One of the most fundamental principles for writing a novel is that characters need to want something and they need to actively go after that thing.
In genre fiction, this is often either self-evident (the character needs to defeat the dragon or solve the crime) or translated into something very concrete. It’s fine to simply tell the reader what the character wants. They’ll lap it up and start to invest in the story.
Desires in literary fiction tend to be more internal and complex. And with the very best writing, you might not even notice that the writer is communicating the character’s desires because it’s so expertly blended into physical description and the narrative voice.
In Laura Warrell’s excellent new novel Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, Koko, a teenager, is sitting on the bleachers at her high school, observing some older kids, one of whom is a basketball player nicknamed “The Tower.” Warrell’s physical description is excellent and evocative, but look at how she also infuses it with Koko’s outlook and the way she’s processing what she’s seeing:
The Tower ran faster than Millicent could with her hands attached to him, so she tripped, which Koko thought mean until she realized the fall was meant to give him a reason to help her to her feet. Koko watched them cross the field, noting how the older girl had a way of putting all the prettiest parts of herself just out of reach of the Tower’s touch when she moved around him–the corners of her hips, her mouth, the flipped ends of her long black hair. Koko tried to see herself slinking around the boy the way Millicent did, but knew she didn’t have that kind of magic, not like Millicent, or Natalie.
They were both tall and raven-haired and delicately built. Even the other girls on the bleachers, including boyish Kima with her sleek frame and straightened hair, were lovely the way Koko knew girls were supposed to be. Their hair fluttered when the wind blew through it, unlike the bun of bristly curls knotted at the back of Koko’s head. Their faces were made up of squares and triangles, unlike Koko’s rounded noses and cheeks. They looked like girls in shampoo commercials, she thought, while Koko was sturdy and small, thick-thighed and busty. Sometimes Koko saw a pretty girl when she looked at herself in the mirror, and she knew she had something because men in the streets stopped to whistle. But at school, she felt ugly–her eyebrows too busy, her lips too plump, her brown skin too blotched.
These two paragraphs convey the overarching desires Koko explores over the course of the chapter. Without giving away any spoilers, she has nascent desires but doesn’t yet understand the “script” and finds it mysterious how people know how to flirt like The Tower and Millicent. And she’s grasping for a sense of the scope of her power to attract men. Through her voice and observations, we have a keen sense of her adolescent confusion.
In a recent newsletter, Susan Dennard relayed a trick she learned from Erica O’Rourke to write two sentences of physical description followed by one phrase of internal reflection. It’s probably better to take that directionally rather than literally, but it speaks to how powerful it is when we’re not just observing a scene, but also seeing the POV character’s outlook woven into the scene.
But even setting aside the desires that are infused into these two paragraphs, this is also just really effective, precise physical description. We can picture the scene and the various characters, and Warrell even deftly weaves in what Koko looks like. It often feels contrived for a character to describe themselves in a third person limited perspective, but because Koko is self-consciously contrasting her own looks with the girls around her, it feels totally natural in this scene.
The best writers accomplish multiple things with every sentence and somehow make it feel effortless.
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Art: Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Au café
Beth Schmelzer says
Concise advice. Now to find this craft in my own work.