Being a Better Writer: Entertainment Value VS Quality

Hello readers! Welcome back to the start of another week, and with it a new episode of Being a Better Writer! I hope you all enjoyed your weekend. I certainly did. The conference I watched was a truly splendid experience, one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a little peace and thought with everything else that’s been going on across the world.

This weekend also saw the release of episode three of Fireteam Freelance, which resulted in a couple of surprised and curious comments at the end. It looks like readers are enjoying it!

And me? Well, aside from the conference, it’s all Alpha editing on A Trial for a Dragon! Making lots of little changes with this one, bits and pieces where a single word in the right place (or the wrong on) makes all the difference … and that was an unintentional G-Man, I assure you. Anyway, tweaking A Trial for a Dragon just so is time-consuming, but by the end, this story is going to shine bright, people. Which is good, because the clock is ticking on that April 30th submission date!

Anyway, I could go on and on about that and how fascinating the editing process can be (a single word, folks) but this isn’t a post about Trail for a Dragon, it’s for Being a Better Writer. And more, it’s a requested topic, so let’s talk about it!

Yup, today’s topic was sent in by a reader who wanted to see it brought up in the future, and while it took a few months to get to it, we’re here at last, and hopefully I can do it justice and answer the questions they had. I may not, fair warning, because this is one of those areas that gets a bit subjective. In fact, some people would argue (I say this because I’ve seen it happen) that this concept is entirely subjective. Some people may even show up in the comments to tell me that I’m wrong!

Regardless, I’m charging forward anyway. To reiterate the title from above and put our topic forth then, today we’re discussing Entertainment Value VS Quality. Some of you might be wondering “All right, but what does that mean?” so I’ll put it another way for you: What’s the difference between something that’s entertaining and something that’s quality, and can they be both?

I can hear some of you snorting in dismay at such a “simple” question here. In fact, it’s more than some: It’s a number of you. But here’s the thing. If I stuck all of you in a room, you’d all snort, laugh, and then immediately turn to one another and say “Of course not/they can!”

What would occur after would be a sea of shocked expressions and then narrowed eyes, followed by “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

See, that’s kind of why a post like this exists. Because everyone feels differently about the topic and has a different answer. For example, this morning I read a discussion on Reddit talking about how as a reader got “older” (their words, not mine) they cared less and less for the ‘entertainment’ of novels and just wanted the ‘quality’ of characters talking and discussing things or scenery descriptions … to the point that they routinely skipped over anything that was action-related.

But versa-visa I absolutely received a review of Colony that was a “did not finish” on chapter three because the reader reached Sweets’ introduction and it had Sweets talking with people rather than shooting at things, and they dropped the book, declaring that they weren’t about to sit through character development and plot when they just wanted people to shoot at people.

See there are definitely two sides to this (and varying shades of “grey” in between. Some people are perfectly happy with any degree of ‘entertainment’ no matter the ‘quality,’ while others put up a question of quality and make it barrier to ‘entertainment.’

The thing is, and yes, I’m bringing this up at the start of this post rather than the end, this is entirely subjective. Some people have concluded that “quality” is in the use of sophisticated language, or flowery, overblown prose. Others have convinced themselves that the mark of quality rests in the political stances expressed in the book. Others still that the quality is a number of those things combined, or even just one of them. Sands, a number of people have declared Ancillary Justice (one of the few poorly written books that I’ll call out by name) as being “quality” only on the grounds that the default language gender in the book is feminine rather than masculine. The atrocious infodumps, the poor pacing, the vast reliance on tell with no show (as opposed to the more pleasing show vs tell) … none of that matters. Just the gender pronouns.

My point in bringing all this up is that when it comes to the audience, entertainment value VS quality is entirely subjective. Some people care only for entertainment value, quality being a distant memory once spoken to them by a high-school teacher in their youth, but ignored. They don’t worry about logic, or plot holes, or often even consistency. They just want whatever’s entertaining to them out of the work. Like people shooting at people.

And honestly, that goes for the other side of the equation too, the two sides of the coin not being that dissimilar from one another. The only real difference is where one cares for action (or whatever form of entertainment they value) the other cares in a similar manner for their “quality” to be on display, be that flowery prose, careful structure, or yes, even gender pronouns.

So then if this is true (and it is) … what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’ll get to that. But first I want to point out that there aren’t only the two “sides” to this coin. While there are people who subscribe wholly to one position or the other, there are also a lot of people who sit comfortably in the middle of this entire spectrum. People for whom action and peril can be fun, but also want the same to be well-written. People who want to read about a carefully constructed plot, but also want to see how it affects character growth and development.

And in fairness, while everyone differs a little on the “sliding scale” of where they happen to place their preferences for what’s more important (for example, people who enjoy character development but are fine just sort of walking through the action sequences around it) the truth is that the majority of people tend to gravitate toward something that has both sides on display. Action is all well and good, for example, but they’d prefer it to be well-written action. They may enjoy one or the other a bit more, but at the end of the day … Well, at the end of the day, they’d like their book to have been as close to a “winning hand” of poker as possible. Two pair is interesting, and three of a kind is better. But the more you deliver on, all the way up to a royal flush, the happier they’ll be. And that little bit of preference we all have? Well, consider that the “suit” the royal flush happens to be in.

In other words, even if you can do flowery prose perfectly, you may have narrowed down your audience to wanting action, character depth, and historical accuracy as three of the “face cards” they’d like in that “suit” of flowery prose.

See? I told you we’d get to writing eventually! Because as a writer, with each book you write you have choices to make about what sort of “hand” you want to go for. If we may extend that prior analogy this far.

For example, there’s an absolute market out there in the reading world for what I’d call, in the spirit of our poker analogy, ‘two of a pair’ books. Take the average exceedingly popular genre of romance, for example. There are a lot of books selling in that genre that really only have two factors to them: titillation/eroticism, and light character development. That’s it. But that’s what the audience devouring them wants, and for the most part they don’t want any other cards in hand. That just slows things down.

Romance isn’t the only genre guilty of this, though. Nowadays the indie boom has seen a resurgence of Military-Sci-Fi that follows the same guidelines, just with different cards (those being action and military tech).

And, you know, like they say (or at least, so I’ve heard), two-pair wins a lot of hands because it’s easy to assemble. There are just a lot of them out there to compete with.

Okay, we’re dragging this analogy on a little far, but I honestly think we can get another hand or two out of it (I know, I know). Basically, what I’ve been getting at is there’s an audience for most things, and ultimately it’s up to you to decide what you put into your story and what your audience will find from it.

But there’s another part to this we need to discuss, if only for a moment. There’s a definitely a “movement” out there that a story cannot be “more than one thing.” In other words, some hold that a story cannot deliver well-written action scenes and well-written character development, or good prose, or any number of other things.

This is false. Neither of these things is mutually exclusive, despite a number of people out there declaring such (online, of course). You may have even run into forums where people have stated it, but they are wrong. Good elements of story writing are not mutually exclusive to one another. Perhaps hard to produce, like assembling all the cards of one suit for a royal flush, but that’s not the same as incompatible.

Again, people saying this are wrong. You can have an extremely well-written, thought out Indiana Jones-style adventure that still features incredible prose or attention to character, politics of the era, etc. Now, granted, those people who hold as an unassailable truth that it can’t exist may refuse to read it out of principle (some people who like to read can be surprisingly closed-minded) but that won’t change the fact that they’re wrong about whether or not it can exist.

All right, that out of the way let’s step back and talk about your writing. First off, where does this leave you when it comes to the question of entertainment value versus quality? Well … you ready for the answer?

Wherever you like. Simple as that. Like I said, two-pair books (and we’re back with that analogy) are a massive market. One you have to constantly be on top of, but they’re a market and there’s no denying that some of those authors really enjoy their work,

But there are also books of all other different hands and combinations. In other words, it’s up to you what sort of “hand” you want to go for. Do you want to write flowery prose? Deep character development? Political analogies?

That’s entirely your choice. Will there be an audience for it? Well, that’s something you’ll have to find out, but there’s usually an audience for most things if you can get it to the right people.

When it comes to entertainment value VS quality in the context of what we’ve spoken about above, that “versus” bit of the phrase?” That’s artificially inserted. It doesn’t need to be “entertainment versus quality.” It can, in fact, be both.

Whether or not it is, then, and how, is up to you.

So good luck. Now get writing.


Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, and Thomas! Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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