PhotobucketWhile reading a well-reviewed novel, have you ever felt both awed and bored?  You know the feeling.  This is soooo beautifully written… when is something going to happen?

Authors are at high risk of provoking that feeling when they write stories that essentially rely on delay.  Novels in which the main character’s primary need is to get over it, grow, heal, hit the road or in some other way become unstuck are especially prone to this pattern.

If that sounds like much literary and women’s fiction you’re right, but genre-based and plot-driven novels can also lean on delay.  Murder mysteries that grind through suspects and clues, epic journeys that take a long time to go anywhere, romances that churn…all can spin their plot wheels at high speed while not really seeming to take us very far.

The antidote to delay is change.   In plot-driven novels that isn’t automatically generated by action.  In character-driven novels it isn’t delivered by stunning rendered reality.  Altering the story’s circumstances or a character’s direction may fulfill the requirement, technically speaking, but can still leave a novel feeling hollow and readers feeling impatient.

Gripping change is change that happens within.   That, after all, is how we mark our personal progress and measure our inner time.  Do you catalogue your life month by month, or do you think of your past in rough periods like “the bikini summer”, “my first marriage”, “when I was unemployed”, or “after Dad died”?  You see what I mean.  Time is subjective and so is change.

In terms of novel construction that means capturing Inner change as it happens scene by scene.  Why include a scene unless it changes a character in some way?  Writers of plot driven fiction need especially to pay attention here.  Keeping action going and plot twists coming is nice but the effect is shallow.  Plot is interesting but it’s the unfolding inner conflicts of characters that grips emotionally.

Writers of character-driven fiction shouldn’t necessarily relax, either.  Just because your novel is largely an inner journey doesn’t mean it’s a powerful story, especially not if your main character suffers, is a victim, lacks will, whines, is blocked from taking action or in other ways essentially stays stuck.

The easiest way to insure inner change occurs in a scene is to define for yourself both the scene’s turning point (the moment when things actually change) and the inner turning point (the accompanying change inside your character).   The inner turning point can be as small as an insight or as earth shaking as a change in self-perception.  What matters is that it’s there on the page.

Try it with the scene you’re working on right now.  What changes in this scene?  When precisely does it change?  Heighten the trigger and mark the response.  If you write warmly (writing out emotions) then make your character respond with an action.  If you write coolly (think Hemingway) then capture the shift not through an outward action or evocative images but with words alone.

How does your POV character change too?  What’s the tectonic shift?  Measure it.  Describe it.  It’s the intangible inner event that will most palpably move your story forward one step.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Wonderlane


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.