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World Building

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One of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction is good world building. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. World building, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

When I’m reading a manuscript and a cat starts talking to the main character on page three (this is probably the inciting incident), I need to know a few things before we ever get to Fluffy. Do cats talk in this world? What role do animals play in terms of animal/human relations? When Fluffy opens his maw, I should know immediately: this is or isn’t normal according to the world building.

The more rules we’ve established, the clearer the world comes across. There’s logic and order imposed. Which becomes all the more important when you decide to break one of your own rules. This is what I want to get into here.

I talked a bit about this stuff in a much earlier post. Basically, when you’re dealing with magic powers, you want them to be well-defined, so that your character isn’t getting out of trouble by pulling never-before-seen tricks out of her hat. That’s lame, and it betrays your world building. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules in world building is exciting. It raises stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical world building. What happens when someone tries a spell that nobody has tried before? The answer to this question lies in more rules, not fewer. The better your reader knows the world and the parameters of the magic, the more they will start to anticipate what might happen when the character goes “off the grid,” so to speak.

“Will it be like using Power X or Spell Y? Will the outcome be A or B, like that one time the character did something like this?” This anticipation builds because the reader knows what to expect in the world of your story, and it’s only after this familiarity is established that we start to truly engage. And when flirting with breaking the rules starts to become fun and interesting.

If your world has no limits or rules, everything is a free-for-all. How can you build anticipation when literally anything can happen? The best stories become their own worlds, constantly referring back to what has come before as the action moves forward. Without strong world building rules, none of the stuff you’ve done so far in the book matters, because it’s not precedent for anything.

If there’s magic, we need to know the limits, how it works, etc. If there are different races/classes of people or creatures in your fantasy hierarchy, we need to know what each does, means, and how they relate to one another. If you’ve established that the dragons hate the polar bears and will do anything to start a war, once a dragon shows up, it better not be a low stakes event. And if it is, it’ll be that much more surprising, and you’ll get a reaction out of the reader. This is conscious rule-breaking.

Set yourself up to succeed in world building by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.

 

 

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Great books write their own dictionaries and lexicons, in a way. This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans. Having special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, world building effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey. I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.” To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.” Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town. Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of voice, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick. But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.

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I talk to writers about anticipating reader wants a lot when I’m discussing world building. For example, imagine a reader brand new to the fantasy world you’re creating. They’ve just dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of it. They are fully immersed. (A good analogy for opening a book). What are your first few questions going to be? (“Why is the sky purple? Can everyone shoot lightning from their fingertips? Why does only the royal class get to wear clothes?”) A skillful world builder, then, incorporates the answers to these implied questions into their narrative so that the reader doesn’t have to be distracted from the story by the stuff they’re wondering about. They can just know it and move on to what’s happening in front of them. Otherwise, you have a situation where your reader is stuck on the details (“No, but seriously, hold the phone, why is the sky purple?”) and they’re missing the forest of your story for the trees.

This principle can be blown out to apply to every story. In a job interview, candidates are taught to anticipate the questions and give answers that satisfy that unique company’s requirements. Same principle. What does your reader want to see? What are you setting them up for? What promises are you making that you need to deliver on? (I’ve written a few times about “the promise of the story” but I can’t seem to find that blog post to reference. It may be worth a new post!)

Here’s an example of what I mean. You’re writing a MG about some neighborhood kids who want to prove that the old, crotchety woman in the dilapidated mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac is a witch who’s responsible for the town’s trees dying. We’ve all heard variations on this “A witch lives in that house!” tall tale. The wrong way to go about this sort of story would be to spend the first half of the manuscript discussing the backstory of what she’s done that’s crazy, sneaking around her house at night when she’s asleep, going to the local bookstore to look up books on local legends, having a seance in the woods to talk about the woman, trying to interview her neighbors, having a bake sale to raise money for better flashlights to sneak into the house again, etc. etc. etc. What is missing in all of this? THE OLD WOMAN.

The reader will not be invested in the story until we meet this crone in the wrinkly flesh. See her interact with the kids. Try and suss out what about her is so creepy. Make up our own minds. This is a classic case of telling versus showing. But since the woman is such a big part of this story, the longer we go without meeting her, the more unfulfilled we will be. The same goes for any big story element. If all your character can do is talk about the fact that school is making him miserable, let’s see a classroom scene. If a girl goes on and on about her crush, get him on stage sooner rather than later. I say all the time that something grows in importance the more it’s mentioned or seen in a story. This is a balance. If something is mentioned and not put into action, that could be a problem. (Unless it’s someone like Oz, the Great and Powerful, whose reputation is built up to ridiculous heights on purpose to make the final reveal all the more shocking.)

Like the unanswered question about your fantasy world that sticks in your reader’s craw and won’t let them immerse themselves in the rest of the story, these unfulfilled wants are a huge missed opportunity. When it comes to crafting your story, especially at the beginning, identify the most important characters, settings, plot events and other elements. Then see if you’re leaving the reader hanging with any of them. A little teasing is good and builds tension. Too much and the reader will want to stop chasing the dangling carrot. Is there any point where they’re left sitting and feeling antsy, thinking, “If we could just meet that old woman already, I would know so much more about what’s going on!” Act like a luxury hotel that anticipates their guest’s every need, from just the right number of towels to the preferred newspaper by the door in the morning. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

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With the proliferation of fantasy and paranormal on the market, I need a lot of clues when I start reading a manuscript about whether or not I’m in the real world or an augmented version. Most readers will not have the benefit of a query letter or synopsis when sitting down to read. They may also be picking up an ebook or library-bound version where the cover (often a reliable source of hints about paranormal content) isn’t going to be front and center. (Note: I’m using the terms “fantasy” and “paranormal” interchangeably here to mean “story elements that do not usually exist in realistic fiction.”)

For example, imagine that speaking dogs are the paranormal element. You’ve read advice (perhaps even mine) about introducing the fantasy aspects early on so that the reader knows they’re there. Excellent. So in the first chapter, you have a dog open up and say something in perfect English. Your work here is done, no?

Well, there’s a lot more to it than simply introducing the fantasy part of the story. Now that the reader’s antennae are up that there’s something odd afoot, you have an opportunity to worldbuild. Most writers miss this opportunity. The missing piece is often what happens immediately AFTER the introduction of the paranormal element. That’s what actually teaches us about what kind of world you’re creating.

The two most common types of world are: the kind where something strange is possible and happens all the time and the kind where something strange is possible but happens very rarely (which is often what launches the story). In HARRY POTTER, for example, the Muggle world is flooded by owls and everyone freaks out! It turns out that a world where the paranormal is pedestrian is finally meeting the world where nothing strange ever happens. All because of one boy.

In our dog example, here are two reactions that correspond with the types of worlds listed above. For a world where something strange is pedestrian, it’s:

Dog: You know, I would rather fancy some of that bacon you’re cooking.
Protagonist: Oh, shut it, Scraps. I’m sick of your begging.

For a world where something strange is an unexpected event:

Dog: You know, I actually detest belly rubs. That spot behind my ear, however…
Protagonist: (jumps back, looks around, looks back to dog) Scraps? Did you just…talk?

The reactions here are key to the reader’s understanding of how widespread your fantasy twist is. Once you’ve gone ahead and introduced the paranormal element, the reader’s next question is going to be, “Okay, so is this a big deal or just part of everyday life?” Go ahead and answer so that you can ease them into your world in a way that follows, naturally, what they want to know about it. Proper worldbuilding often means anticipating a reader’s questions and answering them so that they’re not stuck wondering something important and, as a result, pull themselves out of the narrative.

In unrelated news, my book was written up along with a slew of other writing guidebooks in the D.C./Virginia Mid-Atlantic SCBWI newsletter by Dionna L. Mann. SCBWI members who are logged into the SCBWI website can access the wonderful newsletter here.

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichĂ©s that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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Worldbuilding is tricky business. You need to convey the unique fictional world you’ve created without dumping a bunch of information inelegantly in your reader’s lap. You have to give them enough context to understand what’s going on and to make sure that the framework, boundaries, rules, and unique qualities of your universe are conveyed clearly.

Let’s say that people can fly in your world. This isn’t a unique premise but it is your premise, and that’s what matters. Now, let’s say that you choose to hold off on this fact and use it as a reveal at the climax of the book. The character has no idea that people can fly in this world and only learns it at one of the last moments. Thrilling, right? Well, maybe. If it’s done right. But if this is a world where people can fly, why save that unique tidbit until the very end? Why not blow your character’s mind right at the beginning and get more mileage out of the flying than you would if you hid it away?

Your job is to attract readers to the world you’ve created by giving them something that will get them interested in your unique idea. You certainly can tease and hint and withhold things about your world, but I would do this sparingly. Instead of counting on a big surprise to raise stakes and elevate tension, get the coolest stuff about your idea out in the open early.

Instead of hiding your world, SELL IT to your readers by dropping clues for them to follow or exposing the elements that made you fall in love with your story and pursue it. This is a great way of drawing in your audience. It’s saying, “Sure, you’ve read a lot of fantasy before but MY fantasy world has people flying, and glittering unicorns, and a giant who only falls asleep while guarding his cave of precious treasure once every hundred years.”

The more we’re in that world and understand how it works–all of which takes information and revealing these elements in a timely manner–the more we can focus on the other elements of your storytelling. Compared to a rich world full of interesting elements, the cheap fizzle of a last-minute surprise starts to feel like a bummer.

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Alex wrote into ask the following question:

In your webinar you briefly hinted that you weren’t against the idea of using flashbacks but I have listened to lots of other tutorials (through Writers Digest and others) that suggest flashbacks are a big no-no. What is your view? If they manage to still keep the forward momentum of the book, then could they still work?

The reason that flashbacks have a bad rep is that they’re often overused or used without much skill. That’s why so many people have been recommending that writers avoid them: because we’re sick of seeing this technique butchered.

But a well-written flashback at the appropriate time in a manuscript can tactfully weave in backstory to flesh out the present moment without bogging you down in an info-dump and stalling action.

Remember, most fiction is a balance of action and information. When you use flashback, you are taking us out of the present moment to introduce information. Pacing stops. Action stops. You have to keep that very much in mind and, first and foremost, keep flashbacks short.

Second, they should be pertinent to the action at hand. If your character is having a fight with their father, you may want to include a flashback that flies counter to the present moment in order to enrich our understanding of the daughter-father relationship. But don’t then go off on a tangent and string together five memories plus a memory about the mother, to boot. That’s excessive. So not only does the length and style of flashback count, the information contained therein is important. It really needs to add something to our understanding of the present moment, or our sympathy for the character, or our understanding of the world which you’re building (for books with fantasy elements) or a historical period (like a flashback for the sake of contrast to the excess of the Roaring 20s if your character is now suffering through the Depression).

Third, you don’t want to keep yanking the reader out of the present moment for too many flashbacks. You should use a light touch, to the point where the reader may not realize how many flashbacks you’ve employed as you take them through the story. Pick only the most important information to go into flashback and you should be fine.

Finally, you want to be especially careful about flashback at the beginning of a story. I’d avoid them in the first chapter, if possible, because you want to hit the ground running with a really strong sense of the present moment in a novel. If your present moment is constantly being interrupted by flashbacks, the reader (who is brand new to your story) may not get an adequate foothold in your narrative and get as involved as they should be.

Use a light touch and keep them relevant, and flashbacks can be your friends!

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There’s one tool available to writers that I find is often underused: reaction. This is a missed opportunity. Even if you’re in third person but especially if you’re in first person, you need to highlight big moments in your story and call attention to emotion and character relationship by making sure each noteworthy exchange or event lands with your character.

How your character reacts to something gives your reader valuable clues as to how they should be reacting, what they should be learning from whatever just transpired, and how significant it is to the overall story.

For example, a character is staring out the window at night when, suddenly, she sees a firefly turn into a fairy princess out on the lawn. What is her reaction? If she thinks “Oh, no! Not again! That means dad will make me go out there first thing tomorrow and wash the fairy dust off the grass…” then that tells the reader that fairies are common in this world, and a bit of a nuisance. Not only do we get the character’s attitude about the firefly fairy, but we get valuable worldbuilding information (especially if this is the first time we see that this world has magic/fantasy elements to it). If she thinks “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” and runs screaming from the room, we may take that as our cue that firefly fairies are not the norm and that something truly odd is going on.

This is an example of how a reaction could fill in larger world context. It also gives us information about character. (Does she like magic? Is she over it? Etc.) You could also define relationship through reaction. If a girl we’ve never met comes up to a boy in the cafeteria and says “Hey,” and he says “Hey,” back, then that’s a rather bland scene. However, you could fill in a lot with reaction.

Two possible scenarios:

“Hey,” she said.
How could she be talking to him so casually after what she’d done. Now she was staring at him. Great. He couldn’t be the one to make this awkward. He bit down the string of obscenities that she deserved hurled at her and mustered up a rather bland, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, and immediately regretted the wasted opportunity. This was Cassie Price, of all people! Talking to him! The moment he had been waiting for his entire life and it was over just like that. Now Cassie had moved on, taking that musky scent of her jasmine perfume with her, and he didn’t know whether he’d ever have this chance again.

Same dialogue, two completely different scenes and relationships. And yes, for those of you wondering, I consider reaction to be a very important–if not the most important–function of Interiority.

Use it to make things seem important, too. If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or action. Draw attention to the things that matter by letting them matter more to your character. I bet there are a lot of such missed opportunities in your work.

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I’ve been reading a lot of novel beginnings for webinar critiques lately, and I must applaud some of my students for diving right in there and starting with action. Some of these guys are just off to the races…we’re plunged into the middle of a scene, into a world, into new terminologies, into names and places that we haven’t encountered yet, etc. Kudos! Most novel beginnings have the opposite problem–they are too information-heavy, with lots of backstory or telling or explaining. Boo. I’ll take an action-packed opening that drops us into scene any day.

But!

Yes, there’s a “but.” It’s all about balance, actually. Because too much action and not enough information can be alienating to an audience that expects some grounding facts right at the beginning of the book. If we’re thrown into a story with no context or frames of reference, we are likely going to end up confused. And as I like to say, “If you confuse us, you lose us.” Especially at the beginning of the book. Nobody wants to pick up an object that they just paid $16.99 for and be frustrated or feel out of the loop. We want to be tickled, intrigued, our interest piqued. Think about a meaty mystery from a detective’s point of view: they have some clues, but not all most of them. And it’s that tantalizing yet puzzling amount of information that keeps them digging. That’s what you want to give readers right off the bat.

So, to repeat, some of these writers who do plunge the reader right in are taking a risk. They know that unanswered questions and tension and mystery are like catnip for readers (if readers were cats…though they often act like cats, curling up in various nooks, etc.). This is very true. If you start with action, you’ll most likely have tension or mystery working to your advantage, because the reader will want to follow and know more about what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct. But if you give us no grounding information at the beginning–if it’s all action and no context–you run the risk of confusing your reader with not enough information.

The best way to gauge where you fall on this spectrum is to run your opening by people who know nothing about your book (but who are writers or teachers and otherwise qualified to provide valid writing feedback). If they end up feeling like they get what’s going on at the beginning, or get it a little too much, you’ve got just enough or even a surplus of information to get the reader going. Maybe pare down some of the telling and work on increasing tension, action, and conflict to make it even more exciting. If your reader comes at you with lots of questions, on the other hand, or if they seem confused, maybe you should take a few well-placed pauses and slip in some context (without doing too much telling, of course).

Basic formula: Confusion, bad. Mystery, good. The two are not the same.

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Bad Obstacles

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good character obstacle lately. What kinds of things should your character butt up against in the pursuit of their objective? What kinds of things make for less-than-stellar hurdles to jump over? Well, if your reader is meant to be emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey to the climax of the story, they will need to struggle. A lot. They will need to pursue a very important goal and get shot down as often as possible. In fact, the only time they should really succeed is during the climactic action of the novel (or picture book, though obviously goals, obstacles, and attempts at achieving the objective are appropriately scaled down, and the failures aren’t as catastrophic).

Whether your obstacles are smaller frustrations or major roadblocks, some things just don’t work. One is the internal obstacle of “I can’t.” “Can’t” is a four-letter word in fiction, when uttered by both character and writer. When a character says “I can’t,” my first instinct is to ask, “Why not?” Sometimes it’s valid. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman, Meggy’s legs are maimed. When she says she can’t go up stairs, I believe her. Or if your worldbuilding dictates that characters can’t fly, it’s good that you’re keeping it consistent. But when a character flat-out refuses to do something, there must be a real reason behind it (like a fear of heights precluding them from climbing the Eiffel Tower that has been established in the book for a long time as crucially important), or the obstacle will feel flimsy. It’s one thing for a character to say they can’t. Writers often stop there. But if the reader is to understand their position, there should be real motivation there, or it’s a nonstarter.

On a side note, it really irks me on a logical level when writers say “can’t.” This often happens when I give them food for thought during a critique and they have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, that would take too much revision and I simply can’t.” Why not? You are making everything up. If the way you’ve made something up precludes you from trying something new, simply dream your way out of the old rules and come up with another framework. “Can’t” has no place in fiction. (I often hear it for what it most likely is: “Don’t wanna.”)

Another flimsy character obstacle is one that depends entirely on another character’s will. This is often a true non-starter. If your plot is riding on your character borrowing their big brother’s car, and they ask their brother, and the brother says, “No,” well…you’re SOL, aren’t you? You’re at an impasse. There should always be other avenues to reach the objective, other actions your character can play, etc. Plus, it’s frustrating to read a situation when the other character’s refusal seems arbitrary. Just like with “can’t,” if I feel like they could easily change their minds, then I’m not buying that it’s a real obstacle.

So just like your characters, objectives, and motivations, your obstacles should be more dynamic.

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