The Rules of Vonnegut / 3
‘Every character should want something, if only a glass of water.’
Your main characters need to want something important – whether success or true love, revenge or forgiveness, peace of mind or excitement: should their desires conflict, so much the better. Then you can spend the whole middle of the novel working out their predicament. You can either give them what they want (happy ending) or deprive them of it (unhappy ending) but your readers will identify the more, care the more. See how minor characters will come to life if you give them needs. Let the postman who trudges through the snow to deliver a writ to the door desire new boots, let the passing hill-walker be thirsty for a glass of water. Your characters will then not live in isolation but in a real, albeit fictional world.
People your novel with needy characters who will then seem familiar to your readers. Feel generous both towards characters and readers. It may be only an extra sentence or two out of your busy writing life, or the odd adjectival phrase, but it’s energy and life to the extras who wander in and out of your novel. And remember to remain observant in your fictional universe: see what the sky and the sea look like, the local flora, feel the hot days, shiver in the cold, taste the food, long for a cigarette, even give them a cold in the nose from time to time.
Remember that what makes the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next is indeed ‘suspense’. But also remember the rule that while suspense is good, puzzle is bad. By puzzle I mean not telling the reader clearly and vividly from the beginning what is going on, however fantastical, but dropping in clues from time to time on the grounds that readers ought to be interested enough to solve them and find out for themselves. Because on the whole, unless you are an experienced writer of great genius, the reader will take you for an amateur and close the book. (In detective novels alone, whodunits where there’s a game of cat and mouse between reader and writer are clues welcomed and expected.) Suspense for the reader, is wanting to find out if the writer is going to give the characters what they crave. Or not.
Readers miss things. They don’t necessarily read every word you write, more’s the pity. Writers write steadily along the line, word by careful word, and assume readers read the same way. But readers don’t, or only do if they’re still children mouthing the words. Adult readers absorb words in blocks of text, noticing unusual or unexpected ones, making sense of those, and passing over what is obvious and expected.
The brain plays strange tricks at the best of times. Try counting the number of ‘f’s’ there are in the following sentence: ‘Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.’ You probably said three or four. Actually there are six. You simply did not notice all the ‘of’s. So don’t rely on the reader to pick up every single thing you have said. ‘Suspense’ does not lie in a single sentence, in something you said on Page 37 /line 15 and is easily missed so the reader has to go back and check it out – that’s puzzle. Suspense good: Puzzle bad.
A good book takes longer to read than a bad one. You can skim through Shades Of Grey: Vanity Fair takes longer. Why? Is it that ‘bad’ writers are dealing with the obvious, ‘good’ writers with the unexpected – so the mind takes longer to work out what is going on? Is it that the minds of the former are not worth following but the latter are? And why in any case are we differentiating between good and bad? Bad books have their place in the world. I’m not knocking them: we need our entertainment, our relief from grim reality – sometimes we just don’t want to think.
But good books count as that mysterious thing, ‘literature’: they inform, absorb, hold you: they invite your emotional involvement, excite your intelligent participation and they are hard to forget. A pity that bad books (you can tell them because they’re so littered with adjectives, adverbs and strong verbs – ‘her glossy chestnut hair tumbled lazily in luxurious curls around her slim white shoulders as she dimpled suggestively up at him’) sell better than good books. Oh well. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.