Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Point of No Return

In my reading lately, I've noticed a couple of ways that books affect me as a reader, so that will be my topic for the next couple of days.

The first is what I might call The Point of No Return. I guess it's more accurately The Point of Not Being Able to Put the Book Down, but that doesn't sound as catchy. This is the point in a book at which you just have to read on to the ending and can't stop along the way. It doesn't matter if it's mealtime, time to go somewhere or bedtime. You just have to keep reading to the end. In my family, we call this "the last eight pages" because if someone wants you to put a book down to go do something else, it would be unreasonable to make you put it down with only eight more pages to read. The eight pages may be more like eighty, but it just means that there's no stopping point in sight.

Usually this falls at about the 3/4 mark, when things are really starting to get bad for Our Hero, and you know they're only going to get worse. You can't stop reading while the hero is in a dire state. The only thing you can do is keep forging ahead until you get the hero out of the woods and you know that everything is going to be okay. If you're forced to put a book down before things work out, you can't help but imagine all kinds of scenarios.

I still remember the time when I was in high school and reading a mystery novel before bedtime (Never Pick Up Hitchhikers, by Ellis Peters). I had just reached The Point of No Return when I got the lights out order, and the Last Eight Pages argument didn't work. I was at the part where the hero had figured out that the key to the mystery was in a particular building, and he could get into that building through the museum next door. The museum was going to close in a couple of hours, and he figured that would be plenty of time for him to get in, find what he needed, and then get out. Then there was the line: "Famous last words." And that was when Mom made me turn the lights out. I'd have probably had more sleep if I'd just read until the end because it was a restless night full of nightmares about what could have happened next.

Of course, with some books and authors, The Point of No Return is on page one. That's what we all aspire to, to write something that so completely and utterly hooks people that they miss meals, lose sleep and cancel social engagements because they can't bear to put the book down until they find out what happens. I've been known to cackle with glee when someone accuses me of making them lose sleep because they stayed up all night reading my books. It's all part of my evil plan.

This may be a reason why I tend to prefer genre fiction over "literary" fiction. I like that sense of resolution and things working out. If I've stayed up hours too late because I couldn't quit while the hero was in trouble, and then the hero never gets out of trouble and things just stay bad for everyone, then I'm really disappointed. I read one of those this week. It was infuriating. It was this supposedly deep and meaningful thing about how seemingly random actions have consequences, and how an act of kindness by one person ended up destroying the lives of herself and everyone around her. I kept reading to see how it would come full circle and work itself out, but no!

My good "point of no return" book this week was Sex, Murder, and a Double Latte, by Kyra Davis (who was featured recently on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit). It was a funny, but still very suspenseful, mystery that I'd describe as similar in tone to the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich (though set in San Francisco instead of New Jersey, so very different types of characters). It was a mystery that truly stumped me, with perfect red herring suspects, and there really was no putting that book down once the heroine started to realize what really was going on. Now I have to go out and find the next book in the series.

And now I must get to work. I'm still slogging my way through that synopsis. There's a certain instinct to storytelling patterns, but right now, my instinct is mostly good at telling me what doesn't work without coming up with ways to make it work.

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