Five for writers: How do you make your story unputdownable, (other than putting superglue on the cover)

my lovely books on writing – the ones not on my Kindle.

I confess. I am procrastinating.  I justify this procrastinating activity as I am studying writing technique rather than randomly surfing the internet (see my post A list: My top ten for 2013). But of course it means I am not doing what I should be doing, namely working through my novel for the final time before sending to ‘THE AGENT’, who has taken on such significance, I can only think of her in capitals. She did say, in our latest correspondence, to take as long as I needed, but I don’t think she meant forever.

Anyway, as I have been doing some reading, I thought I would share a little tip that I have found immensely useful, both when planning a novel and when editing.

It is courtesy of Adam Sexton’s; ‘Master Class in Fiction Writing’, which you can get a copy of on Amazon.

So, to make your novel unputdownable you start with a central character and need.

For example:

odysseus Odysseus needs to return home.

Jane Eyre needs Mr Rochester.

Juliet needs Romeo.

Bridget Jones needs Daniel Cleaver.

These characters needs are concrete in that they are able to be experienced via the senses. These needs are also dramatic. Dramatic means they are performable.

cyclops_poster We can see Odysseus steering his ship towards home and feel his frustration as his ship is driven  backwards, when his sailors release the north, south and east winds, thinking the bag contains gold.  We are there with him, desperate for him to slay the Cyclops so he can return to his beautiful wife on  the island of Ithaca. We are willing him on and we are desperate to find out if he gets there.We couldn’t  possibly put the book down without knowing.We must know.

Abstract/ general needs are not performable, therefore not dramatic and therefore not likely to keep your reader turning pages.

For example:

The need to be loved.
The need to survive.
The need for revenge.

We cannot invest in a character, nor care about their fate, if their need is vague,unobtainable, undramatic.

The story arises from making these abstract needs specific and concrete:

For example, how might you ‘show’ the need to be loved? By stalking someone. By proposing to them on live television. By making their dinner every night and listening to them rant about their day, without interrupting. By taking an overdose. These are all dramatic, concrete manifestations of the vague concept ‘to be loved’.

So, now you have your character and their need, the rest is easy (I jest). All you’ve got to do is make sure they don’t get what they need. In fact, you should make sure the need becomes more and more difficult to obtain (it took Odysseus ten years), even seemingly impossible, until the very end, where they either get what they needed; Jane marries Mr Rochester, Odysseus returns home. Or, they don’t – Romeo is dead and Juliet kills herself (OK, well she gets what she needs, but not in the way she intended). Or, the character realises that what they thought they needed, they didn’t after all; Bridget thought she needed Daniel, but realises in the end it was Mark she really loved.

These obstacles to achievement are the conflicts that drive your story. If the character lacks need, or if this need is easily satisfied, there is no conflict. No conflict = no story.conflict

In real life, of course, we have many needs, often competing, but in fiction this would create a diffuse and complex story, one unlikely to entice the reader to keep turning pages. Fiction illuminates one need and in doing so, illuminates all need (the abstract). I may not need Romeo, but I do need to be love and be loved. I may not be miles away from home, but my daughter is and I feel that homesickness to be with her.

What makes a book unputdownable is a great character with a dramatic need that becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. Easy really?!

Questions to ask about your story:

1) What concrete need does your character/s have?

2) What/ who is going to stand in their way? (this could be themselves, like religious belief, or fear of failure, or another character, or situation etc)

In my novel, In-between Us, there are two central characters.

Madeleine needs to keep her husband.
Rebecca needs Madeleine’s husband (uh, oh).

What gets in Madeleine’s way (apart from Rebecca) is the fact she is dying and the subsequent feeling of guilt that arises for ruining her husband’s future.

What gets in Rebecca’s way (apart from Madeleine) is her conscience, which increasingly niggles at her as she becomes embroiled in the lives of her married lover and his wife.

Whether both these characters will get what they need (which seems unlikely considering they both need the same thing), is hopefully what will keep the reader reading until the end, and more importantly (for me, right now) THE AGENT loving the book and making me an offer of representation.

This blog post is done. I ought to return to what I should be doing (editing), but I haven’t checked FB for ages (nearly 30 minutes), and who knows what earth shattering statuses and cat pictures I may have missed.

As always, comments and general chit-chat welcome.

15 thoughts on “Five for writers: How do you make your story unputdownable, (other than putting superglue on the cover)”

  1. This is the kind of thing I struggle with, and it’s basically about marketing because if you know what your protagonist/s want, and what’s hindering them achieving their desire, you have a blurb.
    So, let’s have a go at answering your questions.
    1) Jessamy wants to be with her baby (uh oh – he’s dead)
    Luke wants Jessamy to have another baby.
    2) Jessamy’s baby is dead, (That’s pretty boring. Perhaps I need another want.)
    Luke can’t convince Jessamy to have another baby because she blames herself for what happened with their first baby. Their marriage suffers, communication breaks down.

  2. Hi Juli, certainly it helps with marketing because you can clearly define what is at stake, but it is deeper than that. I read a lot of unpublished books, where the writing and characters are sound, but the story lacks oomph- and usually it is because the central character doesn’t really want anything, or the need is vague and therefore undramatic.

    You define Jessamy’s need as to be with her dead baby – which is so sad and tragic, and if I remember the beginning of the novel does have her contemplating suicide, but for this to really work as the driver of the story, you would need to have Jessamy increasingly desperate to kill herself, and for the conflict to ratchet up so she is unable to fulfill this desire – e.g. family and friends watching her, being sedated, being admitted to hospital..

    Or maybe Jessamy’s need is to overcome her loss – but in this case, the need is abstract and unperformable, so that would have to be demonstrated in some way – e.g. she has an affair so she doesn’t have time to dwell.

    Or maybe Jessamy’s need is to not have to go through that loss again – so she focuses on her career, finds other things to fill her time, but she has Luke pushing her to have another baby and becoming increasingly insistent.

    Whatever it turns out Jessamy needs, you must ensure it is concrete and performable, but identifying it and the editing/ rewriting with that in mind, can only, imo, strengthen your story.

    Thanks for joining in. good luck with the novel.

    1. You see? You instantly know how to trigger my thoughts on this. Why can’t I do that myself. Jessamy wants to learn about birth before she has another baby, because she believes that will help you recover from her loss.
      I’m still not sure, but it’s been good to think about it again. I’m not making changes now. It’s off to a copy editor on Tuesday.

  3. A quick thanks for your words of wisdom. I, too, am doing what I should not be doing: catching up on the blogs and newsletters I subscribe to. Yes! I should be editing my novel. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only overwhelmed by social media author and I enjoyed hearing you are learning more and more about your craft. I think it’s a contagious practice these days; I keep hearing from writers who are taking online classes. I am as well, but had wondered if it was just another way to procrastinate! All best, and get your book to your AGENT! You can do it; it’s as easy as jumping off a cliff.

  4. Hi Pat, It is definitely fear of failure that makes me procrastinate. If I don’t finish it I can’t send it and I can’t be rejected. Good luck with your editing. I will jump off that cliff soon.

  5. I do have a tendency to overcomplicate things and I’ve had feedback that my characters’ motivations aren’t clear enough more often than I’d admit to, so you shouldn’t listen to me, but I really think these how-to-do-it books oversimplify matters. They conflate NEEDS (vague but fairly universal, eg for secure emotional attachments) with WANTS (more specific attempts to operationalise a need). It might look like splitting hairs, but Juliet doesn’t NEED Romeo, but there’s a strong drama out of her WANTING him.

    So am I simply arguing to substitute the word NEED with WANT? No, because, while it’s probably true that concrete desires sell the novel, I think both needs and wants are useful concepts. Novels where needs and wants coincide are extra powerful because there’s more at stake for the characters. Bridget Jones doesn’t need or even want a husband in the way that Elizabeth Bennet does because a woman in the twentieth century can earn her own living. Madeleine, in In-between Us, wants, but doesn’t exactly need, to keep her husband but, given that she’s dying, she needs to minimise the stress she has to cope with for the time she has remaining to her. This, I think, makes her such a compelling character.

    The bit I struggle with, and is totally absent from any how-to advice I’ve encountered, is that for some of my characters, as in real life, what they want is not so much for something positive to happen, but for something negative not to happen (or even for a tragedy not to have happened already). It can be tricky to make this clear enough for the reader, especially with a narrator who isn’t terribly reflective. But I think we come across this in novels more often than the experts would have us believe. What does Eva want in We Need to Talk About Kevin? And doesn’t Juliet’s sudden passion for Romeo spring out of a need not to be forced into marrying someone she doesn’t love?

    Thanks for the space to muddy the waters and hope I haven’t taken up too much!

  6. What a great response Anne. I agree that need is more universal and want is the operationalisation of that desire (need). Bridget Jones doesn’t need Daniel Cleaver or a man at all, you’re right, but she wants to have what she thinks she should have – career, wonderful relationship, slim body – she wants what she sees in the magazines she loves.

    It’s funny you mention Eva in We Need to Talk about Kevin – I was going to use her as an example, but realised Eva didn’t want anything. She needed to make sense of what happened and work through her part (blame) in her son’s actions-but the pull in that novel is the fact the reader wants to understand what happened (find someone/ thing to blame). The whole novel is really one big excuse – her distancing herself from blame, by revealing Kevin to have been different/ damaged from birth (nature rather than nurture).

    However, in terms of commercial(book club) fiction (which is what I am trying to crack),then I do think having a character with a concrete want (need) is one way of helping to develop a story that has a forward/compelling momentum.

    I am not a fan of ‘how to’ books either – and to be fair to Adam Sexton- his Masterclass in fiction is more a reading list than a manual on how to write a bestseller, but I am going to extend his idea with yours.

    Character has a need (abstract/ universal).

    Character operationalises that need – dramatic, performable want.

    Conflict is what drives the story – and can be both concrete (e.g. Bridget wants Daniel, but he is not interested in a relationship/ marriage) – and also abstract – Bridget can’t see Mark Darcy as a love interest because he doesn’t fit in with her notion/ need for a perfect/ magazine relationship).

    I do think, though,even if a character’s need is for something to not happen (or for something not to have happened), this can still be operationalised as a concrete, dramatic want. Another WIP of mine is about a man, who is trying to perfect quantum time travel (through meditation) to go back and change the past so his son doesn’t die. His need is to have his son back, but his want is to change the past.

    Great dialogue – anyone got any more thoughts on this?

  7. I’m sure you are right and my novel Sugar and Snails has improved since Di began wanting to stay in a relationship with Simon as well as not wanting her secret to be discovered, but I’m a bit irritated at the moment with advice apparently from on high that takes a one size fits all approach as if the quest (or its near relation, the romance) is the only kind of plot. I know novels don’t work in the same way as real life, but would like someone show me how to write about characters who don’t know what they want or even don’t know how to want, or to entice the reader to project her own motivation onto the character so that different readers think she wants different things (cf We Need To Talk About Kevin). Any tips anyone?

  8. I’ve been thinking about this since you posted – the need can reside within the reader, rather than the character. In We Need to Talk about Kevin – it was my need (rubber necking) to get all the gory details that drove me forward. It was my need to try an find a causal factor/s for why someone would take a weapon into a school that keep me reading.

    Maybe publishers don’t trust readers to have needs/ wants of their own, which can be discovered through fiction – rather they assume the reader must have a character with a need/ want to identify with in order for them to get it.

    I don’t know, just thinking out loud, but as I was reading your novel, it was my desire to find out why Di was so uncomfortable in her skin that propelled me on – and then when I discovered the reason, then I was rooting for her to accept exactly who she was – in someways the romance with Simon was more a subplot (it forced her to confront her own fears) rather than the central.

    I guess that is what separates commercial and literary fiction to some extent. In Literary fiction, the expectation is the reader will bring their own experiences to the mix, and these will be different for everyone, and therefore what the need from the novel and what they get from the novel will not be the same. In commercial fiction, their is less self discovery, perhaps.

    As I said, probably a load of tosh, had a stressy end of the day, car wouldn’t start – and being stuck at work on a Friday is no fun. Had so much I needed to do – shopping and stuff, but the AA were brilliant and so glad I had relay, as ended being towed to local garage – and then lovely AA man dropped me home. Poorly car, but fire is on, wine is poured and all is right with the world.

    So Anne, I completely agree with you and don’t you dare change Sugar and Snails to fit a formula – it is pretty much there, and I loved it. You will find a way to publication, I am sure of it. I will definitely being buying a copy (and a dead tree one, so it can go on my shelf).

  9. Sorry you had such a stressful time with your car, but it hasn’t dulled your senses at all: this is a really helpful way to look at the distinction between literary and commercial fiction (although I have also come across the literary/commercial crossover genre — actually very handy because it pulls in more readers) and one I hope you don’t mind me drawing on in the future (with acknowledgement). I’ve just started doing some author interviews for my website; the current one is with Shelley Harris, who is very interested herself in what the reader brings to her work. And thank you so much yet again for your support and encouragement with my novel, which I will be coming back to you on fairly soon away from the blog with just a couple of follow-up questions. But it’s very nice of you to give it to the public endorsement (and who knows, there might be someone among your followers determined enough to follow the links through my website to take a peek).

  10. Glad my thoughts have stimulated further thought and discussion. My definition of what is and isn’t commercial/ literary fiction is forever evolving. Feel free to expand and develop any of the comments from this post. I didn’t know you had a website (or if I did, I forgot), please do send the link and I will add it to my websites on side menu. Endorsing your novel is easy – it’s great and very thought provoking.

Love to hear from you

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