Stakes and Sympathy Tension Series Part 3

Not only do stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot in fiction, they forge a connection with the reader as well. Stakes invest the action with tension. The key to generating stakes is to make your protagonists’ wants and needs BIG. Wants that stir us; needs that change lives.

In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder talks about the importance of harnessing primal forces in the crafting of personality. By primal forces, he means basic drives: survival, hunger, sex, fear of death, protection of loved ones. I’d add others, such as the urge to find love, concern for others, self-realization (a sense of purpose or self worth), and the need to grow up.

Stakes can shift over the course of a novel. Characters can be deluded. Needs can go unrecognized. Less important wants can give way to more compelling needs. Look at George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He thinks he wants to get away and have his own life, but ends up trapped, taking care of others. What he really needs is to reclaim his own value and let others take care of him.

A move in the direction of more significant stakes is a move in the direction of greater tension.

A further refinement is that stakes for the protagonist and the reader aren’t exactly the same. This difference is subtle, but essential to the goal of generating tension in the reader. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.) Readers pick up on stakes in at least three different ways:

1. Identification: I want what you want.

Identification tends to involve wants we all share, such as the basic drives listed above. For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we desperately want the characters to find love and beauty despite the ugliness and hate of their capture. We’d want that for ourselves. We identify with their feelings.

2. Empathy: I want you to have what you want.

Empathy invites readers to care about wants outside their own experience. It usually centers on more sympathetic characters, the strength of whose wanting can stir a sense of stakes in us all. I like the funny example of the Disney movie Ratatouille for this. I couldn’t understand how I was going to care about a rat learning to cook, but once I saw the movie, I did. In serious novels, this approach can take readers to places they might otherwise never understand. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind. We empathize with the character. (See The Love of a Writer.)

3. Direct stakes: I want this for myself.

Some plot situations throw out stakes directly to readers, such as saving a child in danger. Even if the character doesn’t fully want it, we do! The solving of a mystery can present its own stakes. That’s probably why mysteries can get away with such grouchy detectives. Another example of direct stakes is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with its deliberately unsympathetic and unreliable main characters. The mystery there is on the level of character. We care about the solution.

Stakes for the reader are an interaction of character and plot, sometimes more of one or the other. If the stakes are empathy-based, then it’s relatively more important that we care about the protagonist and want him or her to succeed. If the wants or needs are so universal that we can’t help but share them, then our sympathy can be weaker. A gauge to determine whether the stakes are working is the tension produced. How tense the stakes make us feel gives us a way to assess their strength.

In all these situations, the physical sensation of tension can act as the writer’s divining rod. Is your character impelled by a big enough want or need? Consider tension. Is your character’s resistance or fear strong enough to put that goal in doubt? Consider tension. Does your character need to be more sympathetic or, conversely, more unreliable? Consider tension. Are the stakes investing the action with real meaning? Consider tension.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Tension Begins with Character. Next month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.



Voice is a Verb

Three riddles, all with the same answer: When we talk about inborn talent in writing, what do we mean more often than anything else? What attribute is most likely to make a novel leap off the page? What do many people write entire novels without understanding, despite its centrality and importance to modern fiction? Voice. Hard to teach and even harder to learn, except for those writers for whom it seems as natural as breathing.

Voice is often defined in terms of attitude, especially in first person, but it’s more than that. Voice gives us our lens, our scope, our storytelling rhythms, our sensibilities, our figurative language, and our potential for insight. Each new voice opens up fresh territory to us and confines us at the same time. Mark Haddon does a brilliant job of rendering the narrative voice of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it has none of the edgy self-reflection which Joseph Heller brings to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. How could it? When a writer finds a voice, she or he also finds a particular take on this world – a unique way of experiencing and processing life. In first person, the writer essentially inhabits the main character, akin to playing a part.

The ownership of voice is more complex in third person. At one end of the continuum are novels in which the narrator is clearly distinguishable from the characters and makes comments, such as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte or, more recently, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. At the other end are novels in which the third-person narration seems to be at one with the words, thoughts, and attitudes of the main character. The technique of free indirect style may be used to achieve a certain elasticity, at times moving closer to the main character and then farther away. This allows the writer to open up dramatic irony, as in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, when Olive stands next to Jack Kennison as he lies in bed, both of them widowed, aging, and alone (pg 269):

“God, I’m scared,” he said, quietly.

She almost said, “Oh, stop. I hate scared people.” She would have said that to Henry, to just about anyone. Maybe because she hated the scared part of herself – this was just a fleeting thought; there was a contest within her, revulsion and tentative desire.

These insights somehow belong both to Olive, the character, and to the barely visible narrator. It’s as if the writer has stepped into the character and written from that inside place, but at the same time retained a kind of privileged discernment. Still, the dominant personality of the voice remains the character’s own. This type of voice may also progress through a series of characters in turn, colored differently for each one, as is the case in Strout’s book. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the voice shifts in every section, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, each time taking on a markedly different set of attitudes and manner of speaking, in a tour de force on the power of voice.

I say elsewhere in these pages that fiction is the art of human empathy. Voice is that empathy given flesh. When we refer to “finding” a voice, we’re talking about the work of sympathetic imagination. Voice isn’t simply a noun, a thing, a conclusion; it’s also a verb, an action, a state of becoming. To voice is to express, to make known, to reveal. Voice is the ultimate show rather than tell: the distillation of our main characters’ personalities and histories into the very way in which we tell their stories.



The Love of a Writer

Love amazes me, more often this time of year than any other. The love that drives an exhausted parent to endure the bright plastic torture of Toy R Us. The love that keeps a smile on the face of a Salvation Army bell ringer long after most of us would have left that bucket to fend for itself. The love that makes us tear up when the season brings back a stray memory of someone once dear to us. Love of family, love of friends, love of faith. One of the most striking things about fiction is how it can trigger love in us for people who aren’t even real. But I think it goes further than that: without the capacity for love, we wouldn’t have fiction writing. Fiction is the art of human empathy.

How many of us have been so worried about a character that we couldn’t bear to stop reading well past a sane bedtime? Literary or genre fiction, for adults or children, it doesn’t matter: if the character is well crafted, we care. The third and fourth Harry Potter books kept me up for a week. I’m still worried about Theo in Goldfinch. When distressed about the plight of overworked horses in England, Anna Sewell turned a horse into a distinctive character and engaged the sympathies of a nation. After all these years, I can’t get through a single chapter of Black Beauty without choking up.

Love happens with a character similar to how it happens in life. We as readers have to meet someone very specific and real. Not perfect. We need to perceive that he or she faces challenges, just as we face challenges. We need to see attributes that we can relate to, such as humor, self-deprecation, courage, vulnerability, determination. We need to feel that the character truly wants something to stir our wanting it for him or her. The problems need to be big enough to engage our sympathies and interest. And there need to be details – lots of telling details – to conquer disbelief and break down our defenses.

But the key is that love must happen first with the writer. We as writers need to believe in our characters and be fully engaged with their struggles. We need their reality to break down our own defenses as well. I finally fell in love with my newest protagonist a few weeks ago, after months of fine tuning her voice, delving her history, and reimaging her story. Before that, I had an unusual character who interested me, the beginnings of a voice, an original premise, problems that I wasn’t yet sure how to solve . . . but I wasn’t carrying the character in my heart. I had to keep asking her questions. Why do you care so much? What are you afraid of? Why does that hurt? What do you hope for? I had to discover her past to care about her present, even if not all of it would appear in the book.

Loving your characters doesn’t mean you should shield them. It means you should trust them, and trust yourself. You need to throw life at them, be hard on them, push them farther out to sea. Force them to become more than they were. Love means you care about them despite their foibles, but it also means you need to respect their right to make mistakes and grow. The love of a true friend or wise parent, or maybe we need to create a new category: the love of a writer.

At heart, isn’t that why we do this? For love. It’s the only way this crazy business makes sense. To share with others the stories of people whom we can only imagine, and yet believe are worthy of real empathy and understanding. Worthy of love.