If I hadn’t fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but the first sentence of this paragraph is an example of the most important element of fiction today — even more important to master than Point of View, which is writers seem to worry most about. Urgency. Writers need Urgency in their fiction in order to have vibrant, intriguing, publishable fiction that will keep readers buying their books.
WHAT IS URGENCY?
Urgency is what keeps the reader reading. It’s that simple. Urgency is whatever elements in the fiction make the reader want to continue turning the pages.
Do All Books Have Urgency?
Sometimes at writing conferences, students or new writers claim that many published or classic authors do not have Urgency in their works. To prove their point, they cite authors — some of them classics, some of them bestsellers — who do not have Urgency in their writing. Thus, their argument goes, they themselves should not be required to have Urgency.
It’s true that many writers do not have Urgency. But many of the classic writers they mention — Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare — do, indeed, have Urgency in their literary works. As for any authors from previous centuries who do not have the kind of Urgency that fiction has now, those authors would have an extremely difficult, if not impossible, time getting published now.
Many of the contemporary, well-established authors cited in this argument about authors who do not have Urgency are relying on their already established audiences and bestseller status to get them published. Apparently, as long as they continue to make money for their publishers, these authors no longer have to worry about Urgency.
(At a conference, a famous author once told the audience that when he was a beginning writer, he had to have Urgency — he called it “Intrigue” — from the very first sentence and had to write much shorter books; after several of his books became bestsellers in Europe, however, he said he could “dispense” with Urgency in the first sentence — he neglected to tell us when he did put Urgency into his work — and write books as long as he wanted them to be: many of his later books were 1,500+ pages long and were very slow reads.)
How the Change in the Publishing Industry
Made Urgency More Important
Very few authors are lucky enough to have readers waiting in line for their next book to be published, and those authors are usually already bestsellers. Writing and publishing is an extremely competitive business. Writers are competing for readers. Writers compete with television, videos, movies, as well as with countless other authors for their audience, as well as with readers’ families, jobs, and other outside obligations for valuable reading time.
In the traditional publishing model, writers send their work to agents, who attempt to determine whether they can sell those manuscripts to editors. At the publishing houses, which have become huge conglomerates, editors look at the manuscripts and try to determine if there is a reading market for those books which will make a profit for the publishing house. Thus, there is a system in place in traditional publishing for attempting to determine which books might sell. Traditional publishing does not exist to validate a book’s merit or literary quality. Neither of the latter things are concerns of traditional publishing.
Marketing potential and profit drive the business of traditional publishing. Agents want to sell writers’ manuscripts to editors, who want to convince their editorial board at the publishing house that the book will sell on the open market. These are the things that determine whether books are accepted by agents and, in turn, by traditional publishing houses. Even if the manuscripts are accepted, if the published books do not earn an adequate amount of money for the House in a requisite time (all of which is variable and arbitrary), the book will be taken out-of-print (OP).
Now, with Print-on-Demand (POD) paper books — where books are only printed as they are ordered rather than in predetermined print-runs and warehoused until ordered by bookstores — the ubiquity of e-books, and relatively inexpensive and accessible e-readers, formerly traditionally published authors can put their OP books back out on the market themselves, without having to get an agent or another publisher. More critical in this business environment is the fact that writers who have never been through the traditional publishing system can now self-publish relatively cheaply, and they no longer have to invest huge amounts of money to print books (then store them somewhere) or persuade local bookstores to stock their titles.
Unfortunately, this equal opportunity POD and e-book publishing world now forces individual readers to wade through a great deal of bad writing in order to find the good writing. While it is true that many poorly written books are published by traditional Houses, and some of them become bestsellers, it is also true that the traditional publishing establishment does nothing to advertise any of its books. Most books rely on reviews or, more frequently, on “word of mouth” for their sales. Even before brick-and-mortar bookstores were slowly replaced by e-book and online books sales, traditional bookstores had very limited shelf-space so there was no way that any individual bookstore could even have one copy of every published book available in its store.
Given all these marketing considerations and restrictions, as well as the absolute deluge of self-published writers who do not know how to write well or to tell good stories yet are still able to put their books on the market, contemporary writers have a more challenging task than any of their predecessors ever did. Writers must master Urgency in order to tell a good story and to have a competitive chance at reaching their reading audience.
Urgency Must be Integral
Urgency should not be “pasted on” or simply attached to the piece of writing. It must be an integral part of it, inseparable from the plot’s conflict, character development, or Voice (characters’ or author’s). This Urgency will keep the readers clamoring for more, so it must be honest Urgency, that is, it must naturally evolve from the characters, the plot, the conflict, and the circumstances of the fiction you are writing, no matter its genre.
Urgency Is Not a New Concept
Though various authors have different names for it — suspense, mystery, or intrigue — Urgency is present is most of the enduring literary works, no matter how long ago they were written. Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with the guards discussing a ghost who looks like Hamlet’s dead father and who appears even as the guards are talking about him, while Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with witches chanting spells concerning the titular protagonist. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins with a mother desperately trying to arrange marriages for her five daughters, preferably with wealthy men. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground opens with the First Person narrator relating, “I am sick.” Urgency has always been present in the best literature, no matter its Point of View or genre. Though some bestselling, traditionally published authors may “relax” once they have established audiences and no longer include Urgency as often, most writers cannot afford to do so, no matter their work’s Point of View or genre. In any event, the best writers always consistently include Urgency in order not to lose the audience they already have acquired.
TYPES OF URGENCY
There are three basic areas you can include Urgency in your fiction:
- Plot, which must include conflict
- Character Development
While it is possible to concentrate on Urgency in only one of these areas, you should develop Urgency in as many of these areas as possible to write a well-rounded piece of fiction that will have your readers discussing your work and its characters long after they have finished reading to see what happens.
Most readers initially read a book for its plot, that is, they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. The readers stay awake all night to find out how the woman handcuffed to the bed in a cabin in the wilderness will escape after her husband drops dead of a heart attack during a “sex game” (Gerald’s Game, Stephen King), or to see how the wife and her son will escape from the isolated, snow-bound hotel after her husband-caretaker has gone mad and attempted to murder them (The Shining, Stephen King). In fact, there are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers do this with Urgency in plot, and they have mastered Urgency in this area.
Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience may see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.
The earliest example we have of Urgency in storytelling in the English language is actually an epic poem in Old English written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author. Beowulf recounts the tale of the brave hero of the same name who comes to the aid of the king and his people in a neighboring kingdom who are under attack by the monster Grendel. Despite all the failures of the king and his best warriors to dispatch Grendel, no one but Beowulf succeeds.
Because we are not given any reasons for Beowulf’s success in destroying the monster Grendel, and, afterward, Grendel’s Mother, who comes seeking revenge, the character of Beowulf is not developed. Fifty years later, as a King himself in his own land, he fights and defeats a Dragon; in this fight, Beowulf is mortally wounded. Afterward, he is given a hero’s burial. Beowulf is presented as a successful hero from the beginning of the story, who comes to the aid of another kingdom in dire need, returns to his own land, where he becomes a king himself, and successfully defeats another monster, though he is mortally wounded in the process. A hero he begins, and a hero he remains.
It is the conflict in the plot that gives the story of Beowulf its Urgency, not its character development or Voice. Though Beowulf is considered a combination of historical characters and fictional heroic deeds, it is the plot Urgency which has kept the story interesting to subsequent generations, not its historical elements or character development.
It would seem, then, that Urgency in plot is essential to a writer’s success, and plot must have conflict. The traditional divisions of conflict have typically been divided into these categories:
- man v man
- man v himself
- man v nature
- man v supernatural
Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts at the same time. Moby-Dick, for example, not only pits Captain Ahab and his crew against the whale as well as the dangers of the sea itself (man v nature), but against each other, as when First Mate Starbuck argues that their “job” is to fill the hull with sperm whale oil, not seek the Captain’s vengeance (man v man); the novel also shows several instances of characters having doubts about their own behavior: Ahab, Starbuck, and the narrator Ishmael among them (man v himself).
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has the young Prince Hamlet confronting the ghost of his father (man v supernatural) who claims he was murdered by his own brother, who married his widow — Hamlet’s mother — and became the king; he asks Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius (man v man); but Hamlet, though not doubting the existence of the ghost itself, wonders whether it has been sent to him from heaven or hell, and whether Hamlet himself will be damned for committing a murder — if the ghost is a demonic spirit — or be justified in seeking revenge for his father’s murder — if the ghost is, indeed, the spirit of his father. This last conflict, man v himself, is one of the strongest in the work since it constantly causes Hamlet to doubt himself and to doubt the “evidence” that points to his uncle’s guilt.
Some critics insist that the final division above — man v supernatural — is really just man v himself since supernatural beings do not exist. They claim that even if God is an actual character in the work of fiction, it is really about the character’s belief in God, so it is man v himself conflict. Some insist that man v supernatural is nothing more than a sub-division of man v nature, but others argue that including vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, or any other objects that do not actually exist in nature prevent its being a sub-division of man v nature. Further, some readers do believe in the existence of aliens, ghosts, and angels, while others do not. Where are these beings to be put in the traditional grouping of conflicts: in man v supernatural or in a sub-division of man v nature? I’ve chosen to include man v supernatural as a fourth category to include all possible conflict types. After all, it doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.
Plot Urgency is relatively similar no matter what Point of View you choose to write in: First Person, Inner Limited, Second Person, Unlimited — all Points of View easily encompass plot Urgency and conflict. To master Urgency in plot, you simply have to tell a good story, one whose conflicts will keep your readers’ attention. It is important to note, however, that if your readers are able to correctly guess how your story will turn out, then it loses Urgency. The story’s end must logically follow its action, of course, but readers should not be able to correctly determine the end early in the book.
No matter which Point of View you choose, you should increase the conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to create Urgency in Plot and to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc.” When I was studying literature — so many lifetimes ago — plot was visually represented something like a hook, or an upside-down checkmark.
The long left part of the hook was called the “rising action,” which simply meant that it was a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until the you arrived at the peak, which was called the “climax,” meaning it was the “ultimate conflict” of the work. The climax was supposed to be the conflict that all the previous conflicts had been leading up to. It was also supposed to be the final conflict in the book or story. No new conflicts were supposed to appear after that culminating conflict. Literally.
The short downward line was called the “falling action” or “the dénouement” — translation, “untying or unraveling the knot” — when all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.
Much of contemporary literature, especially in books written in series, no longer include a dénouement. For one thing, authors who write book-series typically end each book on Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.
Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to add a flat line before the long left hook of the “rising action,” calling the flat line the “back story.” Visually, the flat line of the back story was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The back story was the history of the characters before any conflict began. As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “back story” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of “back story” and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.
Final Words of Urgency in Plot
Plot and conflict can create Urgency in any Point of View, but Urgency in plot is absolutely essential in Outer Limited Point of View because the only thing the readers can know about the characters is their observable behavior and dialogue. Therefore, it is imperative that your characters do or say things to show the conflicts as well as the Urgency in plot that will keep the readers turning the pages. Since you, as the author, are limited to presenting only the external behaviors of your characters, you can master this Point of View more effectively with plot Urgency and conflict because you will have to create concrete actions, behaviors, and dialogue to present to your readers.
Note that the only conflict you cannot easily present in Outer Limited Point of View is man v himself, unless, of course, you present the character’s internal conflict in external ways. You cannot show a character arguing with himself, for example, unless he does it aloud. You cannot show any characters’ inner emotional or psychological life in Outer Limited Point of View, so you will have to work harder to show the inner conflict in an external manner. Read Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy for excellent examples of presenting plot urgency in Outer Limited Point of View.
If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts and the series itself has to have separate increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Make sure, also, that no plot holes remain in the series.
Urgency in Character Development
Urgency in character development can be integrally related to Point of View. Character development Urgency is most challenging in Unlimited Point of View since the author can provide the readers with any and all interpretations of the characters and their actions, thus leaving nothing for the readers to explore. Still, as I explained earlier, there is a difference between an author’s knowing everything and revealing everything about his characters in Unlimited Point of View. That means you can put sufficient character development Urgency in Unlimited Point of View by not revealing everything about the characters to the readers from the very beginning.
In First Person and Inner Limited Points of View, the readers are restricted to viewing the world from one character’s perspective. Since only this character’s emotions, thoughts, and motivations will be revealed to the readers, these Points of View automatically can set up Urgency in character development, both for the characters through whose perspective we view the action and for the other characters in the novel, all of whom are presented externally. Whatever the protagonist does not know about other characters in the novel in these Points of View, for instance, the readers cannot know. That creates character development Urgency.
Outer Limited Point of View creates the greatest opportunity for character development Urgency since the author is not revealing any interior or hidden motives. Because only the external life of all the characters is presented, readers are greatly involved in figuring out the causes for the characters’ behavior. Unless you present the character’s secret desires and ulterior motives in a spoken monologue, as is done in theater, for example, the readers will not know why the character is behaving in a certain way. That creates character development Urgency because the readers will want to continue reading the novel to understand the character.
Unfortunately, Outer Limited Point of View also has the greatest chance of alienating some readers for the very reason it can be most interesting to the author. Since readers must figure out everything about the characters’ inner lives for themselves, based on the author’s depiction of the characters’ external behavior, the readers may get frustrated or may misinterpret the characters’ behavior. Outer Limited Point of View is always extremely challenging to an author, but revealing character development Urgency in this Point of View is very demanding.
Final Words of Urgency in Character Development
All Points of View lend themselves to character development, of course, so the trick to learning Urgency in character development is to let your characters deal with the conflicts which confront them in the fiction in the way that the characters would do so, rather than the way you yourself might personally deal with such conflicts (or with how you think you would deal with them). This will help you not only develop your characters and increase Urgency, but will prevent you from writing the same story over and over.
If you are writing literary fiction or another type of book that stands alone, then all the character development Urgency must appear in that single work. If you are writing a series, then the character development can take place over several books in the series. To maintain Urgency, however, you should be careful to spread the character development out relatively evenly over the books: don’t save it all for the final book in the series or your readers will never make it there.
Be sure that you answer any questions about character relationships and development over the course of the series: sometimes authors set up fantastic Urgency in character development in the first book of a series, then seem to forget about it completely. This leaves “holes” in the relationships that can detract from Urgency since the readers will wonder about the characters and their development. Most specifically, readers will wonder why you didn’t tell them everything about the characters’ natures, relationships, histories, conflicts, etc. You need to be highly aware of those things when writing series so that the Urgency in character development is maintained over the entire group of books.
Urgency in Voice
A distinctive or unusual Voice, whether a narrator’s, protagonist’s, or an author’s, usually doesn’t appear until the author has mastered Point of View. However, you can understand the concept without being proficient at creating it. When the Voice in a piece of literature has Urgency, it is the Voice itself that makes the audience want to continue reading. Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is an example of wonderful Urgency in Voice, as is the opening of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Melville’s Moby Dick. The first two examples cited are in First Person Point of View; Moby-Dick is in multiple Points of View.
Urgency in Voice is directly related to Point of View, and many writers find it easier to have Urgency in voice when writing in First Person Point of View. This ease may be due to the intimate bond created when readers hear the narrator’s words. However, it is also possible to have voice Urgency in other Points of View, as Hemingway’s novels demonstrate and as the excerpts cited above demonstrate. In Unlimited Point of View, it is the protagonist’s or the author’s distinctive Voice that creates the Urgency rather than a narrator’s.
Urgency in Plot, Character Development, and Voice
Ideally, a great piece of fiction would manage to maintain Urgency in all three areas, keeping the reader turning pages not only because of the fast-moving plot with its increasing conflicts, as well as the interesting characters, but because of an intriguing Voice. Most works do maintain Urgency in plot and in character development. Because Voice is the most difficult to attain, in any Point of View, it is also the most challenging in which to maintain Urgency in a work of fiction.
Final Words of Urgency in Voice
While Urgency in Voice may be the most difficult to attain, no matter which Point of View you choose to write in, it can also be the most artistically rewarding, both for the authors and the readers. I encourage you to read works that have strong Voice, whether a narrator’s, a protagonist’s, or an author’s; to listen to different dialects, slang, and idiolects; and to learn how to reproduce different Voices in writing in various Points of View to master Voice. Remember, too, that Urgency in Voice does not have to be separate from Urgency in plot or character development. In fact, ideally, all three would be combined.
If you are writing a literary book, of course you do not have to repeat the same Voice in subsequent books. If you do, it will ultimately be considered as the author’s Voice rather than as a narrator’s or protagonist’s Voice if you use the same one in every book you write. If you are writing a series, however, then you should retain the same Voice throughout all the books in the series, as C. L. Bevill does in the Bubba Series. The Voice, in that instance, is one of the things that ties the books together.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU INCLUDE URGENCY?
The most important thing to remember in creating urgency, no matter what Point of View you’re writing your novel in, is that any place you might lose the reader’s attention is a place you need to have urgency. Here are my suggestions for Urgency placement:
- the first sentence
- the last sentence of the first paragraph
- at the beginning and end of each chapter
- at the beginning and end of each section, if your novel is divided into sections
- any time you change narrators or Points of View (these could be considered informal section divisions, so you should have urgency at the beginning and end of each, even if the section division is not formal)
- periodically throughout the novel
- the end of a novel if it is in a series, or if you want the ending to be ambiguous or open to various interpretations
EXERCISES TO DEVELOP URGENCY
1. Imagine that you’re at a party and by chance you meet an agent or an editor. You’ve just finished your novel, and you’re dying to get an agent or editor to look at your work. Now, you don’t want to be too obnoxious, so you don’t hit the agent/editor with the fact that you’re an aspiring fiction writer right away. After all, it’s a party. But eventually the topic comes up, and since the agent/editor is so impressed that you didn’t try to shove your novel down his throat, he actually asks you want your novel is about. You have only one sentence with which to capture the agent’s/editor’s attention and make him beg you to send the novel. This is called The Pitch. Write the one sentence that gets him interested in your novel. Make sure it has Urgency. Show it to your readers. Ask them if they’d want to see the whole book based on that one sentence. If so, congratulations: you have Urgency. (You can also use this sentence after your novel gets published. Since it’s usually about a year to eighteen months from the time a book gets sold to the time it’s available at bookstores, you’ll have plenty of time to “sell” your novel by using this sentence.) If this Pitch works, memorize it and be able to give it quickly and smoothly whenever anyone asks you what your book is about.
2. Pretend you work for TV Guide, DirecTV, or Dish TV, where employees — many of whom are aspiring writers — have to watch movies and television episodes, then write a one-sentence Pitch that gets the viewer interested in watching it. I’m sure you’ve seen the ones where the writers thought the movies were stupid: they sound stupid in the description. Often, the endings are given away, as in “A small group of humans in an isolated Alaskan town fight a losing battle against marauding Zombies.” Since you know the humans lose, there’s no point in watching it. Pick any famous or well-known movie or television show and write the one-sentence description or Pitch for it, containing Urgency, which will make the viewers want to watch it, without giving away the ending.
3. Pick any fairy tale, folk tale, or otherwise well known story and write the one-sentence description-Pitch for it, making its potential audience want to read it; be sure to include Urgency without giving away the ending.
4. Pick any of the following opening sentences and write the first paragraph that follows. Be sure to maintain Urgency throughout the paragraph as well as in the final sentence. After you have completed it, show it to your readers for their suggestions and feedback.
- The woman held the framed picture in her hand without looking at it.
- The man with the shovel stood in the rain.
- “You were there from the beginning,” s/he said, “so you can tell everyone the truth.”
- “I wasn’t the one who started it.”
- The man was in the alley, urinating against the wall. (Feel free to change the diction to fit your paragraph better)
- The story starts with a man in an alley, urinating against the wall. (Feel free to change the diction to fit your paragraph better)
- He was exactly as she thought he’d be. (Feel free to reverse genders.)
- She had no choice but to do what her parents expected.
Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)
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