Remember how I was telling you last time that I get a lot of great ideas for posts from readers’ comments and questions? A week or so ago, intrepid commenter Kathy wrote in response to something I’d said in response to an earlier comment, describing a:
“protagonist whose problems are — well, trivial is such a harsh word… shall we say not of life-bending importance?”
This seems to be the problem I’m having with my WIP. While my readers like it, they’re not thrilled by it. Which makes me wonder if I will ever see it published.
Today, it seems you can’t write about an ordinary person and her troubles, but have to throw earth-shattering obstacles at her. As if life isn’t hard enough already.
I hope you’ll discuss this situation and offer some pearls of wisdom to remedy it, without throwing everything out and starting over. Yikes!
Funnily enough, I was discussing this very problem with a literary agent at a book launch the other day. Except when he identified the problem, he explained it from the other side of the submission envelope: “I keep getting manuscripts with good characters and good writing, but there’s just not enough at stake.”
Did that collective harrumph I just heard indicate some disbelief that Kathy and the agent were talking about the same phenomenon? Trust me: I’m fluent in both writer- and industry-speak, and they were.
They were referring, you see, to a very common manuscript megaproblem, a little something I like to call the Cinema Verité Dilemma: how does one write truthfully and movingly about ordinary life — which is, at least most of the time, stubbornly resistant to the basic rules of drama — without producing a text that’s too ordinary to excite reader interest?
Would it surprise you to hear that the agent probably wouldn’t agree with Kathy’s suggested solution of throwing earth-shattering problems into the protagonist’s path in order to make the piece more marketable? Nor would I, as it happens.
Most of the time, it’s just not necessary. More than that, it’s not always plausible.
But I’m overjoyed that Kathy brought up the possibility, because many revisers do go a bit overboard in response to the suggestion that they raise the stakes of their protagonists’ conflicts a little, give them a more complex array of problems, and generally make the journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z a bit more circuitous.
How far overboard, you ask? Well, let’s just say that giving the protagonist’s best friend/husband/child a fatal disease, lingering addiction, or propensity to wander out into traffic is all too frequently the FIRST step.
From there, the changes can get truly dramatic.
Finding ways to make the ride more interesting is a more useful way to think of adding conflict, perhaps, than throwing more obstacles into your protagonist’s way. In the first place, most writers are pretty fond of their protagonists — so the notion of making that nice character’s life HARDER can be pretty distasteful.
Especially if, as is often the case with a first novel (and pretty much always the case with a memoir), the protagonist’s original situation was based all or in part upon some aspect of the writer’s life. “Make her life MORE difficult?” these writers exclaim. “But millions of people struggle with the problems she had in my first draft every day! Surely, that’s important enough to carry a whole book, isn’t it?”
Well, as that agent would have been likely to tell you, it all depends upon the writing. But the fact is, ordinary life tends not to be all that interesting, dramatically speaking.
So who’s job is it to make it so on the page? That’s right: the writer’s.
I suspect that pretty much all of us who write about the real are already aware of this on some level. I mean, the fact that we writers tend to describe such stories as ORDINARY is kind of a tip-off, isn’t it? If the characters are just surviving, rather than engaged in an active story arc, it’s hard for the reader to feel pulled along with the story.
Let’s face it: the Fates, while unquestionably gifted at producing real-life irony, are not always the best at dramatic timing. So, again, whose job do you think it is to correct for that on the page?
This is equally true of fiction and nonfiction, by the way. Even memoir is seldom just the straightforward reproduction of life as it is actually lived — or, to be more precise, memoirs that SELL are seldom just that. In order to make readable stories, memoirists tell their stories through their own individual lenses, selectively, and in a manner that makes a particular point.
Which, if we’re honest about it, is more than whatever deity is in charge of the running order of quotidian life tends to do.
In fiction, simply reproducing one’s diary (or real-life scenes verbatim) doesn’t very often work on the page, either — and, as I mentioned a few days ago, I suspect the fact that most of us were first taught to write short stories, not novels, tends to disguise that marketing reality.
Possibly because good slice-of-life short pieces of the type that most of us were weaned upon in Comp class are usually DESIGNED to disguise that marketing reality.
I’m not joking about that: the essence of slice-of-life literature is conveying the illusion that it is ripped from real life and displayed more or less as is, in much the way that found art is. But actually, considerable craft is required to produce that effect.
What, did you think that David Sedaris just stood in his childhood living room with a tape recorder, writing down transcripts of his family’s hilarity? (Can you BELIEVE the ridiculousness of that recent so-called exposé of Sedaris’ writing, by the way? Some humorlessly anal-retentive researcher went over his books with a fine-toothed comb to try to figure out how much of it was literally true. Apparently, no one involved had noticed that Mr. Sedaris is a COMEDY WRITER — or had heard of poetic license. But I digress.)
I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there — and not with the writer of that exposé. “But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers protest, “hasn’t there been a lot of great literature that reveals truths about everyday life through closely-examined, beautifully elucidated moments of life as it is actually lived?”
Of course there has been — and still is, amongst each year’s crop of literary fiction, memoir, and fiction in every genre. No need to fear that such writing isn’t getting published anymore, because it undoubtedly is.
However — and this is one whopper of a however — the reception such a book tends to receive depends almost entirely upon the quality of the writing. (Wait — where have I heard that before?)
I’m not going to lie to you: a book that aspires to consist of nothing but such moments and ISN’T billed as literary fiction or memoir would probably experience some resistance from Millicent. And before any of you dismiss her taste as philistine-ish, remember that it’s her job to sift through her boss’ submissions, looking for work that has market potential, not just what’s well-written.
(Just a quick comprehension check before I move on: everyone out there IS already aware that literary fiction and good writing are not synonyms, right? The former is a marketing category; the latter is a descriptor of work in every book category. If you’re unclear on how to define the former, well, you’re in good company: ask any two agents who represent it for a definition, and you’ll probably get at least two different responses. For more on the ongoing debate, please see the LITERARY FICTION category on the list at right.)
I’ve been over this particular argument enough (and recently enough) that I don’t want to depress everyone by rehashing it again here. Suffice it to say that few agencies are charitable organizations; they exist to sell their clients’ writing, not just to serve the interests of High Art.
Which brings me back to my little chat with that agent at the book launch: what he was saying, I think, is not that he would like to see writers of books about ordinary people toss them aside in favor of writing something completely different, but rather that he would like to see those ordinary people be a bit more interesting on the page.
As, indeed, Kathy asked me to explain how to do. So I suppose I’d better get around to it.
Unfortunately, like so many good questions about craft, there isn’t a simple answer, or even any single technique to apply. Most of the techniques we’ve discussed in the Passive Protagonist Syndrome series would help, to tell you the truth.
But as I am apparently incapable of walking away from a half-answered question (I really do need to work developing that skill, if only so I can get a bit more sleep), here are a few other tricks o’ the trade for pepping up the reality-based — as well as narratives that aspire to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature. (Fair warning, Kathy: you’re not going to like the first one.)
(1) Give your protagonist a few more problems. Frankly, most novels and memoirs feature characters that are a little too straightforward — and so are their problems. In real life, most people are dealing with a whole rash of issues simultaneously. So why should a novel’s protagonist be luckier?
They don’t need to be big problems to be effective, either. You needn’t cut off her leg, for instance, but how would it complicate the plot to have her sprain her ankle at a crucial juncture? Would it give more scope for character development?
(2) Make solving those problems — and smaller problems along the way — more urgent for your protagonist. Or, to rephrase this in industry-speak, if the protagonist isn’t vitally interested in the outcome, why should the reader be?
A lack of urgency is an UNBELIEVABLY common problem in slice-of-life submissions. Even if the conflict at hand is quite small, the protagonist’s (and other characters’) involvement in it can make it seem immensely important to the reader.
Again, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that alchemy occurs, not the reader’s job to remain interested in whatever happens to be going on.
(3) Make your protagonist a bit more off-beat. Often, self-described ordinary characters are relatively devoid of quirks — which, again, is not particularly realistic, as anyone who has lived in an ordinary small town can tell you. Almost everybody has at least one or two genuine character oddities; why not let ‘em out for some air?
A very tangible fringe benefit: quirky protagonists tend to be a bit more likeable than salt-of-the-earth nice ones. The former are less predictable. Which brings me to…
(4) Allow your protagonist to act out of character every once in a while. Most aspiring novelists think that keeping a character absolutely true to type 100% of the time is a mark of narrative sophistication — but to tell you the truth, consistency is overrated. (Except, of course, consistent plausibility.)
Why, you ask? If a character isn’t very complex to begin with (see tips 1 and 2), the result can be utter predictability. Especially in a piece that aspires to feel very true-to-life, too much character consistency can sap considerable tension from even a very exciting storyline.
In a flatter story arc, it can take it away entirely.
Think about it: if the reader already has a pretty good idea of how the protagonist is going to react to any given stimulus, and if the storyline self-consciously avoids major twists and turns, what precisely is going to keep that reader turning pages?
(5) Add occasional humor. This is surprisingly often missing from slice-of-life stories — and astonishingly seldom plays a major role in memoirs.
(6) Allow the external environment to reflect the protagonist’s state of mind. This is an old literary fiction trick: from time to time, instead of showing the protagonist’s mental state through the on-the-nose method of typing her thoughts, why not have a nearby dog growl when she’s angry? Or a sunny day seem made for her alone?
(7) Play to your narrative strengths. Normally, I’m reluctant to give this particular bit of advice, as most writers have particular phrases, sentence structures, types of images, etc., that they would just LOVE to add 400 more times to their current manuscripts. But for quiet books, it honestly is a good idea to figure out what makes the best scenes so good — and to try to replicate that magic in a couple of other instances throughout the book.
A COUPLE, mind you. If any of you 400-times-per-manuscipt types claim down the road, “Well, Anne Mini said it was okay to play to my strengths,” I shall deny it vociferously.
(8) Accentuate contrasts. Even in the most prosaic storyline, there are ups and downs, right? Try heightening the joys and deepening the despair.
At first, this may seem as though you’ve made your protagonist bipolar, but a too-even keel tends to reduce a reader’s sense of the importance of that’s going on in a scene. Which leads me to..
(9) Raise the stakes of the conflict that’s already there. This need not mean making every conflict a matter of life or death — but if a conflict seems vitally important to the protagonist, it generally will to the reader as well.
It’s harder to make the day-to-day seem vitally important (see comment above about highs and lows), but that’s just another challenge for a talented writer, isn’t it?
Finally — and this is general advice that it would do most aspiring writers good to embrace — try to avoid the temptation to blame the publishing industry’s market-oriented tastes for what is very often a narrative problem. Once a writer’s gone there, it’s just a short step to the slippery slopes that lead to deciding that it’s not worth querying (“Agents only want books with non-stop action.”) — or revising (“They’re not publishing books like mine anymore, so I might as well trash this manuscript and start on a potboiler.”).
A warning flare that one might be getting close to that slippery slope: catching yourself speaking about the process in superlative terms. Watch out for words such as never, always, only, and impossible.
Or — and today’s questioner is certainly not the first commenter to bring up this possibility on this blog, even within the last week; most of the comments I get are actually on archived posts at this point — thinking that maybe it would be easier just to throw out the current manuscript and start fresh with a new story. Admittedly, sometimes that actually is a good idea — but as writers are rather more likely to produce this sentiment at the beginning of the revision process, rather than at the middle or the end, I tend to regard it as a more reliable symptom of a lack of confidence than a lack of potential in the book.
And when the thought is attached to a manuscript that has yet to be submitted, it sounds as though the author is trying to talk himself out of sending it out at all. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: yes, the current literary market is exceptionally tough, but the only book that will certainly never get published is the one upon which the writer has given up.
Or, to translate it so everyone on both sides of the industry can understand: no one really knows for sure whether a book is marketable until its author has tried to market it extensively.
Best of luck revising, and keep up the good work!