Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.
Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.
This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?
Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the
Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).
Back to conflict…
When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.
Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc. Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.
Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.
The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.
First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.
Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.
All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”
If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned
sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.
Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.
So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:
1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.
As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.
“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.
One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.
If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.
2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.
After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.
Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.
(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)
Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.
There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the
line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.
3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.
Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.
Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.
At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.
What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last Week’s Winner of 5 pages (1250 words) of critique:
Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.
I am in the front row today! I am in the process of writing a thriller so your advice is exceptional. I read a lot of books and am always amazed at how there seem to be a lot of boring parts to slip my bookmark into. I guess that’s why I decided my first book would be a thriller! Keep it moving like “a shark or die” or in your analogy “afloat or sink.”
I will proceed with your advice as I continue to write my chapters. Now if I could only learn to stop reading everyone else’s blogs and get to work!!
Thank you for sharing!
I am new to your blog, but LOVE it! I especially love these “deadly sin” posts. I am a new author currently in the editing/rewriting stage of my first novel and these posts have helped me realize why certain scenes weren’t working or fell flat. This post specifically has made me realize how many bookmark places I have created…oops. Thank you so much for these posts!
Great advice, Kristen. Blake Snyder’s (Save the Cat) card idea using the +/- to track the emotional roller coaster of the story and the conflict lock work well to ensure we don’t waste time with pointless scenes. Well-written is great but without the draw of a powerful emotional experience the reader is likely to not be all that impressed with the authors literary prowess.
By the way, did I miss Deadly Sin #6? I’ve read 1 through 5 but I don’t see a listing or article for #6.
No, I’m a dork. Just put the wrong number in there. Will correct. Oops. Even editors need editors, LOL.
Thanks! I was wondering the same thing 🙂
No worries, glad to help out my favorite blogger 🙂
Sink or Swim? The best stories for me always show how a protagonist is somehow changed. “Just keep swimming…just keep swimming.” 🙂
Amen to Save the Cat! Wow that book helped me so much. Just as your posts do, Kristen. And thinking back to all the little darlings in my first book makes me cringe.
I’ve been noticing some of my scenes lately have seemed pretty flat, and I finally realized that it was because I wasn’t focusing on what the scene’s goal should be. So now I’m going back to all of my previous chapters and deciding what needs to be tightened up. I know I should wait until I finish the first draft before going bac,, but I just can’t work that way. Thanks for the advice.
Your post is making me want to try my pen at fiction. Frightening thought.
I’m glad you made the point of too many minuses being bad for scenes as well — I’ve had to put books down (never to be picked-up again) because I just couldn’t take it any more. Not only too depressing but sometimes too much action — never a let-up. I need to breath.
Now, in my own writing, I always know I HAVE to add more minuses. So I really like the scene card thing, great way for my brain to see if I’ve made it too darn easy on my characters. Thanks.
Lol. I’m glad you got a blog out of that. You deserved to get a blog out of that, just as a reward for not killing yourself with a spork. 🙂
Thank you for your great advice.
I can’t remember where I read this or who wrote it (I suspect it might be a script writer) if anyone knows please tell me.
“Enter a scene late and leave a scene early.”
That little sentence changed my writing for ever. One thing I’ve noticed is how diffident a new writer can be, (I did this myself when I first started) they spend ages having the characters getting out of cars, closing car doors, locking the car. Then they walk up the path, hunt for keys before they put the key in the lock and open the door. Then the scene begins. (Or maybe not, if they start taking off coats, and spend ages in the kitchen making coffee, putting on the kettle etc., by this time I’m usually shouting GET ON WITH IT.) And often when they do get on with it, it’s a pretty great story. But then they wind it down the way it was wound up. If you leave the scene early the reader will automatically turn the page to find out what on earth happened next.
I’ve noticed the sleep thing at the end of a chapter too. Especially in published work, strangely enough.
Every action needs to have a reaction. I spend a great deal of time these days working on a detailed outline of the overall story on blank A5 sheets marked into columns. Each column is headed up by my hero/heroine’s name. Then key moments of each scene is bullet pointed. His action, her reaction etc. It’s helped me see where a step is missing, plot holes, and where a scene can be moved etc. This is a recent development, thanks to a certain Ms Lamb, and it’s made a huge difference. I can ‘see’ the big picture better and where the story may have a saggy bit. I’m using this system to revise a completed first draft that wasn’t doing it for me. Still not there yet, but at least I can see where I am going and the tale is coming alive with its own rhthym and pace.
The card idea is another good idea. Like you, I used to work in marketing and sales. I remember running a workshop and used index cards as a step by step of a customer journey from end to end. I tossed 50 cards on the floor – more space – and it really helped them see the journey clearly. Or how the journey could be improved. Maybe we need to throw the scenes on the floor to help us see the big picture. Must try that and I’ll let you know I get on.
I couldn’t get into the notecards, but once I transferred that info to an excel sheet, WOW! I’ll be adding a column for the /- now.
This has got to be one of my favorite blog posts so far!
Funny you should mention the doldrums today. This past weekend i spoke to one of my beta readers. She knows I need honesty so after she told me she loved my WIP, the characters, the world, the story, she added that there was one spot where she got a little bored.
When she pinpointed the scene I realized she was right. After careful scouring I came to the conclusion that that particular scene is not necessary and only ends up slowing the action.
It shall be cut or re-worked.
I really like your -/+ symbol and your explanation for it. That will certainly come in handy. And so will the index cards. I read Save The Cat years ago and forgot about Blake Snyder’s words of wisdom. I’ll have to take another look.
As far as what bores me when reading a novel, a sex scene with no purpose. I’m all for an incredibly hot love scene, but if there is no reason for it, I’ll set the book down.
This was truly an excellent post, Kristen!
Devoured every word!!
Have a fantastic week,
“Enter a scene late and leave a scene early.” I have seen this quote attributed to William Goldberg, but cannot attest to the accuracy of it.
Thank you successbmine!
I think you mean William Goldman… 🙂
Thanks Kristen! I needed this today.
This is right where I find myself as a writer today… I just started working on a new story with new characters. Which is great, but also difficult. I am always afraid of reaching the doldrums, of hitting the wall and sliding down into despair. I don’t mind adding conflict, but I have a habit of making my main characters too nice. I wish I had more time to write so that I could work on this! But this post helped me see the character arc & plot arc in new ways. Thanks! It always helps to read your posts and apply it to my writing.
For me, books that are a bit too heavy on unnecessary details bog me down. I rarely put a book down, but the books I remember the most are the ones with great characters that feel like friends.
Someone famous (I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock) made the comment, If you’re going to place a loaded gun on the mantle, you’d better make certain that one of your characters uses it.
I always keep that in mind when I edit my manuscripts.
Does anyone know for certain who actually said it?
Anton Chekhov. I think it’s known as Chekhov’s gun!
Great post. I like the examples. I’m going to rent Top Gun and re-visit those scenes. A good reminder. Donald Maas also talks about ratcheting up the stakes to keep the tension up.
Thanks, Kristen. I am a new subscriber who has been poking around through links provided by some of my writer/friends. Decided to stop being a voyeur and join in on the fun.
Ever get that sinking feeling that your reader’s eyes might glass over because you put in a piece that is about as interesting as watching hair grow? Yep, been there, done that. I recently bolted up at dawn, after having gone to bed at 3am. Running on fumes all day, I was determined to search and destroy those lousy hair growing moments. This post reaffirms my belief that often writers take their work out of the oven before they’re fully baked. This past year I resolved my love of backstory and poetic prose. I write a couple dozen pages on that character and story and then pick small paragraphs of it to insert into the story. Instead of having nightmares that my beta readers are using my work as a sleep-aide, I’ve found a way to get the point across without poking someone’s eye out or putting them into a coma. Loved this 🙂
This is a great post, Kristen. I love to read (and write) description, but when a section seems to go on forever with details that I don’t care about, whether describing the scenery or details about the story or characters themselves, I lose interested in reading. One example is James Mitchener. I love his stories, but the first few chapters usually bore me to death with all the background material – and some of the in-between stuff too. I find I skip whole parts because of this.
In my own writing I sometimes find myself rambling on and on about needless details and I have to stop myself and say, “Enough!” Then I quickly press the delete button and leave that part for another day when I am fresher or more focused on the scene. You have given some good instruction here. Thank you.
Love rule #1 so great and true! When i first started writing I wanted to leave spots for bookmarks because as a reader who will stay up all night reading a book I wanted a spot to stop and go to sleep- now I know better.
Great advice! No matter how much we’ve written, these three points are great reminders. 🙂
Love your posts – but these Deadly Sins really get me going. I’ve had to print them all out for the craft notebook because, hello….I so do at least half of these things! Thanks, Kristen…in my mash-up on More Cowbell today, I noted that you’ve been ON FIRE the last week or so. You go, girl. 😀
Great post, as always. You can never go wrong if you mention Blake Snyder or Finding Nemo and you had a post about both. You rock!
No fluff or filler is now going on a post-it. Sometimes you can get away with changing the motivation and amping up the reason for being there without having to cut them out altogether.
Seems like every post you make provides the key ingredient for my week’s work! I will be gutting and refilling my WIP this week with your advice in mind. Thanks for your wisdom and insight!
Terrific reminder of how important each scene is and how we must have drama in each scene. No fillers, please.
And I’m glad Gene mentioned about the missing number. I thought I was the one who couldn’t count. LOL
You scare me. My brain watches Top Gun and records dialogue. You get all that out of the bar scene. You are really smart. Love when you break down movies in the literary sense.
Where do you live and do you do local classes?
No, I’m not stalking you. I’d just really like to sit in a room with you for a couple hours and learn.
I am in DFW Texas. I will be presenting multiple classes at the DFW Writers’ Workshop Conference in 2012. It is a FANTASTIC conference and James Rollins is the keynote :D.
Fabulous advice… now if only conflict was EASY – lol! Absolutely love the rule never to leave a place to put a bookmark in your book 🙂
Never leave a place to put a bookmark.
Wow – that one line alone was the most unbelievable advice for me. I will be reviewing my manuscript with those words in mind!
I’m trying to write romance novels, and have entered a few contests on another website, to no success. My question is, is there an exception to this rule of conflict in romance novels? They (the publishers) say not, but in the ones I’ve read, there are often many scenes without any conflict at all, that I can see. Usually, these scenes involve the consumption of a gourmet dinner, which is described in great detail, or the lovers talking about their jobs. And I don’t mean that they are complaining about their bosses, like people do in real life. Instead, they are describing everything that they do and know in great detail. I read one where the heroine spent pages and pages of dialogue giving trivia facts about the food and food magazine industry to her boyfriend. Did you know there are 100 ways to make eggs? Did you know they write articles for food magazines months in advance? This book was considered an excellent novel of its genre, apparently, but I thought I was reading a wikipedia article.
Since I don’t know the author, it’s hard to answer. I know that branded authors can get away with mistakes newbies cannot. Since the author’s name alone will sell books, they can get away with breaking the rules. Often some of the mega authors’ best books are actually their earlier works when the writing had to sell the books. Crichton’s best works were in the 70s and 80s. His later stuff? Eh…not so much. But by that point fans bought anything with Crichton on the cover.
Rules exist for a reason. How did they become “rules?” People in publishing started paying attention to what books SOLD. Sure we can wax on rhapsotic like Steinbeck. And that kind of book might have sold wonderfully in 1930. But, these days? We cannot spend three pages describing a tree. Modern audiences won’t stand for it and they won’t buy it. So, can we break the rule? Sure. But we do so at the peril of not connecting with a modern reader and thus not selling a lot of books.
From your post I’m assuming you write contemporary romance? Again, it all depends on whether the story is hot and steamy or sweet, and whether the bedroom door is closed or not.
In my experience there is NO exception to the rule about conflict in Romance. In fact the more conflict you have the better! Hmm, I can’t remember reading a recent romance that began in the way you describe. But Kristen is right, publishers are pumping out earlier works of the big sellers.
With romance there are three things to nail for the heroine/hero right at the beginning. Goal, motivation and conflict. Conflict is never one incident or ‘thing’ it needs to be much more than that. In romance you need external conflicts – to a point – it must never overshadow the internal emotional conflicts between the main characters. So you could have, say the hero wanting to buy the heroine’s business/family home etc., that would be external. However between them there needs to be an undeniable attraction which one or both does not want for whatever reason. An emotional conflict uses, yes, emotions, pride, guilt, grief, overwhelming attraction that causes fear, mistrust of herself or him. The reasons should be many and varied, perhaps she’s a widow and she’s buried her heart with her husband and stillborn child (yeah, make them suffer, hehehe) or a divorcee who still hankers after her charming ex and blames herself for the failure of her marraige. Or an independent career woman who’s afraid of committment and sworn off men. Or a woman who can’t have a child and her lover desperately needs a family of his own because he never had one. Perhaps she’s a pleaser etc. The hero could be the one to help her see sense etc. Or you could spin everything on it’s head and have the hero dealing with these things.
The point is, you need to have many conflicts in a romance, up to about five imo, because if you give them only one conflict whether it’s emotional or external that is never going to be enough to keep going over 90,000+ words.
However, the ‘rules’ for writing a romance are exactly the same as writing any fiction. Write great characters the reader can cheer for and care about. And, most important, you must have a hero to die for. He doesn’t need to be a tdh (tall, dark & handsome) alpha either. Men can be heroic in many, many ways. One of the most powerful ways is when he puts the heroine’s needs and desires before his own. Of course that can throw up tons of conflict too. You could do worse than read Nora Roberts. That woman knows precisely how to press a reader’s buttons and can make you laugh or cry or grab your throat too. 350million books in circulation, so she must be doing something right.
As Kristen says in her posts, learn from the best. Find writers you admire, whose writing excites you. If you’re reading stuff that frustrates and confuses you then dump it, it’s a waste of precious research time. I should also say that an opinion on another person’s work is purely subjective. What one person dislikes another person loves. So a mutual respect for a writer’s hard, hard work is key too.
If you want to ask me about writers to follow and good info on learning to write romance, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll be happy to help.
Sorry about the length of this post Kristen, once I start yabbering about romance …
Oh, no worries! I love it when you guys chime in your expertise. I certainly don’t know everything and your answer was way swesomer :D. Any time. I love how you guys chip in to help each other!
I LOVE this. That part about the bookmark really made sense :0)
So helpful. I liked it and bookmarked it to come back. Planning a “life list/writing” revamp this next week so I can really show myself what I’m capable of when I set my mind to it. Lots to think about, I’m really working on my plan to get the most done. I keep repeating lessons from you and authors you’ve shared with us in my head: feelings lie, eat the frog, pants of shame, we are not alone. Here goes!
Nice. I like the worry = page-turner bit. I’ve never thought of importing my anxiety on others, but when I look back to some of my favorite flicks, that’s a common thread. I still remember filling a whole row with friends for MI3 @ the theatre and turning my head. On either side of me, each member of my crew had mangled their posture into the seat like hastily shipped cereal boxes.
thanks for this one, sis.
I didn’t realize I had so many little darlin’s until you pointed out a few. I think I feel like people won’t believe me unless I give them a lot of examples. When you said you bought my premise early on and that I didn’t need a skillion examples, I think I blushed. In horror.
I have to watch the over-writing.
As always, super helpful.
It’s true that there is a formula (of sorts) to novel writing, and yet I always caution tyros to be wary of the over-formulaic and the overly proscriptive. The novel-writing process is more flexible than that. There are, for example, countless novels, classics and bestsellers among them, that successfully and even beautifully end chapters with characters going to sleep — ranging from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God to, Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, to The Stand.
The point is indeed to hold the reader’s interest, but the means by which this is done is not completely rigid, and the reason it’s not is that people value different things in literature.
It’s true also that conflict is at the core of successful storytelling, and this is so because conflict presupposes a clash of values. What one reader or viewer enjoys, therefore, whether it be Crime and Punishment or Top Gun, another reader or viewer will not enjoy.
People read for different reasons: for many of us, style is as significant as plot. The novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner was to me a satisfying read, and yet it breaks virtually every rule listed above, and many of my friends cannot get through it.
None of which, however, is to imply that there’s not a proper method by which novels are written. There is. And Faulkner — to keep with the example — fails as often as he succeeds precisely because he does not use the proper methodology.
This is only to say that there’s plenty of room to maneuver, and very often the most interesting story is the story of the writer’s style.
True, but we have to be careful. What kind of fiction are we writing? My teaching is for commercial fiction that will appeal to a wide audience. Faulkner, Victor Hugo and even Cormac McCarthy are all literary works and thus follow different rules and appeal to a much smaller audience. We also have to make sure that we are keeping our finger on the pulse of current trends. The Stand is over 20 years old. Many of the examples you gave–again Faulkner and Victor Hugo–are from a MUCH earlier time period with a different audience. If we write that way today we will frustrate and annoy most modern readers.
People today are far more sophisticated than audiences of the early 20th century. Also, Faulkner and Hugo weren’t competing against TV, video games, the Internet, texting, and reality television. People have far shorter attention spans and 60 years of television has created entire generations accustomed to “show don’t tell” and a faster pace of narrative. Frankly, to pattern our writing off works this early is almost certain suicide. Yes, in rare cases it might work, but it isn’t a good plan.
Just like if I am a fashion designer who wants to be the next trend, it is a bad plan to start trying to channel the 1800s. If I try to bring back long dresses, corsets and the bustle, it could be a hit…but most likely it will be a failure. Sure a handful of people who wear period costumes might love my stuff, but the majority of my potential consumers would be less than impressed. The modern woman cannot wear a corset and long dress and work a desk job at a computer and drive a car. I have a different consumer with different constraints, wants and needs and if I fail to appreciate that, then consumers just simply won’t buy my product.
Same with writing. We have to pay attention to who the consumer really is, especially since the mega-successes are all created by writers who mobilize people who typically don’t read. Many “non-readers” don’t read because they hated reading the classics. Thus, they equate reading with having dental surgery. If we as writers offer up the same style of narrative that made typical non-readers hate reading, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Harry Potter, Twilight and Tuesdays with Morrie were all smash successes simply because they sought to entertain, not impress with flowery lingo and literary pretentiousness.
These books ignited a joy for reading in people who, before, would have defined themselves as non-readers. Thus, I think the wise writer who wants to be successful would be smarter to look to modern day successes to learn from. Just like a new fashion designer would be better off studying Versace and Dolce and Gabbana than historical photos. Thanks for the comment. Much appreciated!
Fashion design and novel structure are incommensurate — for one thing because novel writing is an art, whereas fashion design is a skill.
Good fiction — like all good art — is timeless, and the plots devised by (for example) Victor Hugo are virtually unsurpassed. In fact, modern readers would do themselves a huge service to emulate Victor Hugo’s almost preternatural ability to think in terms of conflict, his inexhaustible imagination, his mastery of drama, which in many ways is unmatched in all the world’s literature. Anyone who tells you differently is simply wrong. Who today has created a scene as dramatic and as sophisticated as the climax of Ninety-Three? Who today has created a character as fully developed and as profound as Jean Valjean, or Gilliat?
Kristen writes: “Faulkner, Victor Hugo and even Cormac McCarthy are all literary works.”
Yes, that’s true.
Kristen continues: “thus [they] follow different rules and appeal to a much smaller audience.”
No, that’s not necessarily true at all. The Road has sold millions, and so has No Country for Old Men. All the Pretty Horses sold almost 200,000 copies in its first six months.
But that’s just the beginning:
Alice Monroe, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Karen Russell, Johnathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Nicole Krauss, Paul Auster, Don Delillio, Ayn Rand, John Updike, Philip Roth, Thomas Pinchon, Magaret Atwood, and many, many, many other literary writer’s are mega bestsellers.
The truth is, there’s a huge market for this type of literature the wide world over, and over sixty years after it’s publication The Fountainhead, for example, still sells millions of copies a year.
In fact, commercial fiction isn’t new. Just the opposite. Oscar Wilder used to review commercial fiction. It’s existed since the advent of the novel form. The only reason you don’t hear about the commercial books that were around when, for example, Faulkner was writing is that time has completely sunk them — and for very good reason. The books of lasting value are timeless, durable. And the reason they’re so durable is that they have timeless themes.
That, in a nutshell, is the fundamental difference between commercial fiction and serious fiction:the integration of plot and theme.
Plot is the logical sequence of events that culminates in climax. Theme is what those events ad up to. If the events ad up to nothing, there is no theme. Soap operas are
an example of this — which is not to denigrate soap operas, but only to point out the difference.
You go too far in railing against what you call literary pretentiousness, so that the type of fiction you yourself prefer becomes the only type of fiction — or so it seems to me. (Forgive me if I misrepresent you.) But what about those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t enjoy commercial fiction, or those of us who are bored by Top Gun, but do like Roger’s Version and Bladerunner?
I say only this: There’s room and market for all, including those of us who enjoy reading chapter endings wherein a character falls asleep “and the last thing he heard was the sound of underground streams flowing away beneath him like time.”
You say that Harry Potter, Twilight and Tuesdays with Morrie were all smash
successes simply because they sought to entertain, not impress with flowery lingo and literary pretentiousness. This implies, among other things, that non-commercial literature is all “flowery and literary pretension.” It is not — not anymore than commercial fiction is all totem and tattoo, all shallow and mindless entertainment.
In the same way that “non-readers,” as you say, hate reading the classics, many of us just don’t enjoy Twilight, or Harry Potter. And I say that’s fine. All types.
But it is wildly inaccurate to say that audiences are “far more sophisticated today.” There’s nothing more sophisticated than Shakespeare — even if his Elizabethan English has become dated and difficult to our modern ears — and there is no more sophisticated integration of theme and plot in all the world’s literature than Dostoevsky’s Demons, which is a heartbreaking masterpiece of technical skill, which no writer today, commercial or otherwise, has come close to matching.
I would never say that everyone has to like serious literature, any more than I would say that everyone has to like Top Gun. What I do say is what I said above:
Beware the overly proscriptive and the over-formulaic.
I talk to fledgling writers all the time whose writing becomes stilted and is crippled by the laundry-lists of do’s and do not’s that they read — fledgling writers who, for instance, are discouraged out of their minds because they’ve written a chapter that ends with a character falling asleep and then they’ve suddenly read somewhere that you should never do this. It’s untrue.
There’s room — and market — enough for many styles of literature.
My thanks to you all,
But this is a blog that teaches beginner writers who seek publication in commercial fiction. These blogs are designed to be basics. You are missing the point. Literary fiction is character-driven and most of the time (aside from a rare few instances of breakouts) will appeal to a very different audience. It also takes an entirely different approach of teaching since namely the character arc is the superlative of the two. Character growth/development generally has more importance. In The Road, the story was less about making it to the sea and more about the struggle to maintain humanity in a world gone mad and returned to the animal state. Literary fiction takes a different approach to teach. This blog was not to teach that. And literary fiction does appeal to a more select group of readers. Just ask Dennis Lehane.
When writers are new, they need to get the basics down before trying to be artists. Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, Van Gough all learned the basics of their art form. We have to know the rules to break the rules or we are just being foolish.
I said that you shouldn’t end a chapter with a character going to sleep and no new introduction of conflict. Can you? Sure. Knock yourself out, but it is risky. It’s a safe place for a bookmark.
To become great vocalists and musicians we have to learn to read music. We need to get the basics…then we can bend and break rules. In this business if you try to emulate classics, it is risky. I meet more writers who don’t understand the basics like narrative structure and the role of the antagonist than I do those who are “artistically stilted.” Art comes from a grounded strength in the basics. And don’t tell the fashion designers that what they do isn’t art. Might get you in trouble :D.
Good sense, Kristen. I really believe I should have been born a century earlier. When I was in school I hated reading, but once I started working (in my mid-twenties) I also started to love reading. And I read the classics: Dickens, Kipling, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Shelley, etc. etc. I have read Sir Walter Scott and many other old works and tend to enjoy them more than many modern-day books. I know – I’m old and really different (maybe even a little crazy?) and there are very few with my taste today. I have one friend who enjoys the same books I do and we can discuss them for hours. I also have a few friends (from the church young adult group) who love to watch the Austen and Dickens movies (one is actually male, 25 years old!). I’m not so sure that they would enjoy reading the books, although one has expressed a desire to borrow some of mine. But I do agree that our audience would be very limited if we wrote in their style today. It may please a few people like myself, but would certainly not sell enough to warrant all the effort and cost of writing and publishing.
I love the +/- idea I will definately have to put that into play. And I didn’t think about the bookmarking either (I think I am guilty of having characters ‘go to sleep’ at the end of a chapter, will have to see if I can fix that :)) great post Kristen.
My thoughts to put down a story? Too depressing story with a not-so-happy ending. There’s this story about Cinderella where she realized that not everything is what it seems to be. Then, she ended up not ending up with the prince. I would’ve thrown away that book if it weren’t a library book.
Then, there’s this story of a prince who speaks to animals. He’s hiding his power into the world because in those days, they’ve been banned into doing it. The prince ended up marrying a princess–who switched bodies with a dog until she retrieved herself again. That’s a WTH story. It’s like, people didn’t end up with the people they should be with. I forced myself to read it just because I thought I might learn something from it. All I thought about was that the book was boring and didn’t make sense. As for my stories, I love writing them. Editing is when it gets murky.
I’m very late to the party, but I was recommended to your tips by Nancy of http://nrhatch.wordpress.com I’m writing a memoir, but I can see that even though a different genre, the tips would apply just as well. One still wants the reader not to use a bookmark, for instance!
Yoour the best