How Do I Do That?

The Question

A couple of days ago, a friend wrote, “I’m 200 pages in!” (That is, she’s reading Standing Our Ground, the fourth book in my Monastery Valley Series of novels.) “It’s a page-turner! How do you do that?” Her question gave me an idea for this post.

Writers have rules for how to do it . . .

I suppose there aren’t really rules that writers must follow–after all, any rule you could possibly name has been broken by wonderful writers. Take the often-proclaimed “rule” that “you must grab your readers’ attention and interest on the first page, or you’ve lost them!” In fact, writing coach and editor Ray Rhamey says you have to do it in the first 17 lines! But Richard Powers’ powerful novel The Overstory opens with four pages of trees talking about humans before even introducing a character. By the way, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

There may not be hard and fast rules for writing, but there sure are some powerful agreements among readers and writers. And one of them is simple: It all comes down to conflict, internal and external. And a corollary to that is equally simple: Make it worse. There are other agreements readers and writers have, but I’m going to reflect on these two today.

It all depends on conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. Period. “Conflict,” of course, does not need to mean war, violence, mental illness, or loud angry arguments. If a character wants something and cannot get it, that’s conflict. You’ve no doubt read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. (No? Do read it. You will be changed.) Enzo, the dog who is the main character, is old and dying–and he wants to die, because in his next life, he will become human. Dying and becoming human is his goal, his desire. But he loves Denny, his human, and he knows that dying will mean losing him and all it has meant to them both. Conflict. The story’s question is how–indeed, whether–Enzo can resolve his conflict, say farewell to Denny, and die happily into his next life. And the ramifications of that conflict and that question make for a marvelous and profoundly beautiful story.

That conflict is at the heart of story-telling is an idea as old as Aristotle, who placed conflict first in his list of the essential features of drama. But why does conflict have this honored place? Isn’t character more important? According to Aristotle–and to every writing teacher I’ve ever learned from–the answer is “No.” Character is only revealed through action (“Watch what he does, not what he says.”), and action requires conflict to reveal character. (Watching their actions, not their speeches and Tweets, isn’t a bad admonition in this political climate, eh?) Conflict spurs action and action reveals character.

Example: Suppose a story shows a man getting up, stumbling to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, shaving, washing up, drying his face and hands, returning to the bedroom and getting dressed, and picking up his briefcase and saying to his wife, “See you after work, honey.” See any conflict? You want a whole book full of this kind of no-conflict action? Okay, now try this:

The angry buzz of his cell phone beside the bed jerked Ted awake. He growled a half-startled, half-angry ‘What?’ into the phone, listened, jumped out of bed, grumbling.

His wife said, “Where are you going? It’s your day off!”

“Damn office called. We got a problem. I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

“Come back to bed, Ted, it’s our anniversary!”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Conflict, both internal (Ted wants to stay in bed with his wife but also wants to keep his job) and external (he wants his anniversary day off but also wants to solve the problem at work, not to mention his awareness that he’s disappointing his wife).

Books have been written about conflict in story-telling, much deeper than what I’ve just written, but this is enough for now. Let’s look at conflict’s corollary.

Make it worse!

Romeo wants Juliet, but their families stand in the way. Can he find a way to be with her? Scout (in To Kill a Mockingbird) wants to believe people are good and kind, but the racism in her town disturbs her. Can she come to terms with it without losing her belief in people’s goodness? Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) wants to be closer with her friend Peeta, but to protect her sister’s life she must compete against him in the lethal games. Can she survive without harming him or losing their friendship? The PI/detective/deputy/cop in any mystery or police procedural wants to get the bad guy, but it’s next to impossible to find the evidence or even to identify who the bad guy is. Will she win or lose the case? The formula for all this is “desire plus obstacles requires action.”

Most readers and writers agree that if a character immediately succeeds in getting what she wants, the story ends, because no more obstacles means no more conflict. So how does the writer keep the story going? By seeing to it that the character fails: The obstacles win.

In other words, writers keep making it worse for their characters. Every action taken by the character to resolve the obstacles fails, and the character finds that the problems he faces have just gotten “bigger and badder.”

There’s one more ingredient in how to write a spell-binding or page-turning story (novel or short story or screenplay or stage play): Helping the reader care about the characters. “Care” doesn’t have to mean “like.” Dudley Smith in Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (and other novels) is a proficient detective and a thug, but he has a mesmerizing personality and does good as well as thuggish things. He fascinates, and being fascinated by a character often means one cares what happens to him.

But although I can easily make things worse for my characters, I can only make my readers care about them to a limited degree. The rest is up to the readers themselves. But if everything clicks and my readers care about Andi and Ed and Grace and other important characters in my Monastery Valley series, watch what happens: In Standing Our Ground, the fourth novel in the series, Deputy Andi Pelton desperately wants to prove her suspicion that Daniel Essex wasn’t “standing his ground” in self-defense when he murdered young Bernard Cirilo, he had cold-bloodedly planned the shooting. At every turn, though, she fails to find the crucial evidence. Do the readers give up, throw the book against the wall because Andi is thwarted, send me nasty emails about writing such an incompetent cop?

Nope. They write, “I’m 200 pages in. It’s a page-turner!”

Why? Because readers have a goal too. Their goal is to find out whether Andi succeeds–which they want because they care about her. And each time I make it worse for Andi, I also make it worse for the readers, and we all know what humans do when their goals are frustrated: Almost every time, they forge ahead, hoping this time it’ll come true.

And that’s how I do that.