Monday, 10 December 2012

Fiction Is About Facing Problems



One of the main tenets of writing story is to make the reader as the question: What happens next?

But this question shouldn’t be aimed at the writer, or even the story. The question should be aimed by readers at themselves.

And they shouldn’t be sure of the answer


Any question posed in the right way will offer an unknown to be revealed, that doesn’t make it interesting. I could ask you to guess what colour socks I put on this morning. Just because you don’t know the answer doesn’t mean you want to know.

It’s only when characters are placed in situations where if readers were to ask themselves, If that was me what would I do? And they don’t know, or even better, if they know the options but they don’t want to make the decision, then seeing someone else have to make the choice is a rewarding experience.

That’s true even if the character ends up making a total hash of things and tragedy ensues. Seeing someone else deal with difficult situations is what makes fiction better than real life. Because in real life we can’t afford to take outrageous risks or pursue outlandish dreams. Gambles rarely pay off and forfeits tend to be severe. But in stories, the less ordinary paths can be explored.

So while in real life we want things sorted out in the easiest and quickest way possible, with the police doing their job, lovers remaining true and illnesses being treated in good time, in fiction the opposite is true. 

That’s the case whether it’s a man trapped in a cell about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, or a girl in love with a man who ignores her and is in love with his job.


Readers want to see scenarios they would never want to be in, with characters forced to do things they would never dream of doing. They want the character to take the more difficult path and they want to see it handled with insight, creativity, ingenuity, sacrifice and surprise.

Of course, that requires the writer to produce those elements. No easy task. So it’s understandable that a lot of aspiring authors write about characters who get what they want in fairly straightforward fashion.  

Characters face problems they just happen to be perfectly suited to deal with. Like James Bond finding the gadget he’s given at the start of the movie is exactly what he needs to defeat the villain at the end. And those sorts of stories have an audience. People like to be comforted by the idea that their fantasies might come true, that we might have a fairy godmother we didn’t know about who will grant our wishes.

But the story where the character has no easy or obvious way out, where none of the paths available are without consequences, is a story readers will be affected by and react to with genuine emotion. They will care about what happens. They may not want to know what happens next, they may dread what they suspect, but they won’t be able to stop themselves turning the page to find out.

Don't forget, Alex Appreciation begins today (annual event?). Stop by the many, many people showing a little love to our own Ninja captain, Alex Cavanaugh. You can find the linky list here.

For myself, it's been a pleasure to encounter such a generous spirit on the interweb. Cheers, Alex.

26 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Dear Lord no - not an annual event!!
I throw things at Byron there's no way I'd ever want to face those situations. So I guess the writer can enjoy that just as much as the readers.

mooderino said...

@Alex - definitely more fun to write.

Lydia Kang said...

It's in that discomfort that the reader feels the urge to turn the page and see what happens next. :)

Also...go Alex!

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

OH my goodness. Such great advice and a blogfest mention too. Thank you sir :)

Donna Hole said...

I like complicated characters. They may be difficult to write, but its worth the pay off.

......dhole

Gail said...

You always have usable interesting information

mooderino said...

@Lydia - gotta scratch that itch.


@Michael - Thank you.

@Donna - I think that's true even in children's books.

Anonymous said...

So what color were your socks?

I agree with Gail.

K

When my daughter gets here for winter break, I'll no longer be anonymous.

Ellie Garratt said...

Well said. It's what keeps me coming back for more.

Patricia Lynne said...

I love putting my characters though sticky situations that I'd never want to be faced with. Hopefully, my readers enjoy (and sympathize with my characters) those situations too.

CS Severe said...

Thanks for such a fantastic post. As a reader, I love following characters who take big risks that result in out of the world consequences or situations. That's why I switch to reader mode sometimes when editing my own work and can easily see where I need to make cuts or improve a scene.

Alexandra Lanc said...

Great post! I basically agree with you, though I think there is something to be said with presenting a reader with what most likely will happen, and then having them waiting for it, only to see it unfold in a different way than they expected. One of my favorite books, Frankenstein, reminds me of this when the monster tells his creator that he will ruin everything he loves, and then ends up doing it in a way both expected, and unexpected. But, I also think it takes a special writer or story to pull this off. :)

I enjoy both types of stories, because I think that pretty much everything is somewhat predictable; very rarely is it not. But I do love it when the characters take big risks, and keep me on the edge of my seat while reading.

Best,

Alexandra~

mooderino said...

@K - that's the kind of mystery that makes me the enigma I am.

@Ellie - a good story is like heroin, apart from the needles and bad skin.

@Patricia - me too.

@CS - switching to reader mode is one of the hardest things for me when it comes to my own writing. Jealous you can do it so easily.

@Alexandra - I think even when it's obvious what needs to happen, consequences, emotions and opposition can lift the story above someone basically painting by numbers. Genre stories are often predictable but manage to be enjoyable and gripping by using these sorts of methods to produce suspense, I think.

Susan Roebuck said...

Great post and so timely for me because I'm in the dilemma of how to end my WIP - with something expected or unexpected. I like the half-half notion. I love to read stories that keep me on the edge of my seat.

mooderino said...

@Gail - thanks (almost missed you there).

@Susan - I think often you need to look at the problem rather than the solution. If you find a dead body, why not call the police and then stay well away? If you fancy someone why not just ask them out? It's not so much expected or unexpected, it's why the character does what they do and whether that feels too obvious.

Murees Dupé said...

You gave me a few things to think about, thank you for that. I write the kind of stories that I like to write, but I guess I never really think what the reader will think. Thanks Mooderino.

M. A. McRae said...

Some interesting insights.

mooderino said...

@Murees - Glad to be of some help.

@MA - Cheers.

Misha Gericke said...

Excellent point. It's no mean feat, getting readers invested and sadly, it's not possible to do by giving a character an easy time.

At the same time, putting a character through too much can also put the reader off.

mooderino said...

@Misha - endless misery and beat downs can become quite tiresome.

The Golden Eagle said...

A really good story definitely requires some introspection. Great post!

Gina Gao said...

This is an amazing post.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

jual baju muslim murah said...

Look really great, love the first pic, thanks for sharing!

mooderino said...

@Golden-cheers.

@Gina-thanks very much.

@jual-you're very welcome.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Terrific post. "Cause more trouble" was the advice I was given when I had my first 50 pages workshopped this past summer. I'm working hard to make that happen.

mooderino said...

@Carol - good advice.

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