Take 50 Shades of Grey, for example. When I started this novel I had no idea what the story involved. (Really! I read the book before it was famous and had searched for top romances. How was I to know?) So, I began reading and it’s such a slow build up to the reveal I had plenty of time to think, but even then I still never guessed. Well, I though I had. I thought the guy’s dark secret was that he was a vampire. So you can imagine my surprise when Christian Grey opened his closet. Haha! I nearly fell off my chair laughing, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t the author’s intention.
(And by the way – I later discovered that E.L. James originally wrote the trilogy as fan fiction for Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series – so that explains it!)
But what really was a turn off for me in 50 Shades was that I found the story so dull. I reached the point where Ana and Christian go out for a meal to discuss their BDSM contract. By the time they’d got to the third clause my eyes were glazing over. I kept thinking of The Marx Brothers and the line: ‘Hey, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause.’ At this point I had to put the book down because the interaction between the characters just bored me. I have to say I still haven’t finished it.
But I’m not here to critique E.L. James – no way! Her fan fiction has gone global, so good on her. And as a piece of fan fiction it was a good homage. I remember reading Twilight and finding the dialogue equally dull. One bit that sticks particularly in my mind is when Bella and Edward have one of those let’s-get-to-know-each-other type conversations, and she asks him questions like ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Really? I was actually quite bored by this! I know a LOT (!) of people loved those books, and maybe it’s because they were aimed at a teenage audience, but I found the interaction between the characters plain dull.
Last week I wrote a blog post about sustaining believable conflict . It’s extremely difficult to keep character conflict going without any external plot devices (ie keep people page-turning basically through the characters’ dialogue alone). The danger is the reader will get bored, and even a load of S&M can’t spice it up once that happens.
This got me wondering what classic page-turning novels I’d enjoyed where there was pretty much no external plot and where all the tension is found solely in the interaction between the hero and heroine. There are literally hundreds of classic page-turners I’ve LOVED which I had to rule out for this selection. Epics such as Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, or Gone With the Wind. Both those books are page-turners but they have other thrilling events happening – war, bush fires, other gripping stuff. I wanted to whittle my choice down to the bare bones, where nothing really happens in the story except the characters talking, but even then the reader still can’t put it down.
So, after a (long!) time pondering I finally came up with these three. What do you think?
Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster This book consists of the letters of college student and orphan Judy Abbott, who writes to her unknown benefactor, the Daddy Long Legs of the title. Her benefactor refuses to make his identity known and a lot of the tension in the novel arises from this fact. Through the course of the novel Judy grows in independence and eventually falls in love with the uncle of a friend. Nothing much happens except Judy’s blossoming, but personally I kept turning the pages right to the end to find out how the unknown benefactor was going to handle his ward’s growing up. There’s a twist at the end which you may already have guessed, but it’s still rivetting enough to keep you turning the pages!
The Bridesmaid’s Secret, by Sophie Weston. I’ve mentioned Sophie Weston before (in this selection of romance novels) as one of my favourite M&B authors. Writers for Harlequin are absolute masters at character conflict and this book is a great example of a page-turner in which really nothing much happens. Bella is convinced she’s still in love with her teenage crush, who is about to marry her best friend. Bella is the bridesmaid and Gil, the hero, the best man. There’s a wedding and there are preparations for a wedding, and as far as plot goes that’s about it. But the dialogue is lively, the heroine is witty and the author is skilful enough to keep the tension mounting page after page.
A Room With a View, by E.M. Forster. The story of Lucy Honeychurch and her struggle with the social conventions which bind her, hindering her growing love for the hero, George Emmerson. Constrained and sheltered as she is, nothing much happens in Lucy’s world. She goes on a tour to Italy and she returns to her affluent home in Surrey. There are no world-shattering outside events, it’s pretty much all genteel conversation, but underneath is a raging repressed sexuality, romance and struggle. Will she be able to throw off her shackles? It’s a great romantic read.
Part of what I really enjoy about writing this blog is the comments people post about romance novels they’ve loved. I’ve been introduced to so many new authors, so thanks to everyone who’s commented so far! And so if you know of any romances where the tension is racked up pretty much through dialogue alone, please let me know in the comments because I’d love to read them!