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.

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.

I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. 🙂

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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.

Great First Line Workshop

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. 😛 No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)