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The Distinction between Exciting and Compelling February 1, 2022

There's a stereotype of the young writer who's afraid to write about conflict. Creative Writing teachers tell anecdotes about that one student in their college class who could have written very well, but her stories were static portraits of happy families. Writers publish countless articles reminding newbies they must put their characters in maximum pain, as if they're sick and tired of seeing stories about people living pleasant lives in which nothing bad ever happens.

But if you spend any time around new writers, virtual or otherwise, you'll see the opposite: everyone wants to write about misery. That one student in Creative Writing 101 might write about happy families, but the other twenty-nine want to write about outrageously unhappy ones. Every story posted online for feedback is "my dark take on such-and-such trope." Every piece read at a writer's group meeting or awarded in a short story contest is about troubled girls trapped by an abusive pimp, or twisted brides who poison their grooms and cuddle with their corpses, or people facing the end of the world who decide to smother their children and hang themselves.

People seem to believe dark automatically equals deep. "Hear me out," they Tweet. "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon...but with death mages!" Because Sailor Moon, being a generally uplifting and sparkly show for young girls, is dumb. But if the girls wore black and killed people, it would become meaningful!

Dark stories can be deep—see anything written by Shirley Jackson—but they're not inherently deeper than joyful stories. I've read books with horrifying revelations and despair on every page, and they were still boring and pointless. Anna Karenina is an enduring classic, but that doesn't mean "And then she threw herself under a train" is an easy shortcut to writing an interesting story.

Why do writers assume dark stories are deep, complex, and compelling, even when they're not?

Literary tradition praises violence and cynicism.

My high school reading lists were filled with books by angry dead guys:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Brave New World
  • Animal Farm
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Lord of the Flies
  • And so on and so forth.

Each of these books has its own merits worth teaching, but combined with very little variety mixed in, they taught me that the criteria for good literature is simple:

  1. It's about sex.
  2. It's about death.
  3. It's about people being unhappy and mean in the gaps between sex and death.

Anything else, as we know, is trite "women's fiction." One English Lit teacher in my school dared to assign Pride and Prejudice to her seniors, and oh, the scandal. Such a waste of time, the students complained. Not a single main character gets shot in the head, so like, what's even the point?

Writing advice revolves around "what sells."

As soon as people decided to turn fiction into a business, the definition of a good story became "a story that makes money." Charles Dickens became a Literary Great by ending his serial installments with tantalizing cliffhangers. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), a big conflict between Jo and her future husband is her decision to write juicy pirate tales for money, instead of the sentimental stories she wants to tell in her own voice. In 1906, a translator of Natsume Soseki's satire I Am a Cat complained in the forward:

"Love-stories are all right. But when they are produced in such an enormous mass as at present, they become a nuisance...Their constructions, which are nearly of a piece, are stale and dull. Their charm, if it may be called so, invariably consists in scandalous incidents and offensive dialogues. These are the productions which, catching the attention of wide circles of youthful readers, have long remained the master of the literary field."

Today every rejection letter from a literary agent is some version of, "Unfortunately, the story didn't grab me." What does it mean to grab a publishing professional? To be frank, it means every book written today is supposed to be clickbait. It's supposed to promise anger, fear, lust, shocking twists and violent drama so wickedly tantalizing, no book lover can resist clicking "Add to Cart."

Death is exciting.

Most of the titles promoted by stores and public libraries are high-octane thrillers about murderous psychopaths of some variety. The few low-octane novels with pastel illustrations of blueberry pies in New England beach houses are also about murderous psychopaths, but with recipes.

Anxiety and anger are stimulating emotions, and audiences love to get excited. Adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding action has been a reliable staple of fiction since the ancient days gods warred with lightning bolts and Oedipus Rex married his mother and stabbed his eyes out.

However, "exciting" is not the same thing as "compelling." Two-hour movies stuffed full of life-threatening action scenes can be uninteresting, as shown by the many articles and Reddit threads on the subject, "What went wrong with The Matrix sequels?"

A compelling story is one that "evokes interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way." In practice, it's a story that:

  1. Makes the reader care about the characters and their fates.
  2. Creates knowledge gaps the reader wants to keep reading to fill.

Humans are interested in what we don't fully understand. As babies, we'll stare tirelessly at dangling mobiles and Mom & Dad appearing magically from behind blankets singing, "Peekaboo!" As adults, we're still fascinated by songs with novel patterns we haven't heard before, and by artwork that depicts the world in ways we haven't seen before. We stare open-mouthed at car accidents and obsess over cold murder cases, because they don't make sense to us.

When things don't make sense, we feel dissatisfied, and we want to investigate until we understand. Like when we hear the unpleasant sound of a dissonant, unstable note or chord, we feel something isn't right. Our ears perk anxiously until the music resolves to a nice-sounding chord, and then we're relieved that the world is in order again.

Every story, regardless of genre, is a kind of mystery. What happened? Who's fault was it? How did they resolve the problem? These questions in the reader's mind create what John Gardner termed, "profluence"—a sense that the story is going somewhere, and we'll be rewarded if we keep moving forward.

A lot of death, high stakes, and constant excitement doesn't always create mystery or peak curiosity.

The "rules" of modern fiction prioritize excitement.

Every contemporary creative writer has been told the following dozens of times from teachers, craft books, and AuthorTubers:

  • Every story conflict must be about a kind of death (physical, professional, or personal).
  • In every scene, the stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse.
  • Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger to keep readers turning the pages.

The folks teaching these rules cite Dean Koontz thrillers and Stephen King horror novels to make the case that every book in every adult genre must do the same thing to be compelling: manufacture danger, then crank up the danger more and more, until the clever protagonist wriggles out of danger at the very last moment.

These "rules" are reductive. They teach us how to write exciting fiction, but not necessarily compelling fiction. There's some logic behind each rule, but as written they can mislead writers into believing "death & despair = compelling story."

"Every story conflict must be about a kind of death" => Compelling stories are about challenges with rewards and consequences.

In mysteries, the challenge for the protagonist is to identify the culprit who disrupted the peace, and to restore order by removing the threat from the community. In romances, the challenge for the lovers is to overcome personal foibles and external obstacles to secure their happiness as a new family unit. In coming-of-age stories, the challenge is for the sheltered youth to carve out their new place in the hostile adult world.

These challenges don't dictate tone, and they certainly don't need to be about "a kind of death" unless you stretch the definition of "death" to extremes to justify your theory. The stakes—a.k.a. potential negative consequence of failure—will always be a potential loss, but not necessarily of the main character's whole life or future. They might simply fail to marry a sexy misunderstood duke, or launch their dream career in fashion design, or win the state hockey championship against all odds. That's hardly "death," and it doesn't need to be for a compelling story.

"The stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse" => Throughout the story, the main character's situation must continuously evolve.

In high school physics, I was astonished to learn that the word "accelerate" doesn't mean "to go faster" as it's used colloquially, but "to change in velocity over time." Slowing down is also accelerating.

We're taught by The Rules that the only acceptable direction for a novel to go is "faster" and "higher." But what's really important to maintain a reader's interest is continuous change: an ever-shifting situation, new unexpected information and surprising consequences, a power-balance see-saw between the heroes and the antagonists.

Simply making the main character's situation worse, and worse, and worse, isn't necessarily compelling. Personally, I'm uninterested in most of the books published today that constantly threaten imminent disaster. Wow, the sleuth is falsely accused of murder? And she has to find the real killer before he strikes again? And she figured out who he is, but suddenly he's at the door with a gun, and there's no possible way she can get out of this scene alive? *Yawn* you don't say.

"Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger" => Each scene should promise interesting events in future scenes.

Cliffhangers are usually explained as endings that leave the audience in suspense, either by leaving the characters in a precarious situation or by introducing a shocking revelation or catastrophe.

From watching the drama W, I learned Korean writers think of "cliffhangers" in a different way: an episode of a show or comic should end on a change in the main character's emotional state. I like this definition because it opens up many possibilities for keeping audiences engaged, beyond "And then something really bad happened!"

A compelling end to a scene is simply a promise to the reader that this story is going somewhere interesting. The promise can take many forms. For example...

  • The spunky Regency heroine learns she has a new neighbor with a mysterious past, and she's going to meet him at the colonel's ball tonight.
  • The underdog hockey team learns there's been a change of plans, and they're going to face the regional champions in the rink this Saturday.
  • The teen sleuth learns she'll find an important clue in the restricted special collections room of the library. She calls her eccentric acquaintance in the archives department and says, "Remember when you said you owed me one?"

A "cliffhanger" doesn't have to be negative or threatening. It can be a positive development that makes the characters happy, as long as it promises new challenges and dramatic situations ahead.

Tastes Differ

Different readers will have slightly different definitions of "compelling." The 5-star books I found unputdownable, like The Vanishing Half and The Dutch House, probably bore readers who want Oedipus-level drama. Thousands of YA readers were enthralled by the Divergent trilogy, while I put the first book down halfway through because I felt the heroine was just facing one life-threatening double dog dare after another with no real progress.

The competitive nature of commercial publishing teaches us to believe that the only taste readers have is for liquid opium. If they're not hooked within the first sentence and addicted by the end of the first page, it's "not compelling enough." But readers might not want to get high. They might be looking for a book that's like a warm cup of tea made by a friend who understands them, or a refreshing fruit smoothie that makes them feel energized and optimistic. Those books are harder to sell, but that doesn't mean they're not as "good" or we should give up on writing them.


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