In the following video clip from the Criterion Collection, film director and screenwriter Robert Downey Sr. – better known to you as “wait, there’s a Robert Downey Sr.?” – claims to “only know one thing about screenwriting.”
Keep your characters in a hurry. That’s a lesson by no means restricted to the art of the script writing. It’s solid advice for plotting regardless the medium. Note how Downey specifies that it could be “psychological.” Not all plots star Dwayne Johnson. It doesn’t need Space Hitler or sharknados. But there should be a sense of urgency at some level. I’m reminded of James Scott Bell’s fantastic book Plot & Structure, in which he describes various types of death a character can face: physical, psychological, professional. This is your character’s last chance to have a career, to save her marriage, to sober up, etc. If it’s just another day in the life, who cares?
In Vladislav Todorov’s wonderful thriller Zift, we meet our protagonist as he’s being released from jail. We soon learn his objective: to reclaim the hidden treasure he’d been jailed for stealing. Todorov ups the stakes considerably when his lead character is captured by Communist authorities and injected with a lethal poison. Soon he will be dead. Poof. Urgency. Now he has only one night to complete his objective, and the result is a page-turner that’s hard to put down. Why? Because the character is in a hurry.
But urgency doesn’t just apply to genre fiction full of secret agents and hidden gold. Atticus Lish, in his much-lauded literary debut Preparation For The Next Life, creates urgency within the scope of a love story between a troubled Iraq veteran and an illegal immigrant from China. We can’t help feeling that this is Brad Skinner’s last shot at returning to a normal life after his harrowing experience overseas. Likewise, Zou Lei feels the constant presence of immigration authorities bearing down on her. They have to figure out something, soon, in order to save themselves and each other.
You can have lulls in action, sure. Your characters can huff Carménère corks and endure heroic feats of artistic suffering and crowd surf to avant-garde Beatles cover bands in Tbilisi. But the best fiction keeps a specter lurking in the shadows between paragraphs. What are your characters in a hurry to do? Looking back at my earlier fiction, before I started getting published, I see that oftentimes my stories didn’t have an answer to that important question. Now, as I try to continue my success, I strive to keep my characters in motion, even when they’re standing still.