Do you remember the frame story of One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights? It goes like this: A king is bitter because his wife was unfaithful, so he starts marrying virgins and having them executed the very next day (before they have a chance to cheat on him.) Just as the kingdom is running dangerously low on virgins, a clever girl named Scheherazade offers herself up as the next bride.
On the wedding night, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a most incredible tale, but she goes to sleep before the story is finished. Dying to know what happens next, the King keeps her alive for another day. The next night, as soon as she finishes the story, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of that one, postpones her execution again. And on and on for 1,001 nights, and those tales comprise the bulk of the book.
By the end of the 1001 nights, the king has fallen in love with Scheherazade and decides to keep her around.
Just one way that story-telling can save your life.
In his high-brow classic, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster say that we are all like the Arabian King in that we are curious to know what will happen next. “That is universal,” he says and that is “why the backbone of a novel has to be a story.”
Lyrical language or hilarious dialogue or poignant symbols: these things are wonderful accessories, but they aren’t going to save your novel. Only a story can do that.
Forster says a story can only have one merit: “making the audience want to know what happens next.” And it can only have one fault: “making the audience not want to know what happens next.”
It seems pretty simple, but I’m surprised by how many novels I begin reading and never finish because I don’t care what happens next.
So the question is, how do we make our readers care about what happens next? After all, we’re not all writing mystery or thriller novels.
Here are basic some ideas:
1. Make things happen (i.e. make your characters do stuff.)
2. Give your characters wants and needs.
3. Increase the stakes. (What will happen if characters do/don’t get their wants and needs?)
But, alas, even following these three guidelines is not always enough. I’ve read the first chapter of novels in which the characters are driving around in stolen cars, shooting people or being shot at, and the stakes are life-or-death, and still I don’t care what happens next. Why? Because I don’t care about the characters.
So is the path to a good story is via the characters? That’s certainly what I was taught in my MFA program.
Question: How do you make your readers care about your characters? Answer: By making them do stuff.
Ahh! It’s a Catch-22: Readers don’t care about what the character is doing unless they care about the character. But they don’t care about the character unless the character is doing something.
Hey, I never said writing a story was easy.
As with everything, the key is balance. As you’re writing a novel, blend together the “getting to know the character” and the action of “what happens.” And remember that one of the best way to reveal character is through action itself. What your character does tells us who they are.
If you keep these two aspects of the novel (character and action) in balance, you will create a suspenseful story, and hopefully your readers will continue eagerly flipping the pages, or at least decide to postpone your execution for one more day.