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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Making Readers Turn the Page

After judging writing contests for several years, I've become convinced that bad writing isn't the worst thing to happen to a manuscript. Readers can get over bad writing. But a boring story is unforgivable. Who will keep reading when she's bored?  
Recently on the Books and Such Blog, Wendy Lawton said she's seeing manuscripts that are submitted too early. They are "workmanlike" manuscripts, according to one editor. Those are manuscripts that are "all elbows," Wendy says. Where "every technique seems to jut out."

That made me stop and think.

I have always thought the workmanlike manuscript is the one that carries the story like a sturdy wheelbarrow would. It gets 'er done. It's the manuscript where every sentence is technically correct, but there's nothing pretty about the writing. Workmen aren't dressed up.  

The opposite of workmanlike manuscripts would be pretty manuscripts, I thought. But pretty writing doesn't make a story great. Good manuscripts aren't full of flash and flair. Considering some of the contest entries I've read, and considering my own writing journey, I wonder if what Wendy means when she speaks of a manuscript where "every technique seems to jut out" is one full of vibrant verbs and sentences with varying structures, and nary a dialogue tag in sight. Such a manuscript has been worked over and over until the sentences are pretty, maybe, but the first chapter doesn't hold your interest, because the story is hidden under all the pretty sentences.

Pretty writing might give a writer a pleasant voice, and voice is important. I've thought for years that voice is the most important factor in writing. I've nodded my head at agent and editor panels when the speakers say that voice is what they care most about, because they can help you fix your plot if it's broken, but they can't give a tone-deaf writer a great voice.

I get that, and I still agree with it. But at some point the story must be fixed. Either the writer or the editor has to make the story work, because writing, whether it's lyrical with luxurious, flowing sentences or it's using short fragments to showcase a snarky character, will not keep us reading if there is no story.

What is it that pulls a reader through a book? I guess if there was an easy answer to that, someone would write a book about it and get rich.

I'd say what pulls me through the book is story, not great technique. I'll follow a character I care about anywhere even if there are problems with the writing. But no matter how melodious her voice is, I won't sit in one spot with a character for long, while she waxes poetic on the flowers in the meadow.

I want forward movement.

The character needs to love something or hate something or care about gaining or losing something. And something needs to stand in the way of his achieving his goal.

Does that mean we have to jump right into the action? Do I care about a character I've never met, who is in a "to the death" battle with another character I've never met? How can I know who to root for if I've never met either character?

I've tumbled these questions around and around as I've read "how to" books and as I've critiqued manuscripts and judged contests, and in the end, I think that what makes me keep turning pages is…

Inner conflict.

The character does need to want something that he can't obtain, but wanting to live through a fight while someone is beating him up is not going to do it. It's when we see a character torn between equal but incompatible desires that we really have tension.

At a conference a couple of years ago, Jamie Weiss Chilton put it like this: Your character has to choose between two good things. It's not enough to make her choose between the bad boy and the good boy. If only one boy is a viable choice, there is no conflict. But when a character has to choose between two really good things, then we have the inner conflict that makes the story compelling.

Think of the Green Goblin in the first Spiderman movie, giving Peter Parker a terrible choice: Save Mary Jane or save a bunch of people on a bus. Think of Katniss who doesn't want to fight in the Hunger Games, but who doesn't want her sister to fight either. Or think of Anne Shirley whose inner conflict is more subtle. She wants desperately to be adopted by Matthew and Marilla, but she also wants to walk around with her head in the clouds, because she's an artistic soul and she can't squelch that part of herself.

What about your WIP? Is your character faced with an inner conflict in the first chapter? Tell me what that conflict is. If you don't have one, can you give your character an inner conflict?

 is the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at


  1. Sally, this is a great article. Like you, I've read manuscripts and even books that have all the right parts but they are so boring I keep putting them down. On the other hand, I've read books in genres I say don't appeal to me, but they hold my interest to the end.

    Conflict. Yes, truly. But I think I need to care about the character to care about her dilemma. Also I think there need to be sufficient stakes at risk for me to care. Otherwise, I think, why does it matter if she chooses A or she choose B; just stop being so indecisive! LOL


  2. Great article Sally. Forward motion, conflict, all central, but I think you hit it on the head when you bring up inner conflict.
    Genuine, inner conflict that doesn't feel contrived makes the character personal to the reader.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Brandon.

  3. You know in thinking more about this, I guess you could say that Spiderman's dilemma was external. It was an external force causing the trouble. But what makes it a problem is that he's torn on the inside. Save the one he loves, or save more than one person? It's the internal conflict that makes it interesting. What do I care about the people in the bus? I don't know them. I care about Peter Parker and his struggle.

    So are the stakes sufficient in that one? It's not the life and death deal that matters. It's that his life will be changed hugely by his choice.

    What do you consider sufficient stakes, Becky?

  4. Really enjoyed this article. Inner conflict makes it or breaks it. You're so very right.

  5. I agree that inner conflict makes for a good story. BUT, if I don't like the protagonist, I don't care what's going on inside. So, I don't know that you can say it's this one thing or that one thing that keeps a reader engaged. It's the right combination of a great/interesting voice, compelling story, and a gripping internal conflict. If a writer can do all that, I'm pretty sure the writing will be fine.

    1. Oh, yes, I agree, Cathy. Thanks for chiming in.

      I guess what was on my mind when I wrote this was that in many of the contest submissions I have judged over the years, and, in fact, in many of the books I've bought and started and then put down, I DO like the characters, and I DO like the voice. But I put the book down anyway. And the reason I put the books down, I think, is that there is a lack of inner conflict.

      If there is inner conflict and a great voice but an unlikable character will I put the book down? Yes, maybe. But chances are likely I won't start that book in the first place.

      If there is inner conflict and a character I love but a lousy voice will I put the book down? No. That's what I've just come to realize. Without a good voice the book won't be on my "rave about it to everyone I meet" list, but I will read it to the end if a character I like is fighting with some internal conflict

      I just read a book this week in which the writing wasn't stellar but there were characters I liked and there was sufficient inner conflict to carry me. On the other hand I just set down a book and decided to surf the Internet because, though I liked the characters and the writing was decent, and there was external conflict, there is no internal conflict. And I'm bored.

  6. You really nailed it, Sally. Thank you.

  7. Great post, Sally. I'm blogging on Wendy's statement tomorrow, too, and will definitely reference your post here! I'm talking to newbie writers about how to get that new MS from good to fantastic in the shortest time possible!

  8. Excellent tips and questions! I especially loved your emphasis on crafting a character torn between equal but incompatible desires. As readers we love to be conflicted, don't we? :)


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