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Writing Stories to Change the World

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Donald: Yeah, have you ever read, Rob a novel where you could skim paragraphs or even whole pages, maybe a bunch of pages in a row, you just sort of flip through the book to get to the next--

Rob: Yes.

Donald: --Exciting and interesting part? Everybody's had that experience. I have that experience a lot reading manuscripts, pre-published work by authors and what's missing in those manuscripts and what's missing in those published novels when you're skimming is that line by line tension that I just mentioned, that micro tension and when it's missing, I gave it a label: Attention Deficit Disorder. It needs more micro tension to keep me reading every world on the page.

Rob: I'm going to keep doing this. I'm going to bounce back to non-fiction. When it comes to non-fiction, do you think the same ideas can apply there? They don't have to, but can they, for better writing?

Donald: Oh yeah, definitely. That's particularly true in what we call narrative nonfiction, history, memoir and things like that, but even in prescriptive nonfiction. That would be self-help and medical books. Things like that, even cookbooks. To create a little question for the reader, a little apprehension, what does this mean or what's going to happen next or what do I do about that? To create that tension is to create a narrative. It's to create an apprehension that causes us to go forward and find out something new or find out what to do or find out how things are going to come out. New stories work in the same way. In news it's just flat. You know this, it's just because it's factual, but when it creates anxiety or apprehension on the part of listener, the viewer, then you lean forward toward the screen or toward the radio speaker or your computer speakers and you are keen to hear what's going to happen. That's because you are uneasy inside; an apprehension has been raised inside you. So, good newscasting leads off with a problem or an intrigue or a question or something that makes you want to know more. I think so anyway.

Rob: And then what does it do?

Donald: Well, then it answers the question and then creates a new anxiety. So, let's say, "President Obama announced blah blah blah." What does this mean? Well it might mean this, but what if it means that? You can always create new apprehension on the part of a listener to keep them listening.

Rob: Now this is key to your approach to writing good fiction or maybe even just good writing is to keep the tension going, to double the problems and make the protagonist have more issues. Let's talk a little bit about that. You don't let go, you're always, it's like the word of Job in the Bible. Job was constantly of afflicted. You would make Job's life seem easy, the way you guide your novelists to torture their protagonists.

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