Even though this is an article about writing “challenging” fiction that your audience will actually read, I’m going to have to start by talking about playing computer games for a while.
As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. Still, if you want to jump to the writing advice, then skip the next four or five paragraphs.
At the time of writing, I’ve found myself in the strange situation of having two games on the go at one time (both of which I hope to review at some point). One is a fantasy/action game from 2002 called “Enclave” and the other is a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (which is the sequel to “Stardate 20×6“). Anyway, the reason why I haven’t reviewed either game yet is because of how challenging they are.
In short, there’s one level on “Enclave” which I seem to be making very gradual progress with, due to some especially powerful in-game adversaries. Likewise, I got totally stuck on the second level of “Stardate 20×7” because – after about two hours of searching- I couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go next. This eventually got to the point where I actually ended up skipping the level (via cheat codes) so that I could carry on with the later levels, which feature more enjoyable combat-based challenge and more solvable puzzles.
Both games are challenging – yet, I’ve progressed a decent way through them (I’m about halfway through “Stardate 20×7” and about two-thirds of the way through the light campaign in “Enclave”). I still enjoy them and haven’t abandoned either one out of frustration yet – unlike, say, “Clive Barker’s Undying“.
So, why have I started this article by talking about computer games?
Simply put, they offer a very literal example of how challenge affects the audience’s experience of a creative work. Both of these games are enjoyable enough to keep playing because I’ve had a lot of practice playing computer games over the years, because they have a good difficulty curve, because of everything surrounding the games, because they have a reasonable length (eg: “Enclave” is split into two medium-length campaigns, and “Stardate 20×7” has a total of eleven levels), because they are in a genre I enjoy, because they have an interesting setting and because one of them gave me the option (via in-game codes) to skip a part I didn’t enjoy.
Yet, I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve abandoned reading fairly early on because of the author’s writing style, the length, the pacing or just the story itself.
So, what can games teach us about keeping the audience reading? Well, most of the stuff on the list of things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago can also apply to stories too. I don’t have time to go into literally everything I’ve mentioned, so I’ll just talk about the most important points.
The first is the subject of a difficulty curve. In novels, this translates to a compelling, readable beginning. A great example of this can be found in G.R.R. Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones”.
Although “A Game Of Thrones” is a slow-paced and complex novel about the politics of a medieval-style world, it begins with a gripping first chapter about a team of soldiers in a frozen wasteland who are attacked by ice zombies. It is dramatic, it is suspenseful and it reads like something from the middle of a good horror novel. And it makes you want to read more! If G.R.R Martin had started his novel with a complex political discussion, the reader would probably be less intrigued.
The second is the subject of an interesting setting. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, a great example would probably be William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. This cyberpunk novel is written in an ultra fast-paced way that fires futuristic jargon at the reader constantly (with the audience having to work out what most of it means from the context). Yes, it took me two attempts to read this book. But, I loved it! Why? Simply put, the futuristic world of the story is absolutely fascinating.
The third is the subject of context. In short, if a novel taps into or relates to something the audience finds intriguing, then they’ll persevere. For example, when I was a teenager, I was – as teenagers are – obsessed with “edgy” and “controversial” things.
This is why, when I was a teenager, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. I’d heard that the book actually had an “18+” age restriction in a couple of other countries and that it had actually been banned in some places. I had to read it. Even though this meant slogging through numerous dreary descriptions of posh restaurants and grimacing my way through scenes that made even the horror novels I read regularly at the time seem like light comedies by comparison, I persevered because someone, somewhere didn’t want me to read it. And reading it made me feel like I was rebelling.
Finally, there’s the subject of length. In short – the shorter your book is, the more challenging you can be. Another example of this from the list of “controversial” books I read when I was a teenager was Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”.
The entire novel is narrated in bizarre futuristic slang and the audience has to decipher what it means from the context. It is, as you would expect, a very slow read because of this. Yet, it is something I persevered with because it’s a fairly slender novel (I can’t remember the exact length, but the edition I read was probably 200-250 pages at most).
On the other hand, when I tried to read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” during my teenage years, I abandoned it about halfway through. This novel also uses a slightly experimental narrative style, but it is at least 300-400 pages long. If it had been half the length, I’d have probably finished reading it. So, yes, length matters when you’re challenging your readers.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂