Travis Nep Smith

Flickr Creative Commons: Travis Nep Smith

Imagine you’re having a holiday dinner at home.  A tablecloth is spread.  Silverware is laid.  All is perfect until you knock over a glass of red wine.  What happens?  Quickly you spread open a white table napkin and drop it over the spill.  The puddle of wine seeps through.

The tablecloth is now, in a way, a memory.  The napkin is a map of the little lake of wine.  The wine is infused in both.  Even after you throw them in the wash the stains remain, faintly, as a reminder of a meal that started long ago and, in a way, is never finished.

Perhaps you have some laundry tricks that I don’t have?  Or you use paper tablecloths and napkins?  Never mind.  You get my point.  When you infuse something as strong as red wine into an absorbent piece of cloth, a faint awareness of that wine lingers.  Future meals are infused with and informed by the memory of that small holiday disaster.

Your novel is like that.  It’s the dining room, a place where many meals are eaten and finally add up to a life.  Every one of those meals, though, involves that tablecloth and napkin which are imprinted with something which I would call your protagonist’s greatest need.  That need is always present even if you cover up that stain with a table runner and cleverly fold the napkin.  You know it’s there.  You are always aware of it.

Have you come across scenes in excellent novels which seem to have no plot purpose but which work anyway?  Have you ever felt the undertow of a character’s yearning in commonplace action, tugging your awareness down below the surface of an everyday situation?  Such scenes are infused with the point of view character’s fundamental, underlying and (as yet) unmet need.

How do we achieve that effect in every scene?  How do we infuse every moment with unspoken awareness of the need that is pulling a character inexorably through the length of the story?  Naturally, I have a suggestion.  Try this…

  • Identify your protagonist’s greatest inner need, the one that would preoccupy your protagonist even if your novel’s plot were never to come about.  Craft a sentence or short paragraph that succinctly expresses that need.
  • Pick out a scene from the middle of your WIP.  Try to make this a minimally dramatic scene.  Turn to a fresh sheet of paper or open a new document.  Paste in the sentence or paragraph you created.  This is the opening of a new version of the scene you’ve selected.
  • With the underlying need just below the surface of your protagonist’s awareness, rewrite the scene.  Do not look back at the version in your WIP!
  • The purpose of this rewrite of the scene is to get me, your reader, to feel the underlying need that you’ve identified in your protagonist.  Work until you’re sure I will sense it even though you don’t mention it or make it plain.
  • Finally, go back and delete the paragraph you pasted in at the scene’s start.  Done.

What you should have in a new version of this middle scene that is infused with the tension that comes from your protagonist’s greatest underlying need, yearning, dream or hope.  The tension will be below the surface but nevertheless felt by your readers, or should be.

A fundamental, unspoken need is the undertow that pulls your protagonist—and your readers—toward somewhere nameless yet urgently important.  When that infused tension is present it makes humdrum scenes magnetic and story detours a wholly necessary part of the journey.

What’s your protagonist’s underlying inner need?  How is it infused in the scene you’re working on right now?

 

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.