“No stakes means no urgency means a stillborn story,” claims Benjamin Percy writing in Thrill Me. Percy is full of advice on how to take anemic fiction and give it spine, to pack in more suspense. But in the end, so what? If you can’t write stories with characters capable of bringing us to tears, who cares about thrilling events?
David Corbett, in The Art of Character, suggests five ways of depicting characters who will make us care: they have needs that cannot easily be satisfied; they exhibit strong contradictory desires; they have a plan for overcoming opposition; the unexpected happens and reveals their vulnerability; and there is more to their predicament than meets the eye—buried in them is a secret.
The new class I’ll be teaching this summer, Wednesday nights, starting June 14, at Seattle’s Phinney Neighborhood Center, will attempt to wed suspenseful stories with soulful characters. To illustrate how this can be done, I’ve chosen a best-selling literary novel, Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh. Despite frequent shifts in Point of View, Haigh manages time and again to convince the reader to invest in still another character’s desires and goals, to yearn for their secrets, largely because she suspensefully draws the reader inexorably nearer to the vortex of the big bang you sense is coming.
If you could use a summer class, and you’re in the area, get in touch (see contact info below). If not, be sure to pass this along to writer friends whose stories could use a swift kick.
Summer 2017 Writing Seminar: “Thrill Me, But Make Me Weep.” Any story with a quest can be improved by packing in more tension and holding the reader in greater suspense. But none of this matters until we yearn for the characters.
This six-week course will combine learning how to pack more urgency and suspense into your stories, mainly relying on Thrill Me, and how to make events happen to characters we care about, mainly relying on The Art of Character. We’ll look at examples in a novel and in short stories. I also plan to compare techniques in literary fiction with techniques deployed in a popular fiction, time-travel novel.
Each week the syllabus will include suggested writing assignments. Everyone is invited to bring in one story or novel chapter for workshopping in the final two weeks. There will be time for one or two pieces to be workshopped in each of the earlier weeks.
Required texts: 1) Heat & Light, a novel by Jennifer Haigh, Harper Collins, 2016, ISBN: 9780061763496; 2) Best American Short Stories 2016; 3) Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy, Graywolf Press, 2016, ISBN: 9781555977597; and The Art of Character by David Corbett, Penguin, 2013, ISBN: 9780143121572. Suggested Texts: The Anubis Gates, a novel by Tim Powers, Ace Boks, 1983, ISBN: 9780441004010; and Dangerous Personalities by Joe Navarro, Rodale, 2014, ISBN: 9781623361921.
Class meets: 6 Wednesdays, 7-9:30 p.m., June 14 through July 5; then July 26 and Aug. 2.
Where?: Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. N., Room 6, Building A (Blue Building upstairs). Call (206) 783-2244 for directions.
To reserve a spot in the Phinney Neighborhood Center summer course, please mail a deposit of $50 to Scott Driscoll, 7716 Dayton Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98103. The deposit will be deducted from the course fee. Early sign-up is encouraged. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm that you are planning to sign up.
Thanks. Hope to see you this summer. Scott