us to take a personal stake in, the book seems pointless. A writer writes for him/herself, but a reader reads for him/herself. Sometimes we readers get the same thing from the book that the writer did, other times we get something different, especially if the writer is trying to work out where he has been and where he is going. We are all on our own journeys, and sometimes the journey is the point of reading.
Thank you for your comments, and your continued support of my various discussion groups. You always add a touch of class and classical-ness. (Classicality?)
November 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm