During college, I often had to read three plays a week. Considering most of them were six hours long, hundreds of pages, and practically the same plot, I often didn’t read three plays a week, if you catch my drift.
My professor, a 70 year old man obsessed with the “abnormal” (one of those people who refused to like anything mainstream or modern), would often give us terrible plays, praising those that deliberately meant nothing (Ionesco’s early work) and criticized those that tried to be a real metaphor for something (Ionesco’s later work). He told us very frankly that it is not about whether or not we like it. He also went on to say that it wasn’t always about what the playwright said it was.
“The author doesn’t know what it’s about,” he told us.
Well, you can probably see the problem with that. When we are trying to judge quality, when we are sitting there, trying to understand why this play is “better” than that one, how disregarding if we like it and what the author intended on doing pretty much removes any standards we can have for what is “good” and what isn’t.
So I asked him. “How do I know if it is a well-made play or not?” A loaded question because I already knew that he was a reputation junky. He told me that I would learn with time. A copout. He proceeded to explain to me that he would never give me a bad play to read. Having been under his study for two years, I distinctly disagreed.
I wanted to impress him. I wanted to show him I was an experienced playwright and spent the first half of my degree attempting to understand what he wanted. But I came to realize, after he praised some for things that he disparaged others for, he was very simply a man about appearances. He liked works based on who told him to. I could never impress him because no matter how I changed what I did, being a fan of a student isn’t the same as being a fan of Kafka.
The hardest part of being a “good” writer is understanding what good writing is. Generally when asked, people give vague answers, or worse, so specific ones that it’s almost inane. Anywhere from “writing that makes me feel,” to “stories that don’t start with the protagonist waking up,” could be the response. When trying to improve ourselves, it’s a little hard if we don’t know what improvement is or how to achieve it.
There are many things that a good writer will be able to do. Here are five.
1. Have the reader doubt the protagonist will succeed (even though you fully intend him to.)
Aristotle defined tension as doubt of outcome. The problem with fiction today is that everyone expects the main character to get what he wants in the end, to live, and to prove himself right. It is easy to defy this expectation by just having him fail. What is hard, however, is to have the reader honestly unsure if the protagonist will win until the moment he actually does. It is important, and harder, to keep the balance. The reader will be most entertain if he really isn’t sure of the ending, but still has an idea. If he’s not convinced of failure or success, he’ll keep going to the end.
2. Have foreshadowing that is obvious (but only after the fact.)
An important element of a story is the foreshadowing. It gives little hints of the resolution throughout the book, leading the reader to treat it like a puzzle that could be solved, even if they didn’t.
The hard part of foreshadowing is to make it not look artificially jammed in there or being too good of a hint and leading the outcome to be foreseen.
The best kind of hints are the ones the reader doesn’t recognize until after he knows the answer. Foreshadowing that confuses the audience, is distracting, or is just too obvious doesn’t really achieve its goal. It is often best ignored and used more like an alibi: something that seems unimportant but can be used to prove that it was the author’s intention the whole time.
3. Have clear reasoning for every action in the story (but the reader doesn’t notice.)
Take a piece of writing you consider “bad” and look at it. Is it obvious what the author is trying to do? Bad rhyming is bad because the only motivation was to rhyme. Descriptions that are transparent—when she describes his glistening abs, it’s obvious she just wants to say, “look how sexy”—dialogue that is too on-the-nose, and events that are more useful than believable, bring the reader out of the world.
When someone dissects a story, it is important that the writer’s motivation is there. If a person trying to understand why an author did something can’t figure it out, it looks more like that creator was just winging it. However, a casual reader shouldn’t be thinking about those things. He should be absorbed in the world and not considering, “Well, clearly they’re getting in an argument so that he’ll storm off and be available for capture.”
A great writer has a reason for doing everything that he does, but doesn’t broadcast it.
4. Prove your point (without the reader realizing you had one.)
“Your point,” could be anywhere to “solve the problems of global warming,” to “look how cool India Jones is.” In any case, the writer wants the reader to understand something about the fictional world, real world, or character and does his best to illustrate that.
We all have had the concept of the “theme” and “moral implications” repeatedly smashed into our skulls, but during English classes, how often was it easy to tell what the author was getting at? Sometimes, very. And how often did the students ever take that book seriously? (Or any book seriously?)
People don’t like being hit with the theme stick. People don’t like being told how they should feel. People don’t like having things spelled out for them, evidenced now by your current hostility. Writer’s have lots of points to make, and good ones make it without even informing the reader they were trying.
5. Give the characters what you want them to have (but make punish them for it.)
Both the reader and the writer have something in common (if they like the book): they want the characters to be happy, special, and victorious. But the author, being like a god, can give him anything they want.
If the writer does this too readily, the reader will suddenly turn on the character. He will go from relating to or rooting for the protagonist to feeling in competition with him. The trick to writing an interesting book is to make the reader want the character to be happy by making him unhappy.
Characters who seem to be graced by the gods remind the audience of the god behind it. They are brought back to the memory that they are reading something fictional. Then there comes the problem of unfair riches. The same mentality that leads a brother to complain when his sister gets ten bucks until both get neither, the reader will turn on the protagonist.
It is tricky business because the more we make the characters miserable, the more the reader is miserable – too miserable, and they won’t like the book, but too happy and they’ll be bored. So the trick is to make the protagonist successful and special, but make him miserable for it until the very end.