Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Making a Sweet Story Interesting

I wrote a review of Elizabeth Berg's novel The Last Time I Saw You back in 2010. After reading the review, my friend Peg Case commented, "Good grief -- can't a book be written about people who are happily married?"

The simple answer, is no.

And now, as I write Book 3, I am reminded of that every day. This is a sequel to Where Love Once Lived which ends with Karen and Brian getting engaged after thirty years of heartache and separation. It took more than eighty-thousand words to get them to this happy place in their lives. Now, I have to start the conflicts all over again.


Without conflict, you wouldn't read the book. And if you did, you'd be able to quit reading anytime you wanted to. There'd be nothing to get you to read on, to learn what happens next. You wouldn't care what happened to the characters.

That makes it even harder to write sequels. Some of you who read Where Love Once Lived have written to tell me what should be in the sequel. You want Liz to get a boyfriend. You want to know what happened to Laura. Did she have her baby? Some have asked how the marriage between Josh and Cindy is doing. I think many of you care as much about these fictional characters as I do.

The logical place to start the sequel is with the wedding between Brian and Karen. After all, we left off with their engagement. But, that's too happy. Not enough conflict. I want you to keep reading. What if the bride doesn't show? What would that do to the happy couple? What if Liz meets the man of her dreams, but he isn't the man he pretends to be. What would she do if she found out?

See what I mean. I can't tell you more now. I don't want to spoil it for you.

If you want to write a novel that keeps readers reading, keep this in mind: Every scene has a goal that is never achieved.


  1. In an email from Peg:

    I'm still pondering this one, Sid. You make good points, and I rather like your summing up -- "Every scene has a goal that is never achieved." (Except surely at the end????)
    However, seems to me a novel can feature a happily married couple - who might disagree about certain things, of course - but the conflict would be something they both take an interest in correcting. Or, in the case of a police detective, the wife takes a supportive role with some good insights here and there. Two cases as example: Louise Penny's novels which feature Chief Inspector Gamache. His wife takes the supportive role but has a career of her own as well. And they have personal conflicts involving their grown children which they endure together. #2: The TV show White Collar: the FBI agent and his wife and their relationship. Both these wives are strong, independent, clever women. And, who didn't like Mr. and Mrs. North?
    I frankly become annoyed with characters in novels who never seem able to commit to a relationship.
    I highly recommend the Penny novels if you feel like reading a book about a crime that is well plotted, well-described with many complex characters who develop with each succeeding novel. Cheers, Peg

  2. Thanks, Peg.

    You’re right, as usual. When I said “every scene” I was being way too general. Of course the final scene is usually a close out and probably doesn’t even have a goal other than making the reader feel all the loose ends have been tied up. Or, perhaps it is a tease for a sequel. And, I suspect there could be other scenes along the way that are more positive and exist only to keep the story going. But, the conflict is what keeps the reader turning pages. I remember a review of one of Dee Henderson’s books where I said the middle dragged. I think that was why. She did a great job hooking the reader at the start and a great job with an exciting ending, but the middle was just filler to meet the publisher’s word count requirements (in my opinion).

    In Kathy Reich’s books, Brennan usually gets herself into a life or death predicament where she must save herself through her intelligence and without the help of some man. She scares me every time this happens and wish she wouldn’t do it sometimes. But I keep reading. Reich also ends every chapter with an unsettle problem, so there is no place to stop reading.

    I also goofed by saying a book couldn’t be written about a happily married couple. As you pointed out, there are many examples to show me wrong. What I should have said a good book couldn’t be written without conflict.