In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?
The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.
In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.
When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.
So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?
1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.
Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.
This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.
Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.
The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.
As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.