Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Avery on Yearning and Drama

In the February 25, 2012, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Ellis Avery (The Last Nude) discusses just what one needs to do to keep a story's plot moving. Excerpt:
Many of us have read subtle, well-wrought stories in which a character's most secret soul is illuminated -- and yet (yawn) nothing really happens. The writer tried too hard to Make the Reader Care.

There are also pyrotechnically masterful stories in which cars explode and the world ends -- and yet (ho-hum) nobody cares. The writer tried too hard to Make Something Happen.

To avoid both problems, I've found it helpful to ask three questions: What does my character want? What keeps my character from getting what he or she wants? Does my character get what he or she wants in the end or not?
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). Avery asserts "we are hard-wired to respond to the tug of dramatic structure" and that the best way to hook readers is to give characters strong desires, then complicate them. And you know what? That sounds about right to me. Though we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, a little honest introspection will reveal a conflicting hive of yearnings buzzing deep inside us all. If that can't provoke drama, what can?

(Picture: CC 2010 by artolog)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I like this.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is the dreaded Hollywood Formula. (There has to be one protagonist, who wants something physical; one antagonist, who wants to stop him; one relationship character, who states the story's theme.) It works, but it is, in the end, predictable and potentially constricting, especially for novels (which are often longer than the 90 pages of an average movie script.)

I think Avery's advice is more fundamental. You need (as the Hollywood formula says) characters who want things. But there can be as many of those characters as the story needs, even in stories with one main character.

Achilles wants his honor back after his commander screwed him out of the treasure he earned in battle. But he also wants his best friend/lover Patroclus to be alive, Hector to be punished, and also an end to the rage which makes up the first line of the Illiad. Hector wants his city safe, but also (it seems) a closer relationship with his family--among the most famous scenes in the Illiad is his ambiguous laughter when his son is scared of his own armor.

Tristan wants his uncle Lot to honor him, but he also wants Iseult; Lot wants to spread his political influence, so he takes Iseult as wife; Iseult herself goes through a series of motivations too numerous for easy explanation, mostly driven by her triple contradictory desires for Tristan's love, personal security, and piety.

Hamlet wants vengeance, but also Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern's loyalty, religious clarity, and the death that would make everyone stop demanding that he plays so many contradictory roles. Ophelia wants both Hamlet and her father to love her. Claudius just wants everyone to calm down and forget about the past. R & G just want to party, or barring that to survice.

But of course they don't need to want one thing, and there doesn't need to be one defined central character.

Loren Eaton said...

I do, too. And one series I think does we'll with this is (don't laugh) Downton Abbey. Though it got a little soapy by the end of the second season, it created lots of complicated desires among its characters and then snarled them all up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great questions to ask and answer. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Yes, desires are great things to have in characters. They can conflict with people wanting similar desires and unable to achieve them. Or the character may have multiple desires that conflict. Both of these can be delicious.

Loren Eaton said...

@patti: Thanks!

@Aidan: I find charting out various characters' desires is a great way to outline.