Last winter I took a 20-week novel writing workshop with novelist Caroline Leavitt. As a teacher, Caroline stressed how main characters need strong desire lines. That is, they need to want something and want it bad. The desire line of the main character is the backbone of the story, she would say. It’s what keeps us turning pages and what we must, as writers, keep constant vigil over if our character is to act true to the experiences he encounters.
As Robert Olen Butler writes in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction:
My favorite word in this regard . . . is yearning. We yearn. We are the yearning creatures of the planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.
Caroline would say, Keep focused on the central narrative thread (the central problem and desire). “Everything has to somehow knit into that in some way.” Desire, wanting, yearning—this is at the heart of all narratives and plots.
After the class I read Caroline’s last novel, Girls in Trouble, and, man, did she deliver on the yearning. From the moment the story starts, the central character’s desire is driven home hard. We feel it in our gut. And, then, as the story shifts to other scenes and other characters that yearning is seamlessly transferred. Sure, the characters want different things, but the weight and intensity of their desires are so strong the narrative drive is never sacrificed. As we read we are always mindful that the story before us is life-changing and profound, that underneath the object of each character’s desire is, as Butler writes, the “truly deep” desires “pulsing beneath.”
Caroline Leavitt’s Girls in Trouble is not only a moving portrayal of children and parents, it’s also a fictional clinic on yearning and narrative structure.