Thursday, July 28, 2011

Page Turners: What's the Driving Question?

The past few weeks I’ve read several practically impossible to put down books, and it got me wondering what it is exactly about a book that makes it so compelling. Especially because the books I’m talking about are very different on the surface (and underneath the surface too). A memoir. The third book in a teen romance series. A man vs nature YA adventure. And an angsty soap-opera-y teen fantasy with a mythological twist. The obvious common denominators are good, solid writing, interesting and complex characters who seem real (with the memoir, of course, they ARE real), and a strong plot.

Plot is one of those elements that I used to struggle with in my own writing. Boiled down to the basics, plot is simply the sequence of events in a story. This happens then this happens then this happens. The trouble is, how do you decide what happens next when you’re the writer? I imagine with many formulaic action/adventure type stories (especially movies) you’ve got a group of guys in a smoky room just throwing scenes out there to see what sticks. First, we’ll have a car chase and then we’ll have an explosion and then we’ll throw in another car chase followed by a sex scene. But those stories, once you strip away the special effects, are really about nothing. Often, they’re even boring. To truly be compelling you’ve got to place a character into the action that people care about. If they don’t like the main character, if they don’t at least sympathize with him on some level, then really, what difference does it make if he’s in a car chase or running from an explosion or tangled up in the sheets with some random beautiful girl?

I’ll leave the creating a complex, sympathetic character issue for another day, and instead focus on plot. I’ve learned over the years that what it all comes down to—what makes a reader continue to turn pages (and, strangely, what makes a writer keep writing them)—is one question. Patti Gauch, former editor at Philomel and now a writing teacher and speaker, put it this way: “The character is basically being shot through the book like a pinball. He will hit obstacles and exterior stuff, which will play off of the interior stuff. What will he do? How will he deal with it? A question overlays the entire book. The writer must say it, explicitly or implicitly, from the very beginning.” She gave the example of The Wizard of Oz. Will Dorothy get home? But you can probably think of a ton of other examples. Will the guy who's afraid of the water in Jaws kill the shark? Will Luke and his friends beat the evil Empire in the Star Wars trilogy? Will Harry Potter triumph over Voldemort? These all seem like battles, and in a way, they are. A battle between the main character and someone or something else. It's English 101--Conflict.

I realized that the books I read recently all had an over-riding question. And since they contained characters that I worried over, I was eager to turn the pages and see how the question would be answered.

The memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson, might seem like an odd choice as a page turner, (see the previous blog entry for the complete review) but on the first page Munson relays the news that her husband may no longer love her. The book had more going on it than that, of course, but I was turning pages to find out what was going to happen to Munson. Did the guy love her or not? Was he going to stay? Was she going to keep him after his midlife crisis pretty much put their family through hell? (I won’t tell you the answer.)

The third book in a teen romance, We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han, was a perfect, light summer read that I carried around the house until I finished. I'd already read the other books in the series, The Summer I Turned Pretty and It’s Not Summer Without You, so I already knew and loved the characters. Belly, who spends summers at a beach cottage with Conrad and Jeremiah, two brothers she looks up to and tags along after. They merely tolerate her existence, until the one summer she turns pretty….The books deal with her attraction to the two boys and their growing attraction to her, which threatens to tear all of them apart. Big question: Which boy will Belly choose?

I read the man vs nature YA adventure, Ashfall by Mike Mullin (release date: fall, 2011, Tanglewood Publishing) in one afternoon. The main character is Alex, a fifteen year old computer geek and taekwondo expert. At the beginning of the novel Alex fights with his parents after refusing to go on a weekend family trip to visit relatives. They reluctantly leave him home alone, and unfortunately, for Alex, that weekend the super volcano underneath Yellowstone (which really exists. Yikes) erupts and destroys half of the country. This novel was all action—one horrifying challenge after another as Alex makes his way 140 miles, by ski, over ash, through scenes of death and destruction, to find his parents. You won’t be able to put the story down until you know if he makes it.

The angsty, soap opera-y teen fantasy with a mythological twist is Fury by Elizabeth Miles. (Simon Pulse pub. August, 2011) This book has a great hook. The furies from Greek mythology, those crazy vengeful sisters who choose deserving humans to punish, are back, and for some reason, focusing their attention on two clueless teens in a small town in Maine. The narrative goes back and forth between the two kids, detailing their numerous faults and sins, with the furies in the background plotting their relentless, manipulative revenge. I’ve read reviews of this book online and some readers, apparently, thought the kids deserved their fate. But I didn’t. I was biting my nails in growing horror, worrying over Emily and Chase, who, okay, are a tad shallow and sometimes downright cruel, but aren’t we all? At times? I mean, who hasn’t had a secret crush on a best friend’s boyfriend? Ultimate, page turning question: will the furies pursue these kids to the bitter end—(gulp)—death?

So, there you have it. Four compelling, wildly different page turners that reminded me what makes a page turner. And here’s the cool takeaway lesson for writers: Figuring out the over-riding question of your book might be the key to the whole plot thing. At least it is for me. Start out with your sweet, sympathetic, very-real-in-your-own-mind character and plunk him down in your made up but also very real created world. Then let him go, asking, What if this? What if that? What will my sweet made up little guy do next?

The only way to know for sure is to write the book. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a page turner of your own. If not, well, at least you answered the question for yourself.

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