I don’t know about your world, but in mine, the only thing anyone is talking about is the paradigm shift happening with the explosion of ebooks. I’ve been caught in the worry and discussions as much as anyone. It’s hard to hear anything over the din, but yesterday I remembered one very important thing: what matters, over and over, is story.
Story. Story. Story.
Yesterday, I ran away to the movies with my sister. We saw Water For Elephants, made from the wildly popular book of the same name. It was a modest little book when it first arrived on the shelves in hardcover, then was published in trade paperback and became a word-of-mouth phenomenon.
Here is my relationship with the book: the cover did not appeal to me. I didn’t really get what it was supposed to be about. It sounded super-depressing. So I passed, over and over.
Except, it kept selling and kept selling, and so I kept seeing it. Finally, one afternoon I was talking my agent about good books we’d recently read, and she found I’d not read it, and she said, “Oh, Barbara,” in that tone of voice. So I dutifully picked it up.
And that’s where duty stopped. Water For Elephants might be dark and it might be historical and there might be animal cruelty (which is the point), but it is also a rip roaring good read. (Note: there are no spoilers in the following discussion). There is no posturing or stylistic little pretties or any of that. It sets up the devastating tale of a young veterinary student of some grace and intelligence who loses absolutely everything and sets off to walk to the big city. Instead, he ends up on a circus train. The circus is in trouble. They buy an elephant from another circus. There is a terrible adversary. The stakes are extreme. The risks enormous. You care, very very very deeply, about what will happen to the three main characters.
A fierce adversary. High stakes. Enormous risks. Great characters. Oh, and good pacing, which comes from the knowledge that there really are terrible things that can happen, also known as foreshadowing. You know the adversary is prone to violence, so when someone crosses him, what will happen? Right, he’ll be enraged. He’s likely to be violent.
That’s what makes a great story. Water starts on a high note and goes quickly to terrible, and not for one second are things ever easy for the protaganists. They all have very good reasons for sticking with a dire situation. They all have good reasons to make compromises. It’s riveting and worrisome and terrible.
I’ve been watching Pillars of the Earth on Netflix, the mini-series made from Ken Follet’s book of the same name, a big, meaty saga of a book, which is one of my top ten favorites of all time. It’s been years since I read it, but watching it again last night, what I saw was how powerful the oppositional forces are in the story. Opposition creates the tension of story. More opposition creates more story.
When you get all those things in place, you get that rip roaring good tale that makes every reader insist another reader has to pick it up.
Last week, I started serious rewrites on the book in progress, reading and making notes on the issues and problems. One of them was, over and over, a lack of focus in the goal of a scene. This is an easy thing to fix, honestly. It just needs to be brought forward for the reader, so the reader knows what the goal of the character is, and what the threat to completion might be. But I have to DO it. It has to be on the page, not just in my head. That’s one of those little writerly tricks we learn as we go, along with layering in that sense of doom that makes the reader worry.
You can do this, too.
Take a look at your work in progress. Where is the opposition? Can you increase it? Is there an adversary? Can you increase the tension of knowing there are things lurking ahead? Are your characters people we want to root for? Why? How you can you make their lives worse, just as they are about to get what they want? Look at the start of each scene. Do we know where it’s going? How can you let the reader know what the goal is?
In the end, a rip-roaring good story trumps everything else in the writing game. What have you lately read or seen at the movies that helps you understand that concept?