After fits and starts and many interruptions, I’ve finally finished an edit of my third novel, First of Second Chances. Fresh in my mind, as I worked through the final couple of chapters, was an interesting presentation at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association meeting. Jason Black, a local author and “book doctor,” talked about how to incorporate conflict and drama into fiction.
Conflict: opposition, two or more forces acting against one another, toward incompatible goals. Without conflict, there is no story. I’m very familiar with these concepts. However, I would have been hard pressed to come up with a definition for drama. According to Jason, drama is the feeling evoked in the reader as a result of introducing 1)a serious conflict with 2)an uncertain outcome, 3)brought to a crisis that 4)forces characters to make hard choices and take difficult actions. The reader experiences drama as long as the ultimate outcome is in doubt. So the writer’s job is to keep that uncertainty alive as long as possible.
In genre fiction, the reader has to cooperate a little to make this happen. Everybody knows that the guy and girl are going to get together by the end of a romance novel. By the same token, the mystery of a mystery novel will unquestionably be solved. We ask the reader to suspend their knowledge of these foregone conclusions in order to enter into the drama of the story. But, because these archetypal story forms are so familiar, surprising the reader is difficult. That’s why ending with a satisfying twist is such a treat.
The surprise was now complete; for, in spite of whatever his consciousness might suggest, a suspicion of his having any such views had never entered his sister’s imagination; and she looked so truly the astonishment she felt, that he was obliged to repeat what he had said, and more fully and more solemnly … it was not unwelcome. There was even pleasure with the surprise. (Mansfield Park, chapter 30)
Jane Austen does a good job of keeping the outcome in doubt until near the end (more on this in part 2). But I was pleased to find a little twist at the end of my novel too. I had deliberately set it aside for a while before doing this edit so that I could look at it with fresh eyes. It gave me the fun of being surprised (at least a bit) all over again.