It’s been a couple of days since I’ve done a post, I’ve been doing some other things the past couple of days (had a job interview, talked to an admissions advisor about potentially going to grad school, working a little more at the bowling alley) so reading Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road is taking me a little longer than it normally would (based on page count, it’s only 280ish pages). So to avoid going too long without any posts at all, I figured I’d write about something that I thought about the other day.
Learning curve in books, what the heck am I talking about. Basically, it’s everything about the book that you need to know to really understand the story. Obviously the characters and setting are two big aspects of this, but just as big a part is the magic or technology used in the books. Now, obviously the learning curve is going to be a lot steeper if you’re reading a science fiction or fantasy novel as opposed to something set in our world, but it can still be there for novels set in our world. Even though there are many different elements in many novels, there are a lot of things that we can take for granted in novels. You’ll never really need to explain what a shuttle is in a science fiction novel, and in fantasy novels you generally don’t need to delve too much into how a country inn operates.
Many of the things that the learning curve does apply to in novels is directly related to the setting. In a fantasy novel, there is almost always a magic system in the world, even if it is something like Gandalf where the books never explain the rules of everything he can do you still need to know that he is capable of magic. In science fiction novels you often have to deal with aliens or technology in the world.
I think that in many ways, the learning curve associated with genre fiction affects what genres I prefer to read. It seems like fantasy novels (at least many recent ones) there is a big emphasis on really creating a unique world, whereas science fiction seems to not have as much emphasis on the world and focus a little more on the technology. I’m not the biggest techno-geek, and some science fiction novels fall flat in the world-building to me. The added emphasis on the world rather than technology is a large part of the reason why I enjoy fantasy novels more than science fiction novels. For short stories on the other hand, I prefer science fiction to fantasy. Many fantasy short stories seem to be very generic in the world, you just don’t have time to explore a world in short form. For science fiction short stories you can set up a situation faster because there are so many common elements in the sci-fi world that you don’t always need to explain quite as much.
As for characters in novels, I think the best way to deal with a large cast of characters is the way that Robert Jordan did in the Wheel of Time series. You start with one character, and then slowly expand the story to include more and more characters. If you were to start a book with the number of viewpoints that some of the later WoT books have, you could very easily get lost.
Learning curve is a very tough thing in many books. As I said during my post where I talked about putting down Neuromancer the learning curve on that book was way to steep for me. There was so much in the technology, the character, his current situation, and his background, that I just couldn’t follow everything that was going on. On the other hand, if you go too slowly with the learning curve, I’d put the book down because nothing is happening.
So here’s your question after my post. As a reader (or a writer) do you think about the learning curve in a book? Are there books that you’ve stopped reading either because you couldn’t follow everything that was going on in the book or because nothing was happening in the book? I think that this can be one of the toughest things to get right in a book, even though it’s a subtle thing that most people never think about.