I just finished a novel I should have loved. As I read the climactic scenes I could see how they were supposed to work. A scene brought certain ends dramatically together. A character’s action had poetic parallels. Certain lines of dialogue resonated with the themes and echoed a casual utterance early on. The twist should have been an exquisite emotional ambush. A character was symbolically repeating acts from earlier in the story.
Neat as it was, dramatic as it was – it left me cold.
Because I didn’t care about the characters.
Drama isn’t about intellectual parallels or puzzle solving. Drama works on the heart, not the head.
It’s the same with beginnings. The usual advice to start a story with something attention grabbing can mistakenly be translated into a big bang for its own sake. A car crash, a bomb going off, a chase or a fight. They work much better if we know the people these events are happening to – if they matter to us.
Drama isn’t a bang, it’s a fright, a clench of anxiety. It’s not the event, it’s the feeling. And at the end of a book, the events, parallels, thematic repetitions are simply box-ticking if we’re not bonded to the characters at a closer emotional level.
So I looked back at where I became so detached reading that book. It all hinged around the central romantic relationship.
I didn’t see the relationship matter very much to the narrator. I didn’t see him pin hopes on it, worry about it or indeed react to it in any strong way. I didn’t see what life might be like if it went wrong.
It’s easy for writers to take the reader’s reaction to a relationship for granted. And of course, you don’t want too much hand-wringing or moping, but you do need to remind us, with story sleight of hand, that it’s important.
Also, it’s easy to forget to intrigue us. If the narrator is intrigued by the other character, make us captivated by them too.
Anyway, I came away with a reminder to always ask myself this question. To make my ending work, what do I need the reader to care about?
Thanks for the pic epSOS.de on flickr
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