The Current, by Donald Maass
What about a novel sweeps us up into its world? What carries us along even when the imperatives of plot are on hold or absent? What makes us ache for something without knowing what it is? What makes us impatient for a story’s resolution at the same time that we want the tale to go on forever? What is it that causes us to feel that a story has touched our souls?
It’s not plot, scene dynamics or micro-tension. It’s not the inner journey. It’s not setting, voice or theme, although those things undeniably affect us. What I’m talking about is a deeper, seemingly mystical force that engages readers in a way they can’t explain and holds them rapt. It’s nothing overtly stated in your pages.
That irresistible, invisible current is a feeling. It’s a feeling that springs from what you wrote (how could it be otherwise) but which readers can only sense. It’s a feeling to which readers do not assign a name. What causes them to feel this feeling is not so much anything that you put into your story as the spirit that underlies it.
That spirit is hope.
Hope is not something easily contained in one story moment. It’s a difficult feeling to deliberately stir in readers, and one that does not lead characters into action. In fact, it’s not really part of the story at all. Rather it’s a longing, an ache, for something unnamed and unobtainable which you, somehow, cause readers to believe is both real and possible.
Hope is anticipation in readers, but it is often mistaken for something else. For example, consider a classic low-grade horror movie scene. You know the one. It’s the scene in which a teenaged boy and girl are walking up to a derelict cabin in the woods at night. The boy is saying, “Come on, Susie, let’s go inside!” Susie says, “Oh, I don’t know, Johnny. That place looks creepy. Can’t we go back to town?”
Johnny talks Susie into going inside, at which point we know these two are too stupid to live and richly deserve what will be done to them by the monster in the leather mask. It’s the expectation of the gore to come that causes us anxiety, right? Well, maybe. But there’s another emotional force at work on us, one which is as strong, or stronger, than our fear.
What’s triggering our feelings isn’t only Johnny saying, “Let’s go inside!” It’s Susie saying, “Can’t we go back to town?” Susie is the voice of hope. We hope, just for a second, that Johnny is not as stupid as he looks, that he’ll make a good decision, and that he’ll save Susie from a horrible torture and evisceration. Our feeling is, “Look out, you’re going to die!”, that’s true enough, yet it is also, “Please, please don’t die!” (Unless the movie is really bad.)
An absence of hope explains some puzzles about fiction; for instance, why thriller writers can sometimes pile on more and more danger, raise the stakes higher and higher, yet give us barely an ounce more thrill. It explains why beautifully rendered literary fiction can feel ice cold, even when its endings are redemptive. It’s why certain dark mysteries depress us while others nearly identical in plot have us cheering.
Hope is the current running through fiction that we love. So, as we read a novel what do we hope for? Happy endings? Certainly, but that wish is temporary and limited. Characters who find happiness will not remain happy forever. How can they when they’re human? Perhaps we wish to learn something about ourselves and grow? That’s a noble intention and may happen, but is it a pleasure profound enough to explain why we turn to fiction over and over again, searching for the great reads?
I don’t think so.
Hope can be found in every dimension of stories that we love. Take a story’s world. Hope is found in settings not when they threaten but when they present characters with a destiny. A story world that gives us hope is a place where peace is not a last minute outcome but a possibility always. In such a place we find ourselves not weary with waiting but energized by expectation.
When hope brims in novels it’s found in characters who look inward with interest and regard others with curiosity. It’s experienced through a need not to avoid what’s bad but to seek what’s good. It’s felt not in a series of setbacks but in a rising curve of yearning. It’s evident in characters we love not because they’re like us but because their hearts are more generous than ours can ever be.
When we want stories to go on forever they’re not grinding us down but lifting our eyes up. Plots that stir hope make us care not what happens to characters’ circumstances but to their souls. To infuse a story with hope requires that its author be overcome with love.
If hope is tangible as we read but nowhere in the words, how does it get across? When there’s no technique to apply, what tools do you use? Luckily, the tool you need is one you already have: you, since you are the embodiment of hope.
Here are some practical ways to tap the hope that dwells in you and spread that spirit in your story:
Is your story meant to evoke fear? In addition to making circumstances worse, find three ways to raise the hope that the worst won’t happen, then an addition three ways to make survival matter more. Make those reasons personal.
Is your story meant to be romantic? In addition to erecting obstacles to keep two people apart, find three ways to make it matter even more that they join together. Make those reasons personal.
Is your story meant to uphold a principle such as justice? What does your protagonist hope for that cannot be obtained by any means available to him or her? Find three ways to elevate that hope over the plot goal.
Is your story one of journey, healing or seeking wholeness? Find three new ways to manifest the warmth that remains in a wounded heart.
Whatever your type of story, find people in your story who can: deliver a gift, have insight into someone else, turn a corner, forgive the unforgivable, humble themselves, see ahead, know the exact right thing to say, back off, be overjoyed, do a favor, change a life, alter a destiny, find the humor, see the irony, grasp the greater meaning, or die with grace. Whatever you find, add it.
When fiction feels effortless it is in part because tremendous talent and skill have been brought to bear. It is perhaps also because of multiple drafts, beta readers and editorial assistance. It might be that a certain security comes with writing a series, or with experience. Word craft may make a novel sing but none of that is the same thing as giving it heart.
Heart is a quality inherent not in a manuscript but in its author. It is not a skill but a spirit. Spirit may seem mystical but it’s not an accident. It can be cultivated and practiced. Every writing day it can seep into the story choices you make. The spirit you bring is the spirit we’ll feel as we read, and of all the feelings you can excite in your readers the most gripping and beautiful is the spirit of hope.