Saturday, November 03, 2012

Rattle Readers: Shocks in Fiction

I'm starting a new series about what rattles readers in fiction. I've read a ton of books, and I would like to mention that only a select few of these books rattle me. So words aren't enough, and characters aren't enough, and plot isn't enough to rattle me. I'm going to write around this idea in my brain about what makes most excellent fiction, and hopefully I will uncover something.

A great book suspends me. The words on the page fill my brain and I'm there. The real world disappears and I'm lost in the fictive dream. The fictive dream idea comes from John Gardner's book THE ART OF FICTION. Many writers understand the mechanics of story and can adequately sustain a story over thousands of words, but few writers can send me into a fictive dream state and keep me there.  So here goes some thoughts about how to rattle readers: what works, what doesn't, how do you know you are creating that dream?

I search for stories that rattle my bones. I feel myself pacing inside when I can't find a book that really stirs me up.  One way authors hook me is by uncovering something I call shocks: you know, unexpected revelations (plot, character, theme, setting, etc.) that change the shape of the whole story. Don't get me wrong, I'd don't like lazy shock value pushing the story forward. The problem shock comes when the author begins to flounder in their fictive dream and then slaps down a shocking twist  that does not naturally rise out of the plot of the story. As a reader I feel frustrated. As a writer I'm shoving my story in the direction I want it to go. So annoying. Some writers slap down too many shocks for the reader to care. (Guilty!) Some don't even offer one shock. (Boring!)

When a shock is spot on, as a reader, I feel excessively nervous or I'm totally relaxed (no inbetween); the shock hits and I can't breathe. I shut the book and try to get my emotions under control. I go back a few pages and read up to the shock again. I'm that immersed in the fictive dream. As a writer, I know I'm in the sweet spot when I'm laughing out loud and falling off the couch when I'm reading my story back to myself, or I start crying when I've read the scene a hundred times, or I have to put my manuscript down because I'm so angry again.  Yes, if you are participating in your own dream, this is a good thing.  You think you have written the greatest thing ever. It may not be there yet, but if you able to enter into the dream and stay there, you are on the right track and will succeed.

Hope you place some shocks on the page this week. I will dig around more in this subject next week. Short post though because I am off to the SCBWI New Mexico Fall Retreat.  I'm excited.  Seize the day.

Here is the doodle: " Spider Chicken".  I know, enough with chickens already.

Quote for the week.

My task which I am trying to achieve is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything.
- Joseph Conrad


Mirka Breen said...

Sometimes I think I write for younger readers because that was the time when most books “shocked” me, in the sense you write about here. They opened something, and that opening changed me. This experience got to be rare as I got older, and almost never happens anymore.
But ALMOST is key. I still long for it. You must have a younger and livelier spirit than I. I applaud you for searching for these doors in your reading.

Vijaya said...

I take my inspiration from real life, which is often more shocking, awe-inspiring, and downright nuts than even the best fiction. Perhaps this is why I love NF and memoir so very much.

Have a wonderful retreat, Molly.

MollyMom103 said...

Hi, Mirka! I'm easy to shock and will always be that way. I hope that means I'm young at heart.
I'm glad you still get a shock every once in a while.

Hi, Vijaya, yes, NF and memoir are precious to me too. I'm not sure what inspires me the most. I think a well-told story is always going to be what quickens me.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

As a writer who struggles to add more conflict to my stories, I enjoyed your post.

Have fun at the retreat!

MollyMom103 said...

Hi, Ruth, I wrote this article called "Phoenix Rising: Death and Loss to Create Conflict." This might interest you too: