Writing Active Character Reaction

Sure, we all know to write a character who drives action, but what about character reaction? The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are…wait for it…proactive and reactive protagonists. So why do many writers struggle with this idea?

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The best protagonists make things happen and react to what’s happening, both are crucial elements to keeping the reader engaged.

Writing Active Character Reaction

We all know that your number one objective as a writer is to make the reader care. Or, well, you know that if you’ve been haunting around the site for any length of time. Readers read in order to experience. Whether they want to experience an event, a new idea, or a story they can’t get anywhere else… To read is to be transported.

The best way to rob your reader of the experience of a novel is to give us a character who doesn’t act or react. Passive characters, or those whose mode seems to be set to “non-reaction” are a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say our character is an orphan, or so she thinks. Then she finds out that maybe, just maybe, her father isn’t dead, after all. This is a big bomb to try and land accurately, in terms of making those emotions seem genuine. I get it. Many writers, then, feeling daunted, would simply not have the character react.

“She read the letter again, her fingers going numb.”

Not only are you relying on an external reaction and a physical cliché here, but there’s really nothing else to it. This is a total non-reaction. It may look like a reaction, it may show her doing something in the moment, but there’s really no substance here if you think about it.

What does it feel to be a girl who discovers she’s not the orphan she thought she was? We don’t really know much more about it, as a result of this underwhelming non-reaction.

Creating Compelling Reactions

So instead of a non-reaction, you really want to highlight your character’s experience in big and small moments that demand a reaction. (Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the big moments, either. A character’s reaction in a small moment could be very revealing, and work to pull the reader further into the character’s world.)

For every time that you want to shrink from an event or leave in a generic physical reaction, put your patience cap on and take the time go dive deeper. If you don’t want to write the reaction, that’s the perfect tip-off that you should. Because it’s going to lead to some tough, challenging, vulnerable stuff, most likely.

Start by really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would their first thought be? How does this turn of events affect them? What’s a dumb thing that can come to mind? If your character’s home is burglarized, for example, maybe they quip, “Good luck with that DVD player, it never worked anyway,” almost as if they can’t help themselves. Don’t go for the expected reaction, either. Is there anything you can verbalize here that will lend the situation the element of surprise?

That’s how you make the situation relatable and, more importantly, human.

Focus on Interiority

Of course, it all comes back to interiority. This concept is the vanquisher of the non-reaction. It is your insurance that you are doing your due diligence and creating characters who are active, plugged-in participants in their own stories.

If you ever feel stuck in an important moment, and you simply can’t imagine how your character is going to take the situation, go back to the most elementary questions of all:

And?

So?

This letter says I’m not an orphan, after all. And? So? Well, I’m going to have to track my father down now. And? So? I’ve believed this one thing about myself for the last ten years…and now what should people call me? What do I call myself?

My home has been robbed. And? So? I never liked that stupid DVD player anyway.

In big moments and small, interiority is a tool to help you discover your character’s reaction. By giving them a reaction and making them an active participant in the scenes you’re writing, you will give the reader a vital connection. Not only to who they are, but to what they’re going through.

And that’s what every reader wants, deep down, to experience.

Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.

Character Turning Points

The other day, I found myself giving advice on character turning points and changes of heart. A client of mine had a manuscript where the characters were being swayed this way and that by a controversial force in the story. A protagonist would end up on one side of an issue, and a few scenes later, they would have second thoughts and flip-flop. Unfortunately, this gets the reader all confused.

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You want to literally be able to point to a change of heart on the page.

Now, I’m all about flip-flops on my feet, but not so much with my characters. When a protagonist or another POV character quickly changes opinions, I want to go through the process of that change with them.

Let Your Reader Into Character Turning Points

If a reader is not attached to the character as your character makes decisions and changes opinion, a disconnect will emerge. Your POV character will start to seem fickle, and their beliefs will start to seem arbitrary. When you’re writing a character, you want to imbue them with certain principles and convictions. One’s orientation about various issues is an integral part of who one is.

Knowing what a character stands for and cares about helps me, as a reader, understand who they are. Now, good plots bring a character up against their beliefs in ways that challenge character and reader alike.

Changes of heart are sometimes my favorite moments in a story. They’re a great opportunity to deepen character, introduce an element of surprise, or challenge the reader. The rub is, they have to exist on the page, and the reader needs to be guided through them.

How to Engineer a Change of Heart

Every time a character encounters plot or another character that challenge an existing belief, you have an opportunity. Let’s say that your protagonist hates the school bully. This is a familiar enough trope that anyone can understand it, and the emotions behind it. “She is so mean,” your character might think, and that’s that.

But then your protagonist comes across Queen Bee crying in the bathroom, all by herself (which usually never happens). Sure, your character can keep insisting, “She is so mean. She probably got what she deserved.” That’s certainly one approach.

Or, you can add some nuance and change the belief a bit. “I know what she did to Ryan was terrible, terrible, but…maybe she has something going on.” Ah, some nuance, some dimension, a little depth creeps in! Well, now what?

Aftercare for Character Turning Points

The important thing is to never rest on your laurels. Instead of making your protagonist’s opinion linear or contradictory, turn it into an arc. The relationship with Queen Bee should have its own trajectory. And each turn of the screw should appear on the page.

Once your POV character has seen Queenie in a moment of vulnerability, don’t go back to, “She is so mean.” That doesn’t quite fit anymore. Queen Bee might still be mean, but now, the opinion could temper to, “I wonder what’s going on under the surface?” Then maybe QB is mean again, and then it can progress further to, “Well, if she’s got problems, why is she taking them out on us?” Finally, there’s some kind of reconciliation. Maybe in then it becomes, “I get it now, and I’m sorry I never reached out to help.”

As we learn more about the characters and their situations, always make sure that your protagonist’s opinions are changing and specific and the reader can easily follow. Whenever you set up a turning point, let the protagonist reflect.

This way, not only will your protagonist have relationships in the novel with other characters and plot points, but each important opinion and belief will also have a trajectory, like a living, breathing thing.

Working on character relatability, objective, or motivation? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

Bringing Dead Characters to Life

Today we’re talking about bringing dead characters to life and, though it’s the day before Halloween, I don’t mean zombies. I mean characters in a novel who are either dead or otherwise unavailable for development in the present action. How do you flesh them out (again, not talking about zombies but pun fully intended) and make them more real and relevant to your protagonist’s current situation if we never meet them in the present moment?

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‘Tis the season to talk about those dearly departed characters.

“Off Screen” Character Relationships Are Very Important

The idea that character relationships in a novel are important should surprise exactly nobody. Character relationships are crucial. But there’s a fly in the ointment if your character is no longer around, dead, missing, or otherwise unavailable to participate in the story. How do you create a rich and compelling relationship with someone who isn’t there?

The most important first step is to think about this point instead of glossing over it. This post is a nudge in the that direction. A lot of writers, unfortunately, don’t put much thought toward developing their “off screen” characters. After all, a dead Mom or a missing Dad or an incarcerated older sister are pretty familiar tropes. The attitude seems to be, why bother developing past the stereotype(?

A dead Mom is sad and immediately sentimental. All the protagonist has to do is mention their dead mother and this is enough to (try and) manufacture certain feelings in the reader. But don’t let the Dead Mom name-drop simply be an obvious emotional trigger or a cheap trick. You have to go deeper.

Developing Dead Characters

The most powerful tool in your arsenal for creating multi-dimensional “off screen” characters is flashback. This technique often gets a bad rap. So many people ask me whether or not they can even use flashback anymore. I guess it’s out of style. But don’t discount it.

Flashback is the only time when your “off screen” characters can live again. Seeing them in action, dynamically interacting with your protagonist, is going to paint a much clearer picture than any kind of telling about them. We’ll experience them in the flesh, pick up on their physical and character quirks, hear their voice in dialogue.

How do you pick a good flashback scene? Well, it all depends on the kind of relationship your character has with the deceased, and what element you want to bring to the story. Do you need to create longing for a deceased mother? Show a sweet, everyday moment. Maybe they tease one another lightly, maybe they laugh about an inside joke. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the characters should reveal their quirks and act human, rather than trying to be perfect in order to create a theme-heavy Very Profound Moment, just because one of them is dead and we’re in flashback.

Focus not just on the unavailable character, but also the protagonist’s interaction with them. Was it a time your main character almost said something important, but didn’t–then it was too late? Let the protagonist be an active participating so we get a sense what it was really like to be in the relationship. Just remember, it is your job is to reveal character via showing instead of telling. That’s the only time a flashback is powerful. If you’re writing superficial showing, like, “My mother was so kind and nurturing, I loved that she was the most selfless woman I knew” etc. then you’re not truly fleshing out that character in three dimensions.

How Often to Flash Back and When

Instead of putting all that pressure on one scene, you should use multiple short flashbacks to develop dead characters. Find several moments that reveal various shades of the character and their relationship to your protagonist. Insert them into the manuscript occasionally, and have your character reference them or think about them when we’re in the present.

One rule of thumb about when to include flashback: Develop information only when you’ve had a chance to add some action. Plot and pacing are about the balance of action and information. Some writers get caught in the trap of layering too much backstory, flashback, information, and other static elements, especially at the beginning of a novel. Well, information has a way of stopping plot cold.

So when you’re considering including a flashback to develop a departed character, evaluate the following elements:

  • Do we need information from or about this character by a certain point in the plot? Start building flashbacks in way ahead of time, instead of right before that information is relevant.
  • Are there information-heavy chapters or scenes before or after your flashback? Reconsider another informational moment and add some gas to your engine with plot instead.
  • Thinking about a flashback in the first chapter? Sustain a strong present moment for at least the first three pages before yanking us into any kind of past moment.
  • Is this a solitary flashback or one in a series about this character? Use individual flashbacks and memories to establish different shades of a departed character–make them multi-layered. Don’t just dwell on the same attributes.

Long story short, don’t let “off screen” characters play familiar stock roles. The temptation to do this is incredibly strong. They are often archetypes, even in the best books. Use the tool of flashback to really show them to a reader in all of their nuance. Push yourself to go further.

A well-crafted character is perhaps the most important element of your novel. That doesn’t stop at your protagonist, either. Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll whip the whole cast into shape.

What Interiority Is and Why It Matters

One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in third person. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to teach.

This article will be intended as a comprehensive introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.

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Interiority is a tool to express your true commitment to seeing events through your character’s perspective.

What Is Interiority?

I define the term “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.

The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough. Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?

Specificity is the Key

Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up.

Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.)

Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.

The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion

Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.

I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.

If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.

Digging Deeper, Asking Questions

Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.

Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.

You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to have them live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.

Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog

I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Commit or Omit

This is more of a general writing advice/philosophy type of post, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.

what to include in your novel, how to write a novel, novel writing
What do you focus in on and what do you let go of when you’re writing?

Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Writing

One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.

For example, you are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?

Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?

In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another consideration. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?

When Commitment Fades In and Out

I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.

The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.

In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know exactly how to integrate those elements.

Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.

For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.

The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional.

Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book

The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?

If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.

Is something simply not working in your project, but you don’t know what, or you don’t know what to do about it? Invest in an expert set of eyes, and hire me as your freelance editor.

 

Taking a Book Idea to the Next Level

A few days ago, a potential client emailed me about their book idea, and our exchange triggered this post. He had a story heavily inspired by a conversation he’d overheard between his children. Lovely! So he wrote it out and decided to see if it was ready to be edited and published. There was an issue, though. He had written an idea. It wasn’t yet a manuscript. What’s the difference? And how do you go from idea to manuscript? Read on!

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Ideas, actually, are all around…

The Difference Between a Book Idea and a Manuscript

Book ideas are everywhere. For reasons I’ll go into a bit later, that have to do with a very notable writer’s own process, I have been thinking a lot about book ideas recently. The truth is, if we have our listening ears in, ideas are all around us. If we make it a point to be open-minded, observe, and keep track of our ideas, we may be surprised to find that the idea isn’t the most difficult part of writing.

Like my potential client, who overheard a snippet of conversation. He took the necessary step of committing it to paper, but then came an obstacle. And? So? What’s next?

Because an idea isn’t a book. Even in the very nebulous world of the “concept book”, which you may have heard of. An idea is an idea, and anyone can have one. The book itself comes from what you do with that idea. The execution of the book idea, therefore, lies in the manuscript.

What Makes a Manuscript?

An idea is often too straightforward in its original state. A writer’s job, therefore, is to keep track of what inspires you, but then make it bigger. An idea has “juice” if it reveals something universal and relevant to readers who perhaps didn’t observe or experience what you observed or experienced.

Think of it as alchemy, the magical transformation of one thing (a book idea) into another (a story). Take the potential client’s situation. He had an observed interaction between siblings.

My first question was, “What’s the bigger picture?” I understood why this interaction captured the writer, but not necessarily what I, a third party who didn’t know the children or didn’t witness the interaction, was supposed to get out of it. Basically: And? So?

Small Moments, Big Message

Though I hesitate to talk about a message in books, because I want you to avoid preaching at all costs, the concept applies here. If you take your book idea and come up with the bigger picture that you want to convey to readers, then you will potentially have a book idea that can turn into a manuscript.

Because thinking about what you want to say to kids everywhere (and parents, if you’re writing something that will be read aloud), then you can start thinking about what kind of characters need to be involved, and what kind of plot, in order to transmit your message.

Then you might find that you’re compelled to sit down and start writing, inspired by the bigger picture. Then it’s up to you to perform alchemy again. By giving a character a strong plot to experience, you will then force your message underground again. Let them come up with the moral themselves, and let them communicate that subtly to the reader through their experiences.

Repurposing Smaller Ideas

It’s possible, of course, that your book idea will not be big enough to become an actual book. I don’t know, for example, what will happen with this potential client and their overheard conversation. But all is not lost. Maybe this snippet of dialogue will turn up as part of another idea, or another book. That’s why I advocate keeping a file of ideas to draw from. You never know when an idea or a piece of an idea will click into something more substantial. This could happen even years later.

So keep an eye out for book ideas, and keep this article in mind as you decide which ones to pursue. Ideas are all around us, we just have to learn how to listen and look.

Is your book idea “manuscript-worthy”? Hire me for a writing consultation and we can see if it’s worth developing. You no longer have to write alone in the idea stage!

Creating Compelling Consequences for Characters

When you’re writing fiction and trying to make your reader care, creating consequences for characters is a part of that puzzle. Consequences for actions and ramifications of decisions are important to stakes and tension, as well. This is one of those areas of the fiction craft where character and plot really intersect. For thoughts on how to tackle it, read on.

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Really give your characters…and readers…something to think about.

How Consequences for Characters Work in Fiction

By “creating consequences in fiction,” I mean giving your character’s actions a reaction. This is crucial for establishing stakes and tension. For example, if your character has a very strict mother, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader that Mother Dearest is strict. Because one of the cornerstones of the fiction discipline is the concept of showing vs. telling.

Instead, a more active and compelling way to demonstrate Mom’s strict side is to give your character consequences. If she’s late for curfew, the hammer comes down. She talks back? She’s grounded. She applies to a college Mom doesn’t approve of? Mom goes so far as to sabotage her on the morning of SATs. This last example is rather extreme, but don’t limit yourself to the usual suspects. Put your characters in real trouble. Unique trouble.

But, most importantly, there has to be trouble. Because without consequences, the reader will become less and less invested in the story. Your stakes will be low. There will be nothing to worry about, so why would the reader end up caring deeply when your character makes a choice or takes a risk?

How to Create Consequences for Characters

When you’re crafting your plot, let your character experience consequences early and often. If your protagonist comes out of the gate strongly insisting that Mom is strict…but we never see it in action… Is she really strict?

This is a very common issue. If my principal sees me, I’m toast… Then the principle ends up treating the character delightfully. If my insomniac Dad catches me… Looks like Papa picked this night to sleep like a log. The threat is never realized, the punishment is never carried out.

What’s behind this common error? Writers like to take it easy on their characters. We can all sit around and agree that trouble and tension are the fuel of the story engine. You can’t get very far without them. But when it comes to actually executing them and letting your character suffer? Many writers are simply too nice.

So build emotional anticipation and establish strong consequences. But don’t stop there. If your character risks an action that triggers those consequences, let them befall him or her. Write that scene. Put that obstacle in your own way. Sure, obstacles are tough for the writer because you have to write around them, too.

The Effect of No or Low Consequences

The simple fact remains, however, that readers aren’t going to care about a story where your character has it too easy. By promising consequences early on and not following through, you are handicapping yourself. Because the reader won’t believe you in the future. All of your threats will start to sound empty. If consequences for characters never materialize, but you need to really make your reader nervous down the road–you’ve taken away your own best weapon to build stakes.

Love the trouble. Write the trouble. Tangle up in the trouble and untangle yourself and your character. Do it early and often. That way, you will have your reader’s attention for when the stakes are truly high.

Having trouble with stakes, tension, and hooking your reader in? Work with me as your developmental novel editor and let’s see what kind of trouble we can get into!

Writing a Novel Subplot

Writing a novel subplot doesn’t always come intuitively. Writers often have no problem thinking of their primarily plot, or at least the beginning and end of their story (the Muddy Middle trips people up quite a bit, of course). But sometimes a story ends up seeming too linear. Current events take over and yet, something is missing. This is where the tool of novel subplot comes in.

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Be wary of making your plot too linear. Does your novel need a few turn lanes in its road?

Do You Need a Subplot?

If your story goes too neatly from A to Z, has too few characters, or focuses almost entirely on one story, and you’re not writing an early reader or chapter book (where straightforward stories tend to thrive for very new readers), you may want to look at adding a subplot.

Same thing if your novel manuscript is on the lean side or drastically below the usual word count guidelines. If you have a 35k word YA novel, for example, or a 15k word and you’re gunning for the middle grade category.

Another thing to consider is number of characters. If your story focuses almost entirely on the protagonist and isn’t necessarily populated by other personalities, it could be in this category. Secondary characters and antagonists add a lot of texture to a work of fiction. If we’re dealing with a contemporary YA where a girl has to overcome a lot of her lack of confidence to audition for a play, for example, and we really only have the girl, her single mother, and her encouraging drama teacher–the conflicts inherent with some of those relationships–it’s very likely that your character is on a straight and lonely road.

It’s pretty difficult to judge your own work for “thinness”. A critique partner or an outside editor would be most helpful to diagnose this issue. If someone says that your novel needs more meat or substance or something else happening, you can be pretty sure that your plot is too linear. A subplot might just be the thing to address your problem.

Writing a Novel Subplot: Ideas and Pointers

It can be frustrating to try and give advice on using subplots, because subplots can be any number of things:

  • A secondary story for your protagonist (she is a budding actress but is also dealing with her actress inspiration’s recent death, or her grandmother’s illness)
  • The story of a secondary character (her best friend is really struggling at school and wants to drop out)
  • The story of an antagonist (the rival drama girl at school is causing trouble for your main character)
  • Something going on in the world of the novel (the theatre department is set to be closed due to budget cuts, and the beloved drama teacher will be out of a job)

These examples start close to your character (another storyline for her) and zoom all the way out to a concern in the larger environment. Subplots are like a seasoning. I can’t give you a recipe for how many to use, or what kind. But each one will add flavor.

How Much Subplot and Where Do You Use It?

Sometimes one additional subplot is all you need to spice your dish. The addition of a largely internal conflict for your main character will add depth to your madcap plot. Sometimes, though, one or two or all of the ones mentioned above are necessary.

Suddenly, the story has all sorts of layers. It’s about a girl, who has a fraught personal conflict, who starts to see herself as part of a more complicated web. She must save her best friend from making a bad decision (if dropping out happens to be a bad decision in this story), she must battle off the rival girl, and she also feels tremendous responsibility, maybe, for the success of the theatre program. This story isn’t just about her audition now. It’s about fighting for who and what she loves.

The beginning and end of your novel really should be reserved for building out your novel’s primary elements. Establishing the character, starting off strongly (in action) with their primary conflict, layering in some tasteful backstory along the way, then, on the back end, wrapping up the story in a way that’s thematically rich and brings the initial problem full circle.

You can and absolutely should plant the seeds of subplot in the beginning, and resolve the additional plots by the end. For example, she’s driving to school and sees a sign on the school lawn about the budget cuts meeting. By the end, it’s announced that the theatre program is saved. But the place where subplot thrives is the middle. That’s where you will weave it in and develop it.

How do you know exactly where and when?

The Role of Subplot in the Novel

I advocate for subplot because it’s wonderful for one crucial thing: to raise stakes and tension. If your primary plot is starting to sag–check in with one of your subplots! The drama teacher gathers everyone around to make the sad announcement that there may not even be auditions this year. Boom! That’s enough to get your protagonist in a tizzy and send her off in one direction or another.

Or you can reverse engineer it. Read through your manuscript and pick 4-5 places where even you’re bored of reading it. They are calling out for some tension. Is there a common element? Is there a plot thread that you could create and weave through all of your “problem spots”?

Play around with it. Hopefully the types of subplots listed above have touched off some ideas.

Thin plot? Short novel? Muddy middle? Boring? You may know there’s an issue, but not what to do about it. Check out my freelance editorial website for more about developmental editing services.

How to Choose Which Scenes to Include in Your Novel

It can be very difficult to choose which scenes to include in your novel. There’s simply so much to write. There’s your plot, your character’s backstory, any world-building you need to do, and then there are the transitions–the moments that link everything together. I have some criteria here that will help you decide what to keep and what to chop.

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Each component of your novel is a tool to help get your reader engaged.

The Best Kinds of Scenes to Include in Your Novel

The best scenes to include in your novel are those that move the needle forward. Now, “the needle” can be one of many things. Here’s a short list:

  • Something that informs character (main or secondary)
  • Something that informs character relationship
  • Something that informs plot
  • Something that informs world-building
  • Something that conveys mood
  • Something that conveys theme/bigger picture meaning
  • Something that informs (information-wise, that is!)

Often, in my editorial work with clients, I find myself asking the question: “Does this earn its keep?” That can refer to a scene or sometimes an entire chapter. More simply, “Does something happen?”

That something doesn’t have to be in the realm of zombies flooding down out of nowhere–in other words, a climactic event. But every scene and chapter needs to have a “something” from the list above. It needs to matter to your story and exist other than just because you felt like writing it.

The Level of Action or Information In Your Scene

The other important consideration here, other than what the scene does, is what your scene is: Is it action or is it information? I have long contended that all writing is a balance of action and information. The more information you have, the less action you’re going to insert, and vice versa.

In order to keep readers awake during those necessary scenes where you deliver information, you need to have action/plot/external conflict, and a lot of it.  When choosing what scene to include in your novel, I would favor those scenes that contain action. If it’s a scene heavy with talking, information, exposition, backstory, flashback, etc., that might be worth a review right there.

Order is important, too. If you have too my information in chapter after chapter, you are spending all of your “information capital” and going into deep debt (or, likely, boredom). Refill your coffers by including action. That buys you more leeway to do some info-dumping after you work on plot.

Look very closely at all of the dense sections of telling/information/backstory in your novel. I have reason to believe you could cut or reorganize these, and make sure to space them apart between plenty of action.

A Tale of Three Scenes

Please consider these examples and try to guess if I’d suggest you keep them in your novel:

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to hash out their quarrel about an ex-boyfriend they both share?

That informs character, informs relationship, conveys mood, and sets up some plot (I’d imagine). Best of all, there is tension. They are talking about an emotionally charged subject. It’s obviously a keeper, even though the scene is rather static and passive (they are sitting and talking rather than doing stuff or having stuff done to them). Depending on how well the conversation goes, there could be the potential for fisticuffs, too, so this could translate into a more active scene.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to talk about the upcoming Harvest Festival in town?

Well, this one takes all the tension off the table. (Unless it’s a Harvest Festival where the serial killer strikes every year. In which case, carry on…) So the answer becomes less clear-cut. If you are able to make any progress on world-building (setting the scene for this particular place and event) or tension or character relationship, include this scene, but keep it short. But if they’re just chatting excitedly about the festival, we already know about the town and its customs, and there’s nothing else going on, it might be nice, but “nice” ain’t good enough.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream and talk about the Harvest Festival they went to yesterday where nobody got serial killed?

Absolutely not. Here, this scene is a bad idea all around. They are sitting around and talking (passive), nothing else is happening, the chitchat is rather pleasant (unless something truly twisted happened at the Harvest Festival), and they are rehashing material that the reader has already read. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Cut it.

How to Handle Transitions in Your Novel

Which brings me to my last salient point: spend less time on transitions. If nothing is happening, you don’t need to labor over it. Get your reader from point A to point B without too much fuss.

Just because we eat breakfast every day and use the restroom every day (one would hope), there’s no need to put it on the page. I’ve worked with some manuscripts recently where writers felt duty-bound to describe every element of a character’s day because, well, that character needed to get out of bed somehow before they could go to the Harvest Festival.

This is a common but misguided urge. Instead of going through an entire school schedule to get to the event that happens at the end of the day, simply stick in a short and sweet transition: “After an ordinary day at school…”

The bottom line? Get the reader to the good stuff quickly. Cut whatever doesn’t move the needle. Trust the reader to fill in the bathroom breaks.

Struggling with plot? We can work on an existing novel, or even your proposed novel outline, together. Hire me as your novel editor today.

Advice for Beginning Writers: Writing in Pencil, Not Ink

It’s not often that I get to give advice for beginning writers, so I embrace the opportunity when it arises. The title refers to the idea of thinking of writing in permanent terms, versus being more flexible. The reference to pencil and ink is metaphorical, of course. You can write in whatever medium you want!

But I did have a very interesting consultation with a client the other day. He wanted to discuss an idea. Usually, when I sign someone up for a call, I want to see some pages, an outline, something… But this writer didn’t even have that. A total “blank slate,” he called himself. Maybe you recognize yourself in this description.

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Embrace the impermanent draft and let your ideas scatter to the wind.

Advice for Beginning Writers

This got me thinking. I rarely work with someone at the very, very beginning of an idea, though I’d love to do it more often! The consultation was really fun! As a person who has been in publishing for almost ten years, sometimes I take the simplest advice for granted because I’ve given it thirty thousand times. But perhaps this is a mistake.

As we wrapped up this particular call, I decided to pass along something that, to me, was beyond obvious. I said, “Remember, nobody is looking over your shoulder as you write. At this stage, you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s totally fine. Write whatever you want. If it doesn’t work, open another draft and start over. Generate material without putting any pressure on yourself that these particular words, in this particular order, have to be ‘it.'”

My client loved the advice, and I was a little humbled. Maybe, I realized, this is something worth sharing on the blog, since it’s definitely not as obvious to a lot of writers as it is to me. (One of the pitfalls of giving advice for a living is you forget that everyone needs to hear something for the first time!)

Writing in Pencil

So, in a nutshell, remember that the draft you’re working on will likely not be the draft that will be immortalized in ink. Your word processing document will have a Save function, and a Delete function, and all of these tools that will help you make progress. But there is no Publish function. (Alas! I know, it’d be nice, huh.) So as you’re working on your draft, take some of that pressure off to make those words, in that particular order, perfect.

“Perfect” is such a damaging notion, and it stops a lot of writers in their tracks before they even begin.

Instead, open a document and sketch out a character outline. Open another document and write the first few sentences of an opening scene. Open another document and make a bullet list of what you’re envisioning for the climax of the story.

If you’re early in the writing process, play around. If what you’ve written sucks, and you’re sure it sucks (instead just being overly critical), delete the document. Or keep it. A basic Word doc is smaller than 100kb. That’s not going to take up much room on your hard drive.

And remember, nobody’s watching. Take the heat off yourself. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to succeed. It’s okay to delete and it’s okay to add. The only thing that’s not okay is nipping yourself in the bud before you give yourself a chance.

Even if you’re very early in your project, I’d love to brainstorm with you and support your process. Hire me as your writing consultant, and let’s get you off the ground together.