If you like political theatre then the current situation in Washington probably strikes you as highly entertaining. Everyone’s angry. Everyone wants their way. Whatever your personal affinity, consider this central dilemma of our age: Everyone wants the best of everything but nobody wants to pay for it.
Writing high-impact 21st Century fiction also means facing a dilemma. On the one hand readers want to wallow in the kind of story they love; that is, they want stories that are comfortable and familiar
On the other hand, readers want to be stirred if not shaken. They want to see the world in new ways; that is (as I’ve discussed in recent posts) they long to be elevated out of self into the state of transcendence that scientists call “awe”.
That in turn demands that readers go to places unfamiliar and feel emotions that are at first troubling. See the contradiction? Readers want comfort but also seek discomfort. How is a novelist to meet those opposing needs?
Embracing the familiar is the approach of strict category writers, who cleave to the “rules” of their genre and produce stories that may feel satisfying to read but also can feel small, conventional and low-impact. We damn such fiction as formulaic.
Blazing trails in style, setting or theme may be satisfying for a novelist to write but can put readers off. Highly original stories can be condemned to low sales.
Now consider this: The highest impact novels of our times achieve both goals simultaneously. They both sooth readers with what is satisfying while also pushing them into new takes on a world that they thought they knew. When written with conviction, depth and panache, such fiction sells phenomenally well.
There’s a lot to say about pulling off this trick, but let’s start with two simple things that every novelist can do. One is to make sure your current manuscript gives readers a gift that’s probably on their wish list. The other is to push your characters to places they will hate to go.
The gift: Think about your favorite fiction…what element unifies it? In other words, what do you love best about the novels that you love? When you’ve got that, you’ve identified what you as a reader find most satisfying in stories. Make sure that element’s strong in your WIP.
The challenge: What is it that you—yes, you—least want to accept, refuse to feel, fear is true, find unbearable, feel angriest about, or avoid at any cost? What do you see around you that makes you sick? What in yourself makes you terrified?
Go further: What’s the truth that underlies all things? What principle guides human behavior? What’s the greatest insight you’ve even had about yourself? Or even just this: What do you know about anything that nobody else does?
Give any of the above to your protagonist and share the rest around with your other characters. Hold nothing back. Save nothing for future projects. To stir your readers you must first unsettle yourself—a lot.
Accomplish those two things in your current manuscript and you’re on your way to writing high-impact 21st Century fiction. In upcoming posts I’ll discuss other way of resolving the big dilemma, starting with what “depth of character” really means, how it works and its role in inducing awe.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Daveybot