|Who IS this guy?|
I'm seeing some awesome posts all over the blogosphere today about writing: how to write beginnings, how to make people care, how not to P.O. literary agents when you're querying... Okay, that last one isn't exactly about writing. But it's definitely relevant to a writer's career. Check out the link for info on a very common newbie mistake.
When I opened my own blog draft, the topic that stood out to me was CONFLICT in writing. And how CONFLICT = CONTEXT.
Last month at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a book that started in the middle of a war. I read about character names, twitching faces, armies advancing in unison, flags of various colors--all great descriptions of the external conflict (and the face-twitching could even represent an internal conflict in a different context). But I couldn't get into the book.
I didn't care about the people.
*Enter flashbacks to U.S. History class*
My teacher stands at the front of the classroom beside a chalkboard laden with chicken scratches that resemble letters. I heft the giant History tome from my backpack's open zipper with a sigh. There's Mr. Helsel, looking all history-teacher-ish with his pastel polo shirt and khaki trousers. He's got his chalk-stained hands at the ready, but there's something else... a twinkle in his eye.
While he goes off on what seems like a wild tangent about the purported hygiene of people during the Great Depression, or the religion of one of the key figures in women's suffrage, I realize something:
He's teaching me history, and I'm learning it. Not just learning, but enjoying it. And I'd always hated history before.
*Flash forward to the end of the year*
I got a 3 on the AP History exam, but it really should have been a 1 or a 2. The reason I got a 3 (out of 5, the equivalent of a C average) has sandy hair and a twinkle in his eye when he talks about history.
He made me care enough to absorb what other teachers had rendered boring. He gave me meaningful and emotional connections to key figures or peoples so that when someone asked me to describe the movement or the revolution or the war, actual people came to mind, rather than disembodied numbers, settings, and names.
That's the way to write good fiction, too. Tell me why I the reader should care about the bomb going off on your first page. Why do I want the train to stop before it reaches Lake Titicaca? Why do I want the vampire coven to take their sweet time reaching a verdict?
Readers don't have to care about external conflict (wars and battles, and even covert operations). What makes it matter is the internal conflict of individuals (hopes, fears, desperate desires, lives hanging in the balance, faces that give it all away).
It's the internal conflict more than anything that gives the reader CONTEXT. It's the emotion that drives the story, and places the reader irrevocably in your MC's head.
Start with action, by all means. But show by that action who your warriors are. Who is holding the gun? Is it a small girl with trembling hands or a cold and steady killer? Who slipped the folded note into the narrator's pocket? A sweaty, bald guy wearing a professor vest? Or a handsome teenager who whistles Beatles tunes when he walks? And how did it make your narrator feel to be touched by a perfect stranger? To have a gun pointed at his stomach?
Make me care, and you'll have me hooked for the whole book.