The Effect of Story Telling Ot How to Make a Swashbuckler Boring

At my day job, we have United Way events, one of which is our annual used book sale. With 600 people in our building, we generally have a pretty good selection of books, so last year, I pick up Zorro: A Novel by Isabel Allende. She’s a well-known, widely-respected, main-stream writer. Probably considered a literary writer. I’m not a big fan of literary books, but the idea of a story that starts with Zorro’s parents and presenting his growth into the legendary hero appealed to me.

I’m on page 95 and have been for more than six months. The book has been sitting beside the stairwell, waiting for me to pick it up again. I intend to. Really. Some day.

So why am I not engaged? It’s certainly not the concept of the book. That’s plenty intriguing. Nor is it the story events. It’s the way it’s told.

Actually, I should use capital letters there.

It’s the way the story is TOLD.

An example (chosen at random):
During those five stormy days the governor’s wife had refused to see anyone, including her three-year-old son. The teary-eyed child was sniveling, curled up on the floor outside her door, so frightened that he wet himself every time his father beat on the door with his cane. The only person allowed to cross the threshold was the Indian girl who carried in food and carried out the chamber pot. However, when Eulalia learned that Alejandro de la Vega had come to visit and wanted to see her, her hysteria disappeared in a minute. She washed her face, put up her long braid, and dressed in a mauve-colored gown, with all her pearls. Pedro Fages watched her enter, as splendid and smiling as on her best days, and he entertained a hope for a steamy reconciliation….

As one would expect from a writer of Allende's stature, that’s not badly written. There are good details here, and if the entire book wasn’t written like this, it would be okay. After all, you can’t show every detail. The problem is that this paragraph goes on for nearly a full page (and we’re talking trade paperback pages.) Flipping through the book (384 pages), it’s not hard to find plenty of examples where a single paragraph fills the entire page. Dialog is scarce, often no more than half a dozen lines, and pages of dense paragraphs separate these brief exchanges.

The Telling holds me at arm’s length and keeps me from feeling engaged with the characters.  I don’t actually care that Zorro’s mother seems to regret marrying his father. I don’t feel for his father who doesn’t understand why his marriage isn’t what he’d hoped it would be. And the child who will become Zorro. Meh.

White space? Compelling pacing? Close POV? It’s as if the author has never heard any of these concepts. She’s managed to take a swash-buckling, larger-than-life, classic, heroic figure and make him . . . well, boring. I couldn’t have imagined that in a million years.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I don’t like literary works. Writing in a more popular genre, one hears “Show, don’t tell” all the time.  While not every little thing needs to be shown, Zorro is an excellent example why one should strive for the showing to outweigh the telling by a significant margin.

The book isn't a total waste of time since it's a forceful reminder that I need to apply those methods that make the reader engage with the characters. Now if I can just convince myself to finish the book before it starts decomposing . . .

What books have you been disappointed in?


  1. I think you totally hit the nail on the head with this! I hate being told how I'm supposed to feel about the characters and/or story. I've always thought that it's a cop out for an author, so it's interesting to hear you say that it might be the literary style. That could be why I haven't read hardly any in that genre since I got my English Lit degree. ;-) Jill

  2. I don't think I could have managed an English Lit degree because they make you read too much of this sort of thing and then they get snooty if you don't think it's wonderful. Since I have a tendency to be opinionated--loudly--I probably would have flunked too many classes.

  3. I decided to avoid this one, based on recommendations against it at the time. It sounds like I was better off doing so.

    I've avoided taking most English classes at the university level... it generally sucked all the pleasure out of reading, I've felt.

  4. I agree. English Proffs (or are they literature proffs?) always wanted you to "find the meaning." Sometimes the meaning is just that the author wanted to write a good story.