Creating Compelling Consequences for Characters

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

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

How Consequences for Characters Work in Fiction

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

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

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

How to Create Consequences for Characters

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

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

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

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

The Effect of No or Low Consequences

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

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

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

Writing a Novel Subplot

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

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

Do You Need a Subplot?

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

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

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

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

Writing a Novel Subplot: Ideas and Pointers

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

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

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

How Much Subplot and Where Do You Use It?

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

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

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

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

How do you know exactly where and when?

The Role of Subplot in the Novel

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

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

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

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

How to Hook a Reader and Leave Them Hungry for More

Like any fiction writer, you’re wondering how to hook a reader with your story, especially those all-important first pages. (Heck, this should probably be “first page,” singular, since sometimes that’s all the opportunity you have.) Information plays a key role in how you manipulate an audience. Make no mistake, you’re not just telling a story or getting your character/plot down on paper. You’re trying, with every page, to make the reader care, which is your number one job as a writer.

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Strategic information release is much more effective than information deprivation when you want to string readers along (in a good way).

How to Hook a Reader by Creating Suspense

As I’ve written before, confusion is not the same as mystery. You want to leave your reader hungry to continue reading, not flummoxed about what’s going on. Information release is the tool at your disposal to accomplish this.

Sometimes the most dissatisfying manuscripts I read are the ones that trying the hardest to hook a reader. Why? Because a lot of writers think that withholding information is the way to go. That’s the definition of suspense, no? The reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Right? This is what we want!

Unfortunately, it’s a very murky line between suspense and not enough information. If you don’t provide a lot of context for what’s going on, the reader might not care as much as they should. Or, worse, they  might become utterly confused.

How to Combat Confusion

I’m of the school that some context and information about a suspenseful situation is actually desirable.

Let’s say that your character is wandering into an abandoned house. We’ve all seen that scene in a horror movie. Imagine, first, the “maximum confusion” version. The character arrives at the house and walks through the creaky front door. Everything is in shadow. The creepy music swells. The horror element may be just around the corner. The character tries a closet door and…

Scary, right? Well, kinda. There are a few pieces of information missing. The scene overall would be much more “grabby” if we knew any of the following:

  • Motivation (Why is the character at this horrible house?)
  • Objective (What do they need to get/see/etc. while there?)
  • Stakes (What could go wrong in this scene and how might it affect the whole?)
  • Antagonist (Who or what has the potential to be hiding in the shadows?)
  • Past (What’s happened to lead the character here?)
  • Future (What do they hope will happen after? What do they worry might happen instead?)

Some of this information will be situational. If you’ve done your plot work correctly, the reader should know why we’re at the house, for example. A lot of this information can be filled in via interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as the character approaches the house and begins to explore. (A related post would be how to create emotional anticipation.)

With two or three additional pieces of context, the scene takes on more weight in a reader’s mind.

Your Goal is Creating Hungry Readers

Imagine yourself arriving at a cocktail party. If you keep from eating beforehand in anticipation of the event, most likely you’ll end up too hungry, show up, and start diving into whatever hors d’oeuvres you can find until you’ve satisfied that initial hunger. It doesn’t feel good to be that hungry, and you don’t really taste the first few bites.

On the other hand, if you have a little snack at home, then go to the party, you’re not desperate for food, so you’re able to enjoy yourself and taste the offerings. Each one might leave you wanting more, but you’re not starving for the next bite, either.

Think of a reader as this party guest. They satisfy themselves on information and emotion. If you go into a scene with too little of either, you’re making your reader hungry…and not in a good way. You want them craving more, instead of starving for it.

Are you pacing your writing correctly? Is it “grabby” enough? General advice can only go so far. Work with me as your novel editor, and I’ll give you actionable, supportive, hands-on feedback.

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!

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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.

High Stakes Are Tricky

it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.

For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

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.

Bridging Conflict

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.

Building Emotional Anticipation in Fiction

I bet you are quivering with anticipation to learn about…anticipation in fiction. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

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Make readers ache, hurt, care, anticipate, fear, and long. Creating emotion in the reader is literally the best thing you can do for your novel.

Anticipation in Fiction and How it Builds Tension

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat.

It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions.

Generating and Using Nervous Energy in Writing

Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. Build anticipation in fiction. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

An Example of Building Anticipation

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying.

Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Build Emotions Before the Plot Point, Don’t Just Wait for the Plot Point to Generate Emotion

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened.

Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The orchestration of reader emotions is key when writing fiction. With me as your novel editor, I’ll be able to help you master this powerful instrument.

Decisions, Decisions

There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.