Children’s Book Manuscript Chapter Length

Hi, this is Mary Kole and, and you are watching a video response to a question that I received on the blog from Tom. Tom recently asked a wonderful question about read aloud potential in picture books, which I was happy to answer. He had another great question in the same comment. So he was just coming up with good stuff. I am more than happy to answer in this video format. I think it’s so much fun. Tom’s question, actually the answer to Tom’s question is hidden inside of Tom’s question, but the gist of it is, Tom says, “When I’m reading with my kids, I notice that the manuscripts,” or the books in his case, “that have consistent chapter length flow more smoothly. They are more of a joy to read. Can you comment on that?” You know, and as I am reading this, I’m thinking, “You just answered your own question, buddy.” But whatever, I’ll speak to it because I think it’s a very important point.

So chapter length is a big question that I received many times about all sorts of children’s books that have chapters. So that usually includes everything from chapter books, to middle grade, to young adult novels. And in that case, people always ask, you know, “How long should my chapters be?” That’s the most common question. Nobody really talks about consistency. So I think this is a really great point to drill into. Now, I am less concerned with how long your chapter needs to be. I’m not a big fan of handing out absolute dictums and saying, you know, “For middle grade, your chapters need to be 2,000 words max and always longer than 1,200 words, and…” you know.

Yeah sure, if pressed, I could come up with some harder numbers, but I don’t like to do that because I believe that every book sort of has its own style. Now, I will say that yeah, a chapter that’s 10,000 words for any category of children’s book is probably crazy. It’s gonna be tedious to read. It’s a lot. So there definitely are ways to answer that question in a more specific way, but I’ll keep being cagey, and I will say consistency, as Tom identified in his comment, is key in any category that you’re writing, middle grade, chapter book, YA. Consistency is what sort of keeps the engine of your pacing going. And when I’m reading, I definitely notice, you know, with my editorial clients, I have manuscripts in front of me all the time. I definitely notice when a chapter is a lot shorter or a lot longer than sort of what has been established. And one of my favorite things to say to people is a book teaches us how to read it, which is true. So if you start out writing really short chapters which is a great way to sort of keep pacing lively, you’ve sort of set a standard for yourself. And so if you really start in the middle maybe, writing really long chapters, whoa, your pacing is gonna tank and readers are gonna wonder…they may not be able to put their finger on what’s going on, but they may start to wonder why your chapters suddenly feel longer, or slower, or bulkier. So chapter length can definitely be used to affect pacing and the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving which is the definition of pacing.

If you have a lot of long chapters, you really wanna make sure that action flows freely inside those chapters because otherwise they’re just gonna big blocks of information one after the other, and that’s gonna have an exhausting effect on the reader. But the key is that whatever you start doing, keep doing it. You’ve sort of gotten yourself into that place, and if you notice that all of your chapters are really long, you’re gonna have more of a job ahead of you, maybe chopping some of those chapters in half or reorganizing information. Another thing that I see a lot is that a person will basically have chapter consistency down for the most part, but then they will have a few outliers. And the more consistent your chapters are, of course, the more those outliers are going to call attention to themselves. So when you’re revising, one very easy thing to look for, especially if you use a software like Scrivener where each chapter is an individual file, which I highly recommend, is seeing, “Okay, which chapters are abnormally short or abnormally long compared to kinda where I come in.” You know, if I’m coming at 1,500 words for a YA novel chapter and I have a chapter that’s 2,500 words, and then another one that follows it that’s 500, I might wanna think about combining them and then chopping that resulting chapter kind of in half, for example. So what’s…what are your outliers? That would be a great place to start in terms of kinda restructuring your chapters.

Another thing to do is to make sure that each chapter earns its keep. This is a huge note that I give to a lotta my editorial clients. This chapter doesn’t earn its keep. And for me, for a chapter to earn its place in a novel, you have to do one of several things. Ideally you’re doing many of these things all at once. The chapter has to pull its weight. Now, it should introduce character, or introduce something about character, or change something about character relationship, so you’re moving something forward in the character department or…ideally. And a chapter has to move plot forward. So something has to happen.

Now this brings us back to the definition of action in a plot sense. If two characters just bicker for a whole chapter, yeah there’s conflict technically, but nothing has actually happened if two characters just sit there going like this. So something needs to happen to move the plot forward. There needs to be action, there needs to be forward momentum in terms of things happening in the physical world that ideally drag your story forward. So we should learn something about character, something should happen in terms of plot, character relationship can change. There’s gotta be meat in each chapter. And a lotta the time, I see short chapters that are just transitions, for example, you have two big scenes and then a little valley in between that’s like 500 words. That’s something I see a lot. Or a chapter where it’s just characters talking, talking heads. Sometimes those really seem to tank pacing. So yeah, I would say that chapter consistency above all is key. Make sure your chapters are a consistent length, look for outliers, so chapters that are too long or too short based on the length that you set for yourself where you fall most of the time when you’re writing. And then you need to do a test of each chapter to see, does this really have a reason to be in this manuscript? And that’s kind of the trickier revision tactic to do because you’ve written it, of course you don’t wanna kill your babies. Each chapter absolutely belongs in there. But when you really get down to it, is there enough forward momentum in that chapter on the character front, on the plot front to really keep it in there? And if not, you may wanna do away with the chapter or you may want to shorten the chapter and tack it on to one of the two chapters either before it or after it. That’s one way to handle kind of a shorter chapter where you wanna keep some of the information but maybe not make it its standalone chapter. Or is it something that can be expanded into a full-fledged chapter in its own right, maybe with some character development or some plot development?

So, hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for why consistency is important when it comes to chapter length, and then if you do have chapters that are inconsistent with your novel and kind of your goals for each chapter in your novel, what to do with those. So I love this question. Thank you so much, Tom, for asking, and thank you for watching.

Using Compressed Narration in Fiction to Speed Up Plot

When thinking of how to convey the events of your plot, you may be considering using compressed narration in fiction. Compressed narration is a quick description of what happens. Its opposite is narrating the entire scene.

compressed narration in fiction
There are two ways of rendering action in fiction.

Example of Compressed Narration in Fiction

It may be difficult to visualize compressed narration if you’re not familiar with it, so here is an example:

I hung out after school, picked Stella up from her swim practice, and we got ice cream. The entire time, I meant to talk to her about what Dad told me, but I couldn’t find the nerve. It was still hanging over me by dinner.

As you can see, we aren’t privy to the entirety of this scene. It’s described quickly and then the present action of the story, presumably, resumes. We don’t see the scene with Stella and the narrator eating ice cream. If the action was a movie in a VCR (remember those?!), it’d be squiggling by on fast forward.

So is compressed narration in fiction a good way of conveying plot? It sure is, when used appropriately. You don’t want to rely on it too much, but it can certainly help keep your narrative moving.

Three Times to Use Compressed Narration

One great use for compressed narration is to skip over scenes that aren’t necessary to render, but important to mention. I doubt anything exciting happened over ice cream. The point of that example paragraph wasn’t even the ice cream, it was the narrator keeping a secret. So compressed narration was used to move the action forward a little and put even more pressure on the narrator to spill the secret.

This is a nice use of this technique. Remember, readers don’t need to read about every single little thing that happens in great detail. Sometimes a mention of it is enough.

A second use for compressed narration in fiction is to bring characters up to speed on information the reader already knows. If Bob just went through an ordeal, and wants to tell Sue about it, the ordeal is new to Sue, but not the reader. So handle it with compressed narration.

For example:

I told Sue all about what happened. She asked a bunch of questions and, when she was satisfied, we gaped at one another. “What do we do now?” I asked.

The third use of compressed narration is when providing context. For example, it’s good in flashback, when you need to insert a little information, without going into full detail.

For example:

That summer the possum got stuck in our toilet and Mama finally put her foot down about moving, we ate rice six nights a week so Dad could save up all his tips.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long and drawn-out memory. The mention of it is enough to communicate the more important point: The family had to make ends meet, even if a toilet possum was what touched the whole thing off.

Summarizing Compressed Narration

Basically, compressed narration is used for things you want to mention, but which aren’t important enough to warrant the spotlight of attention. If you have been told that your narrative drags or that your plot lacks momentum, consider using compressed narration to speed things up. Which events need a full render, and which can be compressed?

If you’re worried about your plotting and pacing, hire me as your novel editor. I can help you with many elements of your fiction craft, and help you tighten up your storytelling.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!

starting a novel with aftermath, starting a novel, starting a chapter, writing a novel, beginning a novel, prologue, tension, stakes
Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Giving Characters Too Little Information

I was working on a wonderful client manuscript last month and hit a patch of “Muddy Middle.” It happens. Quite a lot, actually. Now, this particular manuscript was a fantasy adventure where the kids went to another world. I decided to write about it because this is a popular premise that many people pick. (For advice on how to innovate a popular premise, check out a recent post here.)

What really slowed this particular manuscript down, and what I’ve seen many times before, is a lack of information about the world. This is completely understandable. Writers have been put off of “info-dumping,” perhaps even by yours truly. They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo.

Where are they? What’s going on? What is the context of the world? What’s everyone up to? Why? These basic world-building questions go unanswered. And the entire plot of the story stalls because it has now become a quest for information. Plus, all of the characters are now withholding information from your protagonist.

If you find yourself using phrases like, “There’s much for you to learn but not now,” or something similar, your manuscript might have this issue. The characters in the other realm know about the world, but if they don’t tell your protagonist, or they stall, then the reader starts to wonder why. They feel jerked around. The characters desperately need to know certain things, and people’s refusal to tell them starts to feel arbitrary.

Imagine the following stalling:

“Who is Oz, the Great and Powerful?”

“You’ll find out all in due course.”

“What’s with all these monkeys? Did I hear something about a witch?”

“That’s a very long story. Just follow the yellow brick road and you’ll find out eventually.”

That’s not very satisfying, is it? So the protagonist wanders around, totally clueless about the world and the various elements operating within it. And the instinct is good. You don’t want to info-dump and you get to withhold information that will arrive with a big splash later. The reveal gets to become a plot point. But what about the actual plot? What about the things the protagonist wants and how they clash with what the antagonist wants? That is really where your action is going to be.

How do you remedy this problem? Leak information strategically. Believe it or not, the more information your protagonist has, the better. Many writers assume that leaving your reader with too little information will create a snazzy sense of mystery. It won’t. You should be volunteering key world-building information throughout, as the protagonist gets deeper and deeper into the story.

“You see, things aren’t always what they seem here.”

“There is a witch, and her deal is ABC…”

“The Wizard wants XYZ and you might be just the ticket…”

Once your protagonist knows certain things about the world or the story, they can operate with that information and further their agenda, which is likely in conflict with something going on in the world. That is really where you’re going to generate most of your tension. Information has some power to create stakes and surprise, but I’m of the opinion that what your protagonist does with information is much more powerful.

If you feel like you’re wading around in the Muddy Middle, ask yourself if the protagonist is chasing information. Then think about giving it to them, and using the reveal as a springboard instead of the end all, be all.

Dropping Threads

I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.

What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.

I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.

Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.

Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?

This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.

How Much Interiority Should You Use When Writing Character Emotions

This is a great question about writing character emotion that came via email from Matt:

Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?

As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Interiority is a tough topic, and every writer will forge their own path. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some food for thought that might help you choose your own approach.

writing character emotions, interiority, emotion in fiction, protagonist emotions, protagonist pov
It’s hard to bond with a character when we don’t know what they’re feeling or thinking. Peel back the hood with interiority.

Writing Character Emotions As Necessary

My rule of thumb is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.

The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot.

It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.

Explore Interiority During Important Moments

The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body.

These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.

As you can see, there are many more links discussing a lack of interiority or issues with inadequate interiority than there are dealing with too much of it. This is yet another reflection of the fact that I see writers end up toward this end of the issue a lot more.

Writing Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of the Story

If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moment, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So? Some recent thoughts questions that help develop interiority can be found here.

Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet. More thoughts on that here.

This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.

Interiority is difficult to master, and every writer will have their own approach. Hire me for developmental editing to help you tease out just the right balance of action, emotion, characterization, and theme.

Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

Being Too Casual

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.

You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having trouble caring.

First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:

There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.

If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:

Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.

Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.

Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!

This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.

One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.

If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.

Changing the Context

I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!

There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.

But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.

In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.

My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.

So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.

If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.

What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:

First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.

Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.

If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.

Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.

Making vs. Following Fate

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. In my work with editorial clients, I often see two types of stories. This can extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.

What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?

In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. The character leads the plot, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.

In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.

Both story types are valid. But they have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.

If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on how to make the character more active, someone who manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.

While I don’t often see this issue, a “making fate” character can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.

What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. It’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.