Before I started writing, I read a lot. When I was a kid, it was baseball, warfare, dinosaurs, rockets, fantasy. I even read a romance. Then I got serious about school, so for a long while it was science and mathematics – though you don’t exactly read mathematics. You do it, you don’t read it.
Then I was a professional economist for thirty five years, so I read a lot of journal articles, IMF reports, legal briefs. Heavy stuff. Once I was gainfully employed, I throttled back and began to read for fun. I hadn’t done that since childhood. I read all sorts of things, but still looked for science fiction. The Foundation Trilogy, Stranger in a Strange Land, Enders Game, Childhood’s End, IRobot, and lots of other things as well.
When I started studying fiction for the purpose of writing fiction, I learned a lot about literary devices, about the three act structure, about plot, and character arc, and about tension and thwarted desire. I learned how and why to hide information. And I learned other things as well.
All that was important to learning how to write stories and novels. I’m glad I learned it. But it ruined me as a reader. I can no longer fall into a story and enjoy the twists and turns and the strange voyage the writer wishes me to take. Instead, I find myself looking for the next trick to be played, and I often see it coming. That gets in the way. It’s a lot harder to enjoy a story when you’ve figured out how it will proceed.
It bugs me more than it should. For example, even in high school, I found myself figuring out stories before they were told. That’s not fun. I read Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway, then returned and read it again in middle age. Each time, I had the same reaction – you’re going to kill off the nurse, aren’t you Ernie? (Ernie and I are best buds, on a first name basis).
And rather than enjoy the story, I’d sit there and stew about the impending doom coming for the nurse. But really, while we’re on the subject, what exactly is the point of killing off the nurse? As hard as I look, I can’t see the benefit. It does not assist the ending of the story, quite the contrary, it is a speedbump that makes the ending bumpier and more awkward. It is not more interesting. I just think Ernie did it to inject a little tension into the story. But it’s phony tension.
There’s a lot of phony tension in literature these days. We’ve all been taught to write it. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make for a better story. Of course, I should point out, the writers who inject every page with tension are probably selling more than I am. At least, I hope they are.