By Pamela Nowak
There’s a big difference between an enjoyable read and a keeper book. For me, the keepers are those books that take me beyond light entertainment and involve me emotionally in the story. They are the books that make me feel as if I am in the story and make me gasp or worry or cry. They are the ones I remember long after reading them.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that for me, the books that do this have a few key elements in common: a firm grasp of scene structure, a plotline driven by GMC, conflicted/complicated characters, and tight POV.
Hah! So what do I mean by that?
Scene structure is critical. Early on in my writing, I heard Jack Bickham at a Colorado Gold Conference and immediately bought his book: Scene & Structure. His process made sense and (as a plotter) I immediately grasped the way it paired character and plot. It gave purpose to each and every scene and allowed me to keep from straying off on tangents when writing. As a reader, I find that structured scenes keep me more involved in the story, without feeling like the character is simply wandering through time with things happening to him/her.
Bickham’s basic tenet is that each scene should have a goal, conflict, and a disaster. The POV character has an immediate short-term goal. Early in the book, that goal is based on his/her long-term goal or the story question. With each disaster, a new short-term goal is formed which influences the character’s next actions. These goals are important because they allow the character to guide the plot rather than having things just “happen” to the character. This makes the character more sympathetic and guides the plot. Conflict is the result of something or someone that disrupts the goal and isn’t just made up (such as an argument for the sake of argument) and therefore will have a consequence for the character that will lead him/her to react, feel, and form a new goal which in turn moves the story forward. In short, scenes constructed in this way provide continuity and allow the characters to drive the story rather than the author.
Disasters can come in many forms from a blocked goal to partially met goal to a “yes, but…” goal (met but doesn’t turn out as anticipated). After each disaster, the character reacts, either on or off stage in what Bickham calls a sequel. He/she has an emotional reaction, processes/thinks about what happened, makes a decision, and forms a new goal. Of course, like scenes, there are variations in sequel format. The “scene and sequel” construction keeps the story always moving forward and character-driven.
GMC is closely related. Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict emphasizes plot construction that relies on a character with a goal who is motivated by something and runs into conflict (something that blocks them from meeting the goal). The key difference here is the motivation element. A character has a back story that has shaped him or her into who they are. Goals are (or should be) related to their backstories—which really is part of character development. If you’ve ever read a book and said, “now why did she do that?” you’ve encountered a story that lacked motivation elements. As I writer, understanding motivation allowed me to more fully define my characters—villains and heroes alike.
And that leads me to complex characters.
My favorite books are those that have heroes or heroines and villains and even secondary characters with pasts that have shaped them into who they are when the book begins. Their backstories have created both inner and outer goals. I think of it this way: the outer goal is what the character wants but the inner goal is what he/she truly needs. The outer goal is usually related to the story question and launches the story. The inner goal is related to the deep part of a character and his/her arc; it’s tied to his/her flaws and often, the character doesn’t even realize it motivates his/her actions. Give me a complicated character in need of growth and you’ve got me hooked.
Pair up that character development with a tight POV and the result is an emotional link that keeps the reader constantly involved in the story; the reader feels like he IS the character. A tight POV means that descriptions are relayed in a way uniquely that of the POV character. An artist would experience the world in a broad palette of color and technique; a musician would interpret life via music. A man who has been in prison would temper things through a different lens than a free-spirit who spent time in a commune. A writer who uses words and phrases and metaphors that relate the world to the character employs tight POV and lets the reader feel what the character feels. This goes a step further when actions and movements and internal thoughts and reactions are all related in the same way.
It’s rare to find books that employ all of these elements but when I do, I read them again and again. They go on my keeper shelf and I buy such authors without regard to the exact plot simply because I know their books will be good.
If I have one goal as an author, it is to employ all of these elements and to have readers say they were so involved with the characters that the book became alive. In short,... to be put on the keeper shelf.