I once heard an editor describe commercial fiction as “potato chip reads”. Have you ever actually eaten a giant bag of potato chips? Afterward, did you feel sick? Not just sick to your stomach but also faintly empty in spirit?
Potato chip reads leave us feeling like that because they lack meaning. Now, that is not to say they lack theme. Plenty of genre novels have durable foundations: good versus evil, justice will be done, love conquers all. Even so they can leave us unsatisfied.
Meaning comes from a human journey. Fiction writers call this by lots of names: arc, change, transformation, redemption. Most manuscripts, though, either fail to send their characters on a true journey or reduce that journey to a few steps.
A true journey is not just all that we experience but how we understand it: our minds in nova, our hearts seeking peace. What is it that gives a journey the power to shake convictions, move hearts, connect humankind and leave readers feeling nostalgic for people who never actually lived?
Start with what makes your characters vulnerable. Of what is your protagonist most afraid? What is his most unshakeable belief? On whom can she absolutely count? What is his ace in the hole? What does she know about herself that keeps her grounded?
Go beyond back story hardships or bad breaks. What was her worst betrayal? What is his deepest shame? What secret is being kept? Whose approval does she most need? In what way was he hurt beyond repair?
A character flaw is nice but probably too easily fixed. Go deeper. What is the thing that your protagonist hates most about himself? What is she powerless to change? In what way is your protagonist a ticking bomb? What earthquake will set it off?
Now turn every answer to the above questions into a story event: the most fearful thing happens, the bedrock conviction proves wrong, a friend turns traitor, sure things don’t happen, the secret is blown, approval is denied, injuries compound, the worst quality gets worse still, the cost is horrible, the earthquake happens, bottoming out is hell.
Scientific American’s offshoot magazine of psychology (Mind) recently reported that the feeling of nostalgia focuses on self but often also involves others. It’s most powerful when something good—say, self-understanding—comes out of bad events. Psychologists call this a mastery sequence.
Thus, building a true journey for your protagonist (and your readers) involves going deep inside, turning what’s there into outer events, all the while measuring your character’s unfolding understanding of the shape and truth of her life. Meaning doesn’t magically emerge like a rainbow, not really. It baptizes us like a thousand drops of rain.
Next month we’ll look at how meaning emerges scene by scene; that is, how to make sure your characters’ journeys have many steps.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s silent shot