If you’re around this writing biz long enough, and attend enough seminars or classes, sooner or later you’re going to hear about the three-act structure. I’m of the belief that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction-writing—that if it works, it works—but it’s pretty hard to tell any story without a beginning, a middle and an end.
Now, the Syd Fieldses of the world embrace a form of the three-act structure that is far more draconian and, frankly, intimidating than mine. Truth be told, looking back on 17 published novels, I would be hard pressed to identify precise act-to-act transitions in any of them. I think more in terms of setup, development and climax. Or, as I wrote above, a beginning, a middle and an end.
A few weeks ago, as I was teaching a two-hour writing seminar in Alexandria, Virginia, I was smitten with the notion that, structurally, there’s another critical element of successful storytelling: the so-what. It’s a little hard to define, but it goes to the heart of what makes an otherwise well-told story fall flat, and what makes some mundane storytelling very successful. In my view, it’s the missing element that renders a lot of so-called literary fiction to be under-performers at the cash register.
A successful so-what leaves readers satisfied that the time they invested in the reading was well-spent. After investing a few hours (or a lot of hours) into reading a story, I need to feel that the characters I’ve bonded with have changed somehow, and that their journey has left their slice of the world somehow changed. Brilliantly-painted word pictures and navel-gazing angst all have their places, but the absence of a good so-what leaves me, as a reader, a little angry at the author. Would it have killed the writer to include an identifiable story along with the beautiful words?
Every year at ThrillerFest in New York City, International Thriller Writers Association sponsors an event called Pitch Fest, where attendees can carve out face time with NY literary agents to pitch their book ideas. Last year, I agreed to participate in Practice Pitch Fest, in which I would sit where an agent would later sit and help writers hone their pitches. It was a real eye-opener for me, not least because, never having had to pitch, I don’t know that I could do it.
After sitting across from fifteen, maybe eighteen authors, the most common weakness among the pitches I heard was the lack of a solid so-what. Consider:
My book is based on my mother’s brave effort to conquer cancer. The so-what questions here are, how was your mother’s fight more brave or essentially different than every other mother’s fight to conquer cancer? Why are you and you alone the right person to write this book? What will the reader take away that is different from other books about parents’ brave struggles with illness? Actually, this is the problem with most memoirs.
An emotionally scarred New Orleans detective stalks a serial killer who preys on tourists in the Big Easy. Emotionally scarred detectives have been done to death. The New Orleans beat is covered by countless gumshoes already, and serial killers are ubiquitous in crime fiction. The so-what in a story like this could be the evolution of the detective over the course of the book from good to bad, or bad to good. Or that the serial killer is of a nature that we’ve never seen before. But without the so-what, the idea is just another serial killer book. Been there. Ho-hum.
Sometimes, the so-what has little to do with plot and everything to do with character. For some mysteries—but no thrillers I can think of—the so-what is as simple as letting readers spend a fun few hours with characters they have come to love over the years. But that’s a tough hill to climb for Book One.
So, does this make sense or am I all wet here? Can you think of a book you disliked yet you thought you were going to love? No need to name names, but when a book leaves you flat, what is the most likely missing element?
Fair warning: When this post appears, I will be in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, researching what new toys Jonathan Grave needs to add to his arsenal. I will accordingly be slow to respond to comments.