|Charles Dance looking suave, moody and troubled (I love tortured heroes!) in the TV adaptation of Rebecca|
I recently attended the London Chapter meeting of the Romantic Novelists Association. They have a New Writers Scheme where published authors provide an in depth critique to those who submit manuscripts and who are not yet published.
The meeting was an opportunity for three of us readers to meet some of those who had submitted and I found it fascinating. One of the things that struck me most was something that one of the other readers pointed out that mirrored my own experience of critiquing unpublished manuscripts. By the end of chapter one she said the reader must know that there is something at stake. This is so important, and worth any new writer taking note. It is also an easy mistake to write a whole novel where too little is at stake. Something has to be of major importance to your characters to make it interesting. This is one of the things I have noticed about unpublished manuscripts which may lead to rejection. Often manuscripts are well constructed, the dialogue is good, the characterisations are spot on. But if the main players don't have something major at stake for them to desire, hanker after, want to hold on to - all that hard work can be hung on something which is just too weak to hold a reader's interest. Also there have to be reasons for those very human needs which is why it is important to create fully rounded characters with in depth histories.
To demonstrate, I’ll take a couple of popular works, one recent and one a classic which has been remade so many times it will be very familiar. Firstly Downton Abbey which has been hugely successful. It also perfectly illustrates my point. The storyline hinges on the Downton estate which means everything to the honourable Earl of Grantham and his three daughters. It is their home, their fortune, their considerable legacy. Because the estate is entailed and can pass only to sons there is immediately something at stake because the Earl unfortunately only has daughters. What’s more, we know how hard the Earl has fought to keep the estate, by firstly marrying an American heiress (which wasn’t a love match although he now loves her dearly – he’s a great character, fair and honourable who you want to see succeed) and secondly by engineering the marriage between his eldest daughter Mary and the heir to the Downton estate. Huge things are at stake here, not just property but wealth and most importantly the Earl’s heartfelt desire to preserve the family estate - it’s in his bones and he sees himself as its protector. Instantly as viewers we were hooked. We may never know what it is like to have that weight of responsibility but we can imagine….
My second example is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. From the start we know that the heroine is poor, plain and put upon by the rich, snobbish lady to whom she is acting as companion. Then into her life comes the fabulously wealthy, gorgeously taciturn Maxim de Winter, the sort of man she feels she could never capture. But he sees something in her that others don’t, her good nature, a sweet naievety that he hankers after as he now despises the flamboyant worldliness of his first wife (for very good reasons which I won’t lay out here for fear of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t read Rebecca). Instantly there is something major at stake for both hero and heroine. For the heroine it is a classic Cinderella story, the chance to escape. For Maxim it is the chance to make good a life which has gone disastrously wrong.
So there you have it. For a story to have dramatic impact there has to be something at stake. Something major, for those characters at that time in their lives. Once you set that scenario up you’ll hopefully have readers hooked until the end. So many different people have played Maxim de Winter but my personal favourite is Charles Dance hence the gratuitous photo above of him being moody and troubled. Wonderful!