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The Chicago Wizard, His Creator and What It Says About Writing

I’ve been reading the Harry Dresden books.  I just completed the fourth book, and I’ve been musing about what makes them so enjoyable and so readable.  Since I’m playing in this arena I wanted to read some of the real heavy hitters.  I haven’t gotten around to Laura K. Hamilton because I want to try and live and play in my own world, and not risk absorbing ideas from other sources, but I will probably read the first book as I try to understand what is so appealing about the class of books that currently goes under the heading “Urban Fantasy”.

I noticed several things about the Dresden books.  Butcher has a formula (which in my world is not a criticism.  I’m a television writer, every show has a formula, and there is a reason for them.  They create a sense of comfort in your audience.  I think the same holds true for books as well.)  So, to the formula.  Of these first books I noticed that the chapters are very short.  They all end with a cliffhanger or, as Tim Powers would say, “a clown on stilts with his head on fire runs through the room.”

Harry Dresden is a sensitive hero.  He cries — a lot.  He gets beat up and badly hurt.  He has issues in his past regarding his mother.  He’s a vulnerable rebel.  He is slowly accreting a community around himself.  This was one of the strengths of a good Whedon show (Buffy, Firefly) — that creation of family, and Butcher does it perfectly in the Dresden books.  There is also a lightness of tone and some genuinely funny moments which I think make the tense moments all the more tense.  It’s like good music.  You don’t want everything piano or forte, you want a variation, and Butcher does that with a very light touch.

I have noticed one other tendency among successful writers.  The books get longer as a series progresses.  I didn’t start with the first book, the bookstore didn’t have it in stock, but by the time I got to book four it was significantly longer than book two, and as I looked ahead the mass of paper was taking up more space on the shelf.  I’ve also noticed this with Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series.  The same thing happened with Darkover.

I don’t know if it’s because the readers demand more story, or if the writer becomes more and more immersed in this world of their creation, and just can’t stop telling us things about that world.  I’m somewhat agnostic as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  I’m wary of it because it seems like the tendency to sprawl rather than tightly plotting does not provide the best reading experience or ultimately the best fiction.
I look to Roger Zelazny’s Amber Books as an example of tight plotting with few words that packed such a punch.

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