The Passion in Prose (And What That Really Means)

What is it in a novel that sweeps us away? To put it differently, when we are transported while reading fiction, what is it on the page that actually produces that effect?

Many things can contribute: an intriguing premise, protagonists about whom we immediately care, three-dimensional antagonists, gripping scenes, a richly developed world, a singular voice, high believability, micro-tension on every page.

But above all there is a feeling that this story matters—a lot. We want to experience it. We have to read it. How does that happen? What causes us to feel like that every page of the way?

In a word, I believe it is this: passion.

Now, passion is an overused word. It’s a cultural buzzword like survivor, solutions, sustainable and edgy. It sounds evocative and important, but what does it really mean?

As a literary agent, I especially dislike the way the word is used in the writing game. “Write what you are passionate about!” How often have you heard that advice? “I am passionate about my fiction!” Well, duh. That’s no great claim. It’s like saying, “I love breathing air!”

Every author believes he has passion. What he actually means is he has dedication. That’s great, but it’s not the same as the passion that comes through on the page.

The passion that comes through on the page is something inherent in the story itself. In some way, the author has endowed imaginary people and made-up events with urgency and importance. Those qualities do not lie below the surface; they dwell in the printed words.

When I point out this difference, most authors are quick to reassure me, “Oh, my pages are passionate, all right! My book’s about big issues. It has themes galore. Hey, I lived these events myself.” (Or, if not, “I certainly did lots of research.”)

If that’s true, then why do so many manuscripts and even published novels fail to get me in their grips?

Have you ever felt like a novel you were reading was, in truth, a waste of paper? Did you ever slog through a novel’s middle wondering why you were even bothering? If so, you know what I’m talking about. The spark that ignited the writing can all too easily get lost in the long process of completing the manuscript.

Focus is easy to lose.

So what is that missing X factor? How do you get that necessary passion on the page—and in a way that pierces through to the hearts of crusty, seen-it-all agents, editors and (finally) readers? And how do you summon that passion at every writing session, no matter how many months and drafts you’ve already devoted to a project?

The first thing to realize is that every moment of a story that you choose to set down matters. Every scene not only enacts a change but has hidden in it the reason that the change is important. One of your responsibilities is to pin down that importance.

The next principle is that nothing in a story is meaningful until its meaning is clear to a character. If you’re asking your readers to intuit (by themselves) the unfolding significance of what’s happening, then you aren’t doing your job. You are driving through the dark with your authorial headlights switched off.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in favor of clunky moralizing. Angst and hand-wringing by point-of-view characters also grows wearisome. Even so, the impact of what is happening in the story can be weighed and measured by those experiencing it: your characters.

How to do that without bogging things down? One technique is to include not what a particular plot turn means in the grand scheme of things, but instead what it means to your point-of-view character. In other words, illuminate for that person not what has changed, but how she has changed.

There is also the matter of finding the overall story’s meaning and making it come through. That can’t be done by sticking the moral in at the end. Meaning must infuse the entire manuscript. For that to happen you must discover every day why this story matters to you.

That’s not as difficult as it sounds. All it takes is asking yourself at every writing session why you care about what is happening in the scene at hand. What makes you angry? When you look at what’s happening, what about it strikes you as sad, ironic, stupid, soulful, sublime or just plain real?

Transposing your own powerful feelings, opinions, joys and sadness to your characters, every day, is the way to instill in your pages the wisdom that is living inside your novel—and you.

Do that daily and you will make passion a practical tool.


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