This is what I’m talking about: A man is hungry. He goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich. He eats the sandwich. He is no longer hungry.
The journey from hungry man to sated man is very straight. It’s easy. It’s obvious. It’s dull.
When someone wants something you have the beginning of a story. When they get it you have the end of the story. But the bit in between is the interesting part, and making it too linear won’t generate much enthusiasm in the reader.
So that’s pretty obvious, right? You know you have to have problems along the way. Obstructions, detours, distractions and the like. Your story will be a battle for your protagonist. You know all that.
So here’s an example of what I run across a lot when reading WIPs.
1. Woman is attracted to man at work.
2. They make a date to go out.
3. It’s going well. He’s handsome, she's wearing her best bra.
4. He reveals he’s incredibly racist.
5. She’s appalled, but also very shallow, and he is incredibly handsome. What to do...
Now, obviously whatever happens at the restaurant that screws things up (probably wouldn’t be the neo-nazi thing, but I’m working to deadline here, people) will throw a spanner in the works and make for a riotous comedy, or possibly sleazy erotica.
However, the problem is in order to get to the stuff in step 5, you first have to get through steps 1 to 4. And although the writer knows things are about to get crazy, the reader does not know that.
You can’t depend on the great things that are going to happen in a story to justify the boring stuff occurring right now.
If you forget the later scenes, the first part of this story is: woman sees man she fancies and would like to go out with. And so she does.
That is a flat narrative. She wants the sandwich, she gets the sandwich. You need to find a way to make that initial bit, the bit you don’t really care about, that isn’t important to the story and is just a way of getting people to where you need them to be, you need that part to be interesting too.
Let’s take a scene where a man is about to be fired by his boss.
If the boss tells him he’s fired, and he says why, and the boss says because of so and so, and then our hero leaves, that’s a flat narrative. The scene follows a predictable and linear route with no deviation.
The boss called him in to tell him, and when he came in he told him.
You can add all the small details you want, the room layout, the nervousness, the good luck in the future speech, but that’s just describing how it happens. What you’re describing is still linear.
In order to add a bump in the road, things have to go in an unexpected direction. You can still end up with the same result, but how you get there should create a sense of it not being simple and direct.
This is harder than it sounds because even though in theory what I’m saying seems fairly obvious, in practice what happens is something like this:
Dave is going to be fired through no fault of his own. But he is a timid soul and finds it hard to stand up for himself. Later in the story he will deal with this issue, in fact that’s what the story is about, but right now he needs to get fired and he needs to not make a fuss about it. That’s the whole point of the scene!
So, if I have a story like that, how can I possibly make the firing scene anything other than linear. Dave isn’t going to cause a commotion. The boss will just give him the brush off and send him on his way.
This is the kind of problem writers face. I know I should make it more interesting, but the character won’t allow it. It just doesn’t feel right.
And the answer is: You’re god of this universe, you can make it work.
You’re primary responsibility isn’t to be true to your characters, it’s to not write a scene that sucks (while still being true to your characters). And all you need to do that is think about it until you come up with a solution. It isn’t impossible, it’s just difficult.
For example: Dave’s boss offers him a parting drink. But Dave is also a germaphobe, and he can see the glass isn’t clean. He’s too embarrassed to mention it but can’t bring himself to put his lips to the glass. The boss thinks his refusal to drink with him is an insult, and gets angry...
The point is, I didn’t have to go against his character to make things happen, but I did have to be open to building on what I know about him until I find something that serves my purpose, that purpose being not to have a sucky scene.
There’s always a way to make a linear story less linear. It isn’t always obvious, but it’s always possible.
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