Conversely, have you ever read a literary novel that was fatty with emotional nuance but that couldn’t run ten yards if it tried? All talk and no movement, like a transcript of someone else’s therapy session?
If so you’ve experienced novels that have taken you on only half a journey.
A journey is not like a commute, merely getting from home to work. Nor is it like a tour, an itinerary to follow with sights to see. A journey is longer than a drive, less organized than a march, more personal than a migration, more purpose-driven than a ramble.
A journey needn’t involve travel but it does enact a transformation. For a transformation to occur, two things are needed: outward events and inward change.
Great novels use both. Novelists talk all the time about their characters’ “journeys” but in manuscripts I rarely feel like I’ve taken one. Usually one part or the other is valued, but not both. In fact, so fundamental is this dichotomy that it’s embodied in two terms taken for granted in our business: A novel is said be either “plot-driven” or “character-driven”.
Why not both?
For my next couple of posts I’ll be looking at the integration of the outward events of a story with the inward changes (growth, arc or whatever you want to call it) of characters.
But let’s start with this: A journey can’t matter until a character matters to himself. For a heroine’s transformation to have meaning, she must mean something in the first place.
Here, then, are some questions for your main character to answer: Why do you matter? To whom do you matter? How would the world be poorer if you weren’t in it? What are you better at than anyone else? What do you see or understand that no one else does?
A second set of questions: How do you see yourself? How do you define your biggest personal challenge? What’s getting in your way? What’s the last thing you learned? What’s the last thing you learned about yourself? What’s the worst thing about this moment? What’s the best?
Try picking four points in your story for your character to answer, on the page, the questions immediately above. The answers probably will be different each time. If so that’s good. You’re measuring steps in your character’s inner journey.
By the way, notice that I didn’t ask what is your mission, purpose, obsession or goal? These are terms you hear a lot at writers’ conferences but I think they’ve become empty buzz words.
I’d prefer to keep the conversation simple and human. Kind of like the conversations you have on the last evenings of the summer, the sky turning dark blue, the bonfire turning to coals, the kids chasing fireflies, the last of the wine poured, your friends pulling sweaters around their shoulders, everyone looking back and thinking ahead and talking about it all like it matters.
Because it does.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s also the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s WindRanch