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Connecting Secondary Elements

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

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  1. Stella Michel’s avatar

    Wise advice. Thanks.

  2. Shelley Koon’s avatar

    One of the things I have found most fun about the writing process is the “layering” you talk about here. Great advice and a timely post for me personally as I just went back and rewrote an early chapter to add a character in that will be important later in the story!

  3. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Yes, yes, and yes. I often find I’ve done this unintentionally in my first draft. Revision is when I go back and add these echoes in intentionally.

  4. Christy Luis’s avatar

    You said that ideally imagery will gather “new shades of meaning” as we progress through the book. That’s so important to remember! It reminds me of my response to book covers over the time it takes me to read a book.

    The first time I encounter a book cover, I get impressions about the book. I try not to hang onto those because they always change. As I read, I periodically glance at the cover and new symbolism jumps out at me. That’s what should happen to characters as they encounter settings, other characters, etc. Similarly, that should happen to the reader as they encounter these things; writers need to make sure this happens in order to engross their readers.

    Thanks for this insightful post!

  5. Julie Daines’s avatar

    This is excellent advice. And in many ways ties in beautifully with your post on objective correlatives.

    Did you have a post on that? Or do I just remember you talking about it in a webinar?

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