By John Rector
While Russel sets out in search of the mysterious cities of gold, we're taking the chance to get a few different voices onto DSD. This week we welcome John Rector. John's a long time friend of DSD, ever since we first started talking about setting up the site we've been looking for way to work with him, and we're glad to have him. John is the author of two books, THE COLD KISS, released this past summer (with a firm DSD seal of approval) and THE GROVE will be out in the U.S. in november.
Characters, Goals, Conflicts and Catalysts
My first novel, THE COLD KISS, was released this past summer, and I got the opportunity to travel around the country to discuss the book with readers, booksellers, and friends. The Q&Q events were a blast, and what I loved most about them was meeting new writers.
After you’re published, the talk among other writers seems to shift away from craft and starts focusing on things like sales, contracts, publishers, etc. That’s fine, and to be expected since money is involved, but I still love to talk craft, and if you get me going, it’s hard to shut me up.
The first signing I did for THE COLD KISS was at a Barnes and Noble in Omaha Nebraska. One of the people there was a college student who’d read THE COLD KISS the night before. She told me it’d kept her up all night because she had to know what was going to happen. For a writer, this is one of the best compliments you can get, and I was flattered. Then she hit me with this question.
“How did you do that?”
My mind went blank.
I looked out at the crowd and everyone was staring at me, silent, waiting for an answer. I stumbled through, telling her about the weeks I’d spent outlining novels that I’d loved, how I’d take them apart scene by scene to see how they worked. I wanted to know how Stephen King made a fire hose in a hallway of an old hotel seem so terrifying, or how Ira Levin built plots so seamless and so tight that you didn’t see where he was taking you until you were there. I wanted to know why I got chills up my spine when I read certain lines from James M. Cain, or Ross Macdonald, or Charles Bukowski. I told her I spent so much time studying the writers who mattered most to me that I probably couldn’t help but get better.
Practice, hard work, etc.
It wasn’t the best answer because I believe all unpublished writers who are serious about the craft, and who have the same overwhelming obsession to publish as I did, work hard. They know practice and hard work is what it takes. They might not be crazy enough to outline a stack of other people’s books, but hey, we all travel our own path. My way isn’t necessarily your way.
Out of all the questions I was asked this summer, that one stuck with me. Since then, each time I’ve seen a review of THE COLD KISS, or heard someone say they couldn’t put the book down, I’ve thought about my answer to her question.
How do you pull someone into a story and keep them there?
I began to realize that what it came down to was nothing more than a few basic points of fiction writing. And since DSD has been all about advice lately, I thought I’d do my part and throw out a couple of my favorite elements of good fiction writing for any new writers who might be interested.
Like I said, we all learn in our own way, but to me, the following four elements are what good fiction is built on and should be the foundation of every story. Write them well, and you can’t go wrong.
I’ll keep this simple and brief.
A character – Your narrator, your protagonist, the main focus of your story. This is the person who has the most to lose or the most to gain in your story. When you start writing, you don’t have to know everything about him, so throw out those character-building sheets you found in that how-to-write fiction book and discover your characters as you go. They will be revealed through their actions, and characters take action for only one reason… To achieve a goal.
A Goal – This is what your character wants, and they must feel like achieving it is the most important thing in the world. The actions they take to achieve this goal will open them up, build their character, and show you and the reader who they are. But whatever you do, don’t let them sit by and wait for their goal to come to them, make them get up and go after it, make them fight every step of the way. And remember, the fight can’t be easy.
A conflict – This is the obstacle that stands between your character and their goal. Whatever it is, a person, an element, etc… the obstacle has to be just as determined to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal, as the protagonist is desperate to achieve it. In other words, don’t have your antagonist bring a knife to a gunfight. You can (and probably should) have your protagonist bring a knife to a gunfight, but never the other way around. Never make it easy for your characters, ever.
A good thing to keep in mind is that when you get to the end of a scene or chapter, things must be worse for your protagonist than they were before the scene started. You must test their resolve to achieve their goal every chance you get.
A catalyst – This is one of the most important pieces you need when writing fiction. Simply put, the catalyst is the element in your story that prevents your character from looking at the obstacle between him and his goal and saying, “Fuck this, I don’t want it that bad. I’m going home to watch LOST.”
The catalyst is the element of your story that forces your character to stay in the game and see it through to the end. It takes away their choice to run when things get tough.
When I wrote THE COLD KISS, I used the blizzard that traps my characters in a rundown motel as the initial catalyst. They physically can’t escape. I ended up using more than one catalyst in that book, but the blizzard was the big one, and it loomed over the rest.
Your catalyst can be anything, physical, mental, emotional, whatever, as long as its believable and keeps your characters on stage while you turn up the heat and make them suffer.
The last thing you want your reader to do is close the book and say, “Why didn’t they just walk away.”