Two Little Words to Elevate Your Writing: Make Trouble.
I was recently waiting in the checkout line at the Italian market in my neighborhood, where a recording of Luciano Pavarotti sings at you while you’re choosing vegetables, and conversation is often in Italian, when a man behind me asked the cashier, “Did you go to the christening party?”
“Was there any drama?”
“I guess that’s…good,” he said.
Maybe it was good for the christening party (maybe not), but it’s not so good for the story of the christening party if there was no drama.
Sometimes, in fiction by new writers, nothing happens for reasons that don’t have to do with the effort of thinking up events. I’ve realized that many writers — even if their work is not autobiographical — don’t want to write about events, or even believe they shouldn’t. Although the kite is starting to fly, the restraining string in this instance isn’t common sense, but something more like panic, which pulls the kite down to the ground.
Much in the writing business, as we’ve noticed, requires a certain amount of nerve, if not outright courage: it isn’t enough to sit down at the computer, confront the blank page, and type words, though heaven knows that can be hard enough. Having the will to use what a writer has learned may be harder than learning it, harder than making the decision to write in the first place. For some people, it feels safer and more pleasant to write stories in which nothing happens, or nothing but feeling — people feeling bad, feeling slightly better, feeling slightly worse.
Without trouble, though, there’s no story. There must be drama at the christening party. Little Red Riding Hood must meet the wolf. I know people who are tempted to make the story be about Little Red’s mixed feelings about her grandmother, who fails to understand her granddaughter and has terrible politics. In life, the granddaughter’s feelings are interesting enough — and maybe one unforgettable day she will blurt them out. But if a story is to be worth reading by someone other than Little Red herself, the burst of feeling probably should be embodied in an action that might change things, even if ultimately it doesn’t. The wolf makes anger and hatred tangible. We need the capacity of the wolf to do something large — to eat Grandmother — whether this is the version of the story in which that’s exactly what happens or the version in which Grandmother is saved. That is: you don’t necessarily need life-changing action — but you need, at least, the plausible threat of life-changing action that’s then prevented.
Why do writers avoid that? Sometimes for the reasons I had, back when I was learning to write: I liked fiction’s capacity to depict thought and feeling so much that I figured the more thought and feeling, the better, and why bother with anything else? I confused the question of what makes an interesting moment in a narrative with what makes it a story.
Similarly, students I’ve taught sometimes want more than anything else to write about passivity — about people who can’t take action — and so the authors emphatically want nothing to happen in their stories. You can write good stories about anyone you care to write about, though I confess to a certain sinking of the heart when my new student tells me that passive people are those she likes to write about most. And of course the category of passive people includes the interesting subcategory of passive women obsessed with bad men — many volumes of fiction are all about them. If this kind of subject matter attracts you, it may be worthwhile to reread some of your favorite authors carefully, noting what makes the story move along, whether the character moves or not. There must be something — action by someone else, or maybe what are sometimes called acts of God: storms, floods, fires — that starts up suspense in the reader, that makes us wonder what will happen. Or there’s action that might take place and doesn’t. Just as the delight of the inner life rarely provides entire stories, similarly, the miseries of passivity don’t make entire stories either. Don’t confuse the nature of the characters with the structure that tells us about them.
Another reason for resisting action, I suspect, is that some people (surely not you) believe that inventing and writing about bad things makes them likelier to happen. If anyone you know has this problem, it will help if that person creates characters who are distinctly fictional, and are not based on the writer or the writer’s family and friends. I too wouldn’t want to make a character get hurt, robbed, betrayed, abandoned, or cheated — or to make that character hurt, rob, betray, abandon, or cheat others — if I was picturing my sister. And I don’t think my friends and family would appreciate recognizing themselves in a story in which they then die of cancer or rob somebody at gunpoint. So this is yet another reason to invent rather than basing fiction on life.
Making up bad events doesn’t cause them to happen — but it can recall them to mind. If the piece is memoir, or — assuming it’s fiction — if the bad event is based on something in the writer’s life, some lapse in the writer, some loss, some terrible experience, it takes nerve to endure the pain of reliving it. Even if a story is entirely invented, the characters’ emotions will inevitably be ones the writer has felt. It’s understandable that you’d rather not put yourself through fear or jealousy or anger again — but maybe your story requires that you do so whether you like doing it or not.
Furthermore, it’s hard to inflict pain on one’s characters, even if they are imaginary. A shrewd student, after noting all the obstacles faced by the main character in an elaborately plotted novel she read, commented that fiction writers need “sadistic ingenuity.” It takes a certain pleasure in inflicting pain to put a fictional character through enough trouble for a story, let alone a novel. Most of us don’t like being sadistic, even toward imaginary people. I don’t mind giving my characters obstacles and problems, but the first time I killed somebody, though he was old, imaginary, and dead of natural causes, I burst into tears.
A writer I worked with recently kept sending me drafts — which were good to start with and better each time I saw them — of the opening chapters of a novel about a woman trying to get her life going after a bad stretch. Every draft, in more or less detail, included the same episode from when the character was a teenager: on a whim, she committed a series of minor but interestingly subversive acts of vandalism. Suddenly, maybe the fourth time I read this material (which the writer kept reorganizing), the girl committed her crime only once. Someone else caused the rest of the trouble.
I knew this character well and had watched her emerge through drafts that revealed her more and more clearly and meaningfully. When her mischief-making nearly disappeared, I felt cheated, as if I’d gone to a performance of Hamlet in which the prince only nicked Polonius through the arras.
It was instructive to learn why my student had changed the story. She admitted that she liked her character — so she was “coddling” her. The more she had thought about what she’d written, the clearer it became that committing this crime would make a difference in the girl’s life. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to go to college. My student (who quickly saw the flaw in her thinking; I’m telling you this not because this student is incompetent but because she’s first-rate, and if she fell into this error, anyone might) hadn’t wanted to put her character through something so bad.
Characters aren’t interesting and fully real until they do wrong and have problems. Think how boring it is to hear, “And my nephew got into a top law school and met a wonderful girl . . .” It’s in our bad behavior and misfortune that we become worth hearing about, alas. The reader will like my student’s character more, not less, when she does something naughty, daring, and zany. We shouldn’t shelter our characters and prevent them from living full lives, surely, any more than we want to deprive our children of experience, though we feel even worse when kids we love suffer.
It’s not enough to give characters trouble. As my student foresaw, if she told the story realistically, her girl’s bad behavior would lead to unpleasant consequences. In life it’s usually good to solve problems quickly. If you and a friend have a misunderstanding, the sooner you clear it up, the better. But numerous stories, novels, and films depend for subject matter on misunderstandings that don’t just persist, but worsen. In life, accidents should be avoided, and when they happen, it’s best to act quickly and prevent further mishaps. But in a story, trouble is good and complications are even better — as long as they exist not just to make things upsetting but to give characters a chance to make mistakes or solve problems, bring out latent desires and fears and needs, precipitate the next event. In a story, if a jar of honey shatters on the floor just as the baby crawls in that direction, you need to stifle your impulse to snatch up the baby. We don’t want the baby to cut her fingers just so we can hurt the poor baby — I’m not advocating sadism for its own sake. But if the baby’s injury causes her parents to fire the apparently neglectful babysitter, leading to strain in their marriage as they try to manage without her, or causing the sitter — now jobless — to let her former boyfriend persuade her to become a drug courier after all, then maybe the doorbell must ring as the jar falls, so the babysitter, distracted, doesn’t grab the baby.
Resist the temptation to solve your characters’ problems for them. On the contrary, when a problem comes up, think what more you can do with it.
Problems lead to story.
Alice Mattison is an acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. She has published six novels — including The Book Borrower and When We Argued All Night.
She’s most recently the author of The Kite and the String, a targeted and insightful guide to the stages of writing fiction and memoir without falling into common traps.