To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.
By very, very, very popular demand, here’s a PDF download of a novel outline template. You have been asking for one for years, but the closest I’ve ever written is this short article on a novel synopsis. Well, I’ve rectified that today!
You can also grab it directly via this Google Drive link. (To use the document in your own Google Drive, simply make a copy of it by going to the File menu, then to “Make a copy”. You won’t be able to edit the original because I want everyone to have this template.)
Writers want to see examples of a novel outline template because there are so many ways to achieve this. What goes into a novel outline? How do you format it? This is certainly one way to organize an outline, but there are many other writers and writing teachers who have put together comprehensive advice and their own novel outline templates. (Two of my favorites are Fool Proof Outline and Outlining Your Novel).
Start here and see where it takes you. Most of my readers know that I’ve been teaching the concept of interiority for years, and so this outline goes into character arc a lot, not just plot arc. I think it’s the best of both worlds, but would love to hear your reactions in the comments when you use it!
As a freelance editor, I do the novel outline edit all the time. Do all the hard thinking ahead of time. Kick the tires of your idea. Pressure test your plot and character arcs. I can do one or multiple rounds to make sure you have a road map for your future draft nailed down before you sit down to write. This is honestly one of my favorite services to do because we can anticipate a lot of issues ahead of time and save you so much revision heartache.
Thank you to our last writer of this workshop series, E.S. This is an early draft of a middle grade fantasy.
The Workshop Submission
It started when the two faceless men knocked at the back door. If I’d known it was them, I would never have answered.
The potential for some solid tension here. The one thing I’d keep an eye out for, however: “I would never have answered” leaves the present moment. There’s this “If I’d only known” vibe. We go into some hazy, undefined future, from which the narrator is writing. It risks pulling the reader out of the moment to wonder, “When are we relative to the present moment?” My preference is to only use tension that’s available in the present. But since we don’t really know what’s going on in the present yet, I’ll allow it. 😉
Usually I wouldn’t have answered. I hate answering the door. It’s never anyone for me, anyway. All I want is to be left alone to mind my own business and have everyone else mind theirs.
“I wouldn’t have answered” and “I hate answering the door” are redundant. Consider this post about writing description. We get even more into the same point with the discussion of minding one’s business. This is also telling about the character, which I’d much rather avoid.
But I figured it was Mom with her arms full of groceries or something, so I answered the door. Because who else would come around the building and through the gate in the fence and past our sorry excuse for a backyard and knock on the back door? Anyone else would go to the front door. And Mom should have been home already, anyway. It was way past the time she usually gets home from work, and she hadn’t even called. She can be a real pain like that.
This is much more relevant to the present moment. I think that Mom not being home yet (tension) meets the element that it’s the back door, not the front door (tension) should be played up from the beginning, eg, “Nobody ever knocks on the back door. Only Mom comes in that way, and Mom would never knock…” Though I do love “our sorry excuse for a backyard” for voice purposes. This could be cherry-picked and used to start the novel.
So I just unlocked the back door and opened it. I expected Mom to come bustling into the kitchen, saying, “Samantha, young lady, have you finished your homework?” and puffing loose hair out of her face. But it wasn’t Mom. It was two tall, faceless men.
The difference between this opening and what the writer currently has is that this opening is in action. Samantha is expecting Mom (neutral) but it’s not Mom (tension!), it’s two faceless men (tension!!!!!!!). Give it to us in the moment. All the discussion of wanting to be left alone and blah blah blah is just telling. Give us the action instead.
Maybe they actually did have faces under all that bristly hair, but it was impossible to tell. Plus their tall furry hats were jammed down so far on their little heads that the hats would’ve covered any faces they had. Their arms and legs look like giant pipe cleaners. Creepy. And not brand new pipe cleaners either.
The rambling here (the long sentence about the tall furry hats) and the humor (though I love humor) undermine the shock or tension of the moment. Two random strangers have shown up at Samantha’s back door, and you ideally, I think, want the reader to be scared. But by making fun of their hats and faces and head shapes, you let the true fear out of the moment. Is she meant to be scared? This would be better for tension. Or is she just going to hang back and poke fun? This would be better for voice but … for the beginning, tension should be king.
That’s all they wrote! Thank you so much for joining me for this workshop series, and thank you to all the writers who have furnished your openings for potential workshop. I’m planning the next one as we speak.
If you’re struggling with your beginning, bring me on board as a novel editor and trusted writing partner.
There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific
The Basics of Picture Book Structure
Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.
When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).
How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.
Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution
When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:
Page 4: Character introduction
Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction
Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)
Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising
Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt
Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance
Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)
Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.
Character Development in Picture Book Structure
Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.
So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.
Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.
A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books
But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.
This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.
The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure
This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:
Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages
Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle
Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story
Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”
Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending
Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages
What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.
Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books
Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:
There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).
Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.
Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.
Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!
Active vs Reactive Protagonist
Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.
You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.
Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.
Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?
You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.
Writing a Proactive Protagonist
No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.
Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.
Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist
Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.
The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.
Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.
Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.
Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.
Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?
Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act
Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.
Big Choices and Small Moments
Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.
Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.
Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?
Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.
Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render a big plot point in a believable and relatable way? Read on.
Coping With Big Life Changes
Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.
In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big character life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.
The thing is, rendering big stakes in writing is hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.
One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?
Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?
Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.
Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in to the inciting incident. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the big plot point that happens next.
Life Before and After Big Character Life Changes
Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big plot point. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?
In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.
So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.
But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.
The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction
There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big plot point is not always the best choice.
The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.
As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.
Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.
Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.
When your novel serves up big character life changes, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.
*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…
Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.
There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.
Have you ever written this kind of tension in a story:
If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…
They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.
These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest by writing tension rather than relying on gimmicks.
Why Teasing Doesn’t Work
Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and kills the tension in a story.
Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you aren’t writing tension into that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.
Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Redundant writing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.
Writing Tension In the Present Moment
Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.
This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: writing tension into your moments, scenes, and chapters will automatically boost reader engagement. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?
If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.
Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why exposition in writing — like big globs of worldbuilding, information, or backstory — tends to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension in a story, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.
Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.
Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.
Sure, we all know to write a character who drives action, but what about character reaction? The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are … wait for it … proactive and reactive protagonists. So why do many writers struggle with this idea and character reactions in general?
Writing Active Character Reaction
We all know that your number one objective as a writer is to make the reader care. Or, well, you know that if you’ve been haunting around the site for any length of time. Readers read in order to experience. Whether they want to experience an event, a new idea, or a story they can’t get anywhere else… To read is to be transported.
The best way to rob your reader of the experience of a novel is to give us a character who doesn’t act or react. Passive characters, or those whose mode seems to be set to “non-reaction” are a tremendous wasted opportunity.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say our character is an orphan, or so she thinks. Then she finds out that maybe, just maybe, her father isn’t dead, after all. This is a big bomb to try and land accurately, in terms of making those emotions seem genuine. I get it. Many writers, then, feeling daunted, would simply not have the character react.
“She read the letter again, her fingers going numb.”
Not only are you relying on an external reaction and a physical cliché here, but there’s really nothing else to it. This is a total non-reaction. It may look like a reaction, it may show her doing something in the moment, but there’s really no substance here if you think about it.
What does it feel to be a girl who discovers she’s not the orphan she thought she was? We don’t really know much more about it, as a result of this underwhelming non-reaction.
Creating Compelling Reactions
So instead of a non-reaction, you really want to highlight your character’s experience in big and small moments that demand a reaction. (Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the big moments, either. A character’s reaction in a small moment could be very revealing, and work to pull the reader further into the character’s world.)
For every time that you want to shrink from an event or leave in a generic physical reaction, put your patience cap on and take the time go dive deeper. If you don’t want to write the reaction, that’s the perfect tip-off that you should. Because it’s going to lead to some tough, challenging, vulnerable stuff, most likely.
Start by really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would their first thought be? How does this turn of events affect them? What’s a dumb thing that can come to mind? If your character’s home is burglarized, for example, maybe they quip, “Good luck with that DVD player, it never worked anyway,” almost as if they can’t help themselves. Don’t go for the expected reaction, either. Is there anything you can verbalize here that will lend the situation the element of surprise?
That’s how you make the situation relatable and, more importantly, human.
Focus on Interiority
Of course, it all comes back to interiority. This concept is the vanquisher of the non-reaction. It is your insurance that you are doing your due diligence and creating characters who are active, plugged-in participants in their own stories.
If you ever feel stuck in an important moment, and you simply can’t imagine how your character is going to take the situation, go back to the most elementary questions of all:
This letter says I’m not an orphan, after all. And? So? Well, I’m going to have to track my father down now. And? So? I’ve believed this one thing about myself for the last ten years…and now what should people call me? What do I call myself?
My home has been robbed. And? So? I never liked that stupid DVD player anyway.
In big moments and small, interiority is a tool to help you discover your character’s reaction. By giving them a reaction and making them an active participant in the scenes you’re writing, you will give the reader a vital connection. Not only to who they are, but to what they’re going through.
And that’s what every reader wants, deep down, to experience.
Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.
This is more of a general advice/philosophy type of post about how to write, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.
How to Write Effectively: Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Story
Being a writer means you need to decide what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. You should be directing reader attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.
You are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?
Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?
In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples of how to write effectively are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another angle. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?
When Commitment Fades In and Out
I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.
The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.
Commit or Omit
In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know how to write said element into the story effectively.
Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.
For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.
The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional. It bears repeating here: Being a writer means you need to decide what’s absolutely crucial to your story, and what elements need to get the chop.
Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book
The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?
If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.
Being a writer means making tough choices about your work. When you hire me as your freelance editor, I’ll help you decide what to keep and what to cut.
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 story 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.
How Consequences for Characters Work in Fiction
By “creating consequences for characters,” I mean giving your character’s actions a reaction. This is crucial for establishing story 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 show, don’t tell.
Instead, a more active and compelling way to demonstrate Mom’s strict side is to develop consequences for characters. 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 for characters, the reader will become less and less invested in the story. Your story 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, layer in consequences for characters 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 with your storytelling and establish strong consequences for characters. 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 for characters 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 the story 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 story stakes are truly high.
Having trouble with stakes, tension, and hooking your reader in? Work with me as your developmental editor and let’s see what kind of trouble we can get into!