What a great start to the year--a guest post by Ariel on Monday that reflected what we intuitively know about a great book but she put into words: "Character and Plot and Setting and Theme slip away with time. But I can pull any book from that shelf [of keepers], dust off the cover, flip to a favorite passage and tell you exactly how it made me feel. And really, that’s all that matters in the end." If you missed Ariel's post, backpedal a few days to enjoy her passion for a good read. And then, there's Katy's post on Wednesday that left us gob-smacked as she gave voice to her astonishment, the true calling of the novelist, according to Annie Dillard. Thanks, Katy.
At the end of Katy's post, she said, "Truth is what happens underneath, and how it resonates like a great voice through a vast impossible mouth." And that's our job as fiction writers, to tell the truth.
I gave this a lot of thought. I know excellent fiction is truer than life, but what goes wrong when it isn't?
It just so happens I finished reading a novel for my book club a few days ago, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why it left me flat. I'm not going to tell you the title or author. The Novel Matters writers are looking forward to reviewing novels in the coming months, novels that matter for their craft and for "the way it made [us] feel." This novel (Novel X) was a worthwhile read, to be sure, but not one that gob-smacked me, so I'm only using my reading of the novel as a jumping off point for our discussion.
I must say that the author did an amazing job of plunking me into a landscape and culture of intense contrasts and unequaled beauty--the mountains of Kentucky--with exceptional skill, so much so that his words set my heart longing for a place I'd never been. And his descriptions--oh my.
But the read was dissatisfying, despite the plethora of 5-starred reviews the book received. (The novel read more like a memoir, which should read more like a novel, but that's a topic for another day.) I think my dissatisfaction came down to the question of truth. John Truby says in his book The Anatomy of Story: "...You must give the hero desire. Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal...Desire is the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hangs."
In Novel X, the hero wants what she already has, and that would be a fine desire to structure a story around, if the author had created obstacles to the hero keeping her family and home, but there weren't, not really. And that's not truthful. We are all driven by desire, and we all fight against an army of obstacles to obtain those desires. This is the very reason we read novels. We want to see the hero struggle toward their desires, just as we do, sometimes failing, perhaps being betrayed, always being sidetracked, and frequently a bit misguided.
What I'm suggesting is that a big part of "the truth that happens underneath," as Katy said, is desire, and the stronger the desire the stronger the obstacles and the more satisfying the story when that desire is met, or traded in for something higher, more noble, or holy.
Perhaps Novel X's hero's lack of desire hit me because I'm guilty of this flaw. Not that I lack desires. I'm a zoo of desires! But it's scary to embue my hero with a desire that will take him or her places that make my skin itch, or toward a thicket of obstacles with no discernable path. It's a process, for sure. Here's a recent conversation I had with my latest hero-in-the-making to demonstrate my point:
Me: So, Reece, what do you really, really desire?
Reece: For the last year to go away.
Me: That's not going to happen. I wish it could, for your sake, but then we wouldn't have a story to tell. Think about it. What do you desire? What are you willing to die for?
Reece: I want my family back.
Me: Your ex-husband is married to another woman. Maybe you should desire something else.
Reece: You asked me what I would die for.
Me: So I did. What's your first move?
Reece: Isn't that your job? I could use some direction here.
Me: Well...uh...you probably shouldn't have had the affair.
Reece: Are you sure you're qualified to write this story?
Me: This isn't getting us anywhere. Tell me about your parents. Why are you back home?
Reece: My mother's crazy, always has been, and she's finally driven my father away. She can't live alone, just can't.
Me: Let's see, you're a divorced adultress who wants her married husband back, and you're trying to save your parents' marriage. I suppose there are kids involved. This is getting messy.
Reece: You're the one who asked about desire.
Me: So I did. Let me get back to you.
As you can see, Reece and I have some work to do. This piece of the story--the hero's desire--is so very important that I'm willing to revisit it many, many times. Without a strong desire and plenty of obstacles, I don't see how we can say our fiction is truthful. This is where our heros find their motivations, after all.
What about you? How important is desire when conceptualizing your hero and his/her story? Are there other story elements more important to establishing truth in a novel? If you've read a Novel X--let's be nice and not name it--what was missing?