Writers, I’ve been working with my editor on a really subtle but important aspect of tension building and thought I’d share it with you, here. We’re at the point in this book I’m ghostwriting where its a finished product and a good one (if I say so myself), but it lacks that un-put-down-able quality.
My client and I talked for hours to try to find what exactly is missing and concluded that it’s a matter of motivation. The protagonist has a motivation, of course, but the simple reality is that it’s not focused enough. In this case, I’m ghostwriting a crime novel, so the character’s motivation is to get into a life of crime, to basically make this a career, since making a living in the straight world didn’t work out for her too well. But what this motivation lacks is that element of, “This time, it’s personal.”
That element, we decided, will come in with a slight change. I’ll make it clear that the real deep-seated reason she wants to rob a bank is classic: revenge. Now, the reader will relate to the character’s need for revenge and really really want to know if she succeeds.
The desire for vengeance is something we can all relate to and readers will live vicariously a little bit through the character. That, I feel, is a key to that un-put-down-able quality I’m seeking. But there’s a far subtler aspect of psychology in play here, as well.
In looking at what the character wants in a novel, the conscious motivation, we also have to look at what the character really needs, which you might think of as the unconscious motivation. Often people search for one thing but actually find another more important thing. That discovery takes the reader deeper into the psychological truth of the character.
Or, the character might even seek one thing and, in the end of the book, just get a hint of the thing she really needs, thereby setting her on a new path, with a deeper motivation. Things aren’t resolved as expected, but the character solves a deeper problem that we all face: what do I really need to be happy? What is my life really lacking?
The want/need dichotomy plays out in all our lives, and when we see that subtle psychological interplay working in a novel, that’s where the magic of un-put-down-ability comes in.