In fiction, particularly commercial fiction, the most important thing is to keep your reader turning the pages.
As the English novelist, E.M. Forster said in his book Aspects of the Novel, a story “…has only one merit: that of making an audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”
This doesn’t happen by accident. This blog explores one key ingredient in getting your readers, including agents, producers, publishers and the general public, to keep reading.
New York agent Donald Maas says, “So many of the manuscripts that arrive at my office go right back to their authors in their self addressed stamped envelopes."
“The number one reason is insufficient tension. Believe it, tension on every page works. Low tension does not. Make it your mantra.”
If a story doesn’t create dramatic tension from page one, then most agents, publishers and general readers will quickly lose interest. Dramatic tension on every page is the key to great storytelling.
“Everyone knows that,” Maas says. “Practically no one does it.”
Making it happen on the page is the big challenge. It's where the art and craft of fiction comes into play.
This takes time to master as writing is a four part process – planning, writing, re-writing and editing.
The importance of conflict
One key ingredient in creating dramatic tension comes from conflict.
Author James Frye said, “The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict.”
Conflict rooted character values
Conflict between characters makes a huge difference to a story.
However, you can’t just have two people fighting over something arbitrary and expect to engage and satisfy your reader.
The conflict needs to be rooted deeply into the characters and their value system.
The physical or outward conflict should grow out of an inner conflict of values.
As the novelist John Gardner said, "In the final analysis, real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another."
The values need to come out of the character and the structure of the story.
Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. and author of The Moral Premise - Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success says, “Psychologically, a set of values is the fertilizer for ideas, ideologies, and thoughts that course through our mind and soul and gives us motivation to take action.
“If writers, therefore, do not understand the basic need of stories to grow from the conflict of values, then the filmmaker’s attempts at filmmaking will be nothing more than the unmotivated juxtapositions of images and sound.
“It is the lack of a story based in the conflict of values structured around a Moral Premise that leaves audiences with a sense that the movie they just gave two hours of their life to was a wasteland of meaning. Conflict is essential but it must be rooted in values and structured around a Moral Premise.”
The importance of structure and a process
One of the benefits of developing a practical understanding of classic story structure is that it will help you create and build tension based on your characters and their conflicting values.
It will also give your readers a richer emotional experience and give your story a deeper meaning.
Robert McKee puts it very well when he says, "The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure that forces characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to their unconscious self."
The best use of structure is to use it to help flesh out your characters, their values and conflict and create a story that that has readers wanting to know what happens next.
You can’t do this merely by using the logical side of your brain and mapping out the conflicts and values as if you are writing by numbers.
This requires a step-by-step process that takes you on a guided journey, harnessing both sides of your brain.
You have to use structure to draw your story and your characters out of your unconscious and shape your story on the page.
Structure forces you to ask the right questions about character and structure so you develop conflict and tension that is organic to the story.
And that’s what keeps your reader tuning the page and rewards them with a meaningful experience at the end of your story.
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