The Introverted Novel
I’m an introvert. I admit it. I don’t like talking on the telephone. I hate any place that is large and crowded and buzzing with noise (unless it’s Yankee Stadium). I go into “people avoidance” mode far more than I like to admit. And, because I live in a home with four other people who are either appear to be serious extroverts (my two youngest children) or borderline introverts who present like extroverts because they are external processors and never stop talking, I tend to disappear often for small chunks of time – five minutes here, ten minutes there – in order to stay sane, uh, I mean, recharge.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more introverted. So have my novels. Each one is more internal than the last. Less dialogue, and only what is absolutely necessary. Less interpretation of characters’ actions and glances and words, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions – even when those conclusions may not be what I intended as an author. Less fill. Less noise.
Quiet. This is how my editor described my most recent novel, Still Life (January 2015). She went on to say, “I certainly wouldn’t call this a high-action novel, but it’s brimming with conflict and tension . . . I couldn’t put it down.”
So how can writers keep their introverted novels page-turners?
- Conflict and tension
- Forward movement
Conflict and tension:
Any writer who has studied a book on novel craft, attended a writers’ conference, read blogs on writing, or has been involved with a critique group has heard (ad nauseam) about conflict and tension, and how important they are to a story.
Briefly, conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Tension (or suspense) a state of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
Conflict creates tension whenever there is perceived suspended drama or an outcome is left in doubt. As long as a novel has enough conflict and tension, it will keep readers engaged, even if there are no evil scientists, high-speed car chases, or threats to national security. The introverted novel, especially, needs to be very aware of its “conflict and tension” level.
Remember: conflict in every scene; tension on every page.
Introverted novels can suffer from the same habits as introverted people – they get stuck in their own heads. I’m ashamed say this, but more than once my (wonderfully patient) husband has said to me, “Christa, you’ve barely said a handful of sentences for three days.” Why? Because I’ve been lost in my own mind, and honestly, I hardly noticed my silence.
Novels can get stuck in their own heads, as well, meandering through every inconsequential event in characters’ lives, providing too many dates and names and little details. So much so, the story stalls, and bored readers are flipping pages to get back to the good parts.
There’s nothing wrong with a novel that’s somewhat loose in structure, less driven by plot and uninterested in speeding through to the finish line for the sake of being finished. Each of my books is more “stream-of-consciousness” than the last, my characters present-day experiences entwined with past memories. In fact, Still Life is probably 50% backstory…or more. (Yes, most “novel writing experts” are cringing at that admission!) But these backstory segments still propel the novel forward because they are directly related to what the characters are going through now. Or they highlight how the characters have changed.
Choose your backstory carefully. Everything you write must propel your story ahead, even while looking behind.
Seasoned writers know readers have to care about a novel’s characters in order to be emotionally moved by the conflict and tension in the story.
How do we come to care about people? We get to know them.
Introverted novels in this sense are the opposite of introverted people; their characters’ introspection is dissected for the reader, sliced open and laid bare for all to experience, allowing us to see those things the characters would never willingly reveal if left on their own. But through this dissection, readers see themselves reflected in the lives of those lived out in the story.
In a faster-moving, plot-driven novel, all the action can “cover up” a shallow protagonist, or provide enough adrenaline that readers can be fooled into thinking they care about the characters, when in reality their interest is in how the book ends, and the characters are incidental in that curiosity.
Dig deep. Don’t give your characters superficial problems and feelings, the kind found in any soap opera or teen drama on ABC Family. Let them think those things most people would never want anyone to know have crossed their minds. And then allow the reader to see it. Transparency breeds intimacy, and the more intimate we become with the characters, the more we care. The obstacles they face, then, will matter to us, too, heightening the conflict and tension surrounding them.
Since quiet, introverted novels have little flash behind which to hide – sparser plot, less action, more internal dialogue – the words become vitally important. In a faced-paced thriller, readers fly along with the story, caught up in the dangerous twists and turns, and the language used to craft the tale may not stand out to them as much as if they are reading an unhurried, literary novel. An introverted novel is savored rather than gobbled; a reader will notice the identical word used twice in a paragraph or three times on the same page. But because of this quiet pace, readers also have time to chew on the prose, reflect on the beauty of the author’s words, admire a unique turn of phrase, reread a sentence that stirs the soul.
Let your novel lean on its language, making your words as important as the story’s characters and plot.