After the unpleasantness that prompted my last post (not resolved, but I am following up on it), I thought a nice, helpful post on craft would prove soothing to everybody. Although, in keeping with my newly-discovered rumored status as a Dangerous Iconoclast and Annoyer of the Mighty, I have decided to take on a craft-related topic I have literally never seen addressed in a conference or a class: keeping your pages interesting.
To paraphrase the most frequent exclamations from folks in the industry about it, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”
While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener, this might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: the average agent or editor’s maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is approximately well under a minute.
Not a lot of room for fudging there. So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15 — it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito.
And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest — particularly a professional reader’s interest — is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ’em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.
Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing.
In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, tension is confused with suspense, and thus taken less seriously as a writing necessity by writers in other genres. Suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.
Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.
Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always — and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.
Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)
Some of the greatest contemporary examples of well-crafted, consistent tension in novels are — don’t laugh — the HARRY POTTER books. (Yes, I know that they’re for children, but children grow up, and it would behoove anyone who intends to be writing for adults ten years from now to be familiar with the Harry Potter pacing.) Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.
Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension.
I’m quite serious about this. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time. Technically, that’s a writing marvel.
This miracle is achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.
Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.
A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.
“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry.
“Shouldn’t dialogue reflect how people speak in real life?”
Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of the president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.
Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.
But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.
Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?
Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull to read. If you don’t believe this, try an experiment: walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in earnest conversation, and start taking notes. Then go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.
Read it over afterward. 99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. If the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.
Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.
In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.
“Boring,” of course, is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to an agency screener’s mind while perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort.
But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.
That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. As a group, these people bore FAST.
How fast, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, my friends, but many of the fine people currently reading submissions across this great land of ours are disconcertingly capable of becoming bored within the first paragraph of a novel. Or, at the very most, by the bottom of the first page.
While we could talk all day about the ethics of agencies and publishing houses employing screeners and assistants with attention spans comparable to the average three-year-old’s — and I’m talking about a three-year-old who has just eaten two big slices of birthday cake here — I have to say, I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: most manuscripts suffer from an ongoing lack of tension.
And dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary cause. I know, I know, being courteous SEEMS as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.
“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the agency screeners moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?'”
Eliciting that kind of reaction — now THAT’s the kind of agent and editor annoying-tactic I think is worth investing some serious energy into exploring. But then, that’s just my opinion.
More on tension next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!