Establishing Ramifications

One of my favorite ways of getting really good stakes going is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me of using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.

We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)

So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. She has done her job right and the reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Since the stakes our so high and our anxiety is so high, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation. When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.

Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. Then it is your responsibility to make sure the plot takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. The stakes will be high as a result because the readers knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important tension high!

If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!

Button on Character

This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.

I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.

Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:

And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.

Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.

One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.

Sounds Great, No Substance

If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

Confusion Is Not the Same As Mystery

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.

How to Button a Chapter

The white space and page break at the end of a chapter is a dangerous place. It’s very easy to lose your reader there, unless you give them a reason to stay and turn the page. Distractions are always beckoning, and nowhere is your grasp on your audience more tenuous.

What you never want to do with your chapter button is make your reader feel at peace. Unless it’s the last chapter. But if your reader thinks, at any other point in the book, “Wow, glad everything worked out,” they will put your book down.

So how do you carry them through to the next chapter? Here are some ideas:

  • Cliffhanger: stop in a place that pretty much guarantees a page-turn
  • Introduce a new character, plot point, or idea
  • Tie into theme: harken back to the Big Idea of your story with a thematic image
  • When all else fails, angst: if you do give your character a quieter moment, make sure to dip into Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and show the reader how unsettled things are under the surface with some worry or anxiety

That said, not every chapter button can be a heart-stopping cliffhanger (unless you are writing a thriller or action-packed novel, like The Hunger Games). That would get exhausting unless, again, it fits with the overall tone and genre of your story. (It could also get predictable and, as a result, have the opposite effect and disengage your audience. You don’t want your reader feeling content, but you also don’t want them thinking, “Oh, gee, I wonder what random bad news will drop out of the sky in this chapter.”) It’s okay to go for low-grade tension with some buttons (the theme and Interiority suggestions, above), as long as you have enough that truly grab your reader in a big way.

For more on this topic, read up on Prime Real Estate.

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.

The Problem With Immortality in Fiction and Writing High Stakes

“The Problem With Immortality in Fiction” doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by*

immortality in fiction, writing immortal characters, writing immortality, novels about immortal characters
Calling all vampires: This neck is available. Kthnx.

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

High Stakes Situations are Difficult to Write

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

How to Make High Stakes Believable, Even With Immortality in Fiction

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

Struggling with building believable stakes and tension. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can make sure your novel hits the right emotional notes to pull readers in.

First Lines, Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about first lines. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular.

To drive the point home, I think I’m going to scout some killer first lines and make up some that don’t work so well next week. For the time being, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:

This could be the first line to any book.

When do I give this note? When I read a first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The first line is, in a word, vague.

Here’s an example of a vague first line:

It was the summer before everything changed.

It’s a pretty okay line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this first line out of slush.

But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…

Sci-fi story:

It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.

Western:

It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.

Romance:

It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.

I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.

Writing an Antagonist in Contemporary Fiction

Reader Rachael asked the following question about writing an antagonist, and she brings up an interesting point:

I’ve been wondering if a lack of one clear antagonist is a problem if you’re writing YA contemporary (which I am). It seems like it would be a huge problem for fantasy, sf, mystery, etc., but for contemporary, I just don’t know. I can think of several YA contemporary books that don’t seem to have one clear big bad antagonist. Don’t get me wrong, they’re packed with conflict, but the antagonists change throughout the book (usually it’s some combination of the MC’s best friend(s), boyfriend(s), family, and the MC his or herself). So, does that mean it’s okay?

writing an antagonist, antagonists, writing a villain, villains in fiction, antagonists in fiction, creative writing
You want to spend almost as much time writing an antagonist as you spend on your protagonist. Surprised? Read on to learn why.

Writing an Antagonist Is Important Business

Antagonists in today’s fiction can take many forms. Lord Voldermort (yes, I said it) in HARRY POTTER is a traditional antagonist. He’s a big, bad villain and the entire series is spent tracking Harry as he clashes with Voldermort and his supporters, the Death Eaters. And Rachael is right. In a lot of fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi, there does seem to be a big, bad villain who you can point to and name. This is usually a person, and they are usually as multi-faceted as the main character (or they should be), which gives the story more tension and raises the stakes.

But what do you do if you don’t have a villain in mind? If there’s no shadowy baddie behind the curtain, always threatening danger and doom? Do you still have a story?

Writing an Antagonist If You Don’t Have a Villain

I’d say you do. For another complex and fascinating villain, check out Lia, the main character of Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS. She’s also our point of view narrator, and the hero of the story. But she’s suffering from anorexia and the demons of the disease, not to mention the guilt she feels when her best friend and partner-in-dieting, Cassie, dies. The hero and the villain here are one and the same.

In the highly-anticipated MATCHED, by Allie Condie, there are individual people who are villains, but one might say that the villain itself is the big, bad government (a popular theme in dystopian fiction), which seeks to control its citizens and uses that control for nefarious purposes.

Antagonists Generate Conflict

Instead of thinking about this from the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-villain perspective, I want you to consider your story in terms of conflict. Every story needs a balance of external and internal conflict. Internal conflict is what the character has going on inside them, basically, character’s inner life vs. the world. The story must also have external conflict. In other words, character’s outer life vs. the world and/or character vs. other characters.

An example of internal conflict: I am eating lunch under a table in the library because I am so different from everyone and I feel so alone.

An example of external conflict: Now I’m headed to the principal’s office because the librarian found me. The principal is going to call my parents and I’m going to get in so much trouble.

If your story lacks a central villain in the style of Lord Voldemort, don’t fear. Even if your story does have a baddie with all the evil fixin’s. Your focus should be on developing a rich and complex balance of internal tension and external tension that still carries all the tension and stakes of a story that has a centralized antagonist.

Think About Your Antagonist’s Contribution to The Conflict

Would HARRY POTTER still have its oomph if Lord Voldermort vanished from the storyline? It would lose a central story engine, sure, but there is still enough going on for Harry internally and externally that the series wouldn’t be totally sunk. I think that’s key.

Even if you do have a Lord Voldermort in your cast of characters, that can’t be the only source of conflict. It’s much more important to look at all your sources of conflict and make sure they’re balanced and come into play throughout your plot, not just at the beginning and the climax.

If you forego the villain route, do study writers like Sara Zarr, David Levithan, John Green, Lauren Oliver, and many others. Their worlds are populated by kids who lack a mortal enemy, per se, but who still have plenty of internal and external conflict to give the story fireworks and momentum.

Plot is extremely difficult to do well. Hire me as your novel editor, maybe for a Reader Report service, where I will read your entire manuscript and comment on all of its key components, including plot, conflict, tension, and pacing.

Prime Real Estate

I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…

The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.

This can work against you — if you’re not aware of this and spend lots of time describing stuff that will not be important as the novel progresses — or for you — if you are aware of this and use this to craft where your reader’s attention goes. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.

The other consideration is location. The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.

Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. If you start with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or if you give the reader all description and no character, that is a missed opportunity. The opening paragraphs of subsequent chapters are your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (a post on “grounding the reader” later). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.

Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. Make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.