The Princess Bride: Avoid Boredom

I’ve been watching The Princess Bride as a film since I was four or five years old, but I only just read the book. This is a wacky novel for several reasons. First, it’s by William Goldman, who is also a screenwriter of considerable fame, but he claims it is only his annotation of a book by S. Morgenstern of Florin (a fictional country somewhere near Scandinavia). Goldman’s introduction is full of personal anecdotes, such as how his father–a Florin immigrant–read this story aloud to him as a child, and peppered with truth, such as the fact that he wrote a thriller called Marathon Man and wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This very fine line between fact and fiction is super-interesting and something that is always mentioned when talking about this book, but it’s not what caught my attention the most.

The premise of the novel is that William Goldman is abridging and annotating S. Morgenstern’s classic in order to make it more readable for an American audience. He first heard the story as it was read aloud to him by his father, and now that he is a father and has a son, he finds a copy and gives it to the boy to read. However, the son finds it incredibly boring, so William takes another look at it and realizes it is boring. When reading it aloud, his father skipped over the unimportant parts and stuck to what was exciting. And so Goldman presents an abridged version that does just that for every reader.

This by itself makes an interesting point. As an evaluator of writing, one of the most important questions I ask myself is, am I bored yet? If I am even thinking that, then the answer is yes, and I’m likely to pass on the project (usually after giving some feedback on why I’m bored). So Goldman’s instinct is a good one. However, as he points on in the later editions, the critics, including Stephen King (fictionally), weren’t very happy with him because he had eliminated important historical sections or important symbolic sections or important characterization sections. What was most interesting to him–the story–was not interesting enough to them to hold their attention.

All this goes to the true trick of fiction: keeping your readers interested. Different readers respond to different engines of writing. One is storytelling, which Goldman excelled at. Another is language (which wasn’t much discussed here since the language, fictitiously, is Morgenstern’s/the translator’s). Then there are the ideas, which are usually conveyed through the characters and the setting interacting with the plot. This is what people find lacking in “beach reads” and what makes them feel good about “book club” fiction. And this is the problem critics had with Goldman’s abridgment of The Princess Bride. He had an entertaining story, but they were bored intellectually.

The point is a good one to keep in mind whether you’re reading or you’re writing: what do you respond to as a reader? What do you want your readers to respond to? Are you keeping your readers interested?

What I find most interesting about this is that the real Goldman, who actually came up with The Princess Bride from stories he told his daughters, must have recognized the breach between entertainment and intellectual interest in his Shiny New Idea and created the  facade of Morgenstern, the abridgment, and the critics to do what fictional Goldman could not: keep the reader interested in a story about a princess, some ruffians, and true love.

S

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