To make a book interesting, the author has to raise questions and delay the answers. Suspense looks forward because the answers are in the future. Mystery looks back, because the answers are in the future. Watts says that the best stories raise questions on three levels of conflict.
- Inner - an uncomfortable emotion which prevents the main character from reaching their hearts desire.
- Interpersonal - the main character wants one thing and the villain has another completely incompatible aim.
- Environmental - Physical as in car chases or war and mental as in the disapproval of social groups.
Then you need to think about another three things:
- Your subject matter - the tangible reality. It's a book about a zoo or a circus or whatever.
- The thread - a line of thought that runs through the entire story - bravery, perhaps.
- The thesis - what you think about the thread summed up in a single sentence. Fools rush in? A brave man only dies once?
And finally you get to work on structure:
- Stasis - everyday life where the tale begins
- Trigger - an event of any kind which is beyond the control of the main character and starts the story rolling.
- Quest - generated by the trigger
- Surprise - otherwise known as 'get out of that one'. Conflict made concrete, always moving the story forward.
- Critical path - to continue on her quest, the main character has to decide how to deal with the problem. This will reveal what kind of person she is.
- Climax - the decision made manifest. The pattern can be minor (scenes), major (acts) or grand (the story as a whole). If the surprise was a burglar breaking in, the decision would be flight or fight, and the climax would be shooting the intruder.
- Reversal - the surprise/decision and climax must make the main character's life be different (fairy tale poor to rich) otherwise why should we care? Aristotle talks about 'spectacle' otherwise known as 'bring on the dancing elephants.' Why are some car chases boring and others not?
- Resolution - plots must have causality and result in significant change in order to satisfy. Here we need a fresh stasis that result directly from the main character's actions.
I find subplots difficult to craft. Watts says that they can be used to slow down the main plot and they should involve minor characters who circle the main character with spotlights, showing aspects of them that we otherwise wouldn't see, and the story should resonate with the main plot or, in the case of comedy, directly contradict it. Which book is this? The main plot charts the rise and rise of the hero, but all the subplots chronicle disaster after disaster.
When it comes to description and exposition, Watts says readers are interested in the truth of a thing, not piles of dull detail. Readers make pictures in their minds - if you write 'tree' they will picture a tree drawn from their knowledge, so if you then add that it was an elm tree, they have to unmake their picture and accept yours - and Watts warns that readers hate that. If you are going to be specific, give the details first. Say: 'I was there and it was like this.'
He also advises using stage make up and gestures. I once watched an interview with an actor who'd won an Oscar for a performance he kept thinking was over the top. He said, 'I kept asking the director if I should tone it down a bit. I thought I'd get panned for being a ham.' It's an interesting line, because that can happen, but too much veracity is dull. I've been asked to tone books down, but they have been bought, so probably too much is better than too little because anything dull comes winging back with a note saying: 'not for us.'
There is tons more good stuff in this book and it's one I would recommend.