Endless walls, endless trains, endless clouds.
Uniformity, monotony, apathy. They make for drearier reading than a blank page (at least a blank page is hope’s canvas). Hence Kurt Vonnegut’s counsel to aspiring authors:
Make [your] characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
(From his interview with The Paris Review in 1977.).
Needs must when nature drives.
Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?
Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.
Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading