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Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
Satisfaction Through Frustration

by Victoria Grossack

Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

October 17, 2013

What gives your readers a sense of satisfaction? Much of this is genre-dependent. If you are writing a romance, by the end, the couple should be happily planning their future together. If you are writing a mystery, by the end, questions of who- and how-done-it should all be resolved, and in most cases the criminals should have been punished (or at least apprehended). If you are writing almost anything, by the end, the loose plot threads should be tied up neatly, for the bit characters as well as for the protagonists. Readers shouldn't be able to scratch their heads and wonder, hey, what happened to Mary Jane?

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 Fundamentals

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:

  • Weather and Weather-Related Events: hurricanes, and after the hurricane, trees across the road; floods, and the bridge being out; earthquakes (not exactly weather); snow; ice; tornados -- you get the picture.

  • Mechanical Failures: flat tires; airplane problems; dead cell phone batteries; or else something appropriate to the setting of your story. If you are writing high-tech science fiction, the mechanical failure might have something to do with a rocket; if you are writing about pioneer days, your characters could have problems with a wagon wheel. In fact, this is a great way to work in the setting -- to make it come alive.

  • Large Group Events: perhaps there is a parade, and Isabel can't get across the street; perhaps there is a union strike, and Isabel can't take the subway.

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.

Foreshadowing Frustration

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.

  • Characters Should Not Act Out of Character. If John is going to make a bad decision because of his pride, the reader needs to see this pride before John makes the bad decision. Perhaps John's pride has served him well in the past. We should not see John making a bad decision that is out of character.

  • Little Clues. If some external event is going to thwart the character, for example, a hurricane washing out a bridge, you may want to show the reader the bad condition of the bridge beforehand. You don't need to emphasize the condition of the bridge; you can hide it in plain view among similar items -- for example:

    Kelly noticed that everything needed repair: the gravel road was full of ruts; the old bridge shook as her car crossed it; and the sign that was supposed to tell her where she needed to go was so faded that she had to squint to read it.
    Notice how the bridge's condition is mentioned -- but Kelly is focused on reading the sign, and so probably is the reader, at least on the first perusal. But the clue has been given, and so when the bridge is washed away, it has been planned for.

  • Big Clues. If there's a theater piece with a shotgun hung prominently over the mantelpiece in Act One, something better happen with that shotgun by Act Three (this rule, articulated by Anton Chekhov, is known as "Chekhov's gun"). If you set up major sources of frustration, you should use them, or be prepared to explain why. Note that you don't have to use them conventionally -- in fact it might be more interesting if the shotgun is actually the hiding place for some lost pearls -- but major potential sources of frustration should not go unused.

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.

Column Index

Copyright © 2013 Victoria Grossack
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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