The other day, I got a phone call and the displayed phone number was one I didn’t recognize. My son was on the other end of the line — with a big surprise.
Turned out he went into the pool with his iPhone and within the space of two seconds realized what he’d done. It was enough to kill the phone, and we spent that evening buying him a replacement and restoring his backup.
That’s when I got to thinking that it’s the little situations like these that lots of people overlook but that I capitalize on for writing. See, life’s surprises are a lot like book surprises. And readers expect them. End of chapter hooks. Cliffhangers. Tension. All the good stuff that keeps them turning the pages. Readers may not be able to express when something like that’s missing from a story the way a reader or book critiquer or editor would, but they’ll be able to show their dissatisfaction by not finishing the book or not buying any others that an author’s written.
So how does a writer deliver what a reader wants?
Years ago, I spent a lot of time in a closed writers’ group run by Jennifer Crusie, and the one thing she kept beating into our heads was that every page must have conflict or tension. It needs a protagonist with a goal and an antagonist with an opposing goal. That doesn’t mean the characters have to fight or brawl, but it does mean that what each character wants should come into direct conflict with the other’s.
Think about it.
Two people meet. Instant attraction. They spend time together. It sounds nice, but that’s not what makes readers turn the pages.
Now think of those two same people and add in some tension. They work together, maybe even the same department, and there’s a company rule stating that people in the same department can’t date. The man and the woman both want to continue the relationship but neither one wants to leave their job because they’re both up for a promotion. Then they realize they’re both up for the same promotion.
Robert Crais is a master at this. Ever read his book, Taken? It starts with what I think has got to be the most masterful prologue in writing. Not only does the novel have break-neck writing, it grabs you from the very first page — and keeps going right through to the very end. Harlan Coben is great at this, too. You’ll even see this in blockbuster movies as well. Iron Man had tons of conflict — will he survive? Will the bad guys get him? Will Obadiah get his way and squash Tony and take over the business?
The thing is, writing like this doesn’t come easily or naturally. So what I’ve learned to do (and this was a tidbit given to me by a fellow writer in another writer’s group I belong to) is to compare my manuscript against a well-known author’s. For example, I might open my story to page 100 and then open the author’s book to page 100 and do a comparison. Nine times out of ten, that well-known author has conflict or tension on the page. Any page. And, if mine doesn’t, I know that I have to do some editing, maybe even a lot of it.
So what movies or books do you love? Do you have a favorite and, if so, why? I’d love to know and I’m willing to bet that it’s because much of it has to do with conflict.
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