First things first, I have to thank Cassandra for this opportunity to write a guest post on her blog. I’m an admirer of her writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed her novel, Death’s Daughter (a review of which can be read on my own blog, The Rhapsodist).
As an amateur reviewer and aspiring writer, I’ve gone into quite a few stories over the years—short stories, novels, TV shows, films, and even a few video games. Some of these stories entertained me, some of them were thought-provoking, and a fortunate few were able to do both. And there were more than a few stories that didn’t really grab me at all.
I’ve had some time to think about this matter and the conclusion I’ve reached is that it helps to really know the premise of your story and flesh it out as best you can.
It’s all too easy to have an idea. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and then wham! You can see it all in your mind’s eye—the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, the setting. And you go to your notebooks or your computer to start to writing it all out… and you realize it’s not the best thing you’ve ever done. The premise is kinda cool, maybe you’ve got a few bits of dialogue that are too hilarious not to be used, but not much else stands out.
So you stick it in your drawer or save your notes on your hard drive, and go back to the rest of your life.
I think some of the best stories are built off those randomly-written notes. You start collecting them after a while and maybe you begin to mix and match things up—the hero in this story idea is now the villain in another concept, the sidekick maybe gets some real development, and you might jump through ten thousand different genres and sub-genres before you find something you really like.
Revision is a painful process, but it wouldn’t hurt if it didn’t care about producing your best material. And I can think of so many stories I’ve read or experienced where it seems like the author didn’t want to bother with a second or third draft. However, if you don’t put yourself through the misery of producing a really good story, you just might be giving that pain over to your readers, who’ll be miserably picking their way through your tale, trying desperately to understand what’s going on.
But how will you know what’s your best story? Well, that’s something every writer has to decide for himself or herself. You might produce ten thousand non-starts before you hit on the One Good Idea that forms the heart of your best work. It will be whatever gets you writing more and writing better. And when you reach something like that, you can sit back and smile, basking in the glow of your creation.
Just don’t smile for too long, because then come the editors, the literary agents, and those critical readers who will tear your beloved work to shreds. And your cycle of pain and beauty begins all over again, and again, and again…
Note from Cassandra: Thanks Alex for your wonderful post today, and for all your support with Death’s Daughter. And thanks for hosting me today as I continue my blog tour.
Okay, maybe forever is a slight exaggeration but you really do have to be able to deal with having your characters in your head for a long time.
You spend so much time making them real, getting to know them, putting the through hardships and helping them overcome difficulties. You watch them grow – you help them to grow. You direct them and guide them and shape them at every turn.
Elspeth had an excellent post last week on characters when she shared her 10 Tips for Non-Perfection. It was her list to help the writers out there not view their characters through rose tinted glasses and it is a great list – well worth the read.
As a writer I’m truly cruel to my characters – particularly in drafting stages. Mostly because I want to see how my character reacts under every kind of pressure I can throw at them. In the end I usually pick the crisis that has the most interesting reaction and go with it, but when I’m still developing the character I can be really nasty to them.
But when all of that is said and done, underneath, I still really love my characters and can feel pretty caught up in their lives at times. One particular WIP that I’m still thinking about revising continues to stump me mostly because in the face of the massive danger being faced, nobody dies. Well, one character does, but we didn’t really like them and other than a brief mention in act one they really failed to have an impact.
I didn’t even intentionally write it that way.
It just turned out that after I’d finished the various minor skirmishes that were going on in the huge and dusty battle, every named character (villain or hero) tragically survived. It was a cold blooded conversation with a friend when I sat down with the draft and started systematically listing each character’s attributes and why they should die/live. I still haven’t actually rewritten it.
How do you and your characters get along?
We all know that tension and conflict are essential to an interesting plot, but sometimes stories just start to feel that little bit melodramatic. They take themselves so seriously and every little thing is a major drama for all the characters. Or a character enters the story – about a third of the way through – and their only real purpose seems to be that the middle of the story was getting boring and someone decided that they needed more tension to keep it moving. This can work if the problems caused by this character somehow link back into the central conflict, or it can feel like an add-in if the character comes, antagonizes people for awhile, and then when the story gets moving again, miraculously either has a change of heart or disappears.
There is virtually no end to the list of different ways you can add tension to a story. Sometimes those seemingly simplistic moments can become very tense (and not in an overly dramatic way when handled well). As a reader, these are my five favourite ways that authors introduce tension for their characters:
1. A secret is uncovered and the character is trying to prevent the knowledge from spreading. I always like intrigues and character dilemmas. You always wonder just how far is this character going to go to keep this a secret. And when the secret is revealed, how will they react? Admittedly, as a reader I like to be in on the secret and then the fun is seeing if the other characters in the story catch on.
2. Forced waits. I’m going to confess that I love this as a plot device because in real life this is what causes the most tension. You know what is coming, you know what you need to do, everything is progressing and then it all just stalls. You can really relate to the characters as they get frustrated and impatient and desperate to act while others use the time for further preparations and others still simply work themselves into a bundle of nerves.
3. Rivalry. It may be a cliché but I do love rivals when they are both well established characters and their both given a fair showing. The play between the two as they try to one-up the other, while not admitting that they care what the other thinks, can make for an intriguing and interesting story and can also create some really interesting tensions between the other characters as they realise what is happening.
4. RAS (Random Acts of Stupidity). Everybody is stupid at one point or another and when a character has clearly done something incredibly dumb, I like that to be addressed by the other characters, rather than simply ignored because it is convenient to the story. This can create really interesting group dynamics and the tension in the scene where someone confronts the character about their action can be excellently executed.
5. Anticipation. I remember reading a book in high-school (don’t remember which one) where a girl was having her thumb chopped off (various political reasons leading up to it). But they announced this at the beginning of the chapter. Guy has hold of the girl, blade drawn. She’s crying. Then someone else comes in and there is discussion and another speech and they keep coming back to this girl who has tears streaming down her face. The whole chapter you’re wondering – are they actually going to do this? Is she going to get away or be released? If they had made me wait to the next chapter to find out I probably would have given up reading the book because essentially nothing would have happened in the chapter, but this book was brilliantly executed. Just when you couldn’t take any more and you had to know, the answer is revealed and then the chapter ended.
What are your favourite kinds of tension to read? Or to create for the writers out there.
I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.
Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.
This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.
The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.
Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.
I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.
Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?
You hear the advice all the time. If something isn’t moving your plot forward it shouldn’t be in your story. Given the current goal oriented generation where anything that isn’t immediate becomes dull, this is pretty good advice. Your description of that sunset may be absolutely flawless but if your reader can’t see the point of it (because just being a beautiful piece of writing is insufficient) then it has to go.
I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I hate wading through endless reams of description of settings that in the end don’t make the tiniest bit of difference to the story. Even a fight sequence that has gone on too long begins to irk me and I just want to cut to the chase. So who won and what happens next? I am very much a product of the modern world in that I like there to be a point. At the same time, sometimes I really enjoy just well written work. That witty dialogue or really interesting aside. It may have nothing to do with the main plot and only be very thinly related to character development but if it is written just right, it can suck me right into the story.
That said, how do we move the plot forward?
Plot generally involves a character (or group or characters) getting from point A to point B while X, Y and Z try to stop them. That would be the motivation for the characters and the conflict they will face. If the plot becomes too direct you would have a story in about five lines and it would be incredibly boring.
Farm boy loses family.
Farm boy trains to fight.
Farm boy faces bad guy and loses.
Farm boy takes time out to learn some valuable lesson.
Farm boy defeats bad guy.
This would be the basic plot of both Star Wars and Eragon and probably many other fantasy – space opera kind of things. Don’t get me wrong, this plot works very effectively (or can), but when you boil the story down this much it gets a bit dull.
I guess the question you have to ask yourself is why does line A (farm boy losing family) lead to line B. Lots of people lose family members without suddenly enlisting to learn some ancient fighting method and going on a quest for revenge and to other throw an evil empire. What about your character makes them take that step and how do they reach that decision? How do you help your reader believe it?
The plot moves forward when you know where you are and where you want to go and you know why your characters are taking those steps. I’ve had many would be stories stagnate because I didn’t know clearly where I was planning to go next and I wasn’t really sure why my characters were doing something anyway. Once you can answer these questions the plot should move forward though it is adding all the small details and weaving those interesting sub-plots that will make it interesting.
Your thoughts on moving a plot forward?
I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.
Everyone will tell you a story has to have a problem. Or a complication. Or a conflict. It all amounts to the same thing. There has to be a central issue that is in some way connected to the central characters. Why? Because otherwise, what is your story about.
If someone handed me a book and said ‘read it’, my first question would be ‘what is it about?’. This isn’t me wanting the blurb read to me or someone’s review. This is me just wanting to know what is the point of the book. Boil all the fancy words down, what is the reason for the story. Read the two answers below and decide which you would read.
1. Luke and Lane are getting married.
2. Luke and Lane are getting married but Lane’s mother doesn’t approve.
The first tells me what events to expect but it doesn’t sound particularly interesting. Unless it is a biography about two people I had heard of and I was wanting to know about their wedding, I’m unlikely to read it. The second tells me there is a problem. They want to get married, but… And that but is enough to keep me interested. How does Lane’s mother react? Does she try to interfere? Stop the wedding? Why doesn’t she approve? So many questions that I instantly want answered and now I have to read the book to find out.
You have to have a complication.
And before you run off and try to think of something so intensely convoluted that even Nostradamus would have asked for directions the central complication doesn’t need to be too complex. The important thing is that there is a point to reading and the reader can expect some kind of satisfactory explanation. It is not really important to try to confuse them. If you want to make your story more complex, you can layer other complications and side plots in later, but the basic storyline should be relatively clear.
What kind of problem could there be?
Most people I’ve spoken to and most of the advice I’ve read points to four basic types of conflict that appear in books.
1. Man against society – The protagonist (for whatever reason) opposes the world and society in which he lives. The story then usually revolves around the protagonist trying to change things in some way.
2. Man against man – Two characters for whatever reason have opposing view points or goals and the clash of personalities creates the conflict. Frequently one will be villianised while the other will be set up as a hero.
3. Man against himself – Looking at internal conflict of someone trying to change who they are within.
4. Man against nature – Protagonist trying to defeat some kind of monster, natural disaster, climb a mountain, save the world, etc, etc.
While these are the basic types of conflict there are many books that use variations or combinations of these, plus if you include multiple sub-plots it will enable you to explore more than one of these within a single story.
And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.