To me, the connotation of “spark” is putting life in your writing. I think you can have a distinct voice and still not quite have the spark there. For me, it’s that moment when my characters become real, or come to life on the pages. They act and react realistically, and not always as I may have originally envisioned the situation. It’s not so much you, the author, writing their lines…more like you as the author are channeling your character’s lives on to the pages of your story.
One of the ways I know I haven’t gotten the spark is when I've written something and there is that niggling feeling that tells me something isn't right or something is off in this scene. It feels…flat. Like I'm playing with paper dolls and moving them around the story. It might be that I’m trying to force my characters into a situation, or plot area, they wouldn't be in, or have them reacting in a way, given their backgrounds, they wouldn't Or I’m trying to take the easy way out in solving their problems.
I think about how an actor approaches a role. As an actor, you have to step into your character, see who they are, how they react, understand what their goals are, what their motivations are, and what their conflicts are. Once you understand those things, then you know how these characters will act and react in pretty much any situation. You have to be able to do that to portray them in a play or on the screen. An actor can know the character they are depicting so well, that if a scene is rewritten they can and will argue it isn't right, the character wouldn't do this or that.
I think as a writer we need to do the same. We have to know our characters well to do justice to them. Some writers put together elaborate files on each character, likes, dislikes, favorite colors, etc. My files aren't that elaborate. Many times I don’t have the character file when I start my story. I do by the end of the story. I usually write the beginning of the story. My file grows as I write. This is also where I dump exposition edits I've done that define my characters, things I need to know, but my reader doesn't.
There are times when something doesn't feel right but I can’t put a finger on it, other than my characters are feeling flat. It’s time for what I call Dr. Sia’s couch time. I put my characters on the psych couch and start analyzing them. I will sit down and write out each main character’s goals, motivations, external and internal conflict. I do this with the villain too. By the time I’m finished, sometimes before I've finished, I usually have that ah-ha moment and I can see clearly where I went wrong. The black moment is in the wrong place, or I’m making it a soft gray moment rather than black, maybe my hooks to draw my reader forward are dull or indistinct—not good. Seeing what’s wrong may also mean some rewrites but it puts me back on track and my characters and story again become three-dimensional. It makes their reaction to conflict sharper. Reaching their goals sweeter. It makes a better story.
How do you know the spark is missing?
What do you do to get the spark back in the scene or story?