I’m almost to page 400 in John Grisham’s SYCAMORE ROW. I’d probably have it finished by now if I hadn’t lost time to my troublesome stomach, but I have to admit, I needed a kick in the pants to pick the book up to read every night. It’s good. But I’m not used to Grisham’s style of writing, and after all the pages I’ve read, the book still feels like set-up to me. Everything’s interesting. The characters are great, but there’s still no crunch time, no ticking clock, and I’m getting the feeling that’s not going to happen.
The truth is, I’m so used to genre writing, his style feels alien to me. He does a lot of the things that my writers’ group tells people NOT to do, but it works. For him.
- Show don’t tell. My group repeats this like a mantra. Showing pulls a reader into a story, makes him feel part of it. Grisham sets a scene–like Jake walking into the coffee shop where everyone gathers to learn the latest news and gossip–and TELLS us what’s happening. I’ve never been bothered by telling as much as some writers. Author intrusion? Eh, it works once in a while. Jenna Bennett uses it here and there, and it adds an intimacy to her stories, like she’s talking just to you, the reader. It’s efficient, too. Showing takes space. You have to let a scene play out to make a point. Telling…well, you just say what you want the reader to know. It creates more distance between the reader and the story, but it gives the reader a quick feeling of everything important in fewer words. Still, all in all, most writers try to avoid it. We try to show instead of tell.
- POV. My groups’ view is that there’s singular POV or multiple POV, and you don’t mix more than one POV in a scene. You wait to jump from one person’s head to another’s. Grisham eliminates that worry by using a sort of omniscient POV and focusing in on one person and then moving to another. It’s not one bit confusing. It works. But again, it creates more distance. The reader’s not following one person or a few important players from place to place. We pop from Jake’s thoughts to Lettie’s to someone’s in the coffee shop. I don’t read enough thrillers to know if this is the norm for the genre, but it very well might be. That’s the thing about genres. They don’t all follow the same rules.
- Pacing. My group focuses a lot on keeping the reader turning pages. We build tension and conflict into every scene we can. We have pinch points and turning points. And everything keeps geting worse. Grisham concentrates on his story and lets it unfold. It doesn’t feel rushed. It has more of a literary feel where the characters develop more than the plot. I’m happy to roll with that, except I have to admit, as a genre junkie, I wish some key plot point was moving a little faster. But that’s my own hang-up, and I know it.
- Would I change my advice to people who come to Scribes? No. Because show, don’t tell works for most writers. So does POV and pacing. But Grisham is talented enough to pull off his style. His sales speak for that. But most mere mortals have better luck following the rules. It’s hard enough finding an audience, so why push your luck?
Whatever you write, however you write it, good luck. And happy writing!
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