Enticed by blurbs, or perhaps a friend's recommendation, Ima Reader takes a seat in a punt on the shore of a gentle English river. The flat-bottom boat rocks a little, but she feels safe in the hands of Heezan Author, who stands ready at the stern, hands on the long pole used to push the boat. His photo on the back of the book was nice.
Heezan shoves off, and they glide down the river on an easy-going current. Heezan says, "Note the lovely hues of red and gold in the rose garden on the far bank." He steers the bow a few degrees toward the near shore. "And here is where our hero was born, poor tyke, the sad victim of
Ima peers ahead. "Oh, the hero. I'm so eager to see him."
"Soon enough, soon enough, dear reader. But first, see the ramshackle one-room schoolhouse where Hero first met Heroine, though their meeting was a tussle over who got the swing
Ima turns to Heezan. "Excuse me, sir…"
A sigh. "Yes?"
"Pull over to the bank, please."
"But there's so much story to be told."
The boat clunks against a dock and Ima steps out. "Too late." She gently closes the covers, never to return.
Feeling the pull of a fetching blurb, Ima Reader turns to page one and drops into a river raft. It races downstream, toward the roar of water churning over rocks. The nose of the raft rounds a bend and ahead spray creates a mist above roiling river water and granite boulders.
Sheezan Author, both hands with strangle holds on the rudder at the rear, shouts, "I don't want to alarm you, but there are crocodiles between us and the end."
Ima grips a page. She feels her lips stretch in a grin of anticipation when she leans forward and says, "Let 'er rip!"
What if Ima Reader is an agent to whom you've just submitted a sample, opening her eleventy-eleventh submission that week? Or an acquisition editor at a publishing firm who wonders why in hell he agreed to look at your manuscript? Or a bookstore browser deciding on what to buy for a weekend read (and your book is in that narrow window of only a few weeks to catch hold and create an audience)? These people turn to page one looking for one thing.
To be swept away. Effortlessly. After all, the agent's tired, it's been a hard week, she's looked at dozens of crappy novels, and it's an act of will to tackle another one. The editor feels a migraine coming on, and the bookstore browser just had her transmission go out. Please, capture my mind and imagination and take me away from all this.
But how does a story do that? The story river readers want to ride races down mountain slopes, hurtling around sharp bends to reveal unexpected events, plunging into canyons and out again, until a killer waterfall comes into view. Then it sweeps them over, they plunge and crash into the maelstrom of the story's climax, and then emerge into calm waters, safe and satisfied.
But how does an author sweep a reader along? The reader's craft isn't pulled by a rope, it's not propelled by oars or a motor. Instead, it becomes one with the flow of the river. So what determines the nature of that flow? For a river, gravity furnishes the power, a passive power with inevitable pull.
I think screenwriter/story guru Robert McKee has a terrific way of thinking about what powers a story. Years back, I attended one of his intensive seminars on screenwriting, and I wish now I'd been ready to understand everything he had to offer. A brilliant screenwriter and story thinker, McKee nails what creates the ever-increasing rush of current in a story. In his book, Story, he calls it the "gap." While he writes primarily about screenwriting, he does talk about novels, and his insights are all about story, no matter what the form. Here's a diagram from his book that illustrates the gap.
A character has an object of desire. That could be a treasure, a job, a person, catching a killer, anything. He takes action
But he still wants what he wants. So he takes a second action, one that requires a greater risk. But again he is frustrated, and must try again. McKee says each step should involve more risk, there should be more for the character to lose. Causes of the gap could even be things that seem pleasant, even the achievement of a similar goal…but still there's that need, that frustration.
So look at your story, especially the opening. Is your reader in a boat you pole down a lazy river, talking amiably about scenery and backstory? Or is he about to run the rapids only seconds after boarding?
The rapids don't, of course, have to be physical, as if in an adventure. Those rapids could be caused by internal conflict. They can be emotional, or interpersonal, or…hey, whatever your imagination desires.
But your river must MOVE! When I write scenes and chapters in my novel in progress, I don't apply McKee's gap technique in advance, before writing. But my sense of that underlying mechanism is becoming more and more ingrained in me, more of the rudder that steers my characters deeper and deeper into complications. At least on good days it does.
And I think "the gap" can be a terrific diagnostic tool. If your
story feels lazy, or sags somewhere along the line, looking at what is
(and isn't) happening
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© 2005 Ray Rhamey