Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sink or Swim

By Terry Wright

Take a look at this picture. Bigger picture here. Where do your eyes go? The upended ship? The water? The starry night sky. It’s all frighteningly real because it’s a familiar story: an unsinkable ship hits an iceberg and sinks in an ink-black sea. But what makes this picture compelling?

It’s when you look closer, when you look beyond the story, and see the people, the characters caught up in the unfolding drama, that you feel an emotional response from your gut. The picture becomes suddenly cold and wet and dangerous.

When your eyes find the survivors in the lifeboats you might feel relief and hope. The passengers on the aft deck clinging to the rails, way up there in the air, make your stomach knot with impending doom. Or maybe you’ve spotted the lone figure hanging on a rope from the top deck directly below the left (aft) smokestack. Isolation and desperation set in. Your mouth goes dry.

How about the silhouettes of those souls on the upper lighted decks, looking over the edge into the dark abyss? What must be going through their minds? Jump or hold on? Am I going to live or die? You’re suddenly there with them, wondering what you would do, and you don’t even realize you’re holding your breath. Horror wells up inside your chest. Swallowing doesn’t help. You are emotionally engaged in the characters of this story.

The point here is simple. Time and time again, I’ve seen this kind of scene set in many a contest entry. It’s all there, the ship, the water, the sky, the people in the life boats, the people on the rail, and the guy on the rope, written as if the writer watched the drama play out on a mental silver screen and wrote it all down. Look at this great story I’ve written about an unsinkable ship that sank. Isn’t it cool?

They’re not hard to spot, those entries written for the sake of the story and not for the sake of the reader. From the first page, they’re emotionally flat, say a weak POV character (or none at all), wrought with back story and authorial exposition that explains lots of cool stuff...but no heart. Readers need a sympathetic character to latch on to, a problem that needs solving, and high stakes for the character or for the character’s world. Not just a ship sinking in an ink-black sea.

Nobody cares about the ship. It’s the people on the ship, where they came from, how they got there, what they do in the face of this disaster, who will live and who will die. Novels sink or swim on the emotions they evoke from the reader. So look at your story closer, find your characters’ hearts and souls and splay them open for the entire world to see, to experience, and to understand.
Or pinch your nose and go down with the ship.


Chris Devlin said...


Great advice! James Cameron got a lot of flak for centering his Titanic story on a fictional character and a love story. But it was that decision that made the movie a huge success. Audiences could relate to Rose's woes amidst the dizzying special effects and larger-than-life events.


Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Terry. Readers don't seen to enjoy what I call "Michener openings" these days, so it's important to introduce character and conflict right away.

Karen Duvall said...

Excellent points, Terry! And what a great example, too. I think some writers forget they can have all that cool cinematic stuff in their beginning pages and have it work as long as the character reacts to it. That's what's missing. A sinking ship, as you say, is just a sinking ship in the distance, but when you have a character bobbing along on a lifeboat that's taking on water so cold he can no longer feels his feet, you have drama. Describe his sense of helplessness while watching a man outside the boat reach out, begging for help, just before he disappears into the inky sea. It's all about character.

Dean K Miller said...

This was helpful. A perspective shown about what the post is about, instead of just telling us not to do it this way, but that way.

I'll refer back to this as I plod through my WIP and revsions too, and cross-check my efforts.


Anonymous said...

Powerful post, Terry! I got chills just looking at the picture, but reading your post put me in the frigging water, banging up against the side of the doomed liner! The Titanic has always affected me to the core of my soul. Thanks, Terry, thanks for freezing the very breath out of me....