As you’re getting ready to write your heart out for NaNoWriMo, it’s a great time to remember and celebrate the contribution that passion makes in a great novel. Passion shows up on the page in multiple ways.
Think about it. What makes you love a book as a reader? Is it the characters? The plot? The setting? The theme or big idea? Honestly, they all work together to make up the premise, but let's face it, not all things in a book are equal. And even a great premise can fall short in the execution.
So what makes the difference?
Aristotle believed plot was the most important element in drama, but mainly insofar as it could generate emotion in the audience. What generates emotion? In my opinion, you have to care about the characters before you can feel for them. And that brings us back to what makes an audience care.
Passion. Driving desire. Action.
Passion, desire, and action are some of the most important engines that fuel our love of character. Or rather, they fuel the characters we love and make them do things we find fascinating to read about.
Great characters make things happen because they are passionate about something they then pursue.
The Right Kind of Inciting Incident
Many different people have written about how to craft a compelling pitch, but my favorite always contained four components:
- The inciting incident
- The character
- The obstacle
- The quest
The inciting incident (and I love whoever it is that first called it an "exciting incident") is the point in the story where the imperfection and backstory of the main character has been exposed, the story problem is revealed, and the character has to make a choice about restoring order. The inciting incident has to:
- Create a tipping point between the status quo and change
- Force the character to make a significant choice
- Launch the character into a into a series of events and learning opportunities
- Have stakes and real consequences for success AND failure
- Hint at the climax of the story
The events into which the inciting incident launch the main character must prove the premise of the book—the combination of the book's inner and outer story—through emotional value, action, and outcome.
Take The Hunger Games, for example. Suzanne Collins could have made Effie pick Katniss as Tribute. That would have launched the story, right? But it wouldn't have been the same story. It would have been a story of survival, without as much heart. In some ways, Katniss was a hard character to fall in love with, in part because she was such a hardened character. Her passion to save Prim softened her, made us relate to her, root for her.
If Katniss had been selected as Tribute, she wouldn't have had a choice. The characters I love best not only have passion, they also actively choose to embark on the story's journey.
Igniting and Applying the Passion
As you do your preparation work for NaNoWriMo, spend some time examining your idea for opportunities to make your character more active and proactive instead of reactive. Make your protagonist make things happen instead of being buffeted around by bad things. Let her shake things up. The characters we all love usually rock their worlds.
Examples of Driving Passion
- The Hunger Games. Katniss will do anything to protect her. When Prim is selected to be a Tribute, Katniss volunteers to go instead, knowing she will likely die but determined to survive for Prim's sake.
- Marchelo in the Real World. Hampered by elements of Autism, Marchelo loves training the Halflinger Ponies at the Patterson school where he feels safe. When his father tells him he must successfully work in a "real world" job all summer or go to the public high school in the fall, Marcelo sets off to succeed but must weigh that goal and the security of his family against the risk of doing what he believes is right for two women he realizes are in danger of being wronged.
- Days of Blood and Starlight. Karou is determined to save the few remnants of the chimaera who have survived what she sees as her betrayal of her own kind. When she creates bigger, badder monsters, she inadvertently fuels the war that leads to the destruction of even more innocent chimaera.
- Persuasion. Barrie is desperate to protect the magic of Watson Island, but as long as she protects it, she cannot be with Eight, and as long as she protect the secret of why they can’t be together, she’s driving a wedge between them. The more she struggles to keep her magic AND protect the boy she’s falling in love with, the more she puts herself in danger, until the risks she’s taking may cross the line to the unforgivable and the murderous.
Passion Leads to Making Mistakes and Complications
The characters in the above books all make mistakes. Maybe that's part of what I find endearing about them. They aren’t perfect. They make assumptions out of love and passion, and in acting on those assumptions, they fail. Still they rise and try again. And that's compelling fiction.
There is one more thing most of those books have in common. In each of them, the subsidiary characters also have a driving passion.
- The Hunger Games. Peeta secretly loves Katniss. When he and Katniss are chosen as Tributes, he sets out to save her knowing that will cost him his own life.
- Marchelo in the Real World. Jasmine is passionate about jazz music and driven to make enough money working at Marchelo's father's law firm to build a music studio on the family farm so she can take care of her father who has Alzheimers. When Marchelo asks her to risk her job by stealing information that will help a traffic accident victim who is suing the law firm's client, he asks her to endanger her job and his father's law practice.
- Days of Blood and Starlight. Guilty over his own role in the slaughter of the chimaera and (he believes) in the death of Karou, Akiva is determined not to dishonor her memory by engaging in more senseless slaughter. When presented with the opportunity to end the war, he kills his own father without realizing he is only a pawn in a larger game.
- Persuasion. Eight gives up his baseball scholarship on the West Coast to stay near Barrie, and then he’s desperate to find a way to continue playing. His father is desperate to protect him and keep the secret of what will happen to Eight once he inherits the full force of the family magic. Cassie is desperate both to remove the curse on her family and to find the gold that would free her financially. Obadiah is desperate to protect his family from the curse—and to find the gold to repay a debt he feels he’s owed. All those things conflict!
Passion in the Writer
Which brings me to an important point. The passion isn't only in the characters. I love formulas because they are guideposts. I'm always analyzing, trying to learn from other writers, trying to figure things out, and I learn best when I write things down. Things gel for me when they pour out of my fingers. But formulas are simplistic tools. I can follow the formulas exactly and end up with exactly crap. Writing is alchemy as much as craft, passion as much as technique. (Arguably more.) I can do everything right and still not get the story "right." So please, take my formulas as what they are.
The most important thing to get you through NaNoWriMo is passion for your story, for your characters, for your plot and premise. Be passionate about what you’re writing, and your readers will feel that passion, too!
Martina Boone is the author of SIBA Book Award nominated Compulsion, book one in the romantic Southern Gothic trilogy, the Heirs of Watson Island, from Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, which was an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance, a Goodreads Best Book of the Month and YA Best Book of the Month, and an RT Magazine Best of 2014 Editor’s Pick. The second book in the trilogy, Persuasion, will be published October 27, 2015. She is also the founder of as well as , the three-time Writers Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" site providing craft, inspiration, workshops, agent-judged contests, and giveaways.