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Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.
You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”
That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having troublecaring.
First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:
There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.
If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:
Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.
Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.
Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!
This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.
One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.
If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.
Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.
But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.
My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.
Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:
Take away something they love.
Give them something they want. Take it away.
Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
Give someone else the thing your character wants.
Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)
Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.
And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.
Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)
And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.
How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?
I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!
There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.
But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.
In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.
My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.
So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.
If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.
What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:
First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.
Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.
If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.
Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.
A few years ago, we had the pleasure of hosting a wonderful world building Q&A with Julie Czerneda around her then-new release, A Turn of Light. Now she’s back, but instead of us asking her the questions, she turned the spotlight onto the unsung heroes of the literary world: beta readers. In honour of the latest installment of her Clan Chronicles sci-fi series, This Gulf of Time and Stars, we have the privilege to share with you not just a giveaway, but an interview between an author and her trusted second (and third) pair of eyes.
So without further ado, welcome Julie!
Science fiction folks know. What they like and don’t like. Most particularly, they know what they love. All about what they love. I’ve been to conventions. Trust me. You can count me among them for I’m just as cautious about a “new” take on a beloved film or tv series. Hopeful, yes, because I want more. But cautious.
Because, seriously. What if They mess it up?
There’s no mysterious and plural They involved in my books. There’s just me. My publisher, quite rightly, expects me to know what I’m doing. My readers do too. So when I returned to write more about Morgan and Sira, I understood the stakes. I had to get it right. Me. All by myself.
Unless…I had help. What if I could find another set of expert eyeballs? Someone who’d recently reread the first six books of the series. Someone who cared about details. Someone who loved the story enough to tell me if I messed up their hopes for it.
Impossible, I thought, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Having received permission from my publisher to grant access to the unpublished manuscript, I set up a webpage with quiz questions drawn from the series, and launched a Betareader Competition. (You can try it yourself, with answers!)
EGAD! People leapt to participate. It was amazing. I took the top ten respondents and grilled them with a second, tougher quiz. At the end, I’d found my readers. I’m delighted to introduce Carla Mamone and Lyndsay Stuart, winners of a tough job and official betareaders of the first draft of This Gulf of Time and Stars.
Carla Mamone is a newlywed from Ontario, Canada, who loves to relax with a good book, her cat in her lap, and a hot cup of tea. She loves puzzles, the colour pink, and all things furry and cute. Carla earned a Bachelor of Arts in music, studying voice, composition, and music theory. She is currently working as a secretary for her family’s appraisal company, but hopes to soon join the publishing profession editing science fiction and fantasy novels.
Lyndsay Stuart got her start proofreading while working on internal communications for a big player in the Canadian automotive industry. She has worked as a mosquito identifier, is the kind of person who has a favourite lichen (Xanthoria fallax), earned a Tae Kwon Do black belt in Korea and can kick serious butt as a swordsman. She has a husband whom she saved from a bear and two little children who she thinks are the sweetest little monsters that ever were even though they’ve covered the whole house with chocolate finger prints.
Julie: Ladies, whatever made you do all this?
Carla: When I heard about the betareader competition, I thought it sounded really fun and interesting. I’m a very meticulous person, so I knew I could (hopefully) do a good job. Plus, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work with one of my favourite authors.
Lyndsay: I was spending a lot of time stuck in a chair with a new baby and needed to set my mind to some work or go crazy. It was a chance to use my powers for good. Besides, how could I live with myself if I let the chance go by without even testing myself on the quiz?
Who am I kidding? While all that is true, the draw was the chance to read the book early! I’m terribly impatient and all the work was worth it!
Julie: I have to admit, it was wonderful knowing you were both so excited to do this. But it was work. What did you find the hardest part?
Carla: Not being able to tell anyone about the story. I love talking about the books that I am reading, so it was really hard not to talk about such an exciting story. My husband would ask me what was so funny or why I was crying and I couldn’t tell him about any of it. That was definitely the hardest part.
Lyndsay: The characters and the story aren’t mine so who am I to say when they aren’t right?! It was a bit tough to look at things a little more critically than usual – especially when the story was so interesting & exciting that the last thing I wanted to do was flip back and double check things! In a few places I had to highlight the text and admit that I didn’t understand the reasons underlying particular tensions or a character’s reaction to ::cough, cough:: circumstances.
Julie: Carla, you went above and beyond. I do believe I would have trusted your husband. But thank you for being so good about the non-disclosure thing. (Sorry about the tears, but it did help to know where the story had impact.) Lyndsay, when you showed me what you didn’t get, that was great. Very often I’d been obtuse, or found a different way to tweak. Now, I’ll feel less guilt once you’ve told us what was the most fun.
Carla: Not having to wait until November to see what happens next to Sira and Morgan. I also really enjoyed working with you and Lyn. You’re both so kind, I couldn’t ask for better people to work with.
Lyndsay: I bounce-floated around the house for a month, the surprises in the story are so good! Julie doesn’t just dish out surprises, she’s given us clues about the next book too! I have my guesses and can’t wait until you guys read the book. There is much to discuss.
Julie: Back at you, Carla. And the wait’s over now! One thing I’d asked, and you provided, were any bits you especially enjoyed. Thank you both for those.
The crucial factor, for me, in choosing a betareader wasn’t only expertise, for many people had that, but how well—and quickly–you could communicate my mistakes to me. Time was of the essence, as I had only the gap between my submitting first draft and the final galleys in which to make corrections. You were both amazing, but be honest, how hard was it to squeeze this into your lives?
Carla: The timing actually worked out perfectly. I was in the middle of planning my wedding and was getting pretty stressed and overwhelmed. Betareading gave me an excuse to take a break from wedding planning for a few weeks. So, after I was finished, I was excited to get back to planning and didn’t feel as overwhelmed.
Lyndsay: When this competition began I had a 2 month old baby and a 2 year old toddler, all my reading, studying and annotation couldn’t happen until nap time and I knew Julie was depending on me. Eek! I learned that diapers and reading tablets do not mix with pleasing results.
Thankfully it seems that my real world job experience reviewing written material paid off and for once I got to offer helpful suggestions on something I love. Is this what we call a Unicorn? It’s at least Cinderella getting to go to the ball.
Julie: Congratulations again, Carla! And how lovely being a reader was something good at the time. Whew! Lyndsay, as a person who started full time writing with a 6 month old and a 2 and a bit, I tip my hat. It’s hard enough to get to the bathroom, let alone think. Bravo, both.
Both, you see, because I decided to have two betareaders. (As well as a trusty standby third in case.) Why? Firstly, so you could, if you wanted, talk about me behind my back. The main reason, however, was because I saw from your quiz answers regarding the sample scene that you each identified different problems to bring to my attention. I’m not sure you knew that, but I knew I should have you both. How did you choose what to point out to me?
Carla: I tried to find anything that didn’t match the characters’ personalities or descriptions from the previous novels. I didn’t include anything that was specific only to Gulf, unless I felt that it was necessary.
Lyndsay: Hmm, how to answer without spoilers? For example, there was a section where the timeline had a tiny hiccup. A discrepancy of +/- a few hours doesn’t usually jog a reader out of the story, but in this book I had to point it out. It mattered because the characters can’t go out in the dark so the timing issue created an impossible situation.
Julie: Humbled, I was. Grateful, most of all. Thank you, Carla and Lyndsay, from the bottom of my heart. Gulf wouldn’t be the book it is without you, and you gave me the confidence to send it forth knowing those who’ve loved the series will continue to do so. It’s only fair to let you two have the last word!
Carla: I just want to thank you, Julie, for your wonderful books and for letting me be a part of this one. I had a great time!
Lyndsay: To Julie & DAW, I’m very glad to have gotten this opportunity and thankful to all who helped make it happen.
To you, Readers, I must say that at the end of Rift in the Sky Julie promised all of us we “ain’t seen nothing yet.” Julie knows exactly who and what we love and she’s filled this book up with all of it. Wondering what’s next to come is killing me! Until then it’ll be a big treat to read the final, polished version of This Gulf of Time and Stars.
Julie: Thanks again! A last, last word. (I get to do that.) Invaluable as my betareaders’ expert eyes proved–followed by those of my alert editor, copyeditor, and proof readers–please remember the responsibility for consistency and continuity in the Clan Chronicles is mine alone.
As it should be. Enjoy this new installment!
And now, the giveaway! Enter to win a free copy of This Gulf of Time and Stars, open to participants in the US and Canada. If audio books are more your thing, we’re giving away one of those, too! Listen now to a sample from the audiobook of This Gulf of Time and Stars narrated by Allyson Johnson, courtesy of audible.com
The Clan Chronicles is set in a far future with interstellar travel where the Trade Pact encourages peaceful commerce among a multitude of alien and Human worlds. The alien Clan, humanoid in appearance, have been living in secrecy and wealth on Human worlds, relying on their innate ability to move through the M’hir and bypass normal space. The Clan bred to increase that power, only to learn its terrible price: females who can’t help but kill prospective mates. Sira di Sarc is the first female of her kind facing that reality. With the help of a Human starship captain, Jason Morgan, Sira must find a morally acceptable solution before it’s too late. But with the Clan exposed, her time is running out. The Stratification trilogy follows Sira’s ancestor, Aryl Sarc, and shows how their power first came to be as well as how the Clan came to live in the Trade Pact. The Trade Pact trilogy is the story of Sira and Morgan, and the trouble facing the Clan. Reunification will conclude the series and answer, at last, #whoaretheclan.
Since 1997, Canadian author/editor Julie E. Czerneda has shared her love and curiosity about living things through her science fiction, writing about shapechanging semi-immortals, terraformed worlds, salmon researchers, and the perils of power. Her fourteenth novel from DAW Books was her debut fantasy, A Turn of Light, winner of the 2014 Aurora Award for Best English Novel, and now Book One of her Night`s Edge series. Her most recent publications: a special omnibus edition of her acclaimed near-future SF Species Imperative, as well as Book Two of Night`s Edge, A Play of Shadow, a finalist for this year’s Aurora. Julie’s presently back in science fiction, writing the finale to her Clan Chronicles series. Book #1 of Reunification, This Gulf of Time and Stars, will be released by DAW November 2015. For more about her work, visit www.czerneda.com or visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.
I’m revising my WIP novel one scene at a time and finding places where I need to do lots of work. Specifically, I want scenes that pivot.
A scene is self-contained section of the story. Characters come into a scene with a goal and they either reach their goal or not. The scene should have a beginning, middle and end. And, according to THE SCENE BOOK by Sandra Scofield, your scene also needs a pivot point.
Scofield says that characters go into a scene with a goal, with something they are fighting for. But at some point the story twists, deepens, or changes in a fundamental way.
If you don’t have one, the scene is boring. Think about where the scene’s essence lies: the point at which everything changes. There if Before X and After X. X is the focal point. – Sandra Scofield, p. 54, The Scene Book
It’s a hard concept in some ways to talk about, but you know it when you see it. In this short scene from the movie,”Good Will Hunting,” the focal point, pivot point, hot spot, turning point, or apex is when Will steps in to help his friend. This is a great example because it shows the character in action, doing something that matters.
By contrast, some scenes in my WIP just sit on the page. For example, I have one scene where the main character meets the romantic interest character. There’s a lot of characterization going on; they are at a coffee shop where she’s a barista and he’s ordering a special coffee drink; there’s some humor. But the scene still felt flat. Until I realized that there’s no real pivot point, no fulcrum for the scene. To change it, he asks a simple question, “Who are you?” That launches her into a humorous, but character-revealing pseudo-tirade, which results in him really paying attention to her and finding that he’s VERY attracted. Before the tirade, he’s not interested; after the tirade; he’s hooked.
To revise your scenes, fill in the blanks:
Before _____________(Pivot Point), my character _______________; AFTER _______________(Pivot Point), my character ____________________.
Find a way to pivot somewhere in each scene–and you’ll hook me as a reader!
Tonight in the night class I teach at a local university on writing children's books, we'll be talking about how the relationships your characters have can deepen your story's plot, enhance the connection between your characters and readers, raise tension, complicate conflicts, and much more.
The following are 8 ways you can use relationships between your characters to enhance the stories you write:
Create resonance with your audience by putting your characters in relationships that matter most to and intrigue your readers
Use your character relationships to better reveal your characters’ personality and inner conflicts
Use character relationships to pull your readers deeper into the story and your characters’ lives
Use your character interactions to give your characters more profound opportunities to experience growth or change
Deepen your plot with character relationships that increase the conflict, tension and emotional/physical stakes of the story
Deepen your plot with character relationships that impede, thwart or help the protagonists’ success, or distract the protagonist from the end goal
Raise the emotional tension of your stories by creating relationship events or taking character relationships in a direction that terrify your readers
Increase the emotional connection between your readers and characters by creating relationship events or taking character relationships in a direction that makes readers worry, sad and/or happy
Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I had such a fortunate Teachable Moment while brainstorming my picture book FANCY THAT with my Holiday House Editor Mary Cash.
I knew the setting – Berks County, Pennsylvania; I knew the time – 1841; and I knew my story’s Hero – young Pippin Biddle, orphaned without warning, the son of a limner - an itinerant portrait painter.
Mary agreed with me that such a picture book would be ripe with historical and arts curriculum connections.
My sketchy plotline was just that – i.e. sketchy: accompanied by his dog Biscuit, (whom I pictured to be lap-size), Pip would travel the Pennsylvania/New York area through the first 3 seasons of the year unsuccessfully earning his keep painting people’s portraits, returning at Thanksgiving with an empty purse and heart.
“But why would young readers care about such a boy on such a journey?” I asked my editor.
“Well,” Mary began, “could he have a few sisters who needed Pip to earn his keep?” she asked.
Orphans, Mary shared, can be lovely in a story. “And, maybe,” she suggested, “Pip’s dog could be part of the resolution?” And then she paused, her gaze meeting mine. “You know, Christmas books do so much better than Thankgiving titles,” she commented.“What if Pip returned at Christmas?”
Driven to tell this singular story, I back-burnered Mary’s 3 delicious suggestions with an open mind, even though I’m a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia and writing a Christmas picture book was not in my wheelhouse, as they say.
But guess what?
Fast forward to the stacks of the Wilmette Public Library, one week later, when I discovered (1) there wasno Thanksgiving to celebrate in the U.S. in 1841 and (2) few Americans celebrated Christmas at that time!
And OOPS²… except...the German immigrants, who’d just happened to settle in Berks County in central Pennsylvania, had brought along their Christmas tradition of making evergreen wreaths and decorating their fir trees!
while Pip’s dog Biscuit gathers the greenery of each season, and Pip paints his portrait to send home to his Poor House-ensconced sisters Emma, Lyddie and Martha,
efore too long,
Pip’s sisters themselves, inspired by Pip’s portraits, create a livelihood that builds them their home
and Pip discovers his hidden talent.
Lucky Pip and his sisters! Lucky me and my readers!
And all quite by accident.
P.S. Jennifer T won the SKIN AND BONES giveaway!
P.P.S. A writer with whom I corresponded this past week shared the following Dalai Lama quote benath her name.I thought it relevant.
"Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck."
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. In my work with editorial clients, I often see two types of stories. This can extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.
What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?
In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. The character leads the plot, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.
In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.
Both story types are valid. But they have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.
If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on how to make the character more active, someone who manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.
While I don’t often see this issue, a “making fate” character can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.
What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. It’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.
Bestselling author, David Farland is not only a great author, but he's a great writing instructor. If you're an aspiring author and do not subscribe to his writing tips, you should. Today he posted a writing tip on brainstorming obstacles for try-fail cycles that I love. Try-fail cycles play a critical role in creating tension and moving a story's plot forward. But often effectively executing the the try-fail cycle as a writer can have mixed results. David's post gives some great insight for those who struggle with try-fail cycles or just need a little more help coming up with more creative ideas to throw more obstacles in your protagonist's path.
Oh, my gosh. The Saving the Planet & Stuff storyline involves Michael discovering that a major store chain has been selling insulation with mold. The Earth's Wife, the magazine he's working for, has the opportunity to blow this story sky high, but the new managing editor has kept the story from publisher Nora Blake because he wants to take The Wife in a different direction. Michael finds himself in a dilemma that involves one of the book's major themes--how do we decide what is the right course of action, the right thing to do?
Well, just now I read that Home Depot is phasing out toxic vinyl flooring from its stores! Now moldy insulation that causes hallucinations isn't toxic flooring "linked to a laundry list of ailments." Plus it sounds as if Home Depot is acting pro-actively in requiring the the chemical in question no longer be used in flooring it carries while the company in Saving the Planet & Stuff doesn't. But except for all that, I see a parallel. It's there! I'm not hallucinating. (Well, not much.)
Man, what luck that I republished Saving the Planet & Stuff a mere two years before this happened so everyone can ooh and aah over how prescient I was, huh? Also, what luck that I still haven't replaced the flooring in my kitchen. When I go shopping, I'll be checking out the chemical content of those vinyl squares I'm looking at.
Thanks to the computer industry, we no longer have first readers, we have beta readers. Early versions of software that engineers expect to be riddled with problems were called beta versions. Beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet, so presumably, the alpha versions were kept all in-house. Betas were the first public versions to be released.
The terminology has come over to writing and we now have beta readers. The analogy holds in some ways: the versions we send to outside readers probably isn’t the “alpha” version; instead, it’s a version that is ready for a public audience—but not ready to be published. We expect problems: typos, grammar slip-ups (Grammar Queens, I Love You!), plot holes, character inconsistencies, factual errors, and so on.
What do you want from your Beta Readers?
Factual details. My WIP is set on Bainbridge Island, which sits in the middle of Puget Sound near Seattle, WA. I’ve visited a couple times because my brother- and sister-in-law live there. However, I’ve not lived there, and I’m not grounded in everything BI. I’ve asked them to read through for factual details related to the setting.
To write this story, I drew on my trips to the area, as well as maps, views from Google Earth, historical accounts of the area, writings about the area, information about the local flora and fauna. I’ve done my homework. But there’s nothing to beat living in the locale for years. I would never have dared to set the story in the area except I knew I had these two gracious beta readers.
Bored. I also asked them to flag places they were bored. Wow! Do I need this one. The overall pacing from chapter-to-chapter, and the local pacing from paragraph-to-paragraph both concern me. I want the story to pull a reader along without a pause. If a beta reader is bored, I need to know. I can fix it, using a variety of tools. I just need to know where to work on it.
Confused. Likewise, if the flow of the story confuses the reader, I need to know. Of course, there may be places you WANT the reader to be confused. I’m not talking about that. I’m looking for places where the reader has no idea what is happening. Again, I can fix it: I don’t want beta readers to suggest HOW to fix it. I just want to know where to pay attention.
Consistency. In characterization, I find my biggest problem is consistency in portraying emotions, motivations, reactions and so on. Part of the process of writing is to find these deeper issues within your character, and for me, I often find them late in the story. That means I have to go back and make sure I’ve set up a motivation and expressed it consistently across the story. And sometimes, I miss something.
While Beta Readers Read
This time, I’m trying not to work on the story while the beta readers do their thing. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the story. On the contrary, it’s in the background of my thoughts all the way.
We went to see The Avengers movie last week. If you saw it (SPOILER ALERT), there’s a huge action scene at the end with all the Avengers protecting the explosive device while robots come at them. It’s a great moment because the team has come together and they are working in concert. Besides that character moment, it’s also a huge action scene. And I mean huge. I almost turn away these days at the fast-paced fighting because there is moment after moment of continuous fighting. The last Transformer movie struck me this way, too: when there’s too much action, it deadens the moment for me.
But it also gave me a new perspective on the ending of my story. The hero doesn’t take a big enough part in the action. He is there (hurrah!). He is active (hurrah!). But his parents get in the way. I need to get rid of them and pit him directly against the villain.
In other words, I hit the target with the ending, but it’s not a bulls-eye, yet.
That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking about while the beta readers read. Where have I hit the target, but I’m not hitting the bull’s eye?
I may not be typing words into a program about the story during this time, but I’m working on it. When I get it back, I’ll have a flurry of revisions to do. Isn’t it great?
I’ve long been a fan of mysteries. Trixie Belden was my BFF as a third and fourth grader. Nancy Drew was another favorite. Veronica Mars updated the teen sleuth idea, bringing the storytelling form to a new generation.
When I got the chance to work on Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, our new YA mystery which comes out in June, all of those mysteries and more were going through my mind. Claire, the main character, has the spunk and curiosity of Veronica Mars and all of her predecessors, but she’s also a little different. And to honor those differences in the editing process, I needed to refresh myself on what’s out there right now in the teen mystery/suspense genre, and the mystery genre in general.
As I was editing Ink and Ashes over the course of about a year and a half (which spans two developmental edits and a line edit), between edits I was reading mystery after mystery. I stocked up on Agatha Christie, I rewatched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and read the first book of the series it’s based on (Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood), I read multiple YA suspense, spy, and murder mysteries.
That reading reminded me that a great mystery read requires the same elements as any good read: well-paced plotting, characters the reader cares about enough to want to know what happens next; even world-building, though that’s a term we generally associate with speculative fiction, is tremendously important in setting the stage in a mystery. But my rereading of classic and contemporary mysteries also showed me that more than in any other genre, a sense of suspense and danger must permeate the mystery book, must drive the reader to breathlessly wonder what will happen next.
Ask probing questions
One of the biggest challenges in this edit—with any edit, really, especially with an author you’ve never worked with before—was discovering how to bring the author’s vision of the characters fully to life. An editor’s job is often to just ask questions: Why is this happening right now? Why would that character decide to do this? What is the goal here?
In that way, figuring out the goal allows the editor to ask further probing questions on what the solution might be—figuring out how current plot points and character decisions hamper the desired effect.
“The plot thickens” turns out to be true
The biggest thing I learned while editing Ink and Ashes and reading all these mysteries is the importance of plot escalation. In the original draft, clues did of course build up into a frenzied final few pages of conflict that were very enjoyable—that’s one of the reasons the book won our New Visions Award. But comparing the early manuscript to mysteries I enjoyed the most, I realized that there were so many ways that the narrative could be complicated. (Valynne was on the same page. As she waited for the results of the contest, she was also already thinking of ways to improve the manuscript. That kind of editor-writer synergy makes a huge difference in any book project like this.)
We looked at the end goal, and discussed the plot points that got Claire and her friends to that point. In particular, we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing.
In other words, escalation. If the reader didn’t feel the suspense at every page turn, we had work to do.
Valynne worked very hard on making that happen, and I’m very happy with the results! In answer to all my probing questions, Valynne improved on an already-well written manuscript to bring what was an interesting read to the level of an exciting page-turner that’s getting readers hooked. That’s the end goal for any editor and author: Creating a final book that readers can’t put down. I’m happy to say, we succeeded with Ink and Ashes.
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.
Hi folks, I'm starting a series that will last for the summer. It's called Publish and is in conjunction with my TEENSPublish workshop at the Ringer Library in College Station, Texas. This is the third week I'm covering plot. I think some of this will relate to any creative life.
Oh, yes, when you tell a story, you must offer a plot.
First up, an exercise, characters writes a letter to the writer about his or her journey. Try this. You might find something out about your character's journey that you did not know before. Plot is related to character. Who you are has a lot to do with what you want. What you want has a lot to do with what you will do. What you do has a lot to with who you are. Put plot and character together to write a compelling story.
Finally we spent some time writing and sharing a section of work with each other. For me, this is essential for creating a plot. Watching for glazed over eyes or riveted eyes while reading your story will tell you much about how you are doing in terms of your plotting.
The toughest thing for me to learn about plot was the mid-point. This is a crucial part of plot. In PLUMB CRAZY (me writing as Cece Barlow), my mid-point comes with the boyfriend fail. My character seeks her concept of the perfect boyfriend, but at the mid-point realizes her concepts are not working. She releases her preconceived notions and this leads her to something better than perfect -- a real boyfriend.
I hope you will come back next week for notes on setting.
Now a doodle. I saw this in a dream: two hats.
A quote for your pocket.
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue. Henri Matisse
For the next month, my writing goals for my work-in-progress novel trilogy are clear: conflict, emotion, surprise, enrich.
The trilogy is tentatively called, The Blue Planets, and is an early-teen or YA science fiction. Book 1, The Blue Marble, has a complete draft; for Books 2 and 3, I have complete outlines. I’m happy with all of it, but I know it needs to go much farther before anyone sees it. For the next month, I’ll work simultaneously on revising Book 1 and the outlines, trying to weave them into a more coherent whole.
4 Revision Goals
Conflict. The first goal in revising The Blue Planets is to up the conflict.
No conflict = no story, no readers.
Small conflict = small readership.
Big conflict = bigger readership.
Huge, gut-wrenching, moral-decison-making conflict = huge, engaged readership.
I’ll be looking at conflict globally and in each scene. Man v. nature is built into the story in powerful ways already. But I need to look at man v. man, both overall and in each scene. How can I put people at odds in more ways and in more interesting ways?
Emotion. Always my weakest point, I’ll go scene by scene and ask questions:
What emotional things happened just before this scene? What’s the attitude of each character coming in?
What is the worst thing–emotionally–that could happen to the main character? That’s what I must confront him with.
What is the emotional arc of the scene?
What else can I do to deepen the emotional impact?
Surprise. Readers read for entertainment. If they can predict exactly what happens in a story, they’re bored. I’ll go through–especially the outlines–and ask, “What does the reader expect here?” I’ll look for ways to twist that expectation to fulfill it, but with a twist.
Enrich. I’m excited about enriching the stories, because this part gets past the basic plotting and into fun stuff. Where can I add humor? Here are previous posts on 3 humor techniques and then 5 more. I’m hoping for a running gag, at least. I’ll be working to tie the three books together through scene, character, bits of dialogue, running gags, perhaps a bit of clothing, or a mug of triple-shot venti mocha–something. Enrichment might be adding bits of scientific information artfully, without doing an information dump. Making the characters quirkier and more fun to be around. Loosening up on dialogue.
By the middle to end of July, I expect the BLUES to be in shape to send out. I’m excited.
What are your goals for summer writing?
One tip I learned from a fellow author was that a good story comes “full circle”. Your beginning should give a hint to the ending, your middle should contain page-turning connecting pieces, and your ending should point you back to the beginning.
The advantage I had in writing As Fast As Words Could Fly, is that it was from my dad’s life experiences, and the events were already there. One tool that helped me with the plot was LISTENING to the emotions as my dad retold his story. I listened to his fears, his sadness, his excitement, and his determination. By doing this, I was able to “hear” the conflict, the climax, and the resolution.
One major emotion that resonates from my main character, Mason, is confidence. I drew this emotion from a statement my dad made: “I kept telling myself, I can do this.” The challenging part was trying to choose which event to develop into a plot. My grandfather was a Civil Rights activist, so I knew my dad wrote letters for my grandfather, participated in a few sit-ins, desegregated the formerly all-white high school, learned to type, and entered the county typing tournament. Once I decided to use his typing as my focal point, the next step was to create a beginning that would lead up to his typing. This is when I decided to open the story with the idea of my dad composing hand-written letters for his father’s Civil Rights group. I threw in a little creative dialogue to explain the need for a sit-in, and then I decided to introduce the focal point of typing by having the group give him a typewriter to make the letter writing a little easier. To build my character’s determination about learning to type, I used a somewhat irrelevant event my dad shared: priming tobacco during the summer. However, I used this event to support my plot with the statement: “Although he was weary from his day’s work, he didn’t let that stop him from practicing his typing.” His summer of priming tobacco also gave me an opportunity to introduce two minor characters who would later add to the tension he faced when integrating the formerly all-white school.
The second step was to concentrate on a middle that would show some conflict with typing. This is when I used my dad’s experiences of being ignored by the typing teacher, landing a typing job in the school’s library and later being fired without warning, and reluctantly being selected to represent his school in the typing tournament.
Lastly, I created an ending to show the results of all the hard work he had dedicated to his typing, which includes a statement that points back to the beginning (full circle).
Although the majority of the events in As Fast As Words Could Fly are true, I had to carefully select and tweak various events to work well in each section, making sure that each event supported my plot.
I’m a huge fan of outlines and have a hard time starting even seemingly simple stories without one. An outline gives me and my characters a nice road map, but that’s not always enough. Once I had an outline for Finding the Music, it was really helpful to visualize the plot in terms of successive scenes rather than bullet points. I even sketched out an actual map to help me think about my main character Reyna’s decisions, development and movement in space and time.
Still, early drafts of the story meandered. There were too many characters and details that didn’t move the plot forward. When stories begin to drift like that, I go back to my journalism experience: Finding the Music needed a nut graph, a newspaper term for a paragraph that explains “in a nutshell” what the story is really about, why it matters. Finding the Music is about a lot of things, but for me, what it’s *really* about is community—the community Reyna’s abuelo helped build through this music and the community Reyna is part of (even though it’s sometimes noisier than she’d like). I think Reyna’s mamá captures that idea of community when she says, “These are the sounds of happy lives. The voices of our neighbors are like music.”
Once I found the heart of the story, it was a lot easier to sharpen up scenes and pull the plot back into focus.