Okay, I’m seriously excited about today’s guest! I’ve been a big Susan Meissner fan ever since I read White Picket Fences, so I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to share some thoughts with us here on the blog! Her books are amazingly realistic and speak to the soul, with characters you feel could just step off the page, pull up a chair and have a cup of coffee with you. I loved The Shape of Mercy, and Lady in Waiting is on my TBR pile, and now I have to add A Sound Among the Trees to that as well! If you haven’t read any of Susan’s books yet, I hope this post will inspire you to do so!
If you’ve spent any time around four-year-olds you know that they have just one thing on their minds. They want to know why. It is their favorite question to ask, and they can be relentless— sometimes embarrassingly so— about it. A four-year-old might see a young woman at the mall with an unconventional shade of hair color and the tyke will turn to his parents and ask rather loudly, “Why is her hair purple?” The child is making sense of his world. He needs to know the why of everything to do that. When you’re four, that’s all that matters – knowing why. Thanks goodness social graces usually follow and the kid will in time learn to ask why in a way that won’t embarrass mom or dad. But when you’re four, the why of things is how you grasp your universe.
So what can a writer learn from four-year-olds?
Every good novel presents the reader with a character who wants something and must overcome barriers to have it. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading Seuss or Steinbeck, the emotional glue of a story is that the reader indentifies with what the character wants and why.
The why is everything. It’s what bonds us to the main character and entices us to keep turning pages. If we don’t know why the main character wants something, then it doesn’t really matter whether or not she gets it. And if we don’t care whether or not she gets what she wants, we’re going to put the book down.
If you’re writing fiction, you need to know that your reader is going to be a bit of a four-year-old when it comes to your book. They probably won’t even realize it, but while they are reading your novel, in their minds they are asking “why “ all the time. Which means you have to ask why as you are writing. You need to be your own four-year-old. And you need to be relentless about it.
Why does your main character want what she wants?
Answer that question and then ask why again.
Answer that question and ask why again.
Keep asking until you’ve reduced the question to the very essence of your story.
Let’s take a look at a classic to see how this might play out.
In Gone With the Wind what did Scarlett O’Hara? Ashley Wilkes.
Why? She thought he was in love with her.
Why did she think he was in love with her? Because she thought everyone was in love with her.
Why did she think everyone in love with her? Because she was pretty and smart and always got what she wanted.
Why did she always get what she wanted? Because she lived a life of privilege.
Why did she live a life of privilege? Because her father was wealthy and she never had to want for anything. She didn’t know what it was like to suffer. She didn’t know what she was really made of.
Why didn’t she know what she was made of? Because she had never been tested.
Ask enough why questions and we find out the heart of the plot of Gone With the Wind isn’t so much that Scarlett wanted Ashley, it’s that Scarlett had no idea what she was capable of before war took her to the crucible of suffering and showed her.
Suddenly the book becomes bigger because none of us readers want Ashley Wilkes (what did she see in the guy?) but we all wonder what would we learn about ourselves in the crucible of suffering. That’s something we might want to know. And when you dovetail what your character wants with something your reader wants, you’ve bonded them to your story. And that is your number one goal.
Try it with your novel.
Be your own four-year-old.
Relentlessly ask yourself why your character wants what she wants. And keep asking until you can’t ask anymore. Do it right now.
What did you learn about your character? What did you learn about the takeaway of your novel?
And what did you learn about you?
Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the 100 Best Novels of 2008. She is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she’s not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at her San Diego church.
How to reach her:
Susan’s latest book, A Sound Among The Trees:
For 150 years, Holly Oak has stood the test of time and wills in historic Fredericksburg with Civil War scars to prove it. Marielle Bishop marries into Holly Oak’s family, leaving behind Arizona’s deserts to become a wife and stepmother. But it isn’t long before Marielle is led to believe that the house brings misfortune to the women who live there. Local folklore has it that Susannah Page, a Yankee spy haunts Holly Oak because she’s longing for pardon. When Susannah’s great-granddaughter Adelaide McClane tells her that the house is “stuck” because of it’s tumultuous past, Marielle is determined to get past the rumors and uncover the secrets that are buried within its walls.
Susan has graciously offered to give away a copy of A Sound Among The Trees! Leave us a comment and I’ll announce the winner on Monday – please include your email – North American residents only, please!