Sunday, July 12, 2015

How Charlaine Harris Can Break All the Rules in the Right Ways, and I Am Totally Fine with It


I devoured the first six books of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, which really surprised me. I am not a vampire book snob (I liked Twilight), but I had reservations about getting into the books, mostly because my first encounter with this storyline was with the HBO adaptation True Blood. From my then one and only five minute viewing of the show in 2008, the show seemed to be full of gratuitous sex and the characters' accents seemed too feigned (I am from central/northern Louisiana, where the story takes place, so the accents were ridiculous to me).

Seven years later, which was about three weeks ago, I picked up Dead Until Dark, the first book in the series, and I have been hooked. In fact, I may be on my way to my local bookstore to find the next few books. What really amazes me about my obsession with this series is how many writing "rules" the author breaks and how totally okay I am with her breaking them.

1.  "Show, don't tell."

At this point, stating this rule is like beating a dead horse. Almost everyone with even the most cursory experience with writing classes/instruction has heard this rule before, and many people take "show, don't tell" as their own personal writing mantra.

Does this mean that writing instructors advocate no telling? Of course not! Some of the best books rely on telling, to some extent. If authors chose not to utilize telling as a method of conveying story details, some books would be too gargantuan for even the most dedicated reader to tackle (imagine how long one of George R. R. Martin's ASOIAF books would be without some telling . . . ).

However, because the entire Sookie Stackhouse series is essentially the interior reflections of a first person narrator, there is a lot of telling in Harris's books. I can get behind the amount of telling because of the way in which Harris uses Sookie to tell the story (Get it? To tell the story?).

Vampire Bill and Sookie, the POV character.
2. Don't front-load character/story details.

Harris does this quite a bit, especially when it comes to introducing a new character (or the character's first appearance in a new book). For example, if a character walks into a room, and it is the first time the character is mentioned in the book, Harris will describe the characters physical characteristics, what the character is wearing, and Sookie's opinion/history of the character. This amount of detail can range from three sentences to almost a full book page, so the flow of the story can definitely be disrupted.

However, the character Sookie frequently mentions her love of mystery and romance novels (and I have to assume the author shares this same love), so maybe this is a technique that is frequently used in both genres. Because I am not familiar with either genre, I cannot say for certain.

This type of front-loading bothered me at first. After getting a couple of books into the series, I began to appreciate the reminder of character attributes as a reader. As a writer, I appreciated how such a technique ensures that any reader jumping into the series can easily pick up on important details and immerse him or herself into the story.

Bill, Eric, and Sookie.
3. Filtering.

Filtering is the process of showing action through your POV character's experience of the action. For example:

Samantha heard a knock at the door.
Dave saw rain falling outside.

In both of these examples, the actions take a backseat to the characters' experiences of the actions; the characters' experiences are more important than the actions themselves. The problem with filtering is that it removes the story's sense of immediacy because the reader has to experience everything through the character's observations. In essence, filtering renders the reader a second-hand observer of the story. Here is how you could remove the filtering aspect and enhance the immediacy of the action:

Someone knocked at the door.
Rain began falling outside.

In these examples, the reader is experiencing the action directly, not through a character. Ellen Brock has a comprehensive video explanation of filtering. The point is, filtering shows up a lot in the Sookie Stackhouse books, and I am able to look past it, again, because we are experiencing the story through Sookie's internal reflections. Which brings me to my last point.

Vampires Pam, Eric, and Chow.
4. First Person Narration.

Okay, so it isn't a writing rule at all, but first person narration is really hard for me to get behind sometimes. There are even times when I am looking for a book in a book store, find a blurb that looks good, open to a random page and see first person narration, and quickly re-shelf the book. Something about the way first person stories are told bothers me... The Sookie Stackhouse books, however, are a pleasure to read, and it is even refreshing to see the reflections of a funny, colloquial, telepathic narrator.

All in all, despite the "rule breaking," I would give Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series and the subsequent HBO series True Blood 5 stars.


Disclaimer: All images of the show True Blood are property of HBO.

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