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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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If I had a series about, well, series, I’d make a few key points. Namely, there’s my old yarn about writing your story as having “series potential” instead of REQUIRING a three- or five- or nine-book contract to execute your idea properly. We’re not in the Harry Potter boom years anymore, nor are we deep in a recession, but the market is still risk-averse. And signing up a debut writer for one unknown book, let alone three unknown books, represents a potential opportunity, sure, but also a big potential loss for the house. Basically, you’re in a much stronger position if you write one amazing manuscript with “series potential” (a few threads left open and the suggestion of future adventures that could be exploited) and then have the publisher asking you for a sequel, than you would be if you were the one needing multiple books to get your story told.

Now, how do you leave those threads open in a way that keeps your sequel options open while letting your manuscript seem whole enough to stand alone? Ah, now this is a good question. First, I would recommend that no more than three threads be left open. And they should be subplot threads with maybe one main plot thread, not all main plot threads. Your job is to resolve most of those by the end of Book 1. If you’re ending on a cliff-hanger or you’re leaving the main plot undecided, you’re not paying attention to everything the current market is telling you about sequels.

If, however, you haven’t entirely resolved one character’s problem, and your protagonist is still wondering about a certain element of the subplot, and the ending feels buttoned-up but you’ve hinted at the potential that everything could go to hell in a handbasket at some point in the future, then you’re doing it right. Future threat that may or may not come to pass is compelling enough to use as a launching-off point for a sequel. Present threat that’s not resolved slaps your reader in the face after they’ve spent four hours reading your story with a, “Yeah, you’ll have to buy the next installment and find out.”

Another thing I’ve noticed in a few manuscript is that seemingly random details are planted that stick out like a sore thumb. They have little bearing on the story that we’ve been reading so far. What gives? Invariably, the writer admits that they are “seeds being planted for the sequel.” This balances on the razor’s edge between “smart” and “silly.”

Let’s say that you are definitely planning a sequel if only someone would give you one, so you’re sneaking things into the manuscript that will only make sense once you get to execute the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) parts of the story you’re envisioning. That’s fine. To a point. But if the last third of your book starts to read like the prologue to Book 2, you’re in trouble with the reader. “Why are we spending so much time talking about something that has no precedent in the entire story I’ve just read?” they’ll wonder.

Balance is key to most things, in life and in fiction. Plant some details, leave some threads. But stick to your principles and your duties to the reader. Finish up the story you’ve invited them to read. That is first and foremost. Once you have a really solid resolution, then you can plant a few seeds. If you never get to do that sequel, they will be nonsense at worst, and not many people will notice. But if you’ve gone overboard and every second page hints at something that has no bearing on the present denouement, you’ve overstepped your bounds.

 

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If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.

But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.

And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.

Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.

So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?

How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!

In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.

Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.

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I’ve said often that the character is one of the main elements of a story that guides reader reaction/involvement. We look to characters to assess how we should be reacting, what we should believe, whether or not we should get invested. That’s what makes unreliable narrators so tricky–by the very nature of fiction, we, as readers, rely on the characters for a lot of our cues.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with quite a number of fantasy/sci-fi clients in my editorial business. And one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about is “Character buy-in.” Before we’re ready to believe that dinosaurs roam the earth again (or whatever), the character has to believe it. Only then will the reader go along with the story and feel safe suspending disbelief. (We show up to the page with a certain willingness, but before we fully believe it, it has to be successfully sold to the protagonist or POV character.)

Let’s run with the dinosaur example, and I’m going to tell you a few issues that I’ve noticed when character buy-in isn’t accomplished as thoughtfully as it can be. The first issue is vacillation or flip-flopping. The second issue I’ll call “characterization friction.”

Flip-flopping. Let’s say we have a character who sees some dinosaurs running around à la Jurassic Park. It’s natural to question one’s eyesight and/or sanity if this happens, and your character can certainly do both of those things. But once that’s out of the way, it’s harmful to reader engagement to keep questioning whether they’re dreaming or not. Let’s say we see the dinosaurs on page 10 and have an immediate “Nuh-uh, this isn’t really happening” reaction. By page 11, once the dinosaurs have destroyed the school, the protagonist starts to buy in. “Maybe this is happening.” By page 12, they’re back in denial again. “This is all a dream and I’m going to wake up every second.” For the reader, who is waiting for the green light to buy into the story, this will get old very quickly. As long as the character keeps flip-flopping as to whether they’re going to play along with the plot, the reader subconsciously holds off going 100% into the story. You can do this once or twice, but there needs to be a moment that I can point to on the page where the protagonist decides, “This is real and I’m going to function as if it’s real from now on.” After that, no “I must be dreaming” business. You’ve devised the plot, now sell it and run with it.

Another issue here is that you’ve created a character who may clash with the overall plot, especially when it comes to buying in. If your super hippie-dippy out-there character refuses to believe that auras are taking over people’s bodies (the first example to come to mind, and it’s super lame, my apologies!), that strikes me as less likely. If that same character jumps into it and says, “This is super weird but I’m going along for the ride,” then I’m more likely to join her, because your characterization matches how she’s clicking into the story.

If you have an overly analytical, scientifically minded kid who is thrust into the dinosaur plot, and they jump into the deep end right away, there’s friction there for me. This character might need more proof, they might need to establish their own version of the truth before they can suspend disbelief. Long story short, characterization should be consistent with buy-in style, and without vacillating for too long.

This seems pretty self-explanatory, but I’m seeing some dissonance here as of late. What’s the moment your protagonist buys in? Is it decisive? Is their willingness to believe your story fast or slow? Is there flip-flopping? This moment is very important, because it’s guiding your reader, too.

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