“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”
I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.
I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.
It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.
And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.
Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”
Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.
Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.
If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.
Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.
The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”
I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.
Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.
The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.
But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.
The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.
You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.
For the higher purpose,