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Much like with my post on “the blurt,” I invite you today to consider that characters actively making conscious decisions and taking conscious actions has more power than them acting impulsively, especially in important moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have a character surprise him or herself with an action, like falling offstage during a monologue or tripping. Calamity happens.

For the more consequential actions, like slapping one’s best friend or driving past one’s house and ending up in, I don’t know, Argentina, though, I would prefer that some more thought goes into it. Here’s why: I fully believe that building anticipation is important to nurturing that connection with the reader. I’m going to get so much more out of the scene if I sort of know what’s coming.

I don’t need to know how it’s going to be executed or what the outcome will be–that’s the fun part where you build your suspense and where the unexpected happens. But I want to have some vague idea of where things might be headed so that I can start getting invested.

Let’s say that Julie has beef with her best friend Chris. They’ve been inseparable since kindergarten but, lately, Chris has been saying really mean things about Julie (often within earshot) to get in with some people who he thinks are cool. That’s part of the picture, but it’s just the situation that these two characters are in. Imagine, now, that Julie goes to see Chris and all we have to work with is the following. I see this sort of thing in a lot of manuscripts:

Julie sat down across from Chris and watched him carefully. “You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Not really.” He chewed his granola bar like he was thinking about it for a minute. “Yeah, no.”
“That’s it, then?”
“What’s it?”
Before Julie could think, her hand flew up and connected with his cheek. She’d never been more hurt in her life. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed. Before she even knew where she was going, she was running out of the cafeteria. Julie had no intention of letting it go that far, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. Great, now Chris and his stupid new friends could have something new to laugh about. All she wanted was some reassurance from her supposed best friend that they were still on track. But he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior. Well, if he had no time to be nice to her, she wouldn’t waste hers on him, either!

Why did she slap him? I have no idea, unless the writer had gone through the trouble of establishing context for the action first. And it’s not as gratifying to have her unpack the event after it happens and worry about it, as you can see here. Without that work on objective before the scene, this seems like she’s just flailing around, acting on raw feelings that I don’t have access to. Getting her motivations later just isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Now let’s add some context. Let’s say Julie’s getting peeved that he’d rather sell out their friendship to impress some douchebags rather than maintain something that used to be important to both of them. Not only is he not sticking up for her when the bullies start to crowd around, he’s being outright mean and a bully himself.

So Julie goes over to Chris’s house to clear the air or to get some answers, she doesn’t know which. All she knows is that if he doesn’t apologize, she’s going to break up with him as a friend, even if it’s just for a little while. She’s clear that something needs to change, because she’s really, really hurt.

This is a lot of context and I know what Julie is going into the scene with, objective-wise. She wants clarity on a relationship. And she has thought through some bottom lines, boundaries, and possible outcomes. From all of this, I can tell that this confrontation with Chris means a lot to her, and that she’s really taking it seriously. As a reader, I begin to take it seriously as well.

Once all of these pieces are in place, if Chris continues to be a butt and Julie ends up slapping him in the heat of the moment, I am totally fine with it! It’s an impulsive, unconscious action when it comes down to it, but a whole lot of consciousness went into getting her to that scene.

Let’s try this scene again with some interiority to motivate the slap in the moment, instead of letting it all catch up to her after the fact:

Julie sat down across from Chris in the middle of the busy lunch room. She searched his eyes for a trace of the old Chris, her old best friend. Nothing. If only she could get him to really see her, to remember the old times, then maybe he wouldn’t treat her like crap. “Hi.”
He didn’t really react, not at all like the kid she used to know.
“You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Hmm, let me think about it.” His voice was mocking. He chewed his granola bar. “Yeah, no.”
Julie’s hand tensed into a fist. Twelve years was a long time to be friends, and he was throwing it all away. Well, she wasn’t going to take it. If he wanted a punching bag, he’d have to find someone else! “That’s it, then?” she asked. She pleaded with him, deep down, to just snap out of it.
“That’s it.”
Nothing. The rejection stung all over again. Before Julie knew what crossed her mind, she reached across the table and slapped his smug face.

These are quick examples, dashed off for illustrative purposes, but I want to try and convey here that unmotivated sudden action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory, sudden or not. Interiority, what the character experiences during the event, is a huge part of this, too. The more we know about what they want and what they’re going through, the more we can follow their conscious and unconscious movements through the story.

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I had a great phone call with a coaching client a few weeks ago, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years. He was really passionate about his first five chapters, the ones he’d already drafted. He had a strong goal to finish his manuscript, but no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t progressing. Why? He was fixating on revising those completed chapters!

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

What you’ve already written is a known. It’s there already, and you can begin to work on it. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar?

In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive. But we may also miss the forest for the trees. Because while you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, tinkering can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What do I recommend to writers who are getting caught up in their early pages at the expense of finishing a draft? Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. So those first chapters that you’re polishing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes.

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying in the long run.

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Thank you everyone for your kind words about the wedding pictures. I hope that everyone had a restful and invigorating Thanksgiving celebration with loved ones! Now, unfortunately, it’s time to get back to business. There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama.

Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodrama. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:

My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.

I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”

He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”

It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés in the work. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.

Melodrama is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.

Most of the time, when melodrama strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.

But tension isn’t created with a lot of over-the-top adjectives. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.

Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)

If you’re worried that maybe you more flamboyant writing style is coming across as melodrama instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.

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I’ve been preaching all along that characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective, those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it. Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire story arc, as well as more tangible objectives and motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

On the other hand, positive motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it. Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it.

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

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I tell clients all the time that my job is to manage expectations. Part of working with a freelance editor is expecting to be pushed outside of your manuscript comfort zone a little bit. Most writers come to me with the thought, “I am excited by my idea but I know there are several things that aren’t working. I want to learn and grow and make it better.” Maybe that writer has gotten some early feedback from critique partners about things that need tweaking. Or they’ve already done an unsuccessful submission round with agents or editors and they didn’t get the response they expected. Or maybe their manuscript isn’t meeting their own internal expectations and they just don’t know what to do about it. Enter a second pair of eyes: an editor.

A small percentage of writers, however, and I’ve only had this experience twice in my editorial career, are so convinced of the merits of the manuscript that they’re not looking for an editor. They are looking, I’d imagine, to get on the radar of someone even tangentially connected to the industry, and get a booster to the top. Maybe they think I will recommend them personally to agents. Maybe they think I’ll start agenting again myself for the sake of scooping up a hot project. Or maybe they just want the gold star from someone who has made a career of saying, basically, “yes” or “no” to thousands of other writers.

I try very hard to generate constructive, actionable feedback. I’ve never sent a set of notes that says, “This sucks, it’s dead in the water, and you should probably stick with your day job.” One time, at a conference, I met with a writer who told me something shocking. “This,” she said, “is the first manuscript I’ve written in twenty-five years. I had a writing teacher in college tell me I was no good, and it hurt so much that I stopped writing altogether.”

This woman lost twenty-five years of her writing life. She clearly loved doing it, but because one voice (in a presumed position of authority) told her she wasn’t good enough, she gave up on her dream for a quarter of a decade (and almost all of her adult life up until that point). People perceive me as an authority, too. And so I have made it my goal to never wield that power in a way that hurts a writer.

Do I rave about every manuscript unequivocally, then? Absolutely not. Even excellent writers have some blind spots. So whether I’m helping a beginning writer cut fancy “said” synonyms out of their dialogue, or I’m helping an MFA-graduate with beautiful prose work on plot and overall sales hook, I try my best to do it with the dignity and respect that each writer and each manuscript deserves, for where they are in their individual journey.

All that said, I still run into writers who have expectations that perhaps outpace their current manuscripts. Whether those expectations are of the one-in-a-million runaway success, or their shot at being a multimedia mogul, perhaps even in the query letter, I see this happen with writers. They’ve created websites, maybe, or products, or they’ve already self-published. They have a lot to say about various awards they’ve won or endorsements they’ve gotten. There’s little talk about the manuscript, though, as if that was just an afterthought.

This sends a message to me that the writer isn’t as interested in rolling up their sleeves and working on the product itself. To me, everything but the manuscript is just noise. You can send me a t-shirt with your characters on it, or a list of testimonials from school appearances, and all that is fine and good. I’m a driven, type-A personality, too, and I have way more ideas than I have time to make them all a reality. I respect proactive people. But my only concern is the manuscript.

It’s what an agent or editor will respond to. It’s what will stand out among the noise if it’s, indeed, worthwhile. I saw excitement bubbling over for a perfectly lovely client last week, and I wrote to them: “The only way to get someone excited about your work is by presenting good work, and letting it speak for itself.” It’s easy to say but very hard to do. It’s also at the very core of what I do as an editor. Every writer has a different personality, and some are more eager than others. That’s okay. My job, however, is to help put the crucial piece of that manuscript into place, and help writers create good work so that they can then present it. It’s as simple and as difficult as that, but, man, do I love my job.

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One of my favorite things to talk about these days is character buy-in. It’s the idea of committing to the story, and when your character decides, “Screw it, I’m all in, let’s see where this crazy adventure takes me.” It’s very important, especially in fantasy, action, paranormal, etc. stories where there’s a certain amount of disbelief or world-building that needs to be overcome. I mean, Percy Jackson didn’t exactly imagine his life as a demi-god when he was just starting out. It took him a little while to get on the roller coaster and strap himself into the seat.

Fiction is built, ideally, in layers. We have the basic foundation of a story, then we layer something on as the plot advances or a relationship changes, then we layer the next development onto what exists already, then the next, then the next. It’s important, then, to solidify each layer before building on. We are, in essence, creating something out of nothing when writing fiction. The world doesn’t exist until you establish it. The relationships don’t come to life until you define them. The plot doesn’t mean anything until we combine the events with your protagonist’s objectives, motivations, and development.

Done right, this delicious fiction layer cake will be very satisfying. But the whole thing sort of tends to fall apart if each layer isn’t solidified properly before the next one is poured on. An instance where I notice this issue is when a character flip-flops in their opinions about a plot point or character. It’s one thing to consider one issue with multiple layers: that’s called building complexity. But when a protagonist can’t decide whether they can trust Character A, and this goes on for five chapters, I say it’s flip-flopping.

Let’s extrapolate on this a bit more. The protagonist wants to trust A, but A just told one of their secrets to the antagonist. Your character is really pissed off at A, but they also believe that A is the only person who can help them along in the story. So, with some nagging doubt in their mind, they decide to trust A because the benefits outweigh the risks.

What I’ve described above is a complex situation. The trust is established, but there’s something going on below the surface that colors it a certain shade of wariness. The most important part, though, is that the protagonist has decided to commit to trusting A. They have bought in.

Compare this to the same scenario. And let’s say the decision is made in chapter one to trust A. But then in chapter two, the protagonist avoids A’s phone calls, saying “I just can’t trust them.” In chapter three, your character crawls back to A to ask a favor, acting for all the world like there’s an intact relationship. In chapter four, the protagonist spurns A’s friendly advances, vowing to go through the rest of the plot alone.

But didn’t we say we trusted A in chapter one? Why does the tide keep shifting? To go back and forth on a commitment sends the reader for a loop. “I thought we agreed on A, and now the rules have been rewritten!” I’ll say as I’m reading a manuscript where flip-flopping is an issue.

The bigger problem here is that flip-flopping isn’t an action. Taking one step forward and one step back doesn’t advance either the plot or the relationship (in this case, the protagonist and A). There’s a slight distinction between committing to conflicting viewpoints about a character because of advances in the plot. For example, the protagonist can fully buy-in to trusting A, and only after some deep betrayal will they make up their mind to forge ahead alone. That’s complexity, and it’s the evolution of a fraught relationship. But the key is commitment. Buying in. Without it, the protagonist changes their mind without investing, resulting in flip-flopping and leaving the plot and relationship development stuck.

Some writers think that flip-flopping is complex, and in some ways, safer. Their characters have angst, but they don’t actually go down any wrong paths. They just keep changing their minds. I don’t find that this is beneficial in the long run, in fact, it’s maybe even a bit shallow. Instead of flip-flopping, commit! Buy in!

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As you know if you’ve read the blog for a little while, my favorite musician is Ben Folds. His band’s most recent album was called The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Not only is the title track my cell phone ringtone, but the idea of “the life of the mind” comes into play today.

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen descriptions like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description. For example:

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
“Sweetie?”
“Huh?”
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this excerpt. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. ;) But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf. An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Webs?”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it, some thoughts on filler, interiority, and interruptions! Happy (early) Halloween!

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Naming Emotions

Here’s something I encounter often in my editorial work. The naming of emotions. Or, as I see it, the most flagrant use of telling that writers can come up with. Telling about feelings and character is the lowest form, something to generally avoid. It often breeds things like:

Hannah felt very sad about the death of her bunny.

Ellis couldn’t be happier.

Let’s cut to the chase. Reading the word “happy” doesn’t make me happy. (No matter how much the cute embellished throw pillows at Joss & Main would like me to feel otherwise.) Hearing “sad” doesn’t bring a tear to my eye. Simply naming the emotion makes any opportunity for true emoting lie flat on the page.

There are a thousand different nuances to being happy, and to expressing that emotion. Find ones that are personal to your character. Go above and beyond naming the feeling, since that is the territory of the lazy. There’s a whole art and science to making the reader care through creating emotions in them, and I’m afraid there’s no simple shortcut.

The very job of writing fiction starts with feeling your own feelings, and finding your own story through those hard-won emotions. If you can’t wrangle your own feelings, how can you nail them down onto paper or screen? With a lot of moments in editing and writing, I tell my clients that maybe they haven’t stood in their characters’ shoes enough at pivotal moments.

They know what the basic emotion is, and they put the obligatory placeholder on the page–”grumpy,” or “heartbroken,” or “exhilarated”–but there’s often an aversion to standing in that emotion and pulling something more specific out of the experience to really ground it.

Too bad, lovelies. You gotta go there first if you want your readers to go with you!

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I Got Rhythm

In my career, I’ve worked a lot with rhyming picture book texts. Not on my agenting list, unfortunately, since the market for rhyming picture books was (and remains) tough. Of my dozen or so picture book author clients, most were author-illustrators who could bring a unique art voice and sense of balance between text and image, the rest were prose picture book writers, and only one worked exclusively in rhyme. Tough odds. The rhyming one did get a book deal during our work together (the absolutely charming GOODNIGHT, ARK by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman), but I heard over and over again from editors that rhyming was tough.

Well, let’s leave rhyming out of it and talk about rhyming’s black sheep sister for a minute: rhythm. If you want to write rhyming picture books, I would actually argue that rhythm, not rhyme, is king of the genre. Most people get so caught up in finding the right rhyme that their rhythm is all over the place and completely sinks the manuscript, almost before it gets started. Are you writing in rhyme and failing to count your syllables? Disaster lies in that direction.

The biggest mistake people writing rhyming PBs make is letting rhyme dictate story. Why does the dog have fleas? Because it has to eat cheese in order for the rhyme to work? Wrong. You’ve written yourself into a prison and you’re going to keep sacrificing the integrity of the story just to hit your rhymes. That’s not great.

The second biggest mistake, as you might be able to guess, is not paying attention to rhythm. If you aren’t yet familiar with syllable counts, iambs, trochees, and all the other trappings of verse, it may be worth your while to get a high school or college poetry textbook. That’s right. A textbook. Because there is stuff to learn about rhythm that was so intricate that you quicky repressed it in the 9th grade. People have been hammering away at poetry for centuries and centuries. Give their hard work at least a cursory nod and study the poetic form before you throw your hat in the ring.

You could have the most beautiful rhyme in the world but if the read-aloud factor isn’t there, and it’s pitted like a road after winter, with starts and stops, your rhyming picture book will go flat. And if you aren’t reading your work aloud as you compose or edit, especially for rhyming picture books, what, exactly, are you doing?! That is absolutely essential, because how it sounds in your head probably isn’t how it sounds out in the air.

Ideally you compose for content (story) and cadence (rhythm). Those two come first and foremost. Only when you master rhythm can you even think about incorporating rhyme.

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The tendency to do this has risen to the level of such cliché that it is now a joke. But in case anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, I want to run an idea by you: do not save villain motivations until the very end. How has this usually happened in the past? A villain does all sorts of dastardly deeds, with seemingly no motivation in sight, until they have the hero in their clutches, and then they start to “monologue” about all the hurts they have endured (probably some perpetrated by the hero, often without the hero’s knowledge), and how they are now enjoying their sweet, sweet revenge. Then the power goes out, their death ray is rendered useless, and the hero turns around and saves the day, etc. etc. etc.

(Random thought: If anyone has read a lot of my writing, I would be honestly curious as to how many times “etc.” appears in my body of work. The total count must be staggering. I wish I had a way to tally all of my blog entries, my book, and my notes that I share independently with clients. I bet it would be a trip. So if we’re ever sitting down and I say something like, “You know, I think your overuse of ‘just’ is one of your writing tics,” don’t feel too badly, I clearly have them, too!)

But it’s one thing to say, “Don’t do X, don’t do Y,” and it’s another to delve into the “why?” factor. Here, it’s a matter of explaining why motivation works for your protagonist, and setting the same rules for your antagonist. Generally speaking, if your hero doesn’t have a clear reason for doing what she’s doing at the scene level or the manuscript level, it’s going to be that much harder to get reader investment (which is, probably, the most important aspect of attracting your audience). “I’m doing all this stuff and I can’t tell you why!” gets old.

The more you establish motivation, the more you can generate relatability. After all, we have goals and strive for them, so seeing someone else strive similarly is instantly attractive and releases deep feelings of empathy. You want this when creating any character, whether you’re working on your protagonist, their sidekick, or, yes, the villain*.

In my book, I talk about why Voldemort of Harry Potter fame is such a great antagonist. First and foremost, he’s eerily relatable. He’s a guy with a lot of hurt inside him, striving to know what love feels like, but going about it in a totally terrifying way. I remember the moment where, despite my best efforts, I sympathized with him. Wow! Think of all the interesting feelings I would’ve missed out on if Voldemort had been characterized in a way that saved all of his motivations and deeper drivers until the very end? That would’ve only given me a few chapters to wrap my mind around everything, and generated a much shallower experience of the story.

Another reason to leak villain motivations over time instead of saving them up until the end is the questionable payoff of “the big reveal.” There are only a few books in recent memory that have surprised me on a level that works well. Being mildly entertained by a twist is not the same thing as shakes-you-down-to-your-socks surprise. The former happens all the time, the latter, very infrequently. So unless you’re banking on the surprise to end all surprises that is so deeply rooted in the story that it will undo and reverse everything that has come before it, you’re not going to get as much mileage out of your reveal as you’re expecting.

Fiction structure and norms have before familiar. Hence the fact that we’re playing with all of these elements as clichés, hence the term “monologuing” even exists to define this phenomenon. There are few very real surprises in fiction because so many stories and plot points have been exploited over time. You aren’t likely to shock your readers, so stop investing so heavily in your reveals and start building character from the beginning. Readers these days are skeptical and wiser than their years. They are more likely to appreciate a complex character relationship instead of a big surprise at the end which, with social media and book review sites, might get leaked ahead of time and ruin the experience. A surprise is a gimmick. If you rely entirely on it, you may pay more in opportunity cost than have that gimmick pay off. (Unless you’re writing in a genre, like a thriller, where twisty plots and surprises are expected, of course.)

Plant clues and small explanations throughout about your villain’s psyche and needs. Their reasons. Their weak spots. Not only will this give your readers more to latch on to, it will give your hero more to work with when it comes time to face their foe. Don’t rely solely on plot and surprise at the climax, try for spychological depth as well.

* Come to think of it, don’t do the big motive reveal for your hero, either. I didn’t think that note could possibly apply to anyone, but now that I think about it, I might as well put it out there in case any writers happen to be struggling.

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