“What can a character come to know of himself and others, by working through a given situation? This is what fiction asks, with an emotional urgency driving it all the way; and can he know it in time? ….Any novel’s situation must constitute some version of a matter of life or death. In the face of time, life is always at stake. This may or may not be the case in a literal sense, but it does need to be always the case as a matter of spiritual or moral survival. It may lie not so much in being rescued as in having learned what constitutes one’s own danger, and one’s own salvation.”
Eudora Welty, On Writing
What wonderful nuggets of advice, precious as gold, lie in these well-crafted sentences! Eudora’s sense of “emotional urgency” as a driver of fiction strikes me as key to a strong story. Stories that I love and return to are ones where something that matters is at stake. They have a “headlongedness” to them — an urgency that pushes them forward, that gives them momentum and forward motion. They may ramble a bit or even take a detour, but in the main, they are carrying me somewhere and moving toward something.
“In the face of time, life is always at stake” — not always literally, but in one way or another. Books that truly embrace this reality are the ones that stand the test of time. I’m thinking of For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example, or Moby Dick. In these novels, time and life do battle with each other. As readers, we know that what’s at stake is of the highest importance. We also know that the battles being waged aren’t just physical, they’re moral and spiritual: They are about how life is to be lived and to what ends.
I think that’s why the Harry Potter series has enjoyed such enduring success — and why adults are drawn to it as much as children are. Rowling isn’t afraid to tackle big questions, and her characters are constantly confronted with choices that matter, choices that will define who they become. The cycle is half fantasy, half morality tale, but so engagingly told that you hardly realize it. This isn’t easy to do, of course, but if you can pull it off, readers will love you and come back for more. Why? Because, like Eudora, in our heart of hearts, we all know that when she says ‘In the face of time, life is always at stake,” she is talking about us all: writers, readers, and the characters we envision together. Write on!