Too often novels are just a string of events, with one thing happening after another, mostly plot and little heart. No, there’s nothing wrong with a book with a great plot that takes you on a ride. Most of us love rides. Just head over to a Disneyland or Six Flags any odd day and see how many people will wait in line an hour or two (or more) for a two-minute ride. I used to shake my head and make for the refreshment stand when spending a “roller day” with my family, wondering how my husband and daughters could stand in line like that, all for a quick, cheap thrill. But even the anticipation while waiting for the roller-coaster ride was a thrill to them. It was all part of the experience.
I enjoy a great ride of a novel. Some of my favorite novels have no point to them other than to entertain (unless I missed some deep theme). One of my favorite authors, as I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, is Walter Moers, and his stories are outrageous and creative, and so much fun to read. You realize, though, as you jump into his books that you are there for the ride. You aren’t being promised anything other than hilarious entertainment, and he delivers.
A Story Is a Promise
So what am I leading to here? The key is the “promise.” Books give a promise through back cover copy, cover design, inside jacket blurbs, and online and print descriptions. Categorizing a book in a genre is a promise as well. Readers picking up a murder mystery or a romance novel do so with expectations. The genre promises certain things will be delivered, and if not, the readers will be disappointed.
If you are writing a novel with heart, hoping to impart and explore some themes, you want to avoid writing a book that is just a series of events. C. S. Lewis made this comment, which I feel speaks to the heart of what I’m talking about: “All stories must be a series of events [plot] but . . . this series is only really a net whereby to catch something else.”
Life As Theme
He proposes there’s an inner tension in the heart of every story between theme and plot. Look at life. It’s a plot, a series of events. But what’s its theme? What’s your theme? Does your life have one? Maybe it’s a different one each month or year. Or maybe you’ve noticed some theme weaving through your entire life.
And then there are some people’s lives that seem to have no theme at all. And maybe not even much plot. Would we think they were interesting? Would we consider their (or our) life a good story?
Casting Nets That Entangle in Wonder
Lewis says that our stories should be like nets. A story with heart should entangle us in a net of wonder, hold us dangling in the air over the surface of our lives and immobilize us momentarily. Many people’s lives may never entangle anyone like that. Maybe our life story rarely does. That is why readers yearn for stories that can do that. That can entrap and entangle and make us face “the sheer state of being.”
I also like what Lewis says about rereading books. Have you ever read a book numerous times? Why in the world would you do that? You already know what’s going to happen, so why bother? Yet, some people reread particular books over and over again. I have some favorites like that. Clearly we don’t reread a book to be surprised by the plot. We know it already. So it’s not for the surprise that we read, according to Lewis; it’s for “a certain surprisingness.”
Think about children who love to be read the same book over and over. When my daughters were young, they did just that. Some books they read dozens of times, and never grew tired of the story. How can they get so excited? Ever see children squirm when they know what’s about to happen? They want to get caught in that net of wonder again and again because it just feels so great.
I get that way, too, with some movies I watch over and over. I have my favorite moments that get me readying myself on the edge of the couch in anticipation. Sure, I know exactly what’s going to happen. And I know exactly how I’m going to feel when I watch that scene. The same way I feel every time. A great scene in a movie or book can work like magic, like some crazy pixie dust that evokes a special, expected reaction in me. Amazing how powerful words can be. Oh, that all our stories would have that kind of power.
Going Back to That Place of Origin
So, how can you catch readers in your net? How can you make sure you’re not just writing a string of scenes or scenarios for your characters but are weaving a net? I would say you need to often go back to the place of origin, to that spark of idea, where concept originates. Remember that germ of an idea that got you excited. Let the themes and passion for the story bubble up again (last week I gave some suggestions on ways to get that bubbling action going). Then infuse whatever scene you are writing with that passion and focus.
What Speaks to Your Heart?
What gets you excited when you read? Can you think of some books you’ve read over and over? If you have a favorite or two, spend some time thinking about why. Why you love the book. Why you read it again and again. What your favorite moments are.
What does this say about your heart and what you are passionate about? Think about the novel you might be writing, or have just written. What are your three favorite scenes? Why? What comes out in those scenes that speaks to your heart?
If you take the time to explore the passion that moves you to tell a story, and you find ways to keep it at hand so you can call on it at a moment’s notice, you will be able to weave that net that will catch readers. I want nothing more than to dangle my readers in wonder, help them stop their busy lives (that string of events) so they can revel in the “sheer state of being.” How about you?