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.
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.
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.
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.
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.