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What I would have said, part one

Recently, I was approached to do an interview about book doctoring. As mine is a poorly understood corner of the editing world, I was delighted for the opportunity. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t work out. The reasons are neither here nor there, but the questions they wanted to ask me were good ones, and I’d still like to answer them. So, without further ado:

What is a book doctor?

It’s a clever moniker for “freelance developmental editor.” Which basically means I write book reports for a living. Extremely long, excruciatingly technical book reports, designed to help aspiring authors produce a much stronger next-draft of their novel.

When in the writing process should an author engage a book doctor?

Well, there’s the ideal, and then there’s the practical.

Ideally, people would contact me while they’re still outlining their book. Think about it this way: the easiest time to fix issues with the plot is before you’ve actually written the story. Once the story is set down word by laborious word, it becomes much harder to change. Fixing plot problems at that stage means maybe moving a scene here or there, adding a bridge scene, tweaking a few details.

That’s if you’re lucky. Far more commonly, though, fixing a plot issue means changing something deep in the bones of the story. It means altering characters, events, motivations, or other details which demand updates to many scenes. It can mean ripping out whole chunks of the book to re-draft some section of the plot. Worst case—but by no means a rare case—it means admitting that while the core story idea may be good, the plot as it stands is too much of a mess to fix, and then writing a new one from scratch.

Maybe that’s fine if you don’t have to worry about the concerns of making a living and tending to family. But the preponderance of writers I know do have to worry about those things. So ideally, you’ll get your plot problems worked out beforehand, and save yourself vast time and labor fixing problems that could have been avoided.

(And yes, what I just wrote amounts to a pro-plotter, anti-pantser screed. I’m not trying to dismiss the pantsers in the audience. It is certainly possible to fly by the seat of your pants and yet end up with a plot that holds together. But it is also true that the worst, most haphazard, nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen from clients have come from clients who don’t plot ahead of time.)

That’s the ideal. But in practice, almost nobody contacts me while they’re still outlining. Normally, people pop into my inbox only after they have manuscript in hand. That’s fine too. Generally that means you’ll be doing more rewriting than you might have liked, but it beats giving up on the novel. In my experience, the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

What makes for a good plot?

If I were to name anything specific (Conflict! Drama! ’Splosions!), someone would inevitably criticize that answer as being applicable only in certain genres. And they’d be right. There’s only one thing I know of that makes for a good plot, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Only one plotting principle that genuinely stands up whether you’re writing an action packed thriller, a cozy mystery, a memoir, or even a quiet, introspective literary piece:

Questions.

A good story is one that constantly raises questions in the reader’s mind. Curiosity, that human drive to know, to figure out, is at the heart of why readers engage with a book. If your narrative is constantly making us wonder about stuff—big stuff, little stuff—chances are we’ll be interested, and will keep turning those pages. After all, how else will we find the answers?

A small question—who’s ringing the doorbell? Who’s on the phone?—might only propel us a few sentences or maybe a paragraph further. That’s fine. That’s all it needs to do. A larger question can drive us to the end of the scene or chapter. The biggest questions—whodunit? Will James Bond save the world for democracy yet again?—those are the questions that propel whole stories.

A good plot provides a lot of questions, and then answers them when the time is right. A great plot does the same, but carefully manages the questions so that by the time one question has been answered, something else has come along to take its place. Or several things. A great plot weaves questions and answers together into a complex, rich pattern that keeps the reader totally hooked until the very end. Or even into a sequel…

What do new writers often need the most help with?

Two basic areas. Writing craft, and story craft.

Writing craft is all the stuff having to do with how you put words together into sentences. It’s about writing beautiful prose. New writers, no matter how much they wrote in school, almost always have a lot to learn in this area. So do I. It’s an endless art, and I’m convinced it is always possible to improve one’s writing. Usually, the greater fraction of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see things in their writing that aren’t so great, and explaining how to fix them.

From my own perspective, I’ve been writing novel-length fiction for close to a decade now. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Spending my days analyzing my clients’ writing and explaining to them how to improve it has certainly helped make me a better writer too. But even now, I still find new things in my clients’ manuscripts that help me understand the craft of writing better. It never ends. Nor, I think, should it. How sad would it be, to know you could not be better than you are?

Story craft is the other side of the novelist’s coin. It’s everything having to do with constructing a great plot. Raising questions is part of it, but it’s also about setups and events and conflicts and character motivations and surprises. All that stuff.

But here’s the thing. Most new writers don’t understand that writing craft and story craft are distinct crafts. They are wholly separate skill sets. I’ve seen beautiful prose wrapped around some truly awful plots. And I’ve seen the clumsiest prose imaginable hiding a corker of a plot inside. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story.

Most writers don’t understand this. And really, why should they? When, in most of our lives, are we ever exposed to story craft as a distinct skill? Not in grade school or high school, that’s for sure. Or at least, not in the dark ages of the 1980s when I was in school. Essay structure? Sure. Story structure? Not so much. Thus, another healthy chunk of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see what is and isn’t working in their plot, and offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Click here for part two

August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, plot, plotting, outline, curiosity, questions, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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How to establish your characters: endings

This is the long-delayed final installment in my blog series on how to establish your characters within various portions of your book. If you’re new, check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

In this series, we’ve been working with some example characters: a frontier wife in the Old West on the run from her past, and a shrinking violent character who rarely gives anything his full effort. We’ll extend those examples further in this article, to show how to bring them to full fruition at the book’s climax.

Show your characters mastering situations

At earlier stages in the book, situations mastered them. But as the character struggles with his character arc, he ought to get better at it, right? Practice makes perfect, which is just as true when someone is practicing how to be a better person as it is when they’re practicing the piano. The way to show us a character’s improved self is to show how their internal change results in better outcomes for them.

Take our milquetoast character Charlie; for him, the character arc kicks off when the woman he wants flat-out rejects him because he doesn’t give his all. After some false starts and further failures while he works through his denial about his problem, he may turn over a new leaf and begin trying harder at his job. He may resolve not just to do enough to get by, but to produce truly excellent work. If he’s a graphic designer at an ad agency, his clients may start complimenting his work to his boss, and maybe he sees a benefit in terms of landing an assignment for a new high-prestige client. He’s not done yet—he still has to nail that assignment too—but it’s a start. And who knows, maybe the girl of his dreams will notice his new attitude.

Resolve earlier mysteries

In part 1 and 2 of this series, I encouraged you to establish some mysteries, and to partially solve them while using those solutions to heighten the reader’s curiosity about the unsolved portion. The book’s climax, or often immediately before the climax, is the place to finally satisfy that curiosity. Note, I don’t mean you need a lengthy infodump, backstory passage that answers every possible question a reader might have about the character. I mean this is the spot to answer the big, juicy mysteries. Chances are you know which ones these are, but if you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: would the solution to the mystery help the reader understand, or believe, the character’s subsequent actions and behavior during the climax itself? If so, solve that mystery. If it’s not essential to the climax, and especially if the reader can well enough imagine a plausible solution on their own, don’t waste words on it.

A great time to resolve the mystery before the climax is when by doing so you can make the character’s situation “darkest before the storm.”

Remember our frontier woman? She escaped her domineering family by dressing as a man and joining up with a cattle outfit. Except, something happened and she ended up on the run from the Texas Rangers. She went back to her female identity, got married, and believed her past was behind her until the Rangers catch up with her later. But why is the law after her? This is the mystery you have withheld from the reader. We know something happened, but we don’t know what. We don’t even know if her husband and children know about it.

One can imagine the woman doing her best to hide in plain sight, struggling to keep her husband from finding out the Rangers are after her, until at last that becomes impossible. Perhaps the Rangers have enlisted the help of someone from her old cattle outfit, someone who recognizes her. The jig is up. She goes to her husband, frantic, and says they have to get out of Dodge. He demands to know why, so she has to tell him.

“I— Don’t hate me, Clemson, but back in Texas, I killed a man.” She goes on to explain about her past (part of which the reader may already know), and how the dead man found out she wasn’t really a man and tried to have his way with her. She defended herself, and he ended up dead. Bonus symbolism points if she killed the would-be rapist with a rope, thus turning what was a tool of life in the book’s beginning when she used her surprising rope skills to save her husband from drowning, into a tool of death as well.

“I’ve wanted to tell you, Clemson, I have,” she might say. “But I was afraid how you’d take it.” And sure enough, he doesn’t take it well. Not only is she a killer, but she used to live as a man; he takes that as an affront to morality and to his own manhood as well. He kicks her out. Now things are as dark for her as they’re going to get. She must face her pursuers with no support from anyone else.

But that’s ok. With the mystery solved, now we understand what she has been through. Now we know what she is truly capable of. So when we see her wipe the tears angrily away from her eyes and mutter “I’ve done fine on my own before, I can do it again,” we’ll believe her. The solution to the mystery helps the reader both understand and believe in whatever she’s about to do to in the book’s high-noon showdown.

And, as a little bonus character arc, having the husband react in this way sets the stage for a side-arc for him, too. You could go back to the book’s beginning and middle to establish him as a very black-and-white kind of person, who sees events and people as all-good or all-bad. Someone who, if you cross him once, writes you off forever. You might let that tendency cause the family some troubles along the way, giving him fodder for relaxing his own strictness. Then, in the denouement after his wife has cleared things up with the Rangers (I’ll leave you to imagine the many ways she might accomplish that), maybe he comes to her hat-in-hand to apologize, ask her back, and say how he can see that everything she did was necessary for her survival.

Show the character’s final breakthrough

Readers have to see what happens to finally allow the character to grow, to complete his or her arc. Surprisingly, sometimes authors forget to put this in. They take it as a given that the character is going to overcome whatever personality flaw has been dogging them the whole book, when in fact that’s not true. You might bring a character right up to the brink of meaningful, lasting, inner growth, but that’s not enough. You have to take it the rest of the way.

Let’s go back to Charlie. His job successes are fine, but they’re probably not enough to create a satisfying ending to the novel. Nor would mere professional success leading to him getting the girl. Charlie’s problem runs deeper than simply not trying hard enough. It’s a failure of commitment to what he does. Odds are, the middle of Charlie’s story is going to show him achieving some successes, but suffering a number of continuing failures as well. He needs something to give him that final breakthrough.

Odds are, the central conflict in this book is going to be about something other than Charlie’s job or love life. It’s going to be something that will require Charlie to make a deep commitment to achieving some result, even though achieving that result will demand from him a significant sacrifice. Maybe Charlie witnesses some terrible crime, and ends up involved in an organization devoted to eradicating the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution (which, yes, sadly does happen in this country). The organization asks Charlie to lend his graphic design skills to an edgy, provocative ad campaign that will run in major cities nationwide. His boss learns about this and tells Charlie to drop it because their up-scale, corporate ad firm “doesn’t do social causes". Charlie needs to make a commitment, even if it costs him his job.

But he can’t do that and follow through simply because he happens to be in the mood to be helpful on that particular day. That won’t be satisfying. The reader needs to see Charlie have a final breakthrough moment so we can be confident that his commitment, even at the sacrifice of his job, comes as the result of true inner growth instead of happenstance.

Maybe what he needs is something symbolic. Something he can hold onto like a totem, to remind himself of what he knows he needs to be doing. It could be anything, really. It could be a photo on the news from some catastrophe half a world away, where he sees bedraggled rescue workers struggling with bloodied fingers to dig survivors out of a collapsed building following an earthquake. Dramatic, yes, but kind of blunt in narrative terms. Anything that hits Charlie at a vulnerable moment (say, after a late-stage failure that give him his own “darkest before the storm” moment), when he’s receptive to growth. Since Charlie’s fortunes are tied up with this character flaw, let’s make it a fortune cookie. Use it to delivery to Charlie a pithy saying that he can hold onto. A mantra for a better Charlie. “If you’re going to do a job, do the job.”

Simple. Almost tautological. But if it hits Charlie in the right frame of mind, he can read all sorts of deep meaning into that. Be true to your word. Be the sort of person whose word people trust. Don’t say yes unless you’re willing to back that up with action. Whatever you think Charlie really needs to glean from the little scrap of paper hidden inside the cookie, there it is. He can tuck the slip of paper into his wallet, to carry around with him forever.

This is a small, quiet final breakthrough. Its power hinges on what has come before, on Charlie being in a bleak, desperate place when it the breakthrough happens. I use this as an example because I think too often writers feel like the breakthrough has to be something big and loud. Something with explosions and car chases, be they literary or literal. Not so. That can work, sure, depending on the nature of the book. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re struggling with creating a believable breakthrough moment because what you’ve got doesn’t feel right, maybe you’re reaching for big and loud when what you need to be reaching for is small and quiet.

Other strategies that work well

There are other some end-game strategies that are also useful, which you can use as necessary or if they fit your particular book.

  • Show a meaningful behavior change that affects the climax. This goes hand in hand with the breakthrough moment. The whole point of a character arc is to create a new person who is better than the old person. But what good does it to do be better on the inside if there’s no difference in your behavior on the outside? The breakthrough moment is the true crux of the character arc, but the arc itself doesn’t matter until we see it play out in meaningful behavior when the stakes are at their highest. So, when that climactic moment does come, we’d better see the character doing something he or she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have done before.

  • Consider role reversals. Depending on the novel, a role reversal can be a wonderful way to signify growth. This gives us stories in which children become caregivers to their ailing parents, who had once taken care of them. It gives us heroes taking control from villains who have up to that point been in control of the situation. Look at the elements of your plot and especially your climax, and see if there’s some kind of duality along those lines you can work with. Some way you can have your character switch roles with someone else in the novel.

  • Leave it bittersweet. Nothing is all good, and fairy-tale endings aren’t believable. Well, except in fairy tales. The character did, after all, make a bunch of mistakes along the way. Some of those mistakes should have lasting effects, which take a bit of the sheen off of the character’s ultimate victory. Some genres love the pat, perfectly wrapped up happy ending. But I think you have a more powerful, more poignant, and more realistic ending if you leave the character with some regret over past mistakes, some level of “if only I’d done that differently.”

End Goals

To sum up, your jobs at the end of the book boil down to just a few things. Bring the character’s arc to a simultaneous conclusion with the story arc. Satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the major mysteries enough to make the climax believable. And leave readers with the feeling that the book meant something. A plot that wraps up with characters who are no different than when they began may have been a fun adventure, but it lacks depth. An adventure which leaves the characters stronger and wiser than when they started gives the reader a final bit of payoff, a feeling that there was a purpose to the book.

And who knows, you might even just help the reader learn a little something too. After all, stories are often how we learn what life is.

< Back to part 2, middles

February 28, 2011 23:43 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, behavior, reversals, conflict, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

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How to establish your characters: middles

Last time I wrote about how to establish your characters during your book’s opening. Having done so, readers are poised to watch those characters evolve as the book progresses. How do you deliver on that in the 80% or so of your book that takes place between the opening and the climax?

Last time we worked with some example characters: a lost job applicant in Chicago who smooth-talks a local into escorting him to his interview, a frontier wife whose unexpected rope skills save her husband from drowning in a difficult river crossing, and a shrinking-violet character who holds back, never giving his all. We’ll extend those examples in this article.

Give the character an epiphany moment

You establish that a character needs to have an arc by showing us some flaws in them. The beginning, when you were illustrating key personality traits or creating mysteries about the character, was when you were showing us that this character has some room to grow. To change. That’s necessary for a character arc, but it isn’t sufficient.

That is, it’s not enough for readers to see this. The character needs to have an epiphany moment in which he or she realizes it too. Something has to happen which lets the character see the deficiency within themselves. The establishing stuff in your book’s beginning just sets the stage. You need the epiphany moment to kick off the character arc, to put it in motion.

For example, perhaps after our shrinking-violet character blows the game for his team by not giving 100%, he gets chewed out by his teammates and the girl on the team he was interested in—who had maybe just agreed to go out to dinner with him—decides she doesn’t want to see him socially after all. “Look, Charlie. You’re a nice guy, but you don’t come through. If the team can’t count on you to dive for a catch, how can I count on you if things get serious?” That could serve as a wake-up call to Charlie that, indeed, he could try harder.

Bear in mind, that’s not the beginning-and-end of his character arc; a character arc can’t flit by in a single moment. The epiphany moment is just the start, and in the beginning Charlie will likely rankle against this new-found and unwelcome insight into himself, rationalizing and retrenching his behavior before he actually begins to change.

Show signs of altered behavior

Still, the middle of your book is a pretty long stretch, and you’ve got plenty of space in there to move the character past that initial epiphany. To do it, you have seven ways to show character growth at your disposal. Since there’s already a whole article about that (c’mon, click the link; you know you wanna) I won’t rehash it all here except to say that here in the middle of your book is not the place for the character arc to come to its conclusion. Save something for the end, you know?

Reveal some backstory

Back in the beginning, when you were creating mysteries about your characters by showing surprising skills and abilities they have, what you were really doing was hooking the reader by eliciting the reader’s curiosity as to how the character came to have those skills and/or abilities. The middle of your book is a great place to give drips and dribbles of backstory which reward readers for their curiosity. Give us some payoff.

But, don’t simply answer the question. Give us part of the answer, in a way which is satisfying to some portion of your readers’ curiosity, but which also heightens their curiosity. In other words, let the answer raise its own, more significant questions.

Remember the smooth-talking job candidate? In the middle of the book you might reveal that he used to work for the FBI, studying con-men in order to help the bureau catch them, until he was kicked out for ... well, you hold that part back. Now the reader wonders why he was kicked out. Is our guy really a smooth-talker by nature, or is he just employing techniques he studied from real con-men?

Or take the frontier wife with the husband-saving rope skills. As the book’s middle progresses, you might slowly reveal that in her youth, she escaped her domineering, controlling parents by stealing a pair of her brother’s clothes, dressing like a man, and joining up with a Texas cattle outfit. But something happened, and while she is now living as a woman again, she’s also secretly on the run from the Texas Rangers. Why? What happened? Do her husband and children know about her past? Don’t tell us. Yet.

Give us a meaningful payoff for our initial curiosity for our characters, but do it in a way which makes us even more curious for later.

Struggle with the book’s underlying conflict

But perhaps more important than any of that, you establish your characters in the middle of the book by showing them struggling with the book’s underlying conflict. Whatever it is, it ought to represent a significant challenge or obstacle for your characters in pursuit of their goals. Maybe the smooth-talking ex-FBI man is actually a good person whose major problem is staying true to himself. Suppose the reason why he got kicked out of the FBI—not time to reveal that yet!—is making it such that he can’t pass a background check, and as thus can’t get a decent job. This threatens him at the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts him in a bind: does he continue to struggle, to rebuild his life while being true to the kind of person he wants to be, even though he knows it would be a lot easier just be a con-man? He spent years at the FBI studying those very skills!

Think hard about what your character’s most deeply rooted conflict is within the story, and let the surface level conflicts bear on that deeper struggle. Think deeper than your mere plot. This example character’s surface level conflict is about getting a job, but the challenges he faces in doing that bear on the deeper, personal struggle he is going through.

Middle Goals

To sum up, your book’s middle section needs to do these things:

  • Get your character arcs moving with appropriate epiphany moments.

  • Follow through on that by using the seven ways to show character growth as the bulk of the plot progresses.

  • Reveal enough backstory to satisfy part of your readers’ curiosity, while using what you’ve revealed to raise bigger questions.

  • Show your characters wrestling with—sometimes even being beaten by—the deep, personal conflict simmering underneath your plot.

The middle of a novel is a big, tricky balancing act for the novelist. You must balance the revelations and discoveries you present to readers with new mysteries, conflicts, and stakes. You must do both, because with no revelations at all, the book becomes difficult for readers to sustain. But if you don’t sustain any mysteries, readers will be left with little motivation to continue reading. The techniques in this article help you with this balancing act. Epiphany moments give the reader satisfying moments of drama (because they usually come out of some kind of confrontation), yet they presage the whole chain of the character’s arc. Answers to surface-level backstory can lead to questions that dig below the surface.

< Back to part 1, openings | Next time: part 3, what to do at the end of your book. >

January 25, 2011 22:23 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

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How to establish your characters: openings

Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.

It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.

Show your characters in action

First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.

When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.

This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.

Show your characters in conflict

Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.

Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.

Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.

And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.

Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.

Create mysteries about your characters

So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.

The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.

But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.

For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?

I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.

Illustrate key personality traits

Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:

Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.

you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.

Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.

His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”

Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.

Opening Goals

To sum up, your book’s opening needs to do these things:

  • Show us who the character is.

  • Make us curious about that person.

  • Give us a reason to care about the person.

You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.

Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.

December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC

Tags: character, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, personality, character arc

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What Star Wars teaches us about character introductions

In real life, we make judgments about people, often within mere seconds of meeting them. Those judgments, whether right or wrong, are incredibly difficult to change later on. You don’t, as the saying goes, get a second chance to make a first impression.

The same is true in our books. Scenes where we introduce readers to new characters are tough to do well, because we don’t get much space to play with before readers make up their minds. Not many paragraphs pass before readers decide whether they like, loathe, admire, or pity a new character. So we have to act fast.

Star Wars is a great example of how to do this well, and exhibits most of the core techniques I want to talk about. Star Wars (and I’m talking about Episode IV, here) manages to convey to us, in very short amounts of screen-time, the essential nature of all of its main characters and shows them to be unique, distinctive individuals. We can take some lessons there as to how to effectively introduce our own books’ characters.

Show them in action

When introducing a protagonist or other POV character, consider showing them in action. By this I mean putting the character in a scene where he or she has to actually do something. Make it a situation where the character has to make some kind of choice and take some kind of action (preferably, a difficult choice and an unpleasant action) in order to affect the outcome of the situation.

Early on in Princess Leia’s introduction—it’s not her first scene, but it’s close—she is faced with a no-win choice: give up the location of the rebel base, or see her home planet of Alderaan destroyed. We can see how difficult a choice it is for her, through her visceral, bodily reactions. She’s heartbroken to betray the rebellion, but she can’t let an entire planet’s population be eradicated either. It’s an impossible choice, but she makes a choice anyway, and we see the pain of it in the down-turn of her face, the slump of her shoulders.

What does it tell us about her? It tells us that she’s an important person within the world of the movie. It tells us that she is fundamentally a protective, nurturing person, in as much as she tries to protect the people of Alderaan even though she must make a huge sacrifice in the attempt. The scene portrays her as a deeply sympathetic character. But note—and this is important—the sympathy comes not from the choice itself but from how she feels about it, which we viewers read through her body language. Had she treated the choice differently, in a casual or cavalier manner ("Well, Tarkin, I can’t have you blowing up a whole planet, so hey, the rebels are on Dantooine. Go get ‘em, big guy!") we’d have had an entirely different feeling about her.

Show them in conflict

One of Luke Skywalker’s first scenes is a minor conflict between him and his Uncle Owen. We meet Luke in the scene where the Jawas sell R2-D2 and C-3PO to Luke’s family. Having made their purchases, Uncle Owen tells Luke to get the new droids cleaned up. Luke replies with:

But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters...

Epic whine. A whine that will go down in history. But, he obeys his Uncle. What’s going on here from a character perspective? We’re being shown that Luke is a relatively powerless figure. He has no authority, and little control over his life. Physically, we can see that he’s a very young man, so this makes sense and is something most viewers can empathize with. We’ve all felt that way from time to time. That’s the sympathetic hook of Luke’s character. But it also shows us that he’s not satisfied with the life he lives. He rankles at the limitations of both the life he lives and the place he lives it. As he remarks to C-3PO:

Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.

Conflict is a wonderful way to bring a character’s deeper motivations up to the surface where we can see them. Whether those motivations come out through dialogue (as they do here), through choices made as the conflict progresses, conflict is a great way to let us know what really drives your characters.

Show them using key skills, attitudes, hobbies, et cetera

We first meet “Old Ben” Kenobi, the “crazy old wizard” after Luke gets his butt kicked by the Tusken Raiders. (Side note: Luke clearly loses that conflict, which greatly re-enforces his powerlessness.) Kenobi comes breezing into the canyon, his brown robes flowing in the breeze, and the raiders all take off. Young, strong, able-bodied Luke was child’s play for the raiders, but creaky old Ben Kenobi scares them off without so much as breaking a sweat.

It’s not difficult to understand that this Kenobi guy must have something going for him. He’s got some kind of mystic juju going on in that scene which is nothing to sneeze at. At that point in the movie, we have no idea what his deal is, not yet, but we get it: he’s a powerful figure. His subsequent dialogue with Luke further reveals him to be both kindly and wise.

In hero’s journey terms (and Star Wars is definitely a hero’s journey story), even in this short introductory scene Kenobi is an obvious fit to be the story’s mentor character.

Use vivid imagery

Don’t discount a vivid set of visuals to introduce a character, either. Like Darth Vader. Even without John William’s unforgettable musical theme for Vader, we know he’s a total badass from the moment he steps into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia’s spacecraft. His imposing physical stature, jet black outfit, and billowing cape all speak of power. The symbology is not subtle at all, but it is pulled off with such panache that the overall impression is powerfully striking.

Show other characters’ reactions

Speaking of Vader, he’s also a great example of how other characters’ reactions can show the viewer (or reader) a more complete picture. He shows his face—well, his mask anyway—and storm-troopers snap to attention along the corridor’s walls. They make room for him to pass. Rebel soldiers avert their eyes and clasp their hands behind their heads. Those reactions, even though they come from nameless (and for the stormtroopers, literally faceless) extras, tell us everything we need to know about Vader. When Vader steps into that corridor, he’s the man. He’s in complete control of the situation, and no one is about to defy him.

Except, getting back to her for a moment, Princess Leia. And what does that tell us about her? That she’s strong, oh so strong, and indomitable.

Make use of setting

Where we meet characters says a lot about them too. We meet Luke out in the ass-end of nowhere on his Uncle’s moisture farm. He could scarcely be in a less influential setting. It’s a great setup for Luke, because for him Star Wars: A New Hope is a fish-out-of-water story. He’s the backwater nobody who finds himself suddenly thrust into the middle of hugely important, high stakes events. That we meet him in such an inauspicious location, and particularly since the previous scenes involved spaceships and Very Important People, shows us exactly the degree to which Luke is going to be an unlikely hero, bumbling through very much out of his depth.

Han Solo’s introduction is also rich with setting. We meet him in the practically the sleaziest dive bar in the galaxy. That alone sets him up as an unsavory rogue character. We then see him shoot his way out of an encounter with a bounty hunter, and with more than his share of casual bravado, establish that he is as much in control within this environment as Vader was back on Leia’s spaceship. We’re also left with no uncertainty that this Han Solo guy is likely the worst of possible choices Luke and Ben have at their disposal for getting off Tattooine, except that he’s their only choice. His roguishness, established as much by the setting as his actions, works to sell the desperate circumstances Luke and Ben are in.

Note, too, that this is a perfect introduction for Han Solo in terms of setting up his overall character arc. He flips from being an indifferent mercenary figure to being an active ally to the rebellion. And in later movies, he shows his softer side, his willingness to take risks for those he cares about, and so forth. His arc is all about that shift from being a self-centered opportunist, to a more idealistic supporter of a cause that is larger than himself. For that to work, we have to meet him while he’s still a pompous jackass, and the Mos Eisly cantina scene is a great setting to establish that as a starting point for him.

Drop some hints about backstory

The opportunity of meeting a new character is not an excuse to tell us their life’s story. It is not an occasion to indulge in a massive backstory infodump. Don’t go there. Just don’t.

It is, however, an opportunity to create some mystery by hinting at interesting elements of backstory. The opportunity of meeting a new character is to raise some compelling questions in the reader’s mind which you can then explore more fully as the story moves on.

Darth Vader’s physical form hints at significant backstory. From the first second we see him, he is obviously a physically powerful character. And yet, there’s that mechanical, raspy breathing that hints at an underlying frailty. He’s got machines and blinking lights all over his chest. You cannot help but look at him and wonder What’s under the mask? And how did he get to be that way?

When we meet Luke Skywalker, it’s in the context of his aunt and uncle. The dialogue takes particular care to give us their names, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Shortly thereafter, we see that he doesn’t simply work on their farm, he lives with them. The subtext of the conversation where his Uncle refuses to let Luke send in his application to the Academy tells us that they are his caregivers and surrogate parents. So we wonder Why is he living with them? What happened to his real parents? We’re not given some kind of heavy-handed flashback montage showing us what happened to Luke’s parents (we had to wait 20+ years and five more movies to really understand that), but we are given hints that there is a compelling backstory there.

When we meet Obi Wan and come to understand that he isn’t just a crazy old man like Uncle Owen told Luke, that he does have some kind of power, we’re forced to wonder What the heck he’s doing living out in the middle of a nowhere desert?

We’re forced to wonder. And because of that curiosity, we’re compelled to keep watching. It works in books, too.

The number-one job of a character introduction

If I can sum all this up, my advice would be this: Craft your character introductions to tell us what’s most important about that person. You don’t get much space before the reader’s first impression is set, so make it count. Concentrate on conveying the one thing you most want us to believe about that character.

And make it something good, because above all, we need a reason to be interested. Give us some reason to love, to hate, to admire, or to pity the character. As long as we feel something about the person, we’ll read on. As long as we’re interested in who they are, we’ll be interested in what happens to them. The second we realize there’s nothing about a character that interests us (usually because the writer has left them too opaque), we lose interest in the story itself.

July 30, 2010 19:00 UTC

Tags: character, introductions, action, reaction, conflict, skills, imagery, setting, backstory, mystery, curiosity

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Warning: Rookie backstory mistake shown to cause rejection letters.

Rejection letters happen to everybody. And it’s easy to feel helpless, especially when the rejections keep coming even after you do everything you can to ensure that your manuscript doesn’t suck. But there’s no need to flounder around in hopeless despair. Today I’m going to help you avoid one rookie mistake that could be the source of your rejection letters.

By “ensuring that your manuscript doesn’t suck,” I simply mean that you have applied the fundamentals of writing and story craft: You can string a sentence together, your premise has emotional appeal, inherent conflict, and rising stakes, and you’ve created interesting characters and put them into challenging situations.

Assuming you’ve done all that, the problem comes with how you show your characters to the reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer sabotage an otherwise interesting and engaging novel by including a whole lot of backstory about their characters. When this happens, I can just feel that prospective agent putting the manuscript into the “no thanks” pile. Frankly big, indigestible lumps of backstory make me want to put the manuscript down too.

Here’s the thing: you may well have spent hours figuring out your characters’ histories in endless detail. You’ve done it so that you can understand what makes these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic and believable.

But that doesn’t mean you need to put it in the book.

If you’ve been writing novels for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that advice already. Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop. That’s totally true. And that’s one reason your manuscript will land in the “no thanks” pile.

Unfortunately, backstory is a double-whammy: Backstory creates a second, deeper problem that has nothing to do with pacing and momentum.

When a literary agent picks up your submission, they’re just like you and me: they want to get involved with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated. But even novels that execute on all the fundamentals of writing and story craft can fail to captivate an agent because of backstory.

It goes like this. A key technique for keeping readers engaged, interested, and turning pages is to raise questions (again, advice you’ve probably heard already if you’ve been writing novels for any length of time). If something you write makes the reader wonder something about your story, they’ll keep reading to find the answer.

Just about the strongest form of question you can raise—the most compelling type of hook you can employ—are questions about your characters. What happened to them when they were eleven that they won’t talk about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their shoes untied? Whatever the question is, if you’ve raised it in the right way, readers will be really curious to learn the answer. Usually, because the answer has to do with whatever deep-seated emotional issues the character is grappling with. That’s powerful stuff. Readers love those kinds of mysteries.

And don’t forget, agents are just readers who have the power to help you get published. So keep them interested by raising questions about your characters.

With that in mind, the problem with backstory should be obvious: Backstory answers all the questions, often before the reader even thinks to ask them. Backstory destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves them with nothing left to wonder about your characters.

Remember, it’s the characters who drive the plot, not the other way around. When you include a lot of backstory, you give away more than half the game right there; readers—agents—may still be mildly curious to know what’s going to happen, but if they’re not curious about the characters as well then there’s very little reason for them to care. Five pages into the novel and the story may as well be over.

As a writer, you must exercise an extraordinary amount of restraint and caution in what you tell readers about your characters, especially early in the book. I’ll go as far as to say that if you include more than a paragraph of backstory about anybody in the first 5,000 words of your novel, you should cut it. The more you control your impulse to explain everything about your characters, the more you deepen the mystery, captivate your readers, and engross them in your story.

You must create and preserve your characters’ secrets. You must do this to keep readers curious. You must do this so that later, at the right moment, when the reader’s anticipation has been built up as high as you can push it, you can finally solve the mystery.

This is another reason why beginnings, those first few scenes and chapters of a novel, are so hard to write. It can be a challenge to find the delicate balance between saying something about your characters, but not too much. Yet you must do it, and creating mystery is a great guideline for how: Whatever you say in those critical opening pages, make sure it creates mystery rather than destroys it.

Don’t make a rookie mistake. Cut the backstory, unless you like those form rejection letters.

Addendum: I just finished reading Rebecca Stead’s Newberry-award winning book When You Reach Me. It is a textbook example of creating and preserving mystery by eliminating backstory. And a hell of a good book as well.

August 28, 2009 16:41 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, mystery, curiosity, openings

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