Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When Bad Writing Is Good

I've been reading a lot of Matthew Reilly novels recently.

On so many levels, he has got to be the worst writer in the world. I can imagine his English teacher at school throwing a complete fit when he turned in his creative writing assignments. He seems to have absolutely no regard for any of the standard rules of style, and doesn't care. He writes like a demented teenager, too busy gabbling out his story to bother with polishing his sentences, and you can almost see him underlining the most important words.

But you know what? He gets away with it. What he produces is the most unbelievably readable, fast-paced, unputdownable prose. It reads like a cross between a comic and a scriptwriter pitching a movie, and what you get are the most cinematic novels I have ever seen. You really can see everything as he describes it. The pages are bursting with life and energy. The characters are, admittedly, about as one-dimensional as typical action movie characters (c'mon, don't try and kid yourself that Bond or Indy are complex characters), but that doesn't matter. What matters is that Reilly knows how to tell a cracking story at a totally breathless pace.

You'll have to bear with me on this, because out of context, this reads like crap. But trust me, it works. Here's an extract from Area 7. All the italics, the line breaks, and punctuation is exactly as it appears in print.

Schofield turned to the President and yelled, "Okay! I grab the ladder! You grab me!"
And with that, Schofield charged across the flat roof of the cockroach and leapt off its forward edge...
... and flew through through the air, reaching up with his outstretched arms ...
... and caught the bottom rung of the dangling rope ladder!
He waved for the President to follow. "Now you grab me!" With a doubtful shake of his head, the President said, "Okay ..."
And he ran forward and jumped -
- just as the silver 747 shot forward, its engines engaging.

You can just see the individual panels in the comic, can't you? Or every shot in the storyboard for a movie? Wham! Wham! Wham! Every sentence is a visual image, leading into the next one without a pause. Close two-shot on Schofield & the Pres as he delivers his line... long shot on him jumping, insert on his feet as he leaps ... mid-air shot (cue Indy-style amazing stunt leitmotif on the music) ... insert on hands grabbing ladder ... back to two-shot, Pres in FG for the dialogue ... go to same long shot as we had for the jump ... insert on plane's engines firing up, we see the background starting to accelerate ...

See? It's already storyboarded. (Though I'd be interested to know whether you saw the same film sequence I did.)

Like I said, most English teachers would have a fit if presented with prose like this. But then, most English teachers would regard writing a comic or a movie script - particularly an action movie script - as a somewhat unsuitable way to make a living anyway.

Reilly doesn't write literature, he writes entertainment. And he's damn good at it. His plots are deliciously complex, and he's exciting to read. He keeps talking about getting his books made into films. I really hope that happens. They're crying out for movie adaptations. Until then, I'll just keep ...

... reading the novels!

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