Thursday, December 10, 2009

Things Look Bad? Make Them Worse

Want to write crackling fiction? Bestselling suspense novelist Steven James, author of The Pawn, The Rook, and The Knight, tells Forensics & Faith his secret.

Over the years as I’ve taught at writer’s conferences throughout the US and in India, I’ve found that too many people think of stories as a series of things that happen. But they are not.

When I was in elementary school, every year after we returned to school in the fall after summer vacation, the teacher would give us the same assignment: Write about what you did during the summer.

And we would write things like, “I went to camp and then I played video games and then I went swimming and then I fought with my brother . . . ”

I’m sure you can remember how brain-numbing these assignments were.

So, a few years ago when I was asked to speak to a fourth grade class on writing and telling stories, I said, “Kids, please do not tell me what you did over the summer, but could someone tell me about something that went wrong?”

A boy raised his hand and said, “My cousin came over to my house and we were having a contest to see who could jump the farthest off my bunk bed. ”
What a great opening line.

“He went first and he got pretty far and I said, ‘I can get farther than that. ’”

This kid was a natural.

“So I jumped off the top bunk, and the ceiling fan was on. I got my head stuck in the ceiling fan and it threw me against the wall, but I got farther!”
If I would have asked him what he did, he would have said that he played with his cousin, but because I asked him what went wrong he told me a story.

You do not have a story until something goes wrong.

I call this The Ceiling Fan Principle.

You do not have a story until something goes wrong.

At its heart, a story is about tension and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. So the secret to writing a story that draws people in and keeps them turning pages is to create more and more tension, not to make more and more things happen.

This shift in perspective will forever change how you shape and tell the stories that you write.

Romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.

Action stories are not about action, they are about unresolved problems. One event happening after another is not interesting for a reader, unless we can see what the unfulfilled desire of the main character is (surviving, saving the world, etc…)

That means that when you write a story, you are not asking yourself, “What should happen?” But rather, “How can I make things worse?” It also means that stories, at their essence, are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. All stories are tension-driven.

For example, you can write a fascinating description of a character or have five dozen chase scenes in your novel, but after a while we will grow tired of hearing about what the character is thinking or eating or wearing or doing if we do not know what their unfulfilled desire is. And we will grow tired of seeing car chases unless we know what the people chasing (or being chased) want.

Readers need to know what the character wants.

Readers need to know where the action is leading.

When I work on shaping one of my thrillers I am constantly asking myself how can I make things worse within the context of the character’s struggle. So, if the character’s struggle is depression, I have to lead them to the very edge of depression, the deepest and most hopeless situation imaginable. If her struggle is loneliness, I need to sharpen that loneliness to its most extreme limits.

Typically, the strongest stories will be centered on a protagonist who has both an internal struggle and an external struggle.

The internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered; an external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved.

Whether a story is considered character-driven or plot-driven, historical romance, cozy mystery, techno-thriller or literary fiction, this dual focus on the internal and external struggles of the main character will help snag readers’ interest and keep it. Genre will dictate which struggle takes precedent in the story, but all commercial fiction today needs both internal and external struggle.

To summarize, stop asking what should happen and focus instead on tightening the tension—making things worse.

Typically the worse you can make things for your protagonist (within the contexts of these two types of struggles), the better the story will be for your readers.

--Steven James

Steven is teaching a novel writing intensive, which accepts only 8-10 students. Four slots are left. For more info, go here.

Check out Steven's latest novel, The Knight, on Amazon.

Following Steven's advice--what can you make worse for your protagonist?


Cory Clubb said...

Great post and I just found out that Steven has invited me to his Novel Writing Intesive in TN.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Very helpful advice. I like your example of how you used this with the students. Thanks so much for sharing.

Jason said...

Steven James' work is simply brilliant. His advice is invaluable. Thank you for sharing this with us.

jessi said...

Excellent reminders of things we often forget as we're writing. I might just post some of these questions over my computer to keep me on track. Thanks!

Jessie at Blog Schmog said...

I love the "Ceiling Fan Principle", I'll never forget that now!