In fact, we hear it so much I worry sometimes writers think it means that unless literally saving the world is at stake in their novel, they don’t have the right stakes to pursue traditional publication. But that’s just not the case. There are novels that are very “small” in the grand scheme of things that nevertheless feel gripping and wrenching.
What matters isn’t saving the galaxy, at least in most genres, what matters most is how much the protagonist is personally invested in the events of the novel.
Here’s another way to think of it: the more a character invests in getting what they want, the more the reader will invest in their behalf.
As the post title says, the more the character puts in a bucket, the more there is to spill.
The way to pull the rug is to first make things difficult
Sometimes when writers want to craft a wrenching surprise for their characters, their instinct is to make things really easy, then wham, the character is surprised and/or betrayed out of nowhere. The character thinks, “Gosh, but it was going so well!”
This is a really misguided impulse.
The best way to pull the rug is to make things extremely difficult for the character prior to the rug pulling and to show them putting as much skin in the game as possible. Then, when the rug is pulled, it’s utterly devastating.
Why? Because the character has already invested so much and therefore they have so much more to lose.
When you think about some of the great betrayals in fiction, whether it was the [AVOIDING SPOILER] in A Storm of Swords, [AVOIDING SPOILER] in Lord of the Rings, or [AVOIDING SPOILER] in Atonement, the suffering character(s) didn’t just waltz straight into a surprise, they were largely at their wits’ end before they got betrayed (or, in the case of Atonement, we saw the suffering before the betrayal was revealed).
Make your characters work extremely for their achievements, then we’ll really feel their loss.
Make it excruciating for characters to reconcile
This extends to relationships as well. Sometimes when writers want to show a transcendent romantic relationship, they write endless variations of essentially the same scene: the characters perfectly understand each other, are wildly attracted to each other, banter effortlessly, and they end the novel right where they began when they first locked eyes: hopelessly in love. From love at first sight to marriage bells, it ends up being a snoozefest.
Tthink about some of the great love affairs in fiction, whether it’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff and Catherine, or (an archetype for a reason) Romeo and Juliet. Their relationships do not proceed in lovely, predictable straight lines where the characters fall madly in love and never cease to think each other are the amazingest. Instead, there are false starts, misunderstandings, rifts, obstacles, and–crucially–difficult but juicy reconciliations.
Why do the rocky, difficult relationships somehow feel more vivid than the (probably psychologically healthier) ones that proceed in a more orderly way?
Because we’re seeing the characters invest to get what they want. When things go awry, they have to work to overcome the obstacles. They have to put more skin in the game. Thus they have more to lose if it doesn’t work. We can see for ourselves the horrible feelings the character will have if they end up without the person, making it feel like more of a satisfying relief if they end up together.
A hard-won relationship ends up feeling like a much deeper love than one that proceeds effortlessly. We feel so much more on their behalf when we see how much went into it and how intolerable it would be if they didn’t end up together.
Don’t make things easy in a novel
This is undoubtedly one of those areas where fiction departs from real life.
In real life, “Nathan walks to 7/11 and buys a winning lottery ticket” would be an unimaginable triumph, but it’s a terrible story. Even if it really happened, I’d have to invent some sort of tall tale about escaping roving bandits and arriving at the 7/11 bloody and near death and purchasing the ticket with my last dying pennies in order to get anyone to pay attention to a story about how I came to possess the ticket.
But those embellishments that the fabulists in our lives add to their stories are very telling. What do they do? They make their lives sound more difficult and arduous. They add peril. There add delays, and obstacles, and hope nearly being lost. They make the ultimate victory sound hard won and always in doubt.
Same goes for fiction. Make your characters work as much as possible for their achievements, and you’ll have the reader cheering for their victories or weeping at their defeats.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Next to the River by Mykola Pymonenko