Last night I saw my old playwriting teacher in a dream. He stood on a plinth in the midst of a desert of white sand as panelists from AWP crept past him on their hands and knees. Some of these he allowed to pass; others he incinerated with a single glance, sizzling them where they lay with blue-white thunderbolts from his eyes.
“Professor,” I called to him, “I believe I’m beginning to understand. Story is about a character encountering obstacles on the way toward a goal. Isn’t it?”
He did not reply. In the distance, I saw a great sleuth of bears roaming over the dunes toward the handful of panelists who had survived.
When I say the writer must answer the question, “What is this book about?” what do I mean, and how do I expect him to do it? I certainly don’t consider it easy. If telling stories were easy, my copies of Poets & Writers wouldn’t be all tearstained and covered with rings from the bottoms of pint glasses. But I do think there are certain things to look for, and certain danger signs to avoid.
A good way to start is to think about goals and obstacles for a character. Because I am obsessed with clowns, let’s start there. Most clown routines are predicated on a goal/obstacle relationship. Take this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus:
Chaplin’s goal in the scene is to get from one end of the tightrope to the other (to impress a girl, but that’s not important for our purposes here). His obstacle? Monkeys. Monkeys who pull down his pants. Chaplin manages to get past the obstacle to his goal; he also could have definitively failed by falling off the tightrope or being rescued by someone else. But either way, there’s a clear source of tension, because we know what’s at stake, and there’s a natural point at which that tension is resolved.
Many writers understand this goal/obstacle relationship when it comes to short stories, but somehow, the novel seems like a different thing entirely. In the early stages of composition, a novel can feel like an endless expanse, the bottomless void of outer space in which even the most basic natural laws no longer apply. I get this. Part of what’s exhilarating for me about writing book-length fiction is the initial feeling that I’ll never run out: of new facets in my characters, of new places in the book’s world to discover, of thematic material, which seems to glimmer self-evidently everywhere I turn my authorial gaze.
Whittling all this down to a handful of central goal/obstacle relationships seems about as impossible and pointless as carving a redwood down to a toothpick. Yet when I look at fiction that succeeds in holding my attention, I find almost invariably that this is what the writer has sneakily managed to do.
Consider Jonathan Franzen’s overreaching doorstop FREEDOM. By rights, this novel should suck the big one. It’s chock full of sentimentality, intellectually lazy politics, and incompetently managed narration (Franzen, just admit that Patty did not write that section, you goddamn liar). Yet Franzen makes it work through the oldest trick there is: thwarted romance. Everybody in this book wants somebody else in the book, and in every case, there is a major obstacle in the way of the relationship working out. Lalitha wants her boss Walter, who loves his wife Patty, who wants to bone his best friend Richard, who is Not Good Relationship Material. Meanwhile, Walter and Patty’s son Joey wants to have hot meaningless sex with conservative coeds but he’s hindered by his abiding love for Connie, his girl back home.
These characters have goals as obvious as the straight line a tightrope makes above the rings of a circus, and though some of their obstacles come from internal sources (guilt, being a douchebag), they’re not a hell of a lot more complicated than those adorable cheeky monkeys. It’s this very simplicity that makes the book a page turner in spite of itself. Because we know what each character is after, we know when to say, “Oh no!” or “Whew, close one!”
I’m using the words “goal/obstacle relationship” rather than “conflict,” because I think that the word “conflict,” especially when applied to character’s internal thought processes, has been corrupted to the point of total meaninglessness. In common parlance, a character can be “conflicted” about just about anything – his identity, his relationship to his family or heritage, his past life choices. But this “conflict” does not relate to story unless it poses an obstacle to action in the novel’s present day – unless it gets in the way.
Kazuo Ishiguro is the king of this particular goal/obstacle relationship. His characters’ obstacles are almost always* psychological, of their own making, but daunting and impassable just the same. The obstacle in the way of an Ishiguro character’s true goal is usually a kind of competing goal, a desire to fulfill a duty. The butler can’t allow himself to experience love because he believes being a butler should always come first. The clones can’t run away and find happiness because they believe they should do what they’re “supposed to” and give up their internal organs. The detective can’t be with his lady until he finds out what became of his parents.
However, the form this kind of story often takes in lesser hands is something along the lines of “…and it fucks him up.” As in, “This character was abused as a child, and it fucks him up.” Or, “This character always wonders what happened to his murdered sister, and it fucks him up.” The particular “conflict” doesn’t specifically obstruct the present action, mentally tying the character’s hands and preventing him from reaching a goal. Instead, it makes the character sad :-(
Let me just say this once, writers of
. SAD CHARACTERS ARE NOT DRAMA. America
...next up: making connections
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway? AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making
*This is even arguably the case in his masterpiece The Unconsoled, but here the psychological obstacles are literalized into the dreamscape the narrator navigates throughout.