There's nothing quite so boring as a book where nothing happens. I'd recently started a beautifully written (lovely phrasing and language) book, but I finally skimmed to the end to see what I already knew would happen--no twists or surprises and hardly any outer journey, slim action.
If this particular author (and I never read and snark) had read the chapter, "The Outer Journey" of Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donals Maass, I would still be reading the story. The story contained all the elements that should have added up to a great story, but it flat-lined.
Maass spends a good amount of time outlining the differences between plot-driven and literary writers, but the message that stuck with me was the externalization of emotion into action:
A plot development is a nice accomplishment, but without emotional impact it’s just something that happens. Emotional experiences are fine, too, but unless they’re externalized in actions, they won’t touch readers. They lack the kinetic force of the real.We all know what it means to call yourself a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer. The trick is to take the best of both and make give your stories higher impact. The two groups have much to learn from one another.
As a character-driven writer, I tend to envy the genre writers a bit. The threat of death that all stories need (yes, even literary stories) can be the real kind of death by stabbing, shooting, poisoning, or a long, long fall over a cliff, none of this internal or psychological death stuff. Running away from real death, facing real death, and fighting to the death are by need real action.
In character-driven or literary fiction, that external threat is harder to come by. Our art is painted with line and shadow of internal struggles—things like regret, forgiveness, and lots of psychological scars.
I agree with Maass that external struggle is crucial for strong impact, no matter what the genre.
…your artistic sensibility pulls you away from strong feelings. It pushes you toward what is subtle, nuanced, and delicate, which can be another way of saying what is small, nebulous, and weak. P 49Ouch.
Friendly reminder: Maass is a New York literary agent. He appreciates art, but his passion is art that sells. That’s how he makes his living. He’s a keen observer of what elevates good fiction to powerful fiction, again, the kind that sells. So, art for the sake of art is not the point of this book. The melding of the best of commercial fiction with literary fiction is the point so that the story engages the reader and sells.
Let me share a bit of how this is working in my present novel. About five years ago—and I don’t remember what was going on in my life—Psalm 23 came to mind, especially the line: "Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life."
Either I didn’t understand what goodness and mercy were, or God had some 'splaining to do.
[Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, but I write about Jesus anyway.] It turned out that I wasn't 100% clear on what goodness and mercy looked like in everyday life. Basically, I discovered a great chasm between what is and what ought to be in my life—and your life, too, I suspect—because while we live in the kingdom of God, we also live with the remnants of the curse, most notably death and decay. This not-so-little truth clarified a lot for me. I saw goodness is God's ultimate provision for me--Jesus!--every day, and I discovered that mercy can sometimes feel like a smack to the back of the head, at least until the larger picture is at hand.
And I wanted to write about what I was learning, of course!
As a story, not an article for Christianity Today. (They prefer their writers to actually be theologians.)
As per Maass’s direction, I needed to externalize spiritual concepts into actions, surprises, and twists—and characters with strong goals! Enter my hero, Lucy, in dire need of goodness and mercy, even though she has twin siblings named Goody and Mercy who follow her all the days of her life already. In the story, the twins manifest the qualities of their names, but not in The Shack kind of way or a Hind’s Feet in High Places way. The story is not an allegory. It’s about a girl who feels like a second-class member of God’s family due to deep regret and the accompanying shame, but her sister, Mercy, is God’s right-hand girl, and her brother, less obviously, is the source of goodness in her life. Lucy finds her sister’s ministrations perplexing and inconvenient, just as anyone would who can’t forgive themselves.
Anything important that’s internal can be externalized. p.50
And so, a promise made to a beloved parent becomes the impetuous for a felonious act. A contrary aunt spurs a race with uncertain winners. A hunger to connect with a daughter produces all kinds of self-sabotaging behavior. The outer journey is the inner journey put to dance steps.
Our job as storytellers—according to Maass—is to take these concepts like sorrow, anger, shame, regret, embarrassment, betrayal, and so on and so on and externalize them into action. He gives Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as an example of this done exceptionally well. I couldn't agree more. I mean, a little boy who goes on a quest to express his grief? That's action. Also, my oft-referred to The Language of Flowers does this beautifully. Victoria Jones, the main character, burns a house down, gives up her infant, walks away from a lover. Action! And she will break your heart and make you angry. That's high-impact fiction.
Even if selling doesn't motivate you, strongly impacting your reader should. Why else would you sit for years and years in front of a computer screen than to connect in the most explosive way possible with our readers?
If you are the writer of upmarket, literary, high-impact fiction (whatever!), what challenges do you face when wanting to "go big" with action that represents what's going on inside your characters? Can you give an example from your work? How about a book you've read recently that demonstrates what Maass is trying to teach us? Are you even "buying" Maass's take on externalizing emotions to up the emotional stakes for the reader? Why or why not? Have you set down a book (don't give the title or author) lately because nothing really happened, but it was written beautifully? What would you tell the author?