Let Me Entertain You

wing-221526_1280Some time ago I was on a plane coming back from New York. Sitting in the window seat was a woman of about sixty. As soon as we were in the air she took a paperback out of her purse and started to read.

Since one out of every three paperbacks in the world is by James Patterson, it was no surprise when I saw his name on the cover.

I took out my Kindle and started reading the complete works of Charles Dickens.

After half an hour or so, I heard a ripping noise. I glanced over and saw the woman tearing off a good chunk of pages from Mr. Patterson’s book. She folded these and stuck them in the seat pocket.

And went back to reading.

I said nothing, returning to the travails of Little Dorrit.

Another half hour or so went by, and the woman did the same thing with the next section of the book. I held my Kindle in a protective position.

Time went on, and eventually what I guessed to be about half the book was torn asunder. At some point a flight attendant came down the aisle with a trash bag. The woman gestured to the attendant and placed the pages that had formerly been part of a bound paperback into the bag.

I couldn’t resist. “That must be a trashy novel,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically, which is a look I’m used to.

“I’ve never seen someone do that before,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “before I go on a trip I pick up a few paperbacks at a garage sale. I don’t want to carry them around after I’m finished. And if I’m in the middle of a book I don’t want to carry the whole book. I read and tear off pages so I’m left with a smaller book to put in my purse.”

“Mr. Patterson might feel ripped off,” I said.

She stared.

“Are you enjoying the book?” I said.

“It keeps me occupied,” she said.

And isn’t that why most people read fiction? To be occupied, transported, distracted, entertained? To have a few hours when they’re not worried about jobs, relationships, politics, crime, money, Jennifer Aniston?

Thus the term escapist. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, it may be essential for survival. Unless we can shut down for awhile and let our brains be entertained we are doomed to walk through the dense fog of existence without so much as a candle.

Of course, there is room for what some call “difficult” fiction. Sometimes tagged “literary,” it’s the kind of fiction that tests readers, that requires a certain amount of aerobics of the brain. It’s also the kind of fiction that’s being squeezed out of the marketplace, for as one editor said to me at a conference, “The definition of literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t sell.”

Which is more about the business aspect of publishing than any inherent worth. Publishers and authors would love it if literary fiction was more marketable. But publishers need to make money. They do it primarily with A-list authors who entertain.

Again, not a bad thing. “In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.” – Dean Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1981)

So what are the elements of entertaining fiction? Here is what I look for—and try to write myself:

  • A Lead we absolutely bond with and root for
  • A touch of humor
  • Heart and heat
  • Death overhanging (physical, psychological, and/or professional)
  • Vindication of the moral order
  • Surprise, things we haven’t seen before
  • Twists and turns
  • A knockout ending
  • A style with a bit of unobtrusive poetry

A few questions for the TKZ community today:

  1. What makes for entertaining fiction in your eyes?
  1. When was the last time you threw a book across the room (literally or figuratively)? You don’t have to name names, but what prompted your reaction?
  1. What was a “difficult” book that tested your brain?


31 thoughts on “Let Me Entertain You

  1. Jim, I loved the line about holding your Kindle in a protective position.

    To answer your questions:

    1) Entertaining fiction is fiction that transports me to a different place. Calgon without the bath water.

    2) I recently read a new thriller where the author was so bent on making their political views known — none of which really had anything to do with the storyline — that it hijacked the book. I didn’t pick it back up either.

    3) Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy.

  2. Good morning, Jim. Always love your posts. The ripping of the book – how unusual, that’s a character tidbit a novelist could use! (LOL)

    Maybe what we can strive for is commercial fiction with a literary flourish. I felt “Seabiscuit” and even “Gone Girl” were wonderfully done. Both had broad commercial appeal and yet were packed with intelligence, and in “Girl’s” case, a canniness as well.

    The last difficult book I read, that I felt verged on literary, was “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell. I absolutely loved it, but found myself re-reading sentences and paragraphs to assure that my ADD brain wasn’t missing anything significant. Still, the thing about a more literary book, is that you feel you’re reading something more profound and bone marrow deep. It’s akin to watching a shallow sitcom versus a more literary TV series.

    Recently I read a Camille Paglia essay, and I don’t always agree with her, but she can make me think. I try to read all kinds of things, all political spectrums. Just my nature. I’ve read dozens of mommy blogs and even skimmed a lurid Tucker Max blog, but Paglia not only has writing skill, she has a way of provoking thought. And that’s what I think a great literary novel does. (continued)

  3. A number of years ago, my husband explained to me how YouTube works, how a particular video will have a certain trajectory. There is an algorithm they’re able to track with early on, to predict which videos will go viral.

    Then I found an article on Google, and how Google searches can possibly affect elections:


    Likewise, I wonder if there isn’t something like that afoot at Amazon, considering this NYT article, how white collar workers are pushed to come up with ideas:


    So exactly where am I taking this equation – YouTube + Google articles + Amazon in the NYT? And how am I relating it to your post of literary versus commercial fiction?

    Well, I wonder if some author sales don’t get a little “help.” Sort of how Joe Kennedy allegedly pushed the sales of “Profiles in Courage” by buying thousands of copies, so it would spike on the bestseller list.

    Montlake is Amazon’s publishing division for romance, and I’m reading a Montlake contemporary romance. My opinion – it’s bland and formulaic. Surprisingly though, the book has hundreds of reviews, many five-star ratings, and I noted that it’s available through Kindle Unlimited. My brain can shift into overdrive – just ask my husband, who shakes his head whenever this happens — and I started to think, “Hey, were these initial readers “gently pushed” to register five or four star reviews? To help elevate sales of this Montlake (Amazon) romance?”

    Now, folks can accuse me of seeing black helicopters and coming up with conspiracy theories, but the same week I ordered this rather bland novel, I also ordered a used copy (hardback – hurray!) – of a RITA winner that engaged me immediately. In fact, I was floored it won the RITA, because it defies formula and covers a serious subject, too. This particular book also has a refreshing narrative voice, a real standout on the cluttered romance shelf. And for me, a romance writer myself, this novel gave me hope.

    However, I noted that this wonderful book had a fraction of the five-star reviews that the Montlake romance had, and given my black-helicopter propensity, I started to form theories.

  4. I cringed reading about that woman. The poor book. Ouch!

    1. A story that gives me a vicarious experience. I read to escape, to be transported into a world unfamiliar to me, with characters I can root for. A story that twists and turns and flips upside down. And I need a fast pace. Stories that drag lose my attention fast. I’ve become a book snob. So many authors have spoiled me; I know almost instantly if it’s a book that will rock my world, or one I won’t finish.

    2. In a book I started a while back there was so much telling with absolutely no emotion I only lasted two chapters, and that was being generous.

    3. I don’t know about difficult, but A Seventh Thunder by Larry Brooks certainly made me think and left me pondering afterward. It had such an affect on me I wrote a post about it. Now that great storytelling.

  5. Great post! I think the woman on the plane was due for a Kindle. No extra weight.

    1. I read for entertainment and refreshment. As I’m also trying to read the genres I’m writing (urban fantasy), this doesn’t happen all that much. There’s a lot of poorly-done UF out there. But hey, it’s all educational, right?

    2. The last book I read dealt with “what if the Puritans had colonized a new planet?” The story was good, but the religious legalism nearly killed it for me. I had a hard time finishing. Another book I don’t know if I can finish is a mystery in which all the characters are angry jerks. No petting of the dog anywhere. Not sure if I can hang with it.

    3. I’m reading the Wolves of Willoughby Chase aloud to my kids right now, and after Harry Potter, it’s a bit difficult! (“Presently a wolf precipitated itself through the aperture therein.”) The last difficult book I read for myself was The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. Beautiful, beautiful book. You know in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy reads the spell for refreshment and forgets it afterward? It was the Scent of Water.

  6. Hey JSB. Great storytelling in this post. Thanks for the fun read.

    1. Novels with engrossing first act setups. I don’t read books where someone recommends it while also saying, “just wait until you’re about 50 pages in because then it gets really good!”

    2. A couple months ago I put down a bestseller everyone kept recommending. It was okay but its slow pace (still half-way through) made me feel like I had to sludge through it. That’s not my kind of escapism.

    3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a brilliant story told in difficult, layered ways. But images stay with me (even when they come from a brilliant author). I could not bring myself to watch the movie.

  7. Jim, thanks for another great post.

    Your list of elements of entertaining fiction is a good reminder of what we strive for. A recent article in WRITERS DIGEST on the layers of editing should probably put this list as the base of the triangle. Do these things first.

    1. Entertaining fiction for me is first of all a great story, action that keeps things moving but still has scene and sequel, characters that are developed and not 2-dimensional, and a writing style that is so invisible and clear that I don’t have to reread.

    2. I finally set aside THE SHACK, not because it wasn’t well written, but I just didn’t enjoy the story. Life is too short to read what we don’t enjoy.

    3. I also gave up on TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, because I had to read every
    British idiom three times and work to understand what was being said. Great story, but I wanted to be transported, not have to climb and fight my way through.

    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Wow. What an image! Reminds me of the backpacker who cut the handle of his toothbrush in half so he wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight.
    You hit it on the head – a character to root for in a world I can become immersed in, facing danger, with a few twists and turns. And it doesn’t have to be fiction. I’m in the middle of a history, “The Plot to Seize the White House” by Jules Archer, detailing a little known (at least to me) attempt by a group of millionaires to depose FDR and install a fascist govt. in the early 1930s. The main character is Gen. Smedley Butler, a highly decorated Marine Corps retiree, a cranky and stubborn guy, born a Quaker yet become one of the country’s greatest warriors – Patton before Patton – who the plotters had picked to be the new figurehead of their government. They hadn’t counted on his honesty and loyalty. He was so offended by their threat to the Constitution he had sworn to defend that he blew the whistle on the plot despite the risk to his reputation and legacy. What a great hero!
    A book I’ve thrown across the room? I was sent a copy of a YA pirate story to review, best left unnamed, in which the main character was so unpleasant, the story so absurd and the milieu so poorly researched and crafted that I twice threw it across the room, the second time not to retrieve it.
    I can forgive a book where one of the three traits – character, world or plot – are subpar if the other two really work, but failing at all three? Against the wall it goes!

  9. First of all, your restraint while watching someone tear up a book is commendable. I’m not sure I would be able to remain composed witnessing that. I realize this is a throw-away society we’re living in but that still bothers me.

    Entertaining fiction for me is fiction that moves at a fairly fast clip and has a broad, sweeping storyline. I also need a protag who truly has to get down to the nitty gritty of life. If they get everything handed to them on a platter, it isn’t conflict. I want to escape from everyday life, and to do that, I need to read about well developed protags who topple the challenges they face and overcome, even if in the real world it doesn’t always end in success. I need books with hope for change.

    I’ve never thrown a book literally as far as I recall but I will dismiss a book immediately if:
    1. It’s another tedious, formulaic novel
    2. The blurb or first pages imply a certain kind of story but they do something totally opposite in the pages to come.

  10. I rarely throw books in the trash, I usually give them away if I don’t want to keep them. However, last week I read a book that I’d won from a blog, and after finishing it, I immediately threw it in the trash. It’s probably considered literary fiction. The reason why I threw it away is that it depicted horrible physical abuse by a father toward his wife and children, with no hope, no change, and no real ending. The author didn’t name one character. They were all called “mother” “father” “father’s sister,” etc.

    Entertaining fiction to me is all you described.

    I’d add – a wonderful setting, preferably in a place I’ve never been, so I can “visit” there while reading. And a hero that is human, with failings, but is willing to sacrifice his individual needs for the good of many. A heroine who isn’t whiny and afraid, or too aggressive and competitive.

    One of the most difficult, yet one of the best books I’ve read is Jolie Blon’s Bounce, by James Lee Burke. Difficult because it’s a deep exploration of the nature of evil, but wonderful because of that as well. And of course, his lyrical writing is stellar. 🙂 I’ll read anything by Burke, he’s a master.

  11. To me it seems like most of the new “big books” coming out have some tortured literary pretense to them. I find it difficult to find a cleanly written thriller unless it’s by someone who has been in the biz for a while. And a lot of those, the long-running series, are getting tired and feeling phoned in. One I can think of, I had this look on my face:


    as the hero clung to the roof of the bad guy’s SUV during a chase (do the bad guys not know how brakes work?) And this is someone who has a standing book a year (forever) deal from his publisher.

    1) Like movies, I like a lot of action and thrills with the tang of authenticity. Meaning the jargon is correct and the actions of the characters real, whether they are cops, lawyers, soldiers, etc. I can think of one military sci-fi writer I like. No one will ever accuse him of being lyrical, but the military portions of the book are crisp and clean and crackle with action. His work develops cracks when he tries to spin off into allegorical “literary” tortured character navel gazing introspection. One thing that gives me a big happy is a well-crafted action/adventure/thriller world that I can insert myself into as a participant and character. Where I can imagine myself part of the ensemble – the team. Because then it lives on in my imagination long after the book is done.

    2) It’s been a while since I hated a book enough to throw. Usually, they sink, ignored, to the bottom of my Kindle. This includes a lot of the new “big books” that have been heralded as the next “big thing.” Tortured literary pretense, gimmicky POV and tense usage, overly chewy language, and technical errors will make me ignore your book after the first 10 pages or so.

    3) As for difficult books, one that sticks with me is titled “Q” by Evan Mandery. It has some unnecessary literary pretense and gimmicky (there is an excerpt of the main character’s novel about 2/3 the way through, it felt like wordcount padding, I blah-blah-blahed my way through it.)

    But the premise of the book is haunting. What if your future self showed up and showed you a way to spare someone you love future pain? Would you hurt them in the present to avoid breaking their heart later? Can you pre-load and pre-feel pain and take away its sting? I think we all know the answer, but would we be able to resist the temptation?

    As the book picks up speed toward the end, the MC is presented with future selves in shorter cycles and spends all his time and energy trying to avoid future disappointment until there is no future left.

    Great topic as usual Prof Bell! Terri

  12. I have abandoned books for several reasons, but the most common one is failure to identify with anyone or anything in the story. In the 1970s, I loved reading Michener, Clavell, Uris. I really like Michener’s Centennial. Talk about a long lead in. But at the same time, I read every Alistair MacLean. The lead gets beat up, stabbed, and shot before running the long distance, beating overwhelming obstacles before winning the day. The most difficult book would probably be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It took me two summer vacations to get through it and all the footnotes. Amazing achievement in writing, it seems to me.

  13. Just occurred to me – 

    “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Dorothy Parker, probably apocryphal.

    When reading a real snoozer or a book so annoying you want to scream, sometimes literally throwing the book across the room is the only real entertainment you get from it. It feels good. But you dare not do that with an ebook! Can’t hurl your Kindle and expect to read anything again. So that’s one advantage for traditional books over ebooks.

  14. Oh dear…I guess I should confess: I have done that tear-out-pages thing. On a trip to France, I found a copy of “The Da Vinci Code” in a used book store. It was fat and I was traveling light. So I tore out each section as I finished it and trashed it. Never felt one lick of guilt, especially the closer I got to the bad ending.

    1. What entertains me? Something I haven’t seen done before. An unusual protag. A transporting setting. A new twist on an old story. Really fine writing.

    2. Last book I threw across the room? A “domestic thriller” by a mega-selling author who had a good story going but then over-twisted it. I was sitting on a deck in the Michigan woods and literally threw it into the trees below I was so mad. Another one: a series book by a writer whose books I adore, but man, this one was phoned in. Forced myself to keep going but finally gave up.

    3. Challenging book? Toni Morrison’s Beloved. So glad I stayed with it.

  15. Great list of elements common to quality escapist fiction, Jim.

    To them I would add: Glide. That sense of effortless grace that keeps readers moving smoothly from one sentence to the next, from one page to the next. Plot can get you there to some extent, but only if it’s propelled by prose that moves with nimble, nuanced economy. Something that transcends the simple declarative but doesn’t get lost in the lyrical.

    Recently I’ve been reading four early novels by suspense writer Peter Abrahams that were recently released as ebooks. But in between them, I’ve been slogging through the newest Longmire cozy mystery from Craig Johnson for paid review. And while Johnson’s books meet most of your escapist criteria — and are hugely popular because they do — they fall short for me because of their complete absence of glide. The prose is chunky-style beef stew, clogged with stringy bits of nested clauses and gristly pieces of dense info-dumpage. The sentences just don’t flow from one sentence to the next; they just sit back in the saddle and bounce along tough structural terrain. I can read only ten to twelve pages at a time before having to give up the fight.

    By contrast, Abrahams is the Genghis of glide. His action scenes are deft little dance steps — one moment he’s in front of you, the next he’s in your blind spot, the next he’s standing over you and you’re wondering how that knife came to be sticking out of your gut. Everything happens in strobe-lit bursts, shifty-fast but not staccato, smart but not self-satisfied, seamless but not strictly straight-ahead, and you’re on to the next sentence and then the sentence after that while the scene you just read through scatters pleasant little spores of delayed awareness in the slipstream of your draft.

    An example, from END OF STORY (2006):

    “I feel his hard muzzle at the back of my head. Am I expecting company? No. That explains my overreaction and I don’t even recognize Ferdie until he’s down. Course he has backup—procedure is how they get control of the wild boys—and they work me over for a bit, completely understandable, no problem. Then Ferdie’s back in the picture, a little different with missing teeth. One of them’s in my hand; I’ve been clinging to it during the working-me-over part for some reason. Ferdie asks the big question, the one about where the money is. I can only laugh.”

    That’s glide. And I can no longer read a novel in which the prose steps back to service the plot (or steps out in front to shuck-and-jive to distract from a soft plot). The prose has give the plot its grease. And the grease is what keeps the engine humming and me happy.

    I need that

    • Glide. What a concept. It seems you’re describing more than pace here. I’ll keep that in my head for a long time.
      I’ll also remember your soup metaphor, especially the “gristly pieces of dense info-dumpage.” Well played, sir!

    • I LOVE this idea, Jim.
      Glide…I have never heard it phrased as such but I so get what you mean. Why do some stories move so effortlessly and other plod?
      And you know, as a writer, when you are gliding and when you are not.

  16. Nice post, Jim. I love a series where I can’t wait for the next book to come out because the author has created characters that have become so life like to me I can actually believe they exist somewhere out there in the world. Books with suspense, romance, and a setting that lives as a character as well.

    I threw a book across the room once and that was because I thought it was the second book in the series of an author I really like but it ended up being the same as the first book only from another characters pov. Very disappointing.

    I’d have to say Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. Both fascinating and troubling.

  17. I like fiction that tells a good story and teaches me something new. Just finished Linda’ Castillo’s “After the Storm” set in Amish country in Ohio. This is no romantic bonnet buster — its a hard-eyed look at the toll Amish beliefs exact from people. Just finished “Tnseltown: Murder, Mayhem and Morphine at the Dawn of Hollywood.” Fascinating look at the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and his hidden life as a gay man in a straight world.

  18. 1. Something well-written that engages me. Can be any genre, written by a man or woman, from any country.

    2. I have abandoned 3 books this summer: Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk (really didn’t care about his feelings of sexuality at age 6, and boring), December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith (boring and more boring), and The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer (not too exciting; didn’t care for the first book in the series so why I thought I might like the second is beyond me). In other words, they all failed on the entertain-the-reader front.

    3. Not really sure how to answer this question. There have been a lot of books that make me think. I notice several people above list Cormac McCarthy books. I can’t stand McCarthy’s books. I haven’t been able to finish one. They don’t test my brain, just my patience. He does have a very distinctive style, though, I’ll grant him that.

  19. We have a real course on popular fiction going on here. Nicely done.

    Good word, “glide.” That’s something I find in John D. MacDonald. That’s where I got the term “unobtrusive poetry.” JDM once listed that as something he desires in what he reads. Same thing, I think.

  20. I know I’m reading a good book if I look at my clock and am shocked to discover it’s 2:00am and immediately buy/download the series and then plead with the author to give us some more.

    The last book I threw across the room and straight into the wood fire was a YA novel I received to review for a school library. There were 186+ instances of nudity, sexual innuendo/sex acts, blasphemy, drugs and “hard-core swearing” in the first quarter that I refused to finish it. Not my idea of a book suitable for ages 12+ and written by a supposedly “award winning first time author.”

  21. Always insightful! My heart died a little about her tearing out the pages. I nearly had a heart attack when a school made an archway from “old books.”

    1. Transportation of my thoughts from words to what is happening in the book. When I can hear the accents or smell the spices in the food.

    2. When the writer had a series of books and switched from a single POV in the first books to a duel POV in the third. In all fairness, it was a YA that I was previewing for my kid, but it took me much longer to finish because of the lack of continuity.

    3. Rereading Austen and the Bronte sisters and picking up the subtle tones of sarcasm. It forces me to slow down and appreciate the ladies writing how they could for that era. Going to start up Shakespeare soon with a high schooler…wish me luck.

  22. Once again, great post, Jim. I’ve had similar airplane observations myself, but never including a torn up paperback. As Kindle continues to conquer the universe, that will happen less and less.

    I don’t usually throw books across the room, but I do occasionally toss a magazine The last book I remember tossing was Stephen King’s “On Writing,” when I got to the part where he advises new writers to just sit down and start writing, see what happens. I consider that to be among the worst, most misleading and toxic advice ever given, and since it comes from the most successful author in all of modern fiction, it’s dangerous advice, as well, so full of hubris. Because the only writers who can succeed, or even tolerate, that model are writers at or near his level, writers who already understand the many complex principles that underpin a successful story, writers who, like an experienced pilot or musician, has the music already in their head. It is like telling a new, wannabe lawyer to “just get in there and talk,” or a new wannabe doctor to “just cut, see what happens.” I’ll tell what happens – blood and death happens if a new doctor ever took such advice.

    I also chuck magazine articles that profile Big Name Authors, who proudly proclaim things like not knowing their ending when they start, or advocating anything close to King’s approach. This isn’t plotters versus planners, it’s knowledge-based writing versus clueless writing, and there’s only one winner in that match. It isn’t that they’re lying, they may well do it that way, but again, it’s the partial-perspective of it that frustrates. Because a draft begun without an ending in mind is a SEARCH DRAFT (we all search for our stories, some writers do so in an early draft), not remotely the draft that gets published (which WILL be written in context to a known ending, because doing so is required to end up with something publishable).

    Anyhow, thanks for asking, happy to get this off my chest… at least until the next article comes out advocating complete cluelessness under the guise of genius.

    • You’re playing my tune, Larry. King is a truly gifted writer, so can get away with (sometimes, not always!) radical pantsing. Everybody else ought to learn the scales before trying to play jazz.

  23. Hi Jim,
    Great post, as always. Love the checklist for writing entertaining fiction!
    1.) I look for a strong first sentence, page and hook. Humor (a must!) and a quirky character/voice pull me in like a mackerel. Turn-offs are violence involving children or pervasive swearing. Can’t and won’t.
    2.) I literally fast-pitched a title, written by a long-loved series by a very talented crime writer, across the room once. Nearly killed an unsuspecting spider plant. Let’s just say there was a mailbox, a pipe bomb and flying body parts involved.THE LAST PAGE of installment #6. I’ll admit I went a little “Misery”. Talk about shredding pages. From a library book. By the librarian herself. Judge me, if you must.
    3.) “The Girls of the Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan tested the limits of my reading endurance. I am in no wise a non-fiction reader (other than how-to-write books), much less anything pertaining to history that doesn’t involve a story. But with my roots being in the Oak Ridge (TN) area, I desperately wanted to read this title. It was written in narrative form, so it read more like a story than a manual. Awesome book. But I’m pretty sure my brain was smokin’ a little after that one.

    Thanks for the great posts! Keep ’em coming!

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