The most recent manuscript I’ve been working on in my freelance work for a writers’ advisory service was intended to be a “life lesson” novel for children – a story which also conveys a message. The problem was – and this is something I’ve often come across with that sort of story aimed at children – the writer appeared to overlook some of the normal conventions of story structure. I think writers who have a message to put across can become too focused on that message, forgetting that readers want a story first and foremost.
In fact, what was lacking, among other things, was the central element of most fiction. I’ll paraphrase a successful literary agent: almost all fiction boils down to a main character needing something and there being a problem in the way. There are some variations on this theme, especially in what might be called literary fiction. In fact there are some ‘literary’ works where this probably doesn’t apply at all. But I’d say 99% of fiction has that focus: whatever else is going on, whatever message is being conveyed, at the heart of it is a protagonist who has to overcome a problem in order to achieve a goal. It might sound like something rather crude that only applies to crime and thrillers, say, but it can something to do with the subtle and almost nebulous problems that arise in relationships.
Whatever it is, this need to overcome an obstacle is what sets up the tension – not only for the protagonist, but (hopefully!) readers. It’s what makes them want to keep turning the page and find out what happens.