The Personal Touch

The what if? concept begins most novels. An interesting plot premise is then filled out with characters and plot lines. If enough details are laid in place, the most outrageous notion can be made believable, a truth to which any science fiction author can attest. As the world begins to emerge from the Covid crisis, authors may seize upon this concept in which to infuse their real-world struggles during the past year.

You can count on readers picking up the book to see what you’ve got. Yet translating such a broad idea into a story that characters can inhabit requires plotting that grounds the reader in the author’s “real” world. This is where you can fall short. The natural instinct is to plunge into scenes so you can write about characters you’ve picked out, adding convincing dialogue and descriptions. The impulse is right, to make the reader empathize with the lead characters. Yet if the larger plot containing these scenes isn’t supported enough with convincing details, the reader will continue to be nagged by the sense that real life seems stranger than your fiction.

The broader the premise, the more likely it will feel slight compared to the real thing. An epidemic happens to be a good example, since that concept is real enough but also so widespread that it can feel amorphous. There is no moral dilemma for a character, unless you think fights over mask wearing will entertain the reader. The process of devising the antidote—i.e., defeating the villain—seems stuffily scientific and likely sterile. 

You need to telescope the worldwide problem into tight circles of characters. You can succeed by exploring the personal within the wider realm. In other words, you need scenes featuring a set of people suffering from the virus, along with their affected family members. That is why feature articles in magazines always start with a single individual—the example proves the rule. There can be no protagonist madly scrambling to save the day. You need to focus on the human element to show why the pandemic must be stopped. 

The novel might work better if it transforms into another classic shape: the kitchen table drama. If you keep featuring the same individuals, the story becomes a web of relationships. A mother who is increasingly worried that the outbreak at her child’s school will have transmitted the disease to her daughter grabs our attention, then our pity if the daughter succumbs. What is best is if a featured victim is related to the main character. Now the epidemic feels real—because you provided people with whom we can identify.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for how the characters will connect privately. How well are you supporting the building relationships as the novel goes on? Sickness and death in this context can be employed dramatically, but the primary determinant of their effectiveness is how much you have made the reader love the characters affected.

“But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.”  ―Albert Camus 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.