read around the rainbow, writing

Read Around the Rainbow: what’s more important to you, the story itself or the way it’s told?

This month’s Read Around the Rainbow blog topic is, as a reader, what’s more important to you, the story itself or the way it’s told? I’ve just got back from Australia, so I’m getting this up a bit late, but I’ll try to ramble for a bit!

I feel like my answer to this is a bit of a cop-out, because it’s sort of…the story, BUT? By which I mean, I can forgive a lot of, say, small proofreading errors (happens to the best of us! also sometimes your well-meaning editors introduce errors! ask me about Character Bleed!) or meandering plot if I’m invested in the characters—if I like spending time with them, maybe I do want to know whether they like tea or coffee even if it’s extraneous to the plot! *laughs* (I like fanfic, can you tell? Plot, what plot?)

But…there’s that BUT…I do have to care about the characters for that to work. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect people! They can be disasters or even problematic. But I have to be interested in them. Because if I’m not, then I start paying extra attention to all the little things that aren’t working, and the irritations build up.

There’s also a cumulative effect of just…too many grammatical issues within the first few pages. If I’m interested in the characters, but within, oh, a hypothetical first couple of pages, there are many major issues like verb tense confusion, epithets when characters should know each other’s names (your husband, whom you’ve lived with for years, is not “the taller man” in your own head, is he?), misunderstanding of capitalization and/or dialogue tags….then it’s just going to be too difficult to read, and I’ll give up. (I can also think of an example in which a main character’s eyes changed color – not just once but in several places! And not for supernatural reasons, either. I did finish that one but it bothered me, because someone should’ve caught that, and if no one did, then something’s gone wrong with that process, either writing or editorial. And it did affect my enjoyment of the book, because then I was looking for the next occurrence of that instead of being drawn into the story!)

As far as style, I’m not too picky—different genres and authors work in different styles, and I love seeing how writers play with language! Gregory Ashe and KJ Charles and Cole McCade and C.S. Pacat all have very different styles, and they all work for the stories and imagery in question. I do tend to prefer past tense and third person—I think it’s just so many years of that being what I’m used to, with older fantasy and romance novels, and academic writing. Present tense always makes my brain do a little skip while I try to adjust, and first person just sort of seems…I don’t know, unnecessary? If you can do a really good tight third person POV, then you’ve got the interiority already; why do first? But then of course I’ve also read and loved some books in first person—I mean, Jordan Hawk! So that’s not a deal-breaker, especially if I trust the author. And I, er, accidentally wrote at least one story in first person and sort-of present tense, in the frame narrative, though the main story is past tense (“Bisclavret”). So, y’know. Sometimes stories just insist.

(One trend that I genuinely loathe is authors labeling chapters with POV characters’ names, especially in third person. Readers can figure it out, I promise! If you’ve written it properly, it’s not that hard! Romance (and fantasy, and general fiction, and…) authors and readers have done POV switches for decades! Sometimes even in the same chapter, at scene breaks! I can maaaaaybe see an argument for it if you’re doing dual first POV and have a lot of “I” sentences, but even then, it should be fairly obvious whose viewpoint we’re in and who’s being…viewed. As it were. The name-labeling won’t make me instantly not read the book, but it’ll make me cranky. It feels insulting to the readers’ intelligence, or possibly like you’ve got no confidence in your own ability to convey information in a scene. /end grumbling)

I used to think I preferred dual POV, to get to know the protagonists equally (assuming we’re focusing on romance here, with two MCs and not three or more!), but these days I think it depends on what the book/story needs. Some stories benefit from the single POV—maybe playing with narrative reliability, or a slow reveal about the other character, or a focus on internal growth. (The gorgeous deep character study of Alexis Hall’s Glitterland, for instance, wouldn’t work nearly as well with dual POV.) Some stories need both character perspectives to give us plot/motivation/information that we couldn’t get otherwise, especially when protagonists interact with other characters beyond their love interests (a lot of KJ Charles is great for this: who are they, when they’re not with each other?). I’ve written both—Magician is so much about Lorre’s character arc that we needed to be in his head for all of it, really, but for something like the Character Bleed trilogy, we needed to know what Jason and Colby were thinking individually, especially when they were a) still getting to know each other, and b) separately making big decisions with emotional weight. (I also think about KJ Charles’ writing advice about POV here; to paraphrase, for which character is this moment going to be the most emotionally significant? That’s what we should see. And that might be the same character throughout the book, all the moments—or it might depend on the scene!)

I do like a lot of genres—I like reading romance subgenres I don’t necessarily write well, like mystery! And genres have their own conventions, so that also affects style. I like books that surprise me—maybe a clever plot construction, or needing to reevaluate a character and then immediately do a reread because OH THAT READS SO MUCH DIFFERENTLY NOW (ah, Laurent from Captive Prince…). I like books that make me have all the feels on behalf of the characters. Give me the emotional connection. Make me hurt for them and hope for them and understand why they do what they do even when they mess up (*stares at basically all the Gregory Ashe characters ever*), and that’s what’ll make me want to read more.

And now I feel like I’m rambling, so we’ll stop there! Go and read what all my fellow RAtR bloggers think about this topic!

A.L. Lester

Ofelia Grand

Ellie Thomas

Amy Spector

Addison Albright


12 thoughts on “Read Around the Rainbow: what’s more important to you, the story itself or the way it’s told?”

    1. I used to be much grumpier about grammar/proofreading errors, and then I had a couple of books out and realized…oh, yeah, okay, it’s really easy for a couple small things to still slip through, let’s relax a little about that! :p I really do hate the character-name-as-chapter-title trend, though. I mean, why? Why do this? It’s so unnecessary! *shakes pen in futile wrath*

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I’ll see errors slip through in traditionally published books on occasion, so I’m fine with overlooking a few things, too. It’s a question of degree. Head hopping bothers me, but the character name thing hasn’t made it onto my pet peeves list. I haven’t seen it as the actual chapter title, but rather as just there in italics at the beginning of the new chapter or scene/POV change. Ultimately it’s not necessary since we can pointedly word the opening paragraph to make it obvious, but I guess I don’t mind it, since it leaves more flexibility for those opening paragraphs. It would bother me more to be a few paragraphs in before it’s clear who’s head we’re in.


      2. Yeah, and I think it’s a question of, is this clearly a single accidental kind of error like an apostrophe in the wrong place, which is just an oops, or is it something more concerning, like a verb tense issue that means someone doesn’t know how tenses work, so it might keep happening?

        I’ve seen both the name in italics thing and the name as title thing (sometimes it’s just in the table of contents, sometimes it’s in the chapters) and it drives me up the wall. The one case where it *might* be useful is dual 1st POV, because that’s inherently less clear, but in 3rd, it’s actively off-putting, because it assumes readers can’t tell without it being clearly labeled, which is a *problem*! Like, if it genuinely needs the extraneous labeling added on for clarity, then something’s not working in the prose as written! And our job is to make the prose work! (Or the author thinks their readers aren’t capable of processing a POV switch…and that’s a different problem…) I suppose I’m also the weird person who reads the table of contents before reading the book, too, though. :p

        I do want at least a scene break at a POV switch, though – some physical indicator that there’s a pause/change/shift. Otherwise it messes with the focus and clarity of a paragraph/scene, and that’s frustrating. (Says Aristotle, shouting about unity from beyond the grave. *laughs* )

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  1. Oh dear, I’m one of those who’s begun identifying the POV at the beginning of a chapter. To be honest, I started because I was seeing so much of it in well-reviewed books (even if I’d read the book and didn’t quite agree with the review…) that it seemed obvious readers want it. Maybe it’s a way to signal accessibility. “I am not going to make you guess whose head you’re in.”

    Fairly certain I won’t be writing in present tense, though, so there’s that.


    1. I have a suspicion (entirely speculative) that it might’ve started with the people who do write a lot of dual 1st person, which is the one real use case I can see for it? and then other people saw them doing it, and thought maybe they should do it too? I feel like it’s a relatively recent trend, and not something I was at all asking for, as a reader! I think it might also be somehow an audiobook thing that’s crept into print – again, very speculative, but I can kind of see the need to audibly differentiate POV if you’ve got a single narrator but dual POV that switches at scene breaks. So maybe that’s part of it?

      In print, though, it feels so unnecessary – the reader shouldn’t be having to guess that we’ve had a POV switch, because it should be clear within the first line (ish) after the scene/chapter break! (Which is itself a signal to readers to pay attention, as some sort of shift – time, place, POV – has required the break.) And if they are truly genuinely having to guess, something’s gone wrong as far as effective communication and clarity of prose! And there are so many examples of good POV switches that *don’t* need this artificial labeling – KJ Charles, Eloisa James, Cole McCade…or, over in fantasy, Terry Brooks, V.E. Schwab, Mercedes Lackey…

      I mean, it’s not something that’ll make me put the book down and give up, assuming I’m interested in the characters and the story! It’s not a hard no. Just sort of…baffling, and consequently distracting.

      Present tense I can be okay with after I get used to it; it takes my brain a sec, but it’ll settle in. It’s not my preference, but it can be effective for urgency and immediacy. I don’t think I’m good at writing in present, though! Some people are, and I’m impressed by them; I can’t retrain my brain to start a draft like that! :p


    1. Heh, I feel like I was rambling a lot, so I’m glad it made sense! I feel like my answer is really “it sort of depends on how invested I am and therefore how much I can forgive, but also there’s a threshold as far as grammar!” *laughs* But I’ve got much more relaxed about random typos, having been on the writer side for a few books now… :p

      Liked by 1 person

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