Three Reasons Why Authors Write Books That Are “Difficult To Read”

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before, but I thought that I’d talk about the topic of “difficult to read” books today. I’m not talking about books that cover grim or depressing subject matter, but about books which are written in an unusual, experimental, formal and/or avant-garde way that might leave the reader feeling confused and/or having to read the book at a much slower pace than they would normally expect to.

Since, believe it or not, there are actually good practical reasons why some authors do this. When it is done well, it can really add a lot to a story. But, why?

1) Atmosphere: All novels contain a balance between descriptions and actions. If a story focuses more on actions, then it often tends to be a lot more fast-paced and easy to read. This comes at the cost of some characterisation and atmosphere, but it results in a much more freely-flowing, informal, fun and gripping story. If you find a book that is easy to read and relax with, then it probably focuses more on actions than descriptions.

On the other hand, there’s also a lot to be said for focusing on descriptions instead. Descriptions are the things that make characters seem like real people and which make the “world” of the story feel deeper and more immersive than even the latest virtual reality technology. However, descriptions are slow-paced and will often involve more complex, formal and/or poetic language, which can be more “difficult” to read than matter-of-fact descriptions of actions can be.

So, sometimes a book can be “difficult to read” because the author has chosen to focus more on the atmosphere and characters instead. Think of it like the graphics settings in a computer game. If a game is running on the highest graphics settings, where everything looks crisp and hyper-detailed, then it is probably going to run slower than if the graphics settings are lowered to the absolute minimum.

2) Clever stuff: Simply put, books can do a lot of stuff that no other storytelling medium can. Authors can do all sorts of clever stuff that film directors, game designers etc… can only dream of. But, if you aren’t used to this, then it can sometimes come across as confusing. So, if you see something a bit weird or confusing in a novel, then there is usually a good reason for it.

To give you a famous example, take a look at Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“. The novel’s narration jumps around between time periods with very little warning and, whenever the main character appears, he is often just referred to as “he” without being introduced by name. At first, this will be confusing to read, but there are good reasons for it.

“Wolf Hall” is a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, so calling him “he” (rather than introducing him by name) whenever he appears creates both a feeling of intimacy and also helps to remind the reader that Cromwell is the focus of the story (eg: he’s so important that he doesn’t need to be mentioned by name).

Likewise, the random flashbacks-within-flashbacks and time jumps mirror how memories work. After all, we rarely remember things in a logical order. So, when you get used to these quirks, the story gains a level of depth that you probably wouldn’t find in a film or TV show.

Another famous example is probably the cyberpunk genre. In these sci-fi stories, the reader will often be bombarded with lots of futuristic jargon with barely any time to work out what it all means. Although this might seem really confusing, it is done for a really good reason.

These stories are set in chaotic, dystopian, hyper-capitalist technology-filled near-future worlds. As such, the best way to get all of this stuff across to the reader is to “drop them in at the deep end”, leaving them reeling at the sensory overload of the futuristic world they’ve found themselves in.

You’re meant to feel overwhelmed and disorientated when reading a cyberpunk novel because this is what the characters have got used to living with. After all, if a time traveller from the 1950s appeared today, they would probably be extremely confused when they heard people talking about social media, hashtags, smartphones, videogames etc…

3) Challenge, effort and prestige: As bizarre as it sounds, some of the most enjoyable things out there can be the most difficult. Anyone who is a fan of fiendishly difficult 1990s computer games like “Final Doom”, “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War“, “Blood” etc.. will know what I’m talking about here. That feeling of victory when you beat a level of the game through sheer determination, perseverance and practice.

And, sometimes, the same is true for books. If a book is good enough, then grappling with any confusing parts of it is part of the fun. It is what makes reading the book such a rewarding activity. All of the extra mental effort you put into reading it will also mean that the story will probably linger in your imagination for long after you’ve put the book down too.

Plus, of course, there’s also the matter of bragging rights too. Seriously, finishing a “difficult” book really gives you a feeling of achievement.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Three Ways That Writers Make Stories Faster Or Slower To Read

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a beginner-level look at the topic of pacing. In particular, I’ll be looking at some of the ways that writers make sure that a story is read quickly or slowly.

Whilst reading speed does depend on the skill of the reader, there are a lot of sneaky ways that writers can speed up or slow down the story that they are telling.

So, here are three of the more basic techniques.

1) Language and sentence length:
Simply put, longer sentences with more complex/formal language (and punctuation) slow a story down. Short, simple sentences speed it up.

To give you an example, here’s a single sentence from a slower-paced historical novel (“Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel) that I’m reading at the moment: ‘You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the afternoon heat.’

Whew! That’s a long sentence! Although Mantel uses a few subtle techniques (eg: lists, repetition, using the present tense, breaking the sentence up into smaller chunks with semicolons etc..) to speed up the pace of this sentence a little bit, this is still a reasonably slow-paced segment of the book thanks to the formal language, the complex punctuation and the sheer length of this sentence.

Now, compare it to this paragraph from Ashley McConnell’s fast-paced novelisation of the first episode of “Stargate SG-1”: ‘O’ Neill shook his head. He thought about saying more and decided not to. That wound wasn’t healed. He didn’t deserve to have it heal.

As you can see, this paragraph contains four sentences and it’s still shorter than the longer sentence from Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”. Likewise, the language is kept fairly simple, informal and “matter of fact”. Each sentence also contains very little punctuation too. It’ll take you less time to read this group of four sentences than it will take you to read the one sentence from “Bring Up The Bodies”.

Of course, most novels (including the two I’ve quoted from) will contain a mixture of longer, shorter, complex and simple sentences. Changing these things will change how fast each sentence will be read. And, overall, a novel with more long, complex sentences will be “slower” than a novel with more short, simple sentences will be.

2) Descriptions vs. Actions: Descriptions of scenery, people or objects will usually be slower to read than descriptions of actions will be. When a segment of a novel is devoted to actions, the reader is more likely to read quickly because they want to know what happens next. However, when a segment of a novel describes something, the reader has to take the time to picture what the writer is describing.

So, descriptions are more slow-paced than actions are. A story’s pacing depends on how the two are balanced. This is why, for example, a fast-paced thriller novel might occasionally include a few paragraphs of slow-paced descriptions in order to give their readers a short break from all of the fast-paced actions in the rest of the story. Whereas, a slower-paced novel will often make sure that descriptions appear frequently and consistently throughout the story.

Likewise, dialogue is often quicker to read than descriptions are. Although dialogue isn’t quite as fast-paced as actions, the rhythm of a back-and-forth conversation between two characters will often mean that these parts of the story will move slightly more quickly.

3) Curiosity and chapters:
Curiosity is the thing that makes people read stories. The more curious a reader feels, the faster they will plough through a story to find answers. As such, faster-paced stories will often include lots of mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter (eg: “John opened the door. He couldn’t believe what he saw…”).

Fast-paced stories will often keep their chapters reasonably short too, so that the reader feels like they’re progressing through the story faster than they actually are. And, of course, shorter chapters also mean more space for mini-cliffhangers too.

These mini-cliffhangers will often be resolved 2-3 chapters after they happen (usually by having 2-3 story threads/sub-plots), so that the reader is forced to plough through an extra chapter or two (with their own mini-cliffhangers) to get there. All of this adds up to a very fast-paced and gripping story.

On the other hand, a slower-paced novel will often control the pacing by keeping the chapters slightly longer and ensuring that the reader’s curiosity is about larger background things rather than smaller immediate events. This is usually achieved by focusing on other things like atmosphere, characterisation and intriguing ideas. Yes, slow-paced stories will usually include something that makes the reader feel curious, but it isn’t the central attraction in the way it usually is in faster-paced stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂