f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 6 of <i>Gilead</i> - Turning the Screws

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Day 6 of Gilead - Turning the Screws

A long time ago we talked about a scale rating books in terms of how writing and character-driven they are versus plot-driven. I think fully character-driven books were given a 10 and plot-driven books were given a 1. Most of us would probably rank Gilead at about a 8 or a 9 on that scale.

The hardest thing with these kinds of books is having identifiable “stakes” that draw the reader through the story. Some readers may bog down in Robinson’s narrative, in John Ames’ preacherly pontification. Some readers may be 85 pages in and thinking, “Where is this story going?”

It goes some where.

In fact, Robinson has heightened the stakes as much as she can within her small “normal” world to force our interest and compel us forward. Let’s look at a few ways.

John Ames is old. John Ames is dying.

John Ames is leaving behind a wife and child.

The wife John Ames is leaving behind is a stunning woman who entered his life late as the unexpected love of his life. He feels a bit like he didn’t get to spend as much time with her as he could have.

The son John Ames is leaving behind is too young to know what’s happening. Ames lost a child from his first marriage, a wound that stayed with him for a long time. The simultaneous joy and pain of having this boy now force the writing of the book.

Because he was a bachelor pastor for so long in a small town, John Ames has virtually nothing to leave his wife and son. No way to leave them in anything but in need.

A younger man, an untrustworthy man, is befriending the boy…and the wife.

The younger man is the son of a dear friend—and kind of a surrogate son to John himself.

Do you see how each little bit of the story raises the stakes a little further? This is never going to be a race against an evil villain to rescue a damsel before her horrendous death. But the emotional tension Robinson draws here is as taut as a cello string. And when she plucks at it, the notes that are sounded really sing.

All of which is to say, don’t be content with slack emotional tension in your story. Look for ways to ratchet up the stakes and make the heart of your story beat even faster.
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Continue to Day 7 of our discussion of Gilead.