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"Damn good" fiction is dramatic fiction, Frey insists, whether it is by Hemingway or Grisham, Le Carre or Ludlum, Austen or Dickens. Despite their differences, these authors' works share common elements: strong narrative lines, fascinating characters, steadily building conflicts, and satisfying conclusions. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel is one of the most widely used guides ever published for aspiring authors. Here, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, Frey offers powerful advanced techniques to build ...
"Damn good" fiction is dramatic fiction, Frey insists, whether it is by Hemingway or Grisham, Le Carre or Ludlum, Austen or Dickens. Despite their differences, these authors' works share common elements: strong narrative lines, fascinating characters, steadily building conflicts, and satisfying conclusions. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel is one of the most widely used guides ever published for aspiring authors. Here, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, Frey offers powerful advanced techniques to build suspense, create fresher, more interesting characters, and achieve greater reader sympathy, empathy, and identification.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II also warns against the pseudo-rules often inflicted upon writers, rules such as "The author must always be invisible" and "You must stick to a single viewpoint in a scene," which cramp the imagination and deaden the narrative. Frey focuses instead on promises that the author makes to the reader—promises about character, narrative voice, story type, and so on, which must be kept if the reader is to be satisfied. This book is rich, instructive, honest, and often tellingly funny about the way writers sometimes fail their readers and themselves.
THE FICTIVE DREAM AND HOW TO INDUCE IT
TO DREAM IS NOT TO SLEEP
If you’re going to succeed in a service business, you’ve got to know why people come to you for services and what you can do to satisfy them.
If you run a janitorial business, say, you’ve got to know that people like shiny floors and sparkling porcelain. If you’re a divorce lawyer, you’ve got to know your client not only wants a big settlement and alimony, but also wants his or her ex to suffer. Fiction writing is a service business. Before you sit down to write a damn good novel, you ought to know what your readers want.
If you were writing nonfiction, what your readers want would depend on the kind of book you’re writing. A self-help book on how to get rich will have chapters on keeping faith in yourself, sticking to it, stroking the IRS, and so on. A sex manual should have lots of pictures and make exaggerated claims about the spiritual growth of the practitioners of the prescribed contortions. A biography of Sir Wilbur Mugaby should deliver all the scandalous facts of the old reprobate’s life. If you were going to write a nonfiction book, you would concern yourself mainly with informing the reader. A nonfiction writer makes arguments and relates facts.
A fiction writer isn’t arguing anything, and what the fiction writer is relating is hardly fact. There’s little knowledge, in the ordinary sense, to be gained. It’s all made-up stuff, totally fraudulent, a rendering of events that never happened concerning people who never were. Why would anyone with half a brain in his or her melon buy this pap?
Some of the reasons are obvious. A mystery reader expects to be baffled in the beginning and dazzled with the detective’s brilliance in the end. In a historical novel, say, the reader expects to get a taste for the way things were in the good old days. In a romance, the reader expects a plucky heroine, a handsome hero, and a lot of steamy passion.
Bernard DeVoto in The World of Fiction (1956) says people read for “pleasure … professional and semi-professional people aside, no one ever reads fiction for aught else.” And it’s true, people do read for pleasure, but there’s far more to it than that. As a fiction writer, you’re expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.
A transported reader is dreaming the fictive dream. “This,” says John Gardner in The Art of Fiction (1984), “no matter the genre, [the fictive dream] is the way fiction does its work.”
The fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. The power of suggestion is the operant tool of the ad man, the con man, the propagandist, the priest, the hypnotist, and, yes, the fiction writer. The ad man, the con man, the propagandist, and the priest use the power of suggestion to persuade. Both the hypnotist and the fiction writer use it to invoke a state of altered consciousness.
Wow, you say, sounds mystical almost. And in a way it is.
When the power of suggestion is used by the hypnotist, the result is a trance. A hypnotist sits you in a chair and you look at a shiny object, say a pendant. The hypnotist gently swings the pendant and intones: “Your eyelids are getting heavy, you feel yourself getting more and more relaxed, more and more relaxed, as you listen to the sound of my voice … . As your eyes begin to close you find yourself on a stairway in your mind, going down, down, down to where it’s dark and quiet, dark and quiet …” And, amazingly, you find yourself feeling more and more relaxed.
The hypnotist continues: “You find yourself on a path in a beautiful garden. It is quiet and peaceful here. It’s a lazy summer’s day, the sun is out, there’s a warm breeze blowing, the magnolias are in bloom …”
As the hypnotist says these words, the objects that the hypnotist mentions—the garden, the path, the magnolias—appear on the viewing screen of your mind. You will experience the breeze, the sun, the smell of the flowers. You are now in a trance.
The fiction writer uses identical devices to bring the reader into the fictive dream. The fiction writer offers specific images that create a scene on the viewing screen of the reader’s mind. In hypnosis, the protagonist of the little story the hypnotist tells is “you,” meaning the subject. The fiction writer may use “you,” but the more usual practice is to use “I” or “he” or “she.” The effect is the same.
Most books on fiction writing advise the writer to “show, not tell.” An example of “telling” is this: “He walked into the garden and found it very beautiful.” The writer is telling how it was, not showing how it was. An example of “showing” is this: “He walked into the silent garden at sundown and felt the soft breeze blowing through the holly bushes and found the scent of jasmine strong in the air.”
As John Gardner, again in The Art of Fiction, says, “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction … the reader is regularly presented with proofs—in the form of closely observed details … it’s physical detail that pulls us into a story, makes us believe.” When a writer is “showing,” he or she is suggesting the sensuous detail that draws the reader into the fictive dream. “Telling” pushes the reader out of the fictive dream, because it requires the reader to make a conscious analysis of what’s being told, which brings the reader into a waking state. It forces the reader to think, not feel.
The reading of fiction, then, is the experience of a dream working at the subconscious level. This is the reason most sensible people hate the academic study of literature. Academics attempt to make rational and logical something that is intended to make you dream. Reading Moby Dick and analyzing the imagery is to read it in a waking state. The author wants you to be absorbed into the story world, to go on a voyage on the Pequod halfway around the globe in search of a whale, not to be bogged down figuring how he did it, or to be looking for the hidden meaning of the symbolism as if it were a game of hide-and-seek played by the author and the reader.
Once the writer has created a word picture for the reader, the next step is to get the reader involved emotionally. This is done by gaining the reader’s sympathy.
Sympathy is often given little more than a passing nod by the authors of how-to-write-fiction books. Gaining the reader’s sympathy for your characters is crucial to inducing the fictive dream, and if you don’t effectively induce the fictive dream, you haven’t written a damn good novel.
Sympathy is a frequently misunderstood concept. Some how-to-write-fiction authors have made a pseudo-rule that says that for a reader to have sympathy for a character, the character must be admirable. This is patently not true. Most readers have a lot of sympathy for a character like, say, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, or Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist, or Long John Silver in Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Yet these characters are not admirable in the least. Moll Flanders is a liar, a thief, and a bigamist; Fagin corrupts youth; and Long John Silver is a rascal, a cheat, and a pirate.
A few years ago there was a film called Raging Bull about former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta. The character in the film beat his wife, then divorced her when he started to succeed in the ring. He seduced girls who were not of legal age, had a violent temper fueled by paranoia, and spoke in grunts. He was a total savage in the ring and on the street. Yet the character of LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro in the film, garnered a great deal of audience sympathy.
How was this miracle accomplished?
Jake LaMotta at the start of the film was living in ignorance, degradation, and poverty, and the audience felt sorry for him. This is the key: To gain the sympathy of your reader, make the reader feel sorry for the character. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as an example, Jean Valjean is introduced to the reader as he arrives wearily at a town and goes to the inn to eat. Although he has money, he is refused service. He is starving. The reader must feel sorry for this hapless man, no matter what dreadful crime he may have committed.
• In Jaws (1974), Peter Benchley introduces his protagonist Brody at the moment he gets the call to go out and look for a girl missing in the sea. Already aware that the girl is the victim of a shark attack, the reader knows what Brody is about to face. The reader will feel sorry for him.
• In Carrie (1974), Stephen King introduces Carrie in this manner: “Girls stretched and writhed under the hot water, squalling, flicking water, squirting white bars of soap from hand to hand. Carrie stood among them stolidly, a frog among swans.” King describes her as fat, pimply, and so on. She’s ugly and picked on. Readers feel sorry for Carrie.
• In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen introduces us to her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, at a dance, where Mr. Bingley tries to induce his friend, Mr. Darcy, to dance with her. Darcy says: “‘Which do you mean?’ and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, ‘She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me …’” Obviously, the reader feels sorry for Elizabeth in her humiliation.
• In Crime and Punishment (1872), Dostoevsky introduces Raskolnikov in a state of “morbid terror” because he owes his landlady money and has fallen into a state of “nervous depression.” The reader is compelled to feel sorry for a man in a state of such dire poverty.
• In The Trial (1937), Kafka introduces us to Joseph K. at the moment he is arrested, compelling the reader to feel sorry for poor K.
• In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), we meet Henry, the protagonist, as a “youthful private” who’s in an army about to go on the attack. He’s terrified. The reader, again, will feel sorry for him.
• The very first thing we’re told about Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1936) is that she is not beautiful and she’s trying to get a beau. In matters of amour, the reader always feels sorry for those who haven’t found it.
Certain other situations will also automatically guarantee winning the reader’s sympathy. Situations of loneliness, lovelessness, humiliation, privation, repression, embarrassment, danger—virtually any predicament that brings physical, mental, or spiritual suffering to the character—will earn the reader’s sympathy.
Sympathy is the doorway through which the reader gains emotional access to a story. Without sympathy, the reader has no emotional involvement in the story. Having gained sympathy, bring the reader further into the fictive dream by getting him or her to identify with the character.
Identification is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is achieved when a reader feels sorry for the character’s plight. But a reader might feel sorry for a loathsome wretch who is about to be hung without identifying with him. Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character’s plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.
• In Jaws, the reader supports Brody’s goal to destroy the shark.
• In Carrie, the reader supports Carrie’s longings to go to the prom against her tyrannical mother’s wishes.
• In Pride and Prejudice, the reader supports Elizabeth’s desire to fall in love and get married.
• In The Trial, the reader supports K.’s determination to free himself from the clutches of the law.
• In Crime and Punishment, the reader supports Raskolnikov’s need to escape from poverty.
• In The Red Badge of Courage, the reader supports Henry’s desire to prove to himself he is no coward.
• In Gone with the Wind, the reader supports Scarlett’s craving to get her plantation back after it is destroyed by Yankees.
Fine, you say, but what if you’re writing about a loathsome wretch? How do you get the reader to identify then? Easy.
Say you have a character who’s in prison. He’s treated horribly, beaten by the guards, beaten by the other prisoners, abandoned by his family. Even though he may be guilty as Cain, the reader will feel sorry for him, so you’ve won the reader’s sympathy. But will the reader identify with him?
Say his goal is to bust out of prison. The reader will not necessarily identify with his goal because he’s, say, a vicious killer. A reader who wants him to stay in prison will identify with the prosecutors, judges, juries, and guards, who want him kept right where he is. It is possible, though, for the reader to identify with the prisoner’s goal if he has a desire to reform and make amends for what he’s done. Give your character a goal that is noble, and the reader will take his side, no matter how much of a degenerate slime he has proven himself to be in the past.
Mario Puzo had a problem when he wrote The Godfather. His protagonist, Don Corleone, made a living by loan-sharking, running protection rackets, and corrupting labor unions. Hardly someone you’d want to invite over for an evening of pinochle. To stay in business, Don Corleone bribed politicians, bought newsmen, bullied Italian shopkeepers into selling only Genco Pura olive oil, and made offers impossible to refuse. Let’s face it, Don Corleone was a degenerate slime of the first rank. Not a character a reader would be likely to sympathize and identify with. Yet Puzo wanted readers to sympathize and identify with Don Corleone and he was able to get them to do it. Millions of people who read the book and millions more who saw the film did sympathize and identify with Don Corleone. How did Mario Puzo work this miracle? He did it with a stroke of genius, creating the magic of sympathy for a character who had suffered an injustice and linking Don Corleone with a noble goal.
Mario Puzo did not begin his story with Don Corleone fitting out some poor slob with a pair of cement shoes, which would have caused the reader to despise him. Instead, he begins with a hardworking undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, standing in an American courtroom as he “waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” But the judge lets the boys get off with a suspended sentence. As Puzo’s narrator tells us:
All his years in America, Amerigo Bonasera had trusted in law and order. And he had prospered thereby. Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, though wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull, Bonasera turned to his still uncomprehending wife and explained to her, “They have made fools of us.” He paused and then made his decision, no longer fearing the cost. “For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone.”
Obviously, the reader is in sympathy with Mr. Bonasera, who wants only justice for his daughter. And since Mr. Bonasera must go to Don Corleone to get justice, our sympathy is transferred to Don Corleone, the man who brings justice. Puzo forges a positive emotional bond between the reader and Don Corleone through sympathy, by creating a situation where the reader identifies with Don Corleone’s goal of obtaining justice for poor Mr. Bonasera and his unfortunate daughter.
Next, Puzo reinforces the reader’s identification with Don Corleone when he has “the Turk” approach him to deal dope and the Don—as a matter of high principle—refuses; the reader identifies with Don Corleone even more. By giving the Don a code of personal honor, Puzo helps the reader to dismiss his or her revulsion for crime bosses. Instead of loathing Don Corleone, the reader is fully in sympathy with him, identifying with him and championing his cause.
Despite feeling sorry for a character who is experiencing, say, loneliness, the reader may not feel the loneliness itself. But through empathy with the character, the reader will feel what the character is feeling. Empathy is a much more powerful emotion than sympathy.
Sometimes when a wife goes into labor a husband will also suffer labor pains. This is an example of empathy. The husband is not just in sympathy; he empathizes to the point of suffering actual, physical pain.
Say you go to a funeral. You don’t know the deceased, Herman Weatherby; he was a brother of your friend Agnes. Your friend is grieving, but you’re not. You didn’t even know Herman. You feel sorry for Agnes because she’s so sad.
The funeral service has not started yet. You and Agnes go for a walk in the churchyard. She starts to tell you what her brother Herman was like. He was studying to be a physical therapist so that he could devote his life to helping crippled kids walk. He had a wonderful sense of humor, he did a great Richard Nixon imitation at parties, and once in college he threw a pie in the face of a professor who gave him a D. Sounds like Herman was a fun guy.
As Agnes brings her brother back to life so you can get to know him, you begin to feel something beyond mere sympathy. You begin to sense the loss to the world of this intelligent, creative, wacky man—you are beginning to empathize with your friend, and now you begin to feel the grief your friend is feeling. Such is the power of empathy.
Now then, how does a fiction writer get the reader to empathize?
Say you’re writing a story about Sam Smoot, a dentist. Sam’s a gambler. He loses $2 million to a mobster and is ruined, and his family is ruined as well. How do you get the reader to empathize? The reader may feel sorry for his family, but may also feel that Sam got what was coming to him.
Even so, you can gain empathy.
You do it by using the power of suggestion. You use sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be Sam and to suffer what he is suffering. In other words, you create the story world in such a way that readers can put themselves in the character’s place:
A cold wind gusted down Main Street and the wet snow had already started to fall. Sam’s toes felt numb in his shoes, and the hunger in his belly had started gnawing at him again. His nose was running. He wiped it on his sleeve, no longer caring how it looked.
By using sensuous and emotion-provoking detail, you bring the reader inside Sam’s world to experience what Sam is experiencing. You can win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling—the feelings that trigger his emotions:
Sam woke up on the third day and looked around. The room had white walls and there were white curtains over the window. A large-screen TV was mounted high on the wall. The sheets smelled clean, and there were flowers on the table next to the bed. He felt his body. It was hard to tell it was there because it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t hurting. Not even his belly, which had been hurting now for so long …
Such emotion-provoking sensuous details, through the power of suggestion, will evoke the reader’s emotions and propitiate the reader’s empathy.
Here’s an example of emotion-provoking sensuous detail from Stephen King’s Carrie:
She [Carrie] put the dress on for the first time on the morning of May 27, in her room. She had bought a special brassiere to go with it, which gave her breasts the proper uplift … . Wearing it gave her a weird, dreamy feeling that was half shame and half defiant excitement.
Notice how the detail (the brassiere, the proper uplift) and the emotion (a weird, dreamy feeling, half shame, half excitement) are tied together. A few paragraphs later, Carrie’s uptight mother opens the door:
They looked at each other.
Hardly conscious of it, Carrie felt her back straighten until she stood straight in the patch of early spring sunshine that fell through the window.
The back straightening is symbolic defiance, a powerful emotion tied to the sensuous detail of standing in the patch of light.
Sympathizing with Carrie because her mother is persecuting her, the reader identifies with her goal to go to the prom, and empathizes with her because the author creates the reality with emotion-provoking sensuous details.
In The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane strives to evoke empathy by using the same kind of emotion-provoking sensuous details this way:
One gray dawn, however, he was kicked in the leg by the tall soldier, and then, before he was entirely awake, he found himself running down a wooded road in the midst of men who were panting from the first effects of speed. His canteen banged rhythmically upon his thigh and his haversack bobbed softly. His musket bounced a trifle from his shoulder at each stride and made his cap feel uncertain upon his head … . The youth thought the damp fog of early morning moved from the rush of a great body of troops. From the distance came a sudden spatter of firing.
He was bewildered. As he ran with his comrades he strenuously tried to think, but all he knew was that if he fell down those coming behind would tread upon him. All his faculties seemed to be needed to guide him over and past obstructions. He felt carried away by a mob … . The youth felt like the time had come. He was about to be measured …
Notice the details that connect with his senses: the dampness of the fog, the banging of the canteen against his thigh, the bobbing of the haversack, the bouncing of his rifle, the cap uncertain upon his head. Crane carefully constructs the reality of war out of small details leading to the youth’s feelings that he’s being “carried away by a mob” and is “about to measured.” The reader is in sympathy with the hero (and would feel sorry for any man about to face possible death in combat), identifies with his goal (to find his courage and prove himself a man), and empathizes with him because the reality of the situation is created through emotion-provoking sensuous detail.
Here’s an example from Jaws:
Brody sat in the swiveled fighting chair bolted to the deck, trying to stay awake. He was hot and sticky. There had been no breeze at all during the six hours they had been sitting and waiting. The back of his neck was already badly sunburned, and every time he moved his head the collar of his uniform shirt raked the tender skin. His body odor rose to his face and, blended with the stench of the fish guts and blood being ladled overboard, nauseated him. He felt poached.
The reader is put squarely in that chair, feeling the chafe of the collar, the heat of the sun, the nausea. Brody is in an unpleasant holding pattern, waiting for the shark.
Kafka has K. in a similar situation, waiting for his trial:
One winter morning—snow was falling outside the window in a foggy dimness—K. was sitting in his office, already exhausted in spite of the early hour. To save his face before his subordinates at least, he had given his clerk instructions to admit no one, on the plea that he was occupied with an important piece of work. But instead of working he twisted in his chair, idly rearranged the things lying on his writing table, and then, without being aware of it, let his outstretched arm rest on the table and went on sitting motionless with bowed head.
Again, it’s the details: the foggy dimness, twisting in his chair, letting his outstretched arm rest on the table, and so on.
Sympathy, identification, and empathy all help to create an emotional bond between the reader and the characters. At this point you are on the brink of transporting your reader.
THE FINAL STEP: THE TRANSPORTED READER
When transported, the reader goes into a sort of bubble, utterly involved in the fictional world to the point that the real world evaporates. This is the aim of the fiction writer: to bring the reader to the point of complete absorption with the characters and their world.
In hypnosis, this is called the plenary state. The hypnotist, in control, suggests that the subject quack like a duck, and the subject happily complies. If a fiction writer gets the reader into the plenary state, the reader weeps, laughs, and feels the pain of the character, thinks the character’s thoughts, and participates in the character’s decisions.
Readers in this state can be so absorbed they have to be distracted, often physically shaken, to get their attention. “Hey, Charlie! Put that book down! Dinner’s ready! Hey! You deaf?”
So how do you get the reader from sympathy, identification, and empathy to being totally absorbed? The answer: inner conflict.
Inner conflict is the storm raging inside the characters: doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision. Once in sympathy, identification, and empathy with the characters, the reader will be open to suffer their pangs of remorse, feel their guilt, experience their doubts and misgivings, and, most important of all, take sides in the decisions they are forced to make. These decisions are almost always of a moral nature and have grave consequences for the character. His or her honor or self-worth will be at stake.
It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character’s guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling for the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader. Here’s an example from Carrie. In this scene, Carrie is awaiting her date for the prom, not knowing whether he will come:
She opened her eyes again. The Black Forest cuckoo clock, bought with Green Stamps, said seven-ten.
(he’ll be here in twenty minutes)
Maybe it was all just an elaborate joke, the final crusher, the ultimate punch line. To leave her sitting here half the night in her crushed-velvet prom gown with its princess waistline, juliet sleeves and simple straight skirt—and her tea roses pinned to her left shoulder … Carrie did not think anyone could understand the brute courage it had taken to reconcile herself to this, to leave herself open to whatever fearsome possibilities the night might realize. Being stood up could hardly be the worst of them. In fact, in a kind of sneaking, wishful way she thought it might be for the best if—
(no stop that)
Of course it would be easier to stay here with Momma. Safer. She knew what They thought of Momma. Well maybe Momma was a fanatic, a freak, but at least she was predictable …
Notice how, when the character is in the throes of an inner conflict, there’s an equal pull in two directions. Carrie desperately wants to go to the prom, yet it’s so much safer to stay home.
Franz Kafka puts Joseph K. in the throes of an inner conflict like this:
K. paused and stared at the ground before him. For the moment he was still free, he could continue on his way and vanish through one of the small, dark, wooden doors that faced him at no great distance. It would simply indicate that he had not understood the call, or that he had understood it and did not care. But if he were to turn round he would be caught, for that would amount to an admission that he had understood it very well, that he really was the person addressed, and that he was ready to obey …
It is a small decision, but one with possibly grave consequences. Should he go through the door or not? The reader, too, will share the dilemma.
Stephen Crane puts his hero through inner conflict like this:
This advance upon Nature was too calm. He had opportunity to reflect. He had time in which to wonder about himself and to attempt to probe his sensations.
Absurd ideas took hold of him. He thought that he did not relish the landscape. It threatened him. A coldness swept over his back, and it is true that his trousers felt to him that they were not fit for his legs at all.
A house standing placidly in distant fields had to him an ominous look. The shadows of the woods were formidable. He was certain that in this vista there lurked fierce-eyed hosts. The swift thought came to him that the generals did not know what they were about. It was all a trap. Suddenly those close forests would bristle with rifle barrels. Ironlike brigades would appear in the rear. They were all going to be sacrificed. The generals were stupid. The enemy would presently swallow the whole command. He glared about him, expecting to see the stealthy approach of his death.
He thought that he must break from the ranks and harangue his comrades. They must not all be killed like pigs; and he was sure it would come to pass unless they were informed of these dangers. The generals were idiots to send them marching into a regular pen. There was but one pair of eyes in the corps. He would step forth to make a speech. Shrill and passionate words came to his lips … as he looked the youth gripped his outcry at his throat. He saw that even if the men were tottering with fear they would laugh at his warning. They would jeer him, and, if practicable, pelt him with missiles. Admitting that he might be wrong, a frenzied declamation of the kind would turn him into a worm.
Henry is in the throes of an inner conflict that is tearing him apart. His terror is getting the best of him, and soon he will resolve this inner conflict by running away in the face of the enemy.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky puts his hero in the throes of an intense inner conflict as he contemplates murder:
Raskolnikov made his exit in a perturbed state of mind. As he went downstairs, he stopped from time to time, as if overcome by violent emotion. When he had at length emerged upon the street, he exclaimed to himself: “How loathsome it all is! Can I, can I ever?—no, it’s absurd, preposterous! How could such a horrible idea ever enter my head? Could I ever be capable of such infamy? It is odious, ignoble, repulsive! And yet for a whole month—”
The loathing sense of disgust which had begun to oppress him on his way to the old woman’s house had now become so intense that he longed to find some way of escape from the torture …
Dostoevsky is a master of inner conflict. Here, it has occurred to Raskolnikov that the solution to his problems of poverty is to commit a murder, yet his conscience is having a volcanic eruption. Dostoevsky’s genius lay in his ability to put his characters into an intense inner conflict and keep them there for most of the story, thereby keeping the reader totally transported.
Inner conflict can be thought of as a battle between two “voices” within the character: one of reason, the other of passion—or of two conflicting passions. One, a protagonist, the other, an antagonist (Agnes thought: I’m gonna kill him when he gets home, flatten his damn skull! But what if he’s in one of his sweet moods? What if he’s singing that love song he wrote for me? No matter! The minute he walks through that door he’s a dead man!). These voices are in a rising conflict that usually comes to some kind of climax, where a decision is made that leads to an action. When you think of characters in the throes of inner conflict, think of them as having two competing, equally desirable choices of action, each supported by its own voice. The character then is on the horns of a dilemma, and that’s just where you want him or her to be.
To keep your reader transported, dreaming the fictive dream deeply, it’s a good idea to heighten suspense, which, happily, is the subject of Chapter Two.
HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, II: ADVANCED TECHNIQUES FOR DRAMATIC STORYTELLING. Copyright © 1994 by James N. Frey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Posted June 10, 2000
I loved How to Write a Damn Good Novel, but this second book did not have that much addtional info to warrant purchase, in my opinion. It would be a good book if you had not read the first, but if you have, I might borrow a library copy.
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