OK, so you are writing a novel; what is it that keeps the reader actually reading?
For some it may be the bodice ripping count, if some pale and palpitating young thing doesn’t get her bodice ripped at least every other chapter, then it’s into the old supermarket box under the stairs with it, ready for a trip to the second-hand book store.
For others it’s body count, if they can’t picture the blood dripping from the spine of their book at regular intervals then why carry on?
Whatever it is that floats a reader’s particular boat, there is a common thread. Will the heroine find a protector, will the prisoner avoid the guards and escape? That common thread is jeopardy. According to the Collins English Dictionary, jeopardy can be defined as danger of injury, loss, death, etc.; risk; peril; hazard. In writing terms it can be what provides the motivation to RUN!!! It may be a source of tension or conflict. In other words, it is what can take your story and transform it from being simply a series of scenes that take us gradually towards the conclusion, into a story that is compelling. As a young reader, if I saw a blurb on a book that said it was “a real page turner” then it told me something about what I could expect from the hours that I was going to invest in reading; and if I wasn’t feeling compelled to turn that page…
I am currently writing a Young Adult novel in which the 16 year old heroine is kidnapped by aliens and, through her abilities as a storyteller, heads off a potential war between the human colonists and the aliens. Now of course, interspecies war is pretty high up there on the jeopardy scale, the end of the human colonisation of Onyx etc. etc. but the anticipation of that is not going to sustain the reader until the point where the heroine actually saves the day. So what I did was to make a list of things that could happen to the heroine and put her in jeopardy while she is on the journey to the final showdown.
* Going to see the child psychologist
* Being kidnapped and isolated from other humans
* Telepathic communication with aliens could explode her brain
* Attack by a lion (or the alien equivalent)
* Bush fire!
* Fall off a cliff into the sea
* Aliens threaten to kill all humans
* Breaks her leg
* Poisoned by some strange fruit
Then, for each option, the question is, would this stop the story going forward? Having ones brain explode clearly cramps the ability to save the day, so that was out. Breaking a leg may not end the story (Misery anyone?) but in this case it would make things just too difficult. Anything else can then be seriously considered as a detour or a subplot for part of the journey of the heroine.
Of course, finding the source of the jeopardy is only the start of the process, now the fun stuff comes in, writing the action, bringing in the conflict, describing the colour and smell of the vomit…
When you get down to structuring those chapters, there are obviously different approaches that you can take (more of that in a later post). However, to just touch on the subject: if your story is a fast paced adventure, then one approach is to see the full novel as a collection of episodes in a series. Each chapter builds on those that came before, but each chapter should also build to its own climax and resolution (or, sometimes end with what would be a cliffhanger on TV). It may be that there is a bush fire and, after the trials of running from the fire, the chapter ends with reaching safety. Or, the jeopardy may be on a longer timeframe; with a chapter ending with the revelation that all humans on Onyx are at risk (and subsequent chapters resolving part of this longer story arc).
How do you go about building in multiple sources of jeopardy? Do you brainstorm, or do the various crises pop into your head fully formed as you write? I would be interested to hear from you all about your own approaches.
And look out for my novel where I take a 16 year old girl, psychoanalyse her, kidnap her, have her attacked by wild animals, where she is caught in a bush fire, almost drowned, poisoned, and made the focus of a potential war with aliens – and thank the stars (on her behalf) that I stopped my brainstorming there!
As we come to the end of a post on jeopardy, there is only one thing to say…
………………… de bop bop
………………………. bop… bop… bop
(Please note: For those of you digging into the history of my personal blog, this is an expanded version of something that I wrote back in November 2010 during NaNoWriMo.)