In fiction, particularly commercial fiction, the most important thing is to keep your reader turning the pages. This is what the art and craft of writing fiction is all about.
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.”
You want to keep raising questions in your readers mind that they have to know the answer to.
This doesn’t happen by accident. This article explores one key ingredient in getting your readers, including agents, producers, publishers and the general public, to keep reading.
New York agent and author 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. 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.”
In the 10 Month Novel and Script First Draft Course writers develop a practical understanding of classic story structure and follow a step by step process, during which writers explore the inner and outer conflict of their characters over the course of the story and in each individual scene.
This enables you to write a story that engages your readers in the emotion and drama of your story.
Conflict rooted character values
All characters in your story should be in conflict in some way. Conflict between characters raises questions and makes a story far more dramatic. Readers keep turning the page because they want to know how the conflict will be resolved.
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, PhD. 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 film making 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, giving your readers a richer emotional experience and investing your story with added depth and 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."
Structure and character are two sides of the one coin. One exists to reveal the other.
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, setting up a dance between story structure and your imagination.
You have to use structure to draw your story and your characters out of your unconscious and shape your story on the page. People in our novel and script courses are constantly amazed how their stories develop over the course of the process.
Structure and a step by step process forces you to ask the right questions about your characters and story so you develop conflict and tension on every page that is organic to the story.
And that is one of the main things that keep your readers tuning the page and rewards them with a meaningful experience at the end of your story.