Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
So I’ve given myself homework.
I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.
I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.
First up: Empire Falls
MotivationI liked that it wasn't Russo's first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.
I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.
Breaking it Down
Point of ViewThird-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.
In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.
It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.
Writing StyleConversational, bordering on rambling. I can't think of a single page that doesn't have at least one flashback, possibly two. It's all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.
Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.
Breakout TechniquesEven though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.
And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.
That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.
I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.
It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?