Thursday, August 8, 2013

Down and Dirty - What Keeps a Reader Turning Pages?


Tension and conflict in your story keep the reader turning pages. The basic rule of thumb when writing a novel: in the first fifty pages -- and this is according to top literary  agent Donald Maass in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook -- cut all the scenes that take place in kitchens, living rooms, and cars.  Cut all the scenes that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths. 

And that is just for starters.

Why? After years of reading manuscripts from new authors and experienced New York Times Bestselling authors, Maass has discovered that these kind of scenes usually lack tension. They do not add new information, subtract allies, deepen conflict, or open new dimensions of characer.  Scenes like these, on the contrary, usually relax tension.  

And when tension is relaxed, readers become distracted, close your book and find something else to do.  They look for a snack. They turn on the television.  They check their smart phone. They go to the movies.  They go to bed.

When readers sit down and read a book, in every scene, the expect something to happen. They anticipate.  They wait.  The characters in every scene should be in confict.  Each character should have their own agenda and reasons for doing what they do. And even when characters are in harmony, and they reach a kind of truce, that truce should lead to more issues and problems and ratchet up the tension even more.  And truces should always be short-lived.  

Alice Orr, literary agent and author, in her book No More Rejections offers an exercize you can use when you have a scene that needs more conflict and tension.  She suggests that you take each character in the scene and write from his or her point of view the answers to the following questions:

What is my major source of conflict with ________? (the other character)
What do I lead this person to believe I think about him/her?
What do I really think about him/her?
What do I say about this person behind his/her back?
What significant untruth have I told this person?
What significant secret have I kept from this person?
What past connections do this person and I have that have not yet been revealed?
What does this person think I want from him?

The answers to these questions, of course, will provide you with enough conflict to ratchet up your scene.  You will see your characters differently.  They may be smiling outwardly in the scene, but deep down they are worried or maneuvering their way around the other character.  They’ve told a lie or they have this secret.  In truth, they can’t stand the other character, but they’re duty bound to hold the line and pretend that they do.  No one is a complete open book.  

You get the idea.  Conflict and tension is the Step #6 in Down and Dirty Dozen - Twelve Step Program - Revising Your Fictional Work.

Special thanks to James Woodward for use of his conflict photo!

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