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Satisfaction Through Frustration
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
October 17, 2013
But this is when your readers reach the end. The rest of the book has to come before the end, and what do you do then? How do you give the readers satisfaction while they're flipping or scrolling through pages? Perversely, satisfaction can be achieved by frustrating them -- or at least frustrating the protagonists -- throughout much of the rest of the book.
Frustration is vital to your story. Imagine a novel that goes:
Scott and Isabel met when they were in college. They fell in love with each other at once, married, and then had two children.
If this is the entire novel, with some dialogue and description to round it out, few readers will be satisfied. Or imagine a story like the following:
The murderer was caught by the store's cameras. When Detective Marshall showed him the videotape, he confessed at once and was sent to jail for life.
Again, if that is all there is to the story -- even if it's fleshed out with lots of talk -- I doubt it will give your readers the satisfied reading experience that they want to have. So frustration is necessary, at least in fiction. How can you create it?
Your characters are better situated to experience frustration if there is something that they want in the first place. They could want love or money, to discover the murderer or to save the planet. Whether their motives are selfish or altruistic, there should be something that they want very badly.
After that, it's up to you, the author, to come up with new and imaginative ways to thwart the fulfillment of your characters' desires. It is the frequent and unusual frustration of your characters' wants that makes your story entertaining. Let's look at some broad categories of frustration, in no particular order.
Character Thwarted by External Event
Perhaps your protagonist, Isabel, wants to communicate important information to another character, Scott. As she tries to do so, many external events could intervene:
Character Thwarted by Another Character
This is where it helps to have characters with differing wants and desires. You can have a very traditional approach, in which there are both heroes and villains, so that the hero's attempts are frustrated by someone with evil intent.
Or, perhaps Scott and Isabel are would-be lovers, but Scott wants to build a highway and Isabel wants to keep her cottage intact. Neither character is evil, but they have opposing wants.
Or, you can have characters who both want what we consider the "right" thing, but they disagree on how to attain it. Perhaps both Scott and Isabel want to reach the castle. Scott believes they should go through the woods while Isabel believes they should take a boat down the river.
You don't have to limit yourself to only two characters with only two sets of wants. You can have many, with multiple viewpoints on what should happen next, and the combination of these conflicting wants can lead to a frustrating situation which only you, the author, foresee!
Character Does the Wrong Thing
Perhaps your character, despite good intentions, does the wrong thing. Perhaps the right thing costs a lot of money and he doesn't have the money. Or perhaps to get the money she does another wrong thing -- like embezzling from her employer -- which leads to other problems. Or perhaps he decides to take a course of action because he doesn't have the right information. He doesn't know that the bridge is out and so drives that way.
Perhaps your main character has prejudices or flaws which prevent him from doing the right thing (often known as the "fatal flaw"). I recently read James Michener's Journey, in which the hero receives excellent advice, but because he's a nobleman and the others are not, he persists in foolhardy actions, and people die.
Frustrating events, even though they may take your characters by surprise, should not always take the readers by surprise. This is where you, as the story's creator, must make artistic choices.
Rest Stops of Hope
I believe that there should be some hope along the way. Every now and then your characters deserve a break; they should be permitted to rest and even to wash and to eat. Now, not every author has this attitude -- in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, I'm not sure that the protagonist ever has a pit-stop -- but even Frodo, in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, was allowed to recover from his injuries at Rivendell.
These rest stops don't have to be limited to the physical. They can be emotional, or perhaps there can be some sense of progress toward a goal. At some point your hero can be satisfied, thinking, Aha! Mission accomplished! -- only to have his contentment shattered by something unexpected (although not un-foreshadowed) in the subsequent scene.
There are at least three reasons for these bits of hope. The first is because it makes the book more interesting. Unmitigated frustration is almost as dull as unmitigated satisfaction.
The second reason is because, if you are aiming at a happy ending, it will seem more realistic if there are some episodes of happiness within the story.
The third reason is because it keeps the reader guessing. If there are rest stops of hope as well as pits of despair, then the reader doesn't know what is going to happen next. Will it be good, or will it be bad? Not knowing makes the experience much more exciting.
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.