This morning my twelve-year-old daughter will take New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the only criterion for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. About 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders take this test every fall, competing for about 6,000 spots. The test is like the SAT used for college admissions but more devious; it includes logic questions that you’ll see nowhere else except the law-school admissions test, as well as an absurd exercise called “scrambled paragraphs” in which you have to put five sentences into the correct order based on tricky little clues. For many questions, two of the multiple-choice answers seem equally correct, but the arbitrariness of the exam is deliberate — if all the questions were clear-cut, then too many students would get perfect scores. So the only way to make sure your kids excel at the exam is to enroll them in test-prep courses that teach them the tricks for scoring higher.
So here we have a good example of something that was designed to be perfectly fair (because your admission to the elite high schools depends strictly on your test score) but in practice turns out to be completely unfair (because most of the good test-prep courses are wildly expensive). But let’s forget the fairness issue for the moment. I’d like to talk about the stress caused by this screening process. In addition to this weekend’s test, my daughter is scheduled to take two more admissions exams next week, both geared to the specific needs of two other highly regarded schools. She also has to assemble a portfolio of her best writing to prepare for an interview at yet another high school, and she’s going to play piano, participate in a dance class and submit ten of her best artworks as part of the audition process for New York’s performing-arts high school (the one made famous by the movie Fame). Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress to put on a twelve-year-old? (She going to turn thirteen in two weeks, but still.)
And here’s the worst part: this is just the beginning of the rat race. Over the next few months we have to start looking for summer internships for my son, a high-school sophomore. To get into the best colleges now, it’s not enough to have good grades — you need to demonstrate that you have passionate intellectual interests and achievements. And if you’re admitted to a prestigious college, the race only intensifies. Last month I visited Princeton, my alma mater, for a Career Services event and was astonished to see dozens of college freshmen there, all asking me anxious questions about job prospects in the media industry. These kids had been attending college for a total of four weeks and they were already worried about what they would do after graduation.
There’s no question that the pressure on kids today is much, much worse than it was when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never went to any Career Services events in college. I didn’t even know where Career Services was on campus. I have no idea why the stress has intensified so much, but it probably has something to do with globalization and our increasingly inequitable society. Fewer well-paying jobs are available these days, so the competition has grown fierce.
By now you’re probably wondering if there’s any connection between this rant and the business of writing fiction. There is: I believe that as economic strains and time pressures increase, the opportunity for leisure reading is decreasing. My daughter still reads good books in her English classes — The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle — but she has so much homework she can’t enjoy any books she chooses on her own. She’s so exhausted by bedtime (which is usually 11 pm or later) that I can’t even read to her while she lies in bed. And if this is true for twelve-year-olds, how can older kids find any time to read? How can they indulge in fantasies and mysteries and thrillers and develop a lifelong love for fiction?
I don’t see a solution to this problem. Does anyone?
So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you’re thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you’ll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.
Well, you won’t. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.
Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an “experimental novel,” and that’s okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that’s your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).
But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.
They are Conflict and Suspense.
What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.
And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post).
That’s where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that’s too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!)
In The Silence of the Lambs,it’s professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
That’s why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren’t going to care enough to finish the book.
The second element is suspense,and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel.
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]
I could go on and on about this subject, but we don’t want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about. Try it and see.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.