by Glenn Mori
I am chagrined when I critique someone’s writing and point out a lack of tension and emotion (the grit under interactions, the differences in perspectives, the micro-tension on the small scale, crisis and conflicts on the larger scale, and ask ‘where’s the anxiety, worry, irritation, miscommunication?’), then discover the same failing in my own fiction.
The source of the problem (for me at least; I’m not sure about my writing partners) is usually multifaceted.
Writing from plot. I don’t always write from plot, but when I do, I can be in a hurry to move up the story ladder. Quantity of description falls, line-by-line writing quality drops, characters become inconsistent or cardboard or boring. I’m not putting myself in my character’s skin to look around and experience their world.
I’ve failed to communicate what I intended. When I proofread my writing, I read between the lines and don’t realize it. Instead of seeing what’s written, I re-experience what I was thinking when I wrote it. This kind of writing is useful only if no one else reads it; a diary, for example, or a personal blog.
These problems can occur simultaneously. I might design characters around a plot and believe that I’m ready to write, but in reality I have flimsy character sketches zap-strapped to my plot skeleton and I don’t see weaknesses because I sense more in my words than I’ve actually written. I suspect this happens often with beginning writers who try to patch it with “interesting traits” or “examples of conflict” from a website to fill the story out.
Some of my characters are close friends. They have similar values, similar goals, get along well. But if there are no differences, they are essentially a single character. I’ve swapped internal narrative and solitary ventures for conversation and a wingman. Without diversity it can be boring to read. A sidekick has to have more reason to exist than to replace introspection with dialogue.
These are not uncommon issues for a first draft, but it may require the comments or questions of an experienced reader to point out the weaknesses, and then self-evaluation to determine the reason.
And something I’ve discovered recently,
I write like a reader, not a writer.
As a reader, I may be looking for adventure and excitement. If I carry that into my writing, then I’m fine.
Other times I become too attached to the characters to enjoy the ride. When I’ve identified closely with them, then difficulties or dangers worry me. Conflicts and misunderstandings stress me. It’s uncomfortable to read a scene where two friends disagree. Obvious bad decisions are frustrating. Foreboding circumstances and increasing tension distress me. Inescapable positions generate claustrophobia. Occasionally I’ll find myself speed-reading through passages of high anxiety.
As a writer I can avoid stress by skipping the sources. Husband and wife don’t have to have underlying resentments. A friend doesn’t need misgivings about the heroine’s date. Partners can be in full agreement about the next step in the investigation. Everyone interprets the information or data exactly the same. No one argues, feels lazy, is naïve, makes mistakes, acts condescendingly, is irritable because of a cold, or loses things.
In real life, when the bulk of our interactions with family, co-workers, and fellow transit passengers doesn’t get our heart rate up, we live a comfortable life. I’m certain there are portions of some genres where this is common, but it’s pretty hard to make interesting reading from untroubled characters leading a stress-free life.
So, love your characters as you love yourself. But look for the emotion in their lives, and if you find you haven’t included enough, figure out why. Slip inside their skin, search for the tension, and communicate it to the reader.
When someone critiques your work and suggests it lacks tension or drama, don’t get defensive. Don’t start listing all the worries and concerns they’ve missed because odds are, if someone says it’s lacking, there’s either too little and/or it’s not well communicated.
Don’t write a fantasy about how wonderful your life could be. Write like a writer.
Fiction is Glenn’s most recent area of study. The first discipline was music, where he completed a masters degree in music composition, followed by accounting, more practice with jazz music, and then writing about online poker, where he remains winning micro stakes player. His ruminations about fiction can be found at www.intermittentrain.com. Follow him on Twitter @gmori.