6.23.2020

How Do You Make an Impact?

When you consider the wide range of book types, you can’t be surprised that the modulations among characters and plotting and narration is so complex. When I read a novel by a literary author, I get caught up in the point of view—what the narrator is thinking—above all else. While narrative voice is vital to any novel, a genre or mid-list novel relies much less on it and more on what is happening outside the narrator’s head.

Once that is granted, the question then becomes: how does an author with less concentration—that inner voice—achieve the same level of satisfaction? I’ll leave out the obvious answer: tons of twists and exciting plot events. That’s because many authors don’t want to want to write a slam, bam, thank you ma’am book. They want meaning out of their characters.

This search for a middle ground came to mind because I recently read a mid-list book about South Africa, The Power of One. It must be autobiographical because the story jumps from one boyhood episode, however long, to another. If you chopped up its 500 pages into 80-page segments, you get the idea.

I found myself drawn to the longest section, in the middle, in which the boy develops several deep relationships, one with a professor and one with a black prisoner. I felt the book clicked on all cylinders. Yet then the book shifted to prep school, in a separate location, and ended up with a year of work, in another location still, before the boy enters college. I liked those parts okay, but I was reminded how much I liked the middle segment when the professor dies and the boy returns home for the funeral.

Why did I like that part so much? It had more continuity. Because the narrative focus is external—on events beyond the boy’s skin—what moved me was the depth of the relationships he built. The professor was like a father, and the author devoted a lot of time to building up his bond with the boy. The same with the black prisoner: he teaches the hero how to box, to stay cool amidst violence. With both the boy forms loyalties that exceed those with any others in those other parts.

What would have made me like that book more? More professor, more black prisoner. If those relationships could have been extended further, I would have enjoyed feeling those bonds to a greater degree. So maybe that’s the grail of the middle ground: focus on external  bonds when you can’t muster enough internal thoughts.

Exercise: Examine your draft with an eye toward the book’s major relationships. How many pages are you devoting to each one? How long, in terms of the book’s length, do they last? If one peters out (i.e., you’re not covering it live), what major relationship replaces it? Is that as compelling as the one you dropped?

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
—Helen Keller

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.