There’s a great line in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE where the protagonist, who adores the absurd, inane 1920s musical The Drowsy Chaperone, comments that we can’t judge it the way we would most plays because it’s like porn. In porn, character and plot are simply bridges to get us between sex scenes; in older musicals, they’re bridges between musical numbers.
I think that can apply to fiction too. Kathleen Woodwiss’s Shanna, according to some of my female friends, is a scorching hot romance (or at least it was scorching when it came out in 1977) — the friends who spoke of it didn’t talk about the characters or the romance, they talked about the “screw parts” (but according to friends whose judgment I trust, it’s a traditional romance with sex, not erotica or porn). The description also fits the kind of story where the plot and characters are just setting up the ending twist. In many slasher films, most of the film is just a bridge to get from one killing to the next. More generally any story where the hook is the big set-pieces — battles, monsters, murders — could fall into this category.
Focusing on key scenes doesn’t necessarily make a book fit into this porn analogy. The first slasher film, Halloween, has more to it than just the killings. A romance can have intense sex scenes and still be intensely readable in-between them. A book or movie with big, spectacular set-pieces can still keep me glued to the page the rest of the time as well.
Attitude makes a difference too. There are lots of books with long boring stretches, but where the author clearly cares about what’s going on — they just didn’t write it very well. The Wise Man’s Fear had long tedious stretches (YMMV) but Rothfuss clearly meant them to be interesting, not just filling pages.
Porn-equivalent stories can sell, if the sex scenes or the set pieces or whatever are good enough, but I don’t think it usually leads to quality. Lots of the slashers churned out in Halloween‘s wake got butts in theater seats, but they were crap. Nightmare on Elm Street outshines the subsequent films in the series because it has good characters I cared about, it’s not just bridging between Freddy’s reality-warping murders. As I noted in the twist ending blog post, stories that are all about the ending shocker never work for me. I’ve seen porn that actually had good character arcs between the sex scenes, and it’s much more interesting (at least to me) than porn without. Musicals like the ones The Drowsy Chaperone satirizes have gone out of fashion (Drowsy Chaperone itself is meta and parodic, so not in this category) in favor of ones where what’s between the musical numbers does matter.
None of which says set pieces or high points are bad things. They’re not, obviously. But I know I’d prefer my readers be glued to the pages between the big scenes because they like the pages, not because they’re waiting to see when things will get interesting again.