Elements of Critique: Intensity

Yesterday’s post on critiquing hooks talked about looking for a device that creates reader interest and pressing questions at the beginning and end of a piece.

Today, I’m considering what to look for in the middle. Hooks might get me started, but something has to keep me going. There has to be some level of intensity in the piece.

Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

When critiquing a fiction piece or personal account, I’ll look for the conflict between characters and their circumstances. (I could have used that as my ‘c’ post, but constructive criticism is so essential to get right, it trumped conflict for that position.)

A character may struggle with internal conflict due to mutually exclusive values. “I know what I should do… but I know what I want to do to that conniving, rotten scoundrel…”

Interpersonal conflict should be present especially in dialogue. Otherwise, why pit those two characters against each other in a scene? If Bob and Jim are chatting and agreeing about everything, who wants to read that? They should have differing viewpoints on the subject in question, leading to a verbal clash, which keeps intensity high. If they don’t disagree, I suggest using different characters who do.

There’s also environmental conflict, where some circumstance or outside force is creating trouble for the characters in a piece. Maybe that’s an army invading their nation; maybe it’s an impending natural disaster. Something needs to create a constant pressure in order to sustain that intensity. If the reader is breathing easy for a batch of characters, then something should change fast to put them back into peril.

Finally, there might be thematic conflict where the characters and events serve to compare and contrast two ideas or positions. “Justice versus mercy” might be such an example, and for that I’ll point to Les Miserables. Societal ideals or even competing societies might clash to create that intense conflict the reader needs to keep interested.

Truthfully, in a long-length work, all of these can coexist. In a shorter piece, perhaps only one or two, done well, will fit.

The key with intense conflict is ensuring stakes are high. The character’s internal decision must have a profound impact on her life. The arguments between characters should have consequences beyond just a potential loss of friendship. The outside forces creating environmental conflict must matter. There must be a true threat to life as these characters know it.

That’s what I look for in a fiction piece.

In non-fiction writing, it’s more difficult to maintain intensity. Melodrama should be avoided, so everything can’t be the end of the world. “If I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, the bomb would explode, destroying the United Nations headquarters and plunging the world into war!”

No, not so much.

In order to consider the intensity of a non-fiction piece, I look for the above conflicts where applicable. Some writing might include true stories where those conflicts can shine and maintain interest.

But more often, I look for the “So what?” to the subject. What is the reader going to get out of this? Does this piece convince me as a hypothetical reader that it has something to say to me, something I need to hear?

If it’s a personal account of overcoming adversity, was the obstacle challenging enough that I can relate my struggles to the writer’s? If it’s an article about health or lifestyle, am I compelled by what the writer says on the subject? Would I even consider changing my ways?

Conflict comes into play here too, but it’s not quite like anything previously mentioned. The conflict for non-fiction is between a writer’s passion and a reader’s apathy. The writing has to make whatever points are necessary to persuade someone to care. It’s like a dialogue in a way, where the writer may have to assume and counter some of the arguments the disinterested reader might make.

No writing is going to be all things to all people, of course. Hoping so would be foolish.

But the biggest facet to intensity in writing is that the piece must mean a lot to the writer, so their passion shines through. Without that, to paraphrase Leonard, we might as well leave out the whole thing.

We’re a third of the way through the A to Z challenge. Thanks for joining me on what started for me as a spontaneous journey. Once I considered how passionate I am about critique group, it became easy to write the series – further proof of the point I’m trying to make in this post.

I’ve hit on several potential problems thus far. So the next two posts will take a turn toward the positive, starting with consideration of the journey we’re all on as writers.

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