As David Mamet once said to me, “If Hamlet comes home from school, and his dad asks him how school was, and Hamlet says, ‘It was fine, Dad,’ it’s boring.”
Whether you’re writing a literary novel, a psychological, medical, legal or spy thriller, or even a cozy mystery, for a novel to be engaging, it must center on human conflict and disturbance.
Without chaos, there’s very little story to tell.
If you think you’ve got a story worth telling, before you start to write, reflect upon what you’ve enjoyed when reading fiction, and also remember those books you just couldn’t plow through. Where did those writers go wrong?
The scintillating stories you favored most likely brimmed with conflict. An engaging novel is disturbing. It presents chaos and upheaval—either within the characters’ minds or in their lives. These clashing interactions and relationships between people are at its core.
As readers, we crave disturbance and uncertainty. We live vicariously through the anguish, turmoil, and trouble the characters must endure in an attempt to reorder the chaos propelling the story.
This dynamic holds true no matter the genre.
And, it’s as old as storytelling itself: consider The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Within their pages we find incest, murder, kidnapping, wars, and nearly every other conceivable horror that can beset human beings.
When writing my own novels, I keep conflict center stage. And, with surgical precision, I use my expertise as a forensic psychiatrist to bolster that chaos.
For example, in The Lovers’ Tango, Bill Shaw, the protagonist, is not only on trial, accused of murdering his wife, but the reader is kept off-balance experiencing all that led up to the courtroom, and ultimately that which follows the jury’s verdict.
Despite my years working as a forensic psychiatrist testifying in many trials, I avoided making the courtroom scenes an exposition of arcane language and legal concepts. Instead, I kept the focus on conflict, and did so through dialogue, the engine driving this and many other novels. I employed my knowledge of the courtroom and psychiatry in the service of heightening the tension, but didn’t allow my professional fund of knowledge to drown out the chaos and turmoil.
As for using any writer’s knowledge in a specific field or endeavor, be it medical, legal, military, financial or otherwise, a balance must be struck so the expertise doesn’t burden the all-important role of pacing. It’s fine to employ that which you know well, but it must play only a supporting role to the tension and conflict driving the novel.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow perfectly illustrates this maxim. Turow skillfully imbued his novel with legal expertise, but the tension in the story derived from the chaos of the characters’ lives. His legal knowledge added color, authenticity and depth.
Jonathan Kellerman’s latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, achieves this same goal, integrating his knowledge of psychology into a riveting tale about the death of an old, mysterious woman.
We read novels to experience vicariously something far different from our daily lives. We want to be titillated, frightened, angered, overjoyed, heartbroken or moved in some kinetic way as we turn the pages.
If we want to immerse ourselves in a field of study, there are many non-fiction books available to provide such information.
When you’re ready to write, keep in mind those novels which kept you turning the pages as opposed to those you put down after a chapter or two.
“Write what you know” isn’t always the best advice.
Write to tell a story that captures the imagination and makes a human connection with the reader.
And one final but essential piece of advice: remember, dialogue isn’t just what characters say to each other, it’s what they do to each other with words.
Make your dialogue count. It should be thrusting the tension and hence the storyline forward.
Most of all, aim to make the reader regret when the book is coming to its end.
No matter what your primary field of study had been, when you write a novel, your basic aim is to tell a good story.
Don’t get lost in the weeds of expertise.