BY SYDNEY SMITH
When I first started writing The Secret Ingredient, it was called “Confessions of a Fatal Woman”. The idea of a confession is compelling. We don’t confess to mundane things like dropping a cup on the floor or tripping over the cat. Confessions always suggest transgression and that in itself is compelling. We love to read something jaw-dropping. We love to watch a character walk into danger, or invite danger into their lives. A confession is an examination of responsibility; it’s an act of ownership as well as an admission. Or anyway, that is the assumption, conscious or otherwise.
Also, a confession is written in the first person. It’s intimate. It’s the main character exposing themselves for your scrutiny. A confession doesn’t hold things back. It’s a door into the narrator’s private life flung wide open and an invitation to walk in and have a shameless look at everything the narrator in their everyday life keeps quietly hidden away.
So in The Secret Ingredient, Yseult Bernays is the mistress of a wealthy skinflint. She is required to suppress her sexual and emotional selves in order to please him. And this she does willingly because she thinks it will keep her safe from the curse that afflicts her family – her mother and grandmother both came to grief when they allowed passion into their lives. When the story opens, the only person who knows about this relationship is her mother – and then the reader is let into the secret. So this is something else that makes fiction compelling – the reader is in on a secret that no one in the story knows about except the main character. The reader becomes the protagonist’s ally and conspirator. The reader is Yseult’s closest friend; and is told things Ys doesn’t tell anyone else.
All of this involves vulnerability – the author’s and the narrator’s.
The author and the narrator are two distinct beings, and yet if fiction is to work its magic, both of them have to let down their guard.
Storytelling is about intimacy and intimacy can only be achieved through vulnerability. Once the reader accepts the invitation to be the narrator’s most trusted friend, she or he makes an emotional investment in the character and the story. In any kind of fiction, the reader must make an emotional investment. Without that vital ingredient, they will stop reading and not go back to the book. And yet you can’t have emotional investment unless the author and her main character let down their guard.
Here is a curious thing. In my work as a mentor, I meet writers who present a flawless protagonist to the reader. I used to assess manuscripts, reading up to fifty a year, and in every single one of them, the main character was without fault; they did absolutely nothing that would get them into trouble – trouble was always something that other characters brought to the protagonist. In real life, nobody likes to show the world their shortcomings. In real life, we keep our flawed selves for our friends and family, for the people we hope, or believe, will forgive us. The bigger the flaw, the more risk there is in exposing it, and so only the people we trust the most are given a chance to see that flaw.
So when the writer presents a flawless protagonist, they are treating the reader like a stranger, someone who can’t be trusted to understand and forgive. Which means that a flawless character doesn’t invite emotional investment. Which means that the reader cannot be compelled by that character and their story.
So, Yseult makes herself available to the reader. She trusts the reader, and proves it by telling them things she tells nobody else until she is forced to by her own mistakes and the urgency of her confession.
There are several vital ingredients that when combined make a story compelling. Conflict is the big one. The main character creating plot by working on some huge problem is another important one (as opposed to the protagonist passively suffering the dramas other characters inflict on them). But there is an element in compelling fiction that isn’t much talked about but which I always use. If you look at the greatest writers in the world, you will see that all of them use this element too. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy – it’s right across the board. This element is available to lesser writers as well. Anyone can use it and lift their story to a higher level of reader involvement. This element is the internal antagonist.
Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved and enduring novels in the English language. Its title refers to the internal antagonists of the two lead characters. Mr Darcy’s pride is so dominant a part of his personality that when he asks Elizabeth to marry him (he can’t eat, he can’t sleep, he has to have her!) his internal antagonist drives him to tell her how unsuitable she is to be his wife, how beneath him in rank and station she is, how vulgar her family is, how he has fought with himself but can’t help doing what he knows will cause him grief. I always use this example of the internal antagonist in operation because it so brilliantly illustrates how it works on the character to stop them getting what they need more than anything else in the world.
The internal antagonist acts on the story in such a way that the reader looks on aghast, helpless to stop it doing its damage. In The Secret Ingredient, the reader says, “Ys, don’t do that! Don’t make the mistake your mother made. You’re making things worse!”
The reader feels compelled to keep turning the page as their emotional investment in the protagonist drives them to watch the horror unfold. The reader needs to see the worst that the protagonist’s internal antagonist will do – that is the only way to get to the other side.
But in order to do so, they have to go through that ordeal. It’s the same ordeal the protagonist is going through. It’s agony but the reader can’t stop. If they stop reading, the protagonist will be stuck in the horrible mess she has created through her internal antagonist. The only way the reader can rescue the protagonist is by reading to the end of the story. And that is the ultimate secret to compelling fiction.
Sydney Smith has been obsessed with fiction since childhood and worships at the temple of storytelling, much to the annoyance of her friends, who can take only so much talk about novels and movies. She mentors other writers and has written a book, The Architecture of Narrative, on how to plot and structure fiction.
The Secret Ingredient will be published by Pilyara Press in 2020.