The other day I finished a YA novel by one of my favorite authors and felt as if I’d scraped my knees on the bottom of the pool. Until I turned the last page, I hadn't realized–or maybe hadn't wanted to admit–that I’d been swimming in shallow water.
From the beginning, the story had all the requisite ingredients. Intriguing plot-line. Quirky characters. Lots of snappy dialogue. And it gave the pleasure of swimming until I reached the ending which lacked the kind of emotional impact that I always hope to find on the final page.
So now I’m wondering: did I miss something along the way? Or did the author simply create a shallow pool for his reader to swim in? Or was he unaware, like me, of the story’s lack of depth?
What made the water feel so shallow when, from the surface, everything looked fine? What was missing?
The depth of the story, or its lack of depth, was related, I think, to the way the author presented the main character’s dilemma and its significance to the reader. There were multiple problems–a parent’s abandonment of a family; a dislocation to a new home; the challenge of making new friends–and each problem served as an external obstacle for the main character to overcome, without any one problem becoming a priority.
But as the story moved forward through these various dilemmas, I kept wanting to know the main character’s internal struggle, the desire above all that the main character needed to satisfy, and either I overlooked it or the author didn't share it with the reader.
In her book, Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake, Sylvia Boorstein talks about unappeasable desire as the source of human suffering:
“Tanha, the word the Buddha used in the Second Noble Truth to define the cause of suffering, is usually translated as “craving.” I feel it in myself as unappeasable wanting–wanting so much to have something I don’t have, or wanting so much to have something I do have but I don’t want to go away–that my mind cannot rest.”This is the perfect way to describe what our characters need for a story to gain depth: a craving for something or someone that can only be fulfilled through some significant act on the part of the character. Without this deep need, this unappeasable desire, driving the character’s actions, the story and the character will remain in shallow water.
In this case, the character may have had to start a new life. He may have had to make new friends. One of his parents may have left the family. But I kept wondering what was it, in the midst of such circumstances, that the character desperately wanted? What did the character need so badly that he couldn’t stop until he got it? What was this character’s unappeasable desire?
Sometimes, swimming in shallow water is what we need to do so we can fully understand the depth of the water in which our own characters are swimming.
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