Protagonists have to be emotional beings. Without being clued in to their Interiority–thoughts, feelings, reactions to what’s going on in the world–and without getting a sense for their emotional lives through voice and the way that they describe everything and everyone in your story (this applies to third person, too), we won’t truly know them.
As a writer, it’s your job to clue the reader into emotions at every turn, but always through Interiority and showing. Telling when it comes to characterization and emotion is probably one of the biggest problems I encounter in manuscripts.
But even when you manage to convey emotion correctly in your novel or picture book, don’t be content to play on the surface. In a good book, there should never be just “happy” or “sad.” All emotions have causes, degrees, and consequences. The more complex the emotion in every situation, the more specific you’re being, and the more engaged your reader will become.
For example, prom is something a lot of teens look forward to. But “happy and excited” can also be cliché and boring. Not to mention unrealistic. A much more authentic experience for your character might be that prom is actually bittersweet. Sure, it’s the event of the year, but it’s also a rite of passage for graduating seniors. It’s a signal that the year is almost over and that this is one of the last times all these friends and enemies and peers and teammates will be under the same room ever again. For every emotion, find it’s shadow or highlight, search for a deeper layer, and give your reader several facets.
You can easily do it in Interiority. If we run with our prom idea, planting seeds of melancholy can be accomplished quickly and efficiently like this:
“Cheese!” Lacey grinned at the camera, clutching her date. As the flash went off, she felt a pang of nostalgia sharp enough to make her draw a quick breath. This will all be over so soon, she thought. But then the thumping bass beckoned her from the hotel ballroom, and she marched off toward it, ready to be lost in a crowd of her friends.
Ideally, we’ll get the primary emotion–excitement–and then hints of something else. No matter how you accomplish it, this kind of layered narrative is always infinitely more interesting to me as a reader, and it makes for much richer character.
Let me tell you a little story about how I fly. If y’all have spent any time following my blog or Twitter, you know that I seem to wind up on airplanes a lot. Last year, I logged 75,000 miles, with my longest flight lasting 12 hours. It may come as a surprise to you, then, that I am not a good flyer. In fact, I’ve resorted to many possible solutions for my flight anxiety, from hypnotherapy to whiskey. (Both happen to work, but the latter makes for a rather groggy arrival, just FYI.)
These days, the only real problem I have with flying is takeoff. Landing is fine, being in the air is fine, but takeoff always gets me. (In the air, you don’t really realize you’re going 500 mph because you don’t have the ground as a reference point. On takeoff, you can see exactly how fast you’re going and you can feel yourself pulling against gravity, and I think that’s what bothers me. It’s a physical reminder of the forces involved and I don’t like to think about it.) Turbulence used to really bother me until someone I sat next to once said, “Imagine a stick bobbing in a river. It’s not comfortable, but it’s safe because it’s behind held up by water. Water has mass, and so does air. We’re floating on top of a choppy current, but we’re being held up by the air in much the same way.” That really helped.
Until I got my head straight re: turbulence, though, I would sit in my seat, pinned down with worry, operating under the mistaken notion that my constant vigilance was the only thing keeping the plane in the air. I wanted to note every noise, feel every g-force, monitor every bank, and otherwise white-knuckle it until landing. Flying is completely out of a passenger’s control, and through the sheer force of my anxiety, I flew for years in a state of hyper-vigilance, hoping to regain some of that lost agency.
If I were to give you my Interiority on a plane–my thoughts, feelings, emotions–there would be a lot going on. Every second would be consumed with my brain’s whirrings. Worry is a very familiar, specific, and active thought process. (And here I arrive at how all this applies to writing…) There are lots of novels where I read characters worrying, and it’s a very natural emotion that helps raise stakes and build tension. In fact, I think that a lot of characters don’t worry enough, and a lot of writers miss great opportunities by not sharing their protagonist’s anxieties with the reader.
But there’s also a danger in writing a character who is constantly worrying. Think back to me in my window seat, monitoring every aspect of the flight and gripping my armrests. Internally, I am a hive of activity. But, to the observer in the seat next to me, I look like I’m…just sitting there. Worry is great in doses, but you can’t build a plot on a character whose entire tension is internal. Because it’s static. I happen to find my thoughts as I fly fascinating. But Mary Flying would make a terrible movie because it is physically passive and static.
So use worry to amp up tension and raise stakes and definitely include it as Interiority. But remember that you need to balance it well with external conflict, or you risk your character…just sitting there. At one point, they have to cross the thought/action barrier and do something about all of their anxieties. They need to be proactive and to make something happen in the world of your book. We learn a lot about character through Interiority, but I’d argue that we learn more as they actually get out of their heads and take action. (There’s also the juicy tension of them thinking one thing and doing another, for example. But, again, you can only get there once you put them in motion.) As for me? You’ll often find me 30,000 feet above your heads, but these days, I’m more often than not (thankfully) asleep.
Wondering about writing young adult present tense? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.
For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have thought about POV a few times before, and some articles on that are behind this link. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.
Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now
I’ll start with Lynne’s question:
Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).
Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.
My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?
In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?
Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration
To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of present tense YA out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because it is in present tense? No.
Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.
Long story short: I think young adult present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)
Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!
At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”
The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction
I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.
The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.
Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits
On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.
I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)
Superfluous Swear Words
Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.
Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You
If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.
ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.
My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.
Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!
“Show Don’t Tell” is the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime.
“Show don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?
“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Telling
The common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what it means and, more importantly, why it’s important.
Let me give you an illustrative example of showing v. telling. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:
Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.
Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter. Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much. “Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake smile on his face.
“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Showing
Now let’s try showing on for size:
Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.
Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory. Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”
Digging Deeper Into Showing and Telling
What do you notice? In the first one, the characters’ emotions are very obvious. Why? The narrator tells you all about them. We know Katie is hungry and we know Karl really isn’t digging the bossy way she ordered a burger. That’s fine. It works. It gets the information across, right? (In a very redundant way, mind you!)
What about in the second example. Did we still get that same information? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.
Using Interiority: Thoughts, Feelings, Reactions
We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.”
We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately. This is called interiority.
How Readers Receive and Know Information
This brings me to why showing v. telling is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information.
Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.
This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second example to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl.
Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.
An Exception to the Rule
Showing v. telling with a person’s interiority in third or first person narration is one small exception to the rule. I know some of you will ask why I still chose to tell the reader “It felt like a pit had opened up inside her” in the second example, too. There are some times when you can show too much. If you’re always saying “she punched the wall” or “she spat on the ground,” for example, instead of occasionally just saying what the character feels inside, it can get overwhelming. You don’t have to say “angry” outright, but you can simply tell the reader what’s going on with narration instead of action or gesture. Sometimes that’s easier and more direct.
It all depends on where you want the focus of each moment to go. And it is a balance. Play around with it. Now that you know why showing v. telling is so crucial in your writing, you should really, at least in the beginning, err very much on the side of showing.
Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.
Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.
Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.
How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points
I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)
So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.
All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks
Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:
Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:
Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.
There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.
Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot
Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.
How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.
How to Write a Novel Subplot
Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.
That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.
Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.
Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise
This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.
Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.
Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.
Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.