Novelists compose millions of words each year, hoping to grab the attention of agents, editors, and publishers. But hope and well-crafted prose are just two pieces of the puzzle, according to Dean Bakopoulos, the author of Summerlong and a two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. When it comes to making their words leap off the page and into the memories of literary decision-makers, writers willing to wrestle with difficult emotions have an edge.
“So often we see nice sentences narrating the lives of nice people beset by the outside world,” Bakopoulos says. “The writers that stand out? The wacky, the weird, the honest, and the ones unafraid of conflict and drama on the page, the ones willing to create protagonists that are flawed, disturbing, and yet still compelling.”
To help writers tackle conflict with confidence, Bakopoulos will lead a master class called “The Only Way Out Is Through: Writing Novels Amid Anxiety, Shame, and Despair” at Fourth Lake Writing Retreat, Continuing Studies’ annual retreat for experienced and aspiring novelists. This year’s retreat is Nov. 9-11 at Madison’s Pyle Center and Lowell Center, and the master class takes place the first evening. Bakopoulos will teach alongside his wife, Alissa Nutting, the author of Made for Love and a fellow English professor at Grinnell College.
Complex characters, delectable drama
Bakopoulos says he and Nutting will help attendees build characters with flaws that make them seem real and relatable.
“It’s funny how often I work with writers that shy away from the real muses they carry around. Anger, envy, lust, despair, and secrets—these are what create good drama,” he says. “We’ve all experienced those things in our lives, but so often we put those things aside and try to pull drama out of thin air.”
Bakopoulos adds that writers sometimes feel intimidated by creating complex characters, building either “superheroes, people who never do anything ill-advised or impulsive” or “passive and gentle souls who bore the reader to tears.” He says writers can avoid this trap by looking into the darker parts of themselves, the parts experiencing conflict and grappling with difficult emotions.
“By doing this, we can often free ourselves to create truer characters that will resonate with readers,” he says.
Attendees will do a handful of writing exercises and short readings, and they’ll spend much of the class discussing how to create complex characters and gripping, conflict-filled storylines. Bakopoulos and Nutting also try to infuse their classes with humor while helping writers add “depth, texture, and the requisite weirdness” to their novels.
“We want all participants to leave with a list of things they’ll add to their own work and, we hope, a scene that they had not imagined needing—or writing—before,” Bakopoulos says. “We want to help you find the missed opportunities in your novel, the moments you’re playing it safe and undermining your own genius.”
From the page to the screen
Bakopoulos says that while “The Only Way Out Is Through” is geared toward novelists, other types of writers can also benefit. The class may be of particular interest to screenwriters since conflict, drama, and multifaceted characters are so important to television and film scripts.
Both Bakopoulos and Nutting have valuable experience to share from the screenwriting world as well. They’ve been working on an adaptation of Nutting’s novel for Paramount Television. Nutting is also developing several animated television series, and Bakopoulos’ first novel, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, is the basis for a similarly named 2017 film starring James Franco and Rashida Jones. Plus, both authors teach screenwriting and television writing classes at Grinnell and beyond.
“Any writer who wants to get better at building scenes and complicating characters should get a lot out of this session,” Bakopoulos says. “Even the most classically structured novels need something strange or mysterious at their core. We like to help people find that.”