I have a love/hate relationship with Henry James. Because I’m a historical fiction writer who writes stories usually set in the 19th Century, James has been invaluable for his insights into his life and times. He is a master of characterization, and his ability to dig deep into a character’s psyche is unparalleled. But frankly, I find his writing (especially his “later” period) gelatinous. James never says anything less than exactly what he means, and oftimes one can actually feel the English language shuddering beneath the strain.
But I go back to him over and over again, because he is a master. And recently, as I tortured myself with The Ambassadors (which I ended up liking a lot), I read this in his preface:
No privilege of the teller of tales and the handler of puppets is more delightful, or has more of the suspense and the thrill of a game of difficulty breathlessly played, than just this business of looking for the unseen and the occult, in a scheme half-grasped, by the light or, so to speak, by the clinging scent, of the gage already in hand…. For the dramatist always, by the very law of his genius, believes not only in the possible right issue from the rightly-conceived tight place, … he believes, irresistibly, in the necessary, the precious “tightness” of the place… the point is not in the least what to make of it, but only … where to put one’s hand on it.
In other words: a writer may find his greatest pleasure in seeing the possibilities in a story and choosing exactly the right one. There are always so many doors open, and, as I think I’ve said before, the genius and vision of any writer consists of what doors he goes through, and which he closes.
I have to say that James has hit it right on the nose. There is nothing quite like those moments when all the possibilities lay before you, and you must make your choice and place your bet. It is a thrilling and suspenseful game of difficulty, and it is breathlessly played, looking for that moment, that scene, that character, that creates the tight place from which your story flows, that shows you the path you must take, and makes clear exactly what you are trying to say. Where to put one’s hand on it … yes, that is the crux of the matter. And it requires some effort to play that game, to relentlessly spin out all the different ways you can go and to settle on the one right way to tell your story.
Writing is always a challenge. Taking the time to find the right “tight place” can make the difference between a good story and a great one; making the effort will always sharpen your vision and make your story sing. Because as James also says, later in that same preface: … the felicity, or at least the equilibrium, of the artist’s state dwells less, surely, in the further delightful complications he can smuggle in than in those he succeeds in keeping out. He sows his seed at the risk of too thick a crop; wherefore … he must keep his head at any price.
Keeping your head is not easy. Filling your story with the right complications instead of the easy ones, the ones that will lead to that unexpected yet inevitable ending that is the hallmark of the best tales, requires thought and patience and practice. It’s hard work, and when you’re smack in the middle of it, sweating blood and wondering if it can possibly be worth it, it’s good to remind yourself that even the masters struggle with these same questions—and that what makes a master is the unwillingness to surrender to laziness or fear, and to never relinquish the suspense and thrill of that breathlessly played game.
Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.