This Is How to Transform Info Dumps Into Exciting Plot Reveals


Clues, mysteries, plot reveals, and plot twists—these are some of a writer’s stock tricks for hooking readers page after page. But as important as these tricks are, when they’re asked to bear the load of being the main attraction for readers, they too often turn into boring info dumps.

Imagine you’re reading a story in which the author has skillfully created some kind of mystery.

This mystery might be:

  • The murder in a whodunit.
  • A straightforward strategic puzzle focused on figuring out how to defeat the bad guys.
  • Something more domestic, such as an ongoing question of a character’s parentage.
  • Something simple and amusing, such as a character obsessively (and perhaps symbolically) trying to prove that a neighbor’s dog is digging holes in his yard.
  • Less about proving a proposed solution and more about figuring out whether or not something mysterious is happening at all—e.g., is the new neighbor’s strange night activity a sign of something sinister?

The mystery could be the main focus of the story, with the protagonist’s main plot goal being the solution to the mystery (as in Chamber of Secrets). Or the mystery might just be a clever way to avoid info dumps while slowly trickling important information throughout the story (as in Half-Blood Prince).

Whatever the case, adding a mystery can greatly enhance your story’s readability. If you’re able to consistently present questions (whether implicit or explicit), you’re giving readers more reasons to keep reading. In addition to wanting to watch what happens to your characters, they now also want to know the answer to the questions you’re proposing.

But don’t miss the order of that last sentence. Readers are there first and foremost to see what happens to your characters. And this is where we encounter some of the problems you can run into if you’re relying too heavily on plot reveals to provide the entertainment factor.

Ask Yourself: Is Your Story About Clues or Consequences?

Mysteries are fun. They’re fun to create and fun to solve. But in themselves they are not stories and certainly not the best part of stories (even in the mystery genre). This is why it’s important for writers not to fall into the trap of relying on clues to carry the story.

In the myopia of early plotting, it can be easy to feel you’re writing something deeply gripping just because a new clue is being unveiled in every scene. In these instances, the plot progression may look like this: Clue>Clue>Clue>Clue. The progression grows obviously monotonous, no matter how interesting the mystery itself.

E.M. Forster famously distinguished story from plot by emphasizing the causality of events.

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.

In dramatic fiction, things don’t just happen. They happen because other things happened first. This certainly holds true for the unraveling of mystery. If the revelation of clues are just revelations, the story will stagnate. Instead, any and every clue your plot reveals should be the result of a character’s choice, with the discovery itself turning the plot by creating consequences.

You want the progression of your story to look like this: Choice>Consequence>Choice>Consequence. (Which is, of course, just a variation on how to view classic scene structure of Goal>Dilemma.)

Even just glancing at the two equations shows the difference. For me, the latter progression, of choice and consequence, immediately blips my writer radar. The reminder that my character’s choices have causal consequences always functions for me almost like a writing prompt. So many juicy possibilities.

Focusing a story’s progression on choice and consequence creates forward momentum—a line of causes and effects. Even better, it creates a much more interesting framework in which to leverage a story’s mysteries, questions, and revelations.

5 Ways to Turn Info Dumps Into Plot Turns

Maybe you can relate to this: A writer hands beta readers a story that the writer feels is jam-packed with exciting action.

But the beta readers are all bored. “Nothing happens,” they complain.

The writer is bewildered. “All sorts of things happen! The heroes learn all this stuff about the bad guys’ plans and what they have to do to defeat them!”

It may take several more drafts and much confused agony before the writer realizes the reason it feels like nothing happens in this “jam-packed” novel is… because nothing does happen.

The characters may be learning lots of exciting and revelatory stuff. But that’s all they’re doing. They’re sitting around in a boardroom while their spies bring in horrifying reports. Or they’re taking lesson after lesson in order to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to finally defeat the bad guy (lookin’ at you, YA fantasy). Or maybe the two love interests spend more time thinking about each other or small-talking than they do actually getting out there and falling in love.

With the best intentions, the writer accidentally left most of the story’s best stuff on the cutting-room floor. The problem isn’t that the story’s reveals of information are necessarily uninteresting. Rather, the problem is that the information is the story. And that’s boring.

Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mysteries and plot reveals are wonderful. They just need to be sown into the causal fabric of your characters’ deep and primal plot struggles.

To that end, here are five principles to keep in mind.

1. The Character Explicitly Wants/Needs/or Doesn’t Want This Info—or Some Combo Thereof

Identify a motive for why your character will have more than a casual relationship with this information.

We all learn bits and pieces of things every day—someone was born, someone died, somebody did something good, somebody else did something bad. Some of these bits may interest us, but most are incidental. We have no life-changing motive to seek them out and no subsequent reason to interact with them.

For us, that’s okay. But the information you introduce in your story is information that matters to your protagonist. It’s info that’s going to change his life, which means he absolutely has a reason to interact with it.

The one big exception to this principle is that your story’s mystery may begin with a bit of info the character initially didn’t know he needed—but which very quickly becomes important for some reason (even if it’s just a burning need to know what the nocturnal new neighbor is up to over there).

That aside, you will instantly gain so much more story power by looking for ways to instill your story’s revelations with meaning and stakes.

What is of particular note here is the possibility of having your character choose to learn this information. This is just one of many ways to keep your character from being a bystander in his own story. It also means that when consequences ensue, the protagonist will not be a victim, but will have to shoulder the full load of responsibility for what he has learned (see #4 below).

2. Information Is Never Free

Your character’s choice to seek out information should ultimately be more weighty than her simply deciding to tap her finger on random click-bait on her phone. It should be a choice she has to think twice about—because it, unlike the click-bait, isn’t free.

Except in instances where it would unnecessarily bloat a story, your character’s choice to seek important information should come with complications (and this is before we even get to the consequences). She might have to give up some of her hard-earned babysitting money to bribe info from the school stooge. Or she might have to risk detention by skipping class. Or she might have to face her own fears to talk to somebody dangerous.

It’s possible she may not immediately understand the full cost of what she’s paying to gain this info, but the sooner readers understand the stakes, the more currency you’ll generate for character development. Naturally, not all your characters’ dilemmas will be life-shattering, but you should try to wring a little blood whenever you can by creating situations in which characters must either choose between two equally bad options or two mutually-exclusively good options.

When a character “pays” for info, readers know the info is going to be worth their time.

3. Knowledge Is Power—And With Power Comes With Great Responsibility

Welcome to Pandora’s box. Your character really, really wanted/needed/tried to avoid knowing something. But now that he does know, he can never return to ignorance. (This is true of massively life-changing reveals, but it should also echo down to the relatively small clues leading up to the big reveals.)

It’s much better for your character to learn bad news than good news. There are, of course, exceptions (and you’ll want to vary the intensity of your character’s discoveries either way), but bad news is what builds a story’s conflict and the protagonist’s increasingly pressing need to push through to the resolution of the plot goal.

Although stories can certainly reveal objectively good information, that’s not the stuff of mystery. Mystery is all about tension. Whether rightly or not, the character suspects something bad behind the closed door. If he thought it was something good, the stakes wouldn’t feel as high—and readers wouldn’t be as interested in discovering the truth.

When your character chooses to ask a question, only to receive a disturbing answer, the stakes rise. Because he chose to seek out or interact with this information, he is now responsible for his own knowledge. Whether or not he wants to do something with that knowledge (even if, for now, it’s just seeking the next clue), he increasingly feels the weight of obligation. He’s going to have to make a move (hello, plot turn!), and that is where his choices become consequences.

4. Clues Should Be Visual Whenever Possible

One of the big problems with the progression of Clue>Clue>Clue is that it’s boring. It turns what might indeed be exciting info into a dry recital of facts.

When a private slogs up to the general, salutes wearily, and says, “Sorry, sir, we lost the whole battalion”—that’s nothing but words. But when the general drives out to visit the battlefield and readers get to visualize the carnage through his eyes, the information becomes more than just information.

In a nutshell, this is simply a decision to convey the information through showing, rather than telling. Stories should be pictures on the page. Information, whenever possible, should be visceral. It should be sensory. Smelling a fire, hearing a siren, or seeing a roof collapsing under a blaze—all of these things convey information that might just as easily be learned from a newspaper article. But the visuals not only pack more punch, they also force characters to get out in the story world and do something.

5. Even Better, Clues Should Be Dramatized

If it’s better to convey information via word-pictures, it’s often one more step up from that if you can sow the revelation into the very heart of a scene’s dramatic action.

Maybe your character is hunting for proof that a legendary monster exists. He could discover that information in a dusty old book. He could hear about it from the lips of a creaky old grandmother who swears she saw the monster as a girl. He could even see the monster through his binoculars.

Or he could just about be eaten by the thing.

When your character is given the opportunity to learn on the job by personally and physically interacting with new information, the possibilities for plot-turning consequences pop up all over the place. Maybe the character’s guide (the old granny?) is eaten. Or maybe he loses an arm. Or maybe he accidentally herds the monster into an unsuspecting village, where it wreaks havoc.

As fast as that, this is no longer a story in which “nothing happens.” It’s a story in which information becomes more than a recital of facts, but rather an actual force for your protagonist to contend with.

***

Now it’s time for you to take a look at your story and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What bits of information are crucial to your plot?

2. Can you rework that information’s delivery so it isn’t presented straight up, but rather doled artfully with a bit of mystery and flair?

3. From there, can you go yourself one better and figure out ways to create a fraught relationship between your characters’ need to learn the information and the consequences when they do?

4. And, finally, can you brainstorm ways in which to show the information in visually dramatic ways that progress the plot?

You can use all four of these techniques to create mystery and character development in any type of story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of a scene in which your protagonist has acquired new information in a visually dramatic way rather than learning about it in an info dump? Tell me in the comments!


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A Challenge to Write Life-Changing Fiction (+Giveaway)


Stories have intentions.

That wonderful idea was just one of many nuggets I found myself highlighting in what has so far turned out to be my surprise read of the year—noted literary agent Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Like many of you, I cut my teeth on Maass’s now-classic Writing the Breakout Novel, but for whatever reason never followed up with any of his other many writing guides, even though they’re all on my TBR list. Fast-forward sixteen years to when I caught Emotional Craft of Fiction as part of a Kindle sale. I started reading it about a month ago, fully expecting a smart but conventional tome of tips for drawing dimension into characters. I got that, but what I wasn’t expecting was that, non-fiction though it is, this would be one of those books with “intentions.”

Just as the best of all writing advice should, the wisdom found in this book applies to so much more than just writing. If storytelling is about exploring life, then good writing advice should inevitably evoke solid life advice as well. (Which, on a side note, is what I’m excited to learn Wesley Baines, a familiar name on this site, is exploring in a forthcoming book about the importance of writers developing traits such as empathy and wisdom.) I find it no coincidence that the two great interests of my life—storytelling and personal growth—continually converge. They are, in so many ways, the same interest.

Many people have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed my book Creating Character Arcs more for its insights into their own life changes than for that of their characters. My response is always an eager, “Right?!” Because that was totally my own experience in discovering character arcs. For me, understanding how to convincingly portray human change on the page was ultimately a journey in understanding how I change and grow.

That, in itself, should be reason enough to go out and read Maass’s book right now—because its great insights into character crafting are really just an emergent of its insights into life itself. The book (intentionally?) came to me at exactly the proper moment in my own life, as I am neck deep in working on emotional fluency.

More than that, however, I found Maass’s book and his comment about “intentional stories” to be a rallying call to writing not just authentic fiction, but the kind of fiction that both invites and encourages readers to follow the characters on Positive-Change Arcs.

I’m not even going to try to do justice to the vastness and depth of the topics Maass covers, but after finishing the book, there are two things I want to do.

1. I want to share a few of my own thoughts on why and how to take up Maass’s challenge to start (or continue) writing not just fiction, but life-changing fiction.

2. Because I want everybody everywhere to read this book, I’m giving away 10 paperbacks to random winners. Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter using the Rafflecopter widget. Winners will be selected at the end of the week. If you don’t win, please find a copy somewhere else and read it! You gotta pinky promise.

5 Starters for Writing Life-Changing Fiction

There are so many different kinds of stories—everything from heroes’ journeys to stream-of-conscious mirrors of prosaic days, from fantasies to exposés, from comedies to tragedies, from genre mashups to literary tomes. There’s something for every one of us at every moment of our lives. Every single type of story has within it the potential seed to absolutely transform at least one of its readers.

Those are the stories I want to read and watch. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are nuclear.

I would like to write these stories as well. (Even if the only reader who is changed is me, I’d still be pretty happy with that.) To that end, here are some ideas I’ve mulling on, some of which coincide with those presented in Maass’s book, others which were catalyzed for me by the book.

1. Write With Honesty and Self-Awareness

It’s not stories that change people’s lives; it’s the truth. When stories speak truth, it’s like they’re puzzle pieces fitting into inner holes the audience didn’t even realize were there. There’s a line in Jonathan Latham’s essay in Light the Dark that talks about how when you encounter something true, it doesn’t feel like you just learned something new. Rather, it feels like you suddenly remembered something you knew all along.

The only way to write truth so powerful it gives readers that dichotomous sense of coming home to a place they’ve never before visited is by daily doing your utmost to clear away your own inner fuzziness. Cognitive dissonance, defensive egos, and repressed emotions are things we all deal with that inevitably muddy our thinking. As human beings, we bear the responsibility to try daily to do a little housecleaning. As writers, that responsibility is doubled. When asking readers to suspend disbelief, we are implicitly asking them to believe we will share with them something true. That’s a contract of trust.

2. Write With Humility and Humor

But let’s not be pompous, shall we? Every day for me is a discovery of some life-truth that astounds and excites me. I want to share every one of those truths with every single person I can. But even in the midst of my own enthusiasm (and, sometimes, overweening pride at my unprecedented cleverness), there’s a part of me that knows full well not all my truths are going to be interesting to others. Indeed, not all of my truths are really true. Today’s certainty may turn out to be tomorrow’s mirage.

If, in writing, we accept the terrible responsibility of speaking truths to our neighbors, then we also do well to acknowledge our own unsuitability for that role with more than a little self-deprecation. I want to tell the truth; I want to change your life. But, c’mon, I’m just a struggling schmo too. Very likely, that’s the greatest truth I’ll ever know or share.

3. Write Actionable Fiction

As a reader and especially a viewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time preemptively bypassing stories that seem hellbent on sending me to bed with a downer. I love incisive, hard-hitting, even dark fiction—but not if it gives me dog-breath from the bad taste in my mouth.

Maass nailed it when he wrote:

Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.

I think of some of my favorite stories—The Great EscapeThe Book ThiefGladiatorWuthering HeightsBlack Hawk Down, True Grit—and I’m rather surprised to realize how dark they all are, how most of them end in quantifiable tragedy. And yet… and yet. What these stories have to say about the world is anything but tragic. They tell hard truths, but in the end those truths feel triumphant.

The insight I find most poignant in Maass’s quote is that we should be striving to write actionable fiction. In the same way copywriters are taught to end with a call to action (something people can immediately respond to after hearing about the benefits of the advertised product), fiction writers should also consider what the end of a story may be encouraging readers to do in their own lives.

This does not mean ending with some blatant moral that tells readers to go out and make the world a better place. But we all know the feeling of inspiration found at the conclusion of the kind of story that very well just changed our lives.

This call to action is most important in stories that tell dark truths. Otherwise, the message is “roll over and die.” Stories of injustice, stories of horror, stories of death—they should be about more than just injustice, horror, and death. They should be about what we can do about these tragedies in our own lives after closing the back cover of the book.

4. Write to the Find the Best of Yourself

When you read your own stories, who do you see? It can be hard to identify the person peeking out from between the lines. But take a hard look. If the person you see has been honestly represented, then very likely she’s not a perfect person. She may be full of rage, pain, and fear. She may be downright scary. That’s okay.

But don’t leave it at that. Don’t let your fiction be nothing more than a place to vent all the hard parts of being you. See if you can’t also find the best of yourself looking back at you.

Maass again:

This may sound like I’m in favor of pandering to readers, but I’m actually appealing to the good, positive, and inspiring person called you. Don’t give me easy reading; give me the best of you. When you do, it becomes the best of me, too. Do you believe that it cheapens fiction to make it humane, heart grabbing, filled with goodness? You are not alone in that belief, but I disagree.

The best of you is not some fake version of fairy-tale perfection. The best of you is that enraged, hurting, fearful person who rose above herself and found change. That’s the person I want to know when I read your stories, because that’s the person who is going to inspire me to rise as well.

5. Write Fiction That Hopes

Sometimes it’s hard to even know for sure which stories have changed your life. Sometimes they don’t obviously change us until long after we’ve read them. But sometimes you know.

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies on the big screen as part of a “flashback cinema” program at my local theater. Over the course of three weeks, I sat through all 11 hours and 22 minutes. As a kid, I remember the news gushing about how “life-changing” the films were. For me, this time, they were. It felt like an incredible to gift to get to experience this particular story in this particular medium at this particular time in my life. Samwise Gamgee tells us “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—and, just like that, my life is changed.

You can change the world with stories of of truthful darkness or even despair. But I can’t help but believe, in agreement with Maass (and Sam), that it is much better instead to choose a different catalyst of change—the catalyst of hope:

You are writing to show us how things are, but aren’t you also writing to show us how things can be? Your current novel is not just a report, right? It’s a vision. It’s a gleeful celebration of what is hard, important, hopeful, and beautiful about life.

***

There are so many reasons to love stories. And as humans, we do—we truly do—love stories. Speaking at least for myself, I think the single greatest reason I first fell in love with stories, and continue to follow them even to this day as the guiding stars of my life, is their power to change me. If a story creates no impact in my life, then I find I am invariably disappointed on some level. I want to be changed. I want every day to be a transformation. That is why I read, and that is why I write.

And that is why I want you to read Donald Maas’s inspiring challenge to write stories of depth and meaning. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. I leave you with a final quote:

Novels that are truly grand, generous, and confident do not come along very often, but why can’t such novels be yours every time?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story that changed your life? How has it inspired you to want to write life-changing fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Represents Your Story’s Theme


choosing a protagonistChoosing a protagonist is often more of an event than a process. Writers sometimes feel more like the protagonist chooses them than the other way around. While most of us heed our first instinct to simply chase after this character to see where he goes, it’s important that at some point we analyze the soundness of the story idea by considering whether we have the right protagonist for the right story.

Although many metrics may inform this analysis, theme is usually the best measuring stick. Because theme is the peanut butter that gloms together the bread of the plot and the jelly of the characters, it always provides a good criterion for determining whether the entire recipe is coming together in a way that tastes right.

By itself, a plot is just a series of events. It’s not a story until we zoom in to focus on what these events mean to specific people. Usually, there are many people involved in these events. As seen in the recent fad for retconning classic stories from the viewpoints of supporting characters, a story may offer the possibility for many potential protagonists. As the common saying goes, even characters who look like traditional antagonists inevitably see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.

It usually isn’t difficult for authors to choose a protagonist; we just write about whichever character most interests us. If we feel there are additional characters who dramatically impact the plot, we can always throw in their POVs as well (although, I should say, this should never be done lightly). The most important decision is not choosing a protagonist or choosing a plot or even choosing a theme. Rather, the most important calibration you can make is to ensure all three are aligned.

5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Is Thematically Correct for Your Story

You know you’ve chosen the right character in the right plot when, together, they create a harmonious theme.

If this sounds easier said than done, it both is and isn’t. Most authors (or rather most people) have pretty good instincts about lining up a story’s parts—or, at the very least, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But because writing a story soon becomes an exercise in herding many different bits and pieces of theory and technique, it can also be easy to lose your way through the forest thanks to all those crazy trees.

We talked recently about how to properly balance plot and character, so you avoid “too much” of either. Today, let’s look more closely at how a few well-chosen questions can help you check whether you’ve chosen the most thematically-powerful character as your protagonist. If you discover your protagonist isn’t ideally positioned to both advance the plot and “prove” the theme, these questions can also help you to either identify a better protagonist or tweak things to bring plot-character-theme into better alignment.

1. What Does Your Protagonist Bring to This Particular Conflict That No Other Character Does?

If you could switch out your protagonist for another member of the cast without significantly changing either the events of the plot or the thematic intent of the Climax, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a deadbeat protagonist on your hands.

This is also true if you could mix-and-match your protagonist for a brand-new character who is (or at least seems to be) completely different. For example, if the heroine of your YA romance is a mousy introvert, but the events of the story wouldn’t be much affected if you turned her into an angry stoner—then she’s two-dimensional and thematically-vapid in either case.

The protagonist is the monarch of characters. The title raises this particular character above all other characters. But there must be a reason for this elevation. The character must prove worthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the character needs to have special powers or mad skillz. What it does mean is that the character must have or develop qualities that qualify her interaction with the plot events to represent the thematic meaning of those events.

Examine your primary cast and ask yourself what sets your protagonist apart? How will this story change her in ways it will not change the others? How will she drive the plot in ways no one else could? How will other characters be impacted by her in a way that could have happened with no other character?

2. Why Is This Conflict Your Protagonist’s Plot—And Not Anyone Else’s in the Story?

Why is Star Wars about Luke and not Han or Leia? Arguably, both Han and Leia are more interesting personalities. Certainly, a story with Leia in the lead could have mirrored many of the same plot beats and revelations as Luke’s—since they share Force talents and a parental relationship with the hated antagonist who murdered their surrogate families.

Although a story with Leia in the lead could potentially have been just as interesting, it would not have been the same story. The central plot in the original trilogy belongs to Luke because it’s naïve, idealistic farm-boy Luke who starts out as the zero. When the story begins, Leia already seems ten years older than her twin. She’s too experienced and worldly to represent the story’s underlying thematic arc of the journey from Fool to Master. To try to tell anywhere close to the same story from Leia’s POV, you’d have to start earlier in the timeline and completely change her personality.

Princess Leia Star Wars New Hope Carrie Fisher

Han and Leia may have gotten more zippy dialogue than Luke did. But the purity and the power of the Hero’s Journey could only have been represented in this particular plot by this particular protagonist.

More than that, this choice is reinforced structurally throughout the story. Despite the time given to Han and Leia’s subplot, the structural backbone of the conflict is always and obviously Luke vs. Vader—which ties in perfectly with the thematic throughline of Good vs. Evil.

Luke Skywalker Darth Vader Star Wars Return of the Jedi

3. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Virtue?

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what specific offering a protagonist-elect brings to the table. If you think about it too hard, the lines can start to blur to the point where it seems as if the story could be told with just as much interest and power from any POV. Fortunately, there are a couple additional questions you can ask to help you understand a proposed protagonist’s unique offerings.

The first thing to consider is your protagonist’s good qualities. What virtue does this character represent that is not initially present in any other character? It may be the protagonist teaches this virtue to other characters as you go, so think specifically about the contrast between your protagonist and the rest of the cast in the first half of the story.

For example, your protagonist may be kind when all others are cruel. He may be brave when others are cowardly. She may be smart when others are ignorant. He may cling to hope when all others despair.

It’s possible this “virtue” may also encompass a special skill. But skills don’t usually represent theme in the same way as virtues. Whatever the virtue, it should not be random. This character’s kindness, bravery, intelligence, or hopefulness should prove crucial to the development of the plot—either directly or perhaps ironically.

4. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Flaw?

Even more telling is the second question you can ask about your protagonist’s moral relationship to the theme. What is her greatest flaw? To maintain thematic continuity, the flaw/weakness is very often the mirror image of the virtue. It is the virtue taken full circle, to its farthest extreme, to the point where it is no longer admirable or helpful.

The virtue of kindness may arise from a painfully conflict-averse character. Physical bravery may mask emotional cowardice. Intelligence may ride side by side with socially-destructive arrogance. Hope may be blind.

Most protagonists start out with enough good qualities to endear them to audiences (or at least to stoke interest when juxtaposed against less likable tendencies). But those qualities will rarely start out dialed all the way to ten. Rather, when the virtues are held back by a partner flaw, they represent both the possibility and the need for thematic change.

5. How Does This Virtue and This Flaw Directly Influence This Plot—and What Do They Say About Both the Plot and the Protagonist?

In a well-constructed story, the plot will be constructed to initiate the latent change found in the tension point between the protagonist’s specific virtue and flaw. The machine operates only because all the pieces are designed to work together.

When the plot is created from actions arising out of a specific protagonist’s virtues and flaws, you’ll never have to wonder if you’re choosing a thematically-pertinent protagonist. You’ll also never have to wonder if your plot and your theme are organic to one another. When the protagonist is both creating the plot and deriving personal meaning from its events, you know you’ve chosen the right character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most crucial factor in choosing a protagonist? Tell me in the comments!


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Are You Struggling to Be Creative? This Might Be Why


struggling to be creativeI talk to my wonderful mother on the phone every night. We talk about everything from health to books to psychology to faith to whatever might be making us grumpy at the moment. This week while discussing health and diet, she shared something she’d read that said she was now at the beginning of the Third Act of her life. According to the same math (every thirty years equals an act), I’m at the beginning of my Second Act.

Naturally, as a storyteller and story theorist, this language appeals to me. It made me think about how my thirties are the opportunity not just for a deepening of my story, but for a new beginning of sorts. I quite like the idea of thinking of myself not as a thirty-three-year-old who is supposed to (and doesn’t) have it all together, but rather as if this were my second time to be an innocent, expectant, wonder-filled three-year-old—who just happens to have thirty years of experience and knowledge. (To expand the analogy, this means my mom is experiencing her third time being a six-year-old—but with sixty years of experience and knowledge behind her.)

I particularly like this right now as I find myself, rather painfully, stripping myself back to basics. As I examine the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical load I’ve been adding to for the last thirty years—some of it good, some not-so-good—I find myself longing to return to my three-year-old self’s easy trust in the sheer magic of life. As a professional creative, I not only want this, I need it.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is Neil Gaiman’s disarming response to someone who asked, “I want to be an author when I grow up. Am I insane?” He replied:

Yes. Growing up is highly overrated. Just be an author.

The older I get, the more I agree. Mostly, this is because the more and more grown-up I get, the less and less I see life’s magic and the smaller and smaller my window of creativity becomes. I know I’m not alone in this, even (especially?) among writers.

As I’ve hinted before, the last few years have turned out to be a crucible of sorts for me. Although there were contributing reasons and events, I now see them more as just an inevitable, if dramatic, conclusion to the growing-up pains of my twenties. After an unexpectedly stressful move a year ago, these growing pains bottomed out with me feeling more disconnected from my creativity than ever before.

During the last few years, I kept plodding faithfully, finishing one book and starting another. But during this time, I was also largely in denial of my growing panic. I had been creative my entire life. I had been a storyteller my entire life. I had felt life’s magic always. And now, increasingly, for years, that magic was becoming only a bare flicker in my soul.

Was my creativity leaving me? Was my writing meant only to be a short chapter in my life? And if I wasn’t meant to soar on the wings of my creativity anymore, then God help me, because what could ever replace that?

As of this month, I now believe this crucible of what has been a dark night of my soul has finally begun to reach its Climax. Perhaps the best and most encouraging insight I have uncovered from a larger host of insights glittering up at me is a realization about why my creativity seemed to desert me—and, even better, what I can do to reclaim this most precious part of myself.

If You’re Struggling to Be Creative, Ask Yourself  “Where Is Your Energy Going?”

Creation is a deeply energetic act. As we’ve covered in discussions of whole-life art, being an artist or an author isn’t so different from being an athlete. Both require not just talent and dedication, but the cultivation of holistic health so that we will be able to bring optimum focus and energy to the act of creation.

As finite beings, we each possess a finite amount of energy. Every day dawns with the same possibility for productivity, but each day also dawns with a limited (if renewable) supply of energy. Our ability to turn that energy into creativity requires we wisely husband it, allot it, and utilize it. Energy spent on one area of our lives—be it hanging out with a loved one or worrying about finances—is energy that cannot be spent on creating.

Because creativity is an output of energy, it necessarily requires an input. The well can be filled by feeding all parts of ourselves a healthy diet—books and art for our minds and imaginations, proper diet and exercise for our bodies, satisfying relationships and fulfilling work for our emotions. Whenever we find ourselves struggling to be creative, we rightfully turn first to checking that our energy inputs are flowing properly.

But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes you can be doing everything right to fill yourself up with good energy on every level—and still you find yourself struggling to be creative. This is incredibly frustrating. What else could there possibly be left to do?

That was the question I was asking myself. For a long time, the only answer I could see was “wait.” Wait and surely something will change. But if things were changing, they didn’t seem to be changing for the better. If anything, I felt my window of creativity getting smaller.

But then, just recently, I had a breakthrough. For years, I’ve been interested in depth psychology, including the idea of the “shadow” (the theory that aspects of the self are unhealthily repressed into the unconscious). In reading Beatrice Chestnut’s excellent book The Complete Enneagram, her description of the shadow as simply the place where we put the things (emotions, desires, pains, fears) we do not want to look at clicked for me. She wrote:

The Shadow represents everything we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves that nonetheless impacts the way we behave.

As I started examining afresh what it might be that I did not want to acknowledge, I was astounded to realize not just the sheer load of stuff I started digging up, but also how much energy I have been putting into resisting looking at these things.

That’s when it clicked. The reason my level of creativity had plummeted in the last few years was not that I was becoming “less creative,” but rather that more and more of my daily allotment of energy was being used to wall off more and more of the things I found too painful or overwhelming to face.

Creativity is an energy that wells up from our very life force. It is an energy of flow. It is an energy of opening ourselves to our own vulnerability and emotions—even our own pain sometimes. By its very nature, it is antithetical to the energy of resistance and repression.

What Are You Resisting?

Creativity is limited along a spectrum. The limitation might be as small as a block over an important confrontation between characters. Or it might be all-encompassing enough to induce the panic that maybe your writing days are ending.

Regardless, I now believe your first reaction should be to slow down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Okay, what am I resisting?”

The answer might be a simple, “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to write this scene” or “I’m afraid of the painful memories this scene is going to stir up for me” or “I’m afraid of opening my emotions to the extent required to honestly portray this scene.”

But the answer might also be much bigger. For each of us, time inevitably encroaches upon the wide-open, unwounded innocence of the three-year-old. Some of us, as Gaiman suggests, are lucky enough to maintain creative outlets into our grown-up years. But even for us, the more we grow up, the more energy we end up devoting to all the stuff we’re silently and often obliviously refusing to acknowledge.

Sometimes the things we’re resisting are not hidden within us. Sometimes we’re dealing with real-life stresses—the same kind of outer-world obstacles we’re always throwing at our characters. Real-life jobs, relationships, and health challenges can steal our energy just as surely as can our own inner conflicts.

But for my money, it’s the inner conflict that is most insidious (not least because it usually rides the tail of any and all outer conflicts). Just as we demand of our characters, if we’re going to overcome the lies holding us back, we must be willing to face those lies. In my experience so far, it’s the facing itself that is the hardest part. Just zoning in enough to notice our white-knuckled grip on an unacknowledged pain or unfulfilled desire is often enough to release us from some of our unspoken fears.

With this release comes a slight opening in the wall we’ve created inside ourselves. A little of our lost energy returns to us. A little light shines through. A little fresh air starts its flow. And with that flow comes the first whiff of a familiar breath—creativity.

4 Faces of Creativity (or, You May Still Be More Creative Than You Think You Are)

As I begin walking myself back into what I hope will be a complete restoration of my creative energy, I find myself realizing that perhaps I haven’t spent these last few years in as much of a creative desert as I thought. No, my creativity wasn’t flowing to the same degree or flowing into the same vessels. But I never stopped moving. I kept husbanding whatever creative energy I had and using it as responsibly as I could under the circumstances.

In recognizing this, I also see that the return of my creativity may not mean an immediate deep dive into writing for hours on end every day. First, it may require that I use my creativity more… creatively.

If you too find yourself on the return journey after struggling to be creative, it’s important to realize you are even now probably employing your creativity in many vital ways. Creativity in life isn’t just about creating art. It’s shows up in other parts of life—all of which are equally important to actually getting yourself back into writing shape.

For example, you will need your creative energy for:

1. Healing

I recognize I am currently in a chapter of healing. Even though part of myself is impatient to really and truly get back to the writing and the creative life as I used to know it, I can sense my energy isn’t there yet. Right now, my returning trickle of creativity is best used to encourage the spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical healing I need in order to return to the page in top form. After years of walking a path of mental resistance, I need time to sit with myself and remember how to be friends with the deepest parts of my imagination.

2. Growth/Education

Throughout these difficult years, I have never stopped reading or actively learning. Even when I could barely get myself to sit at the computer, I could at least still read a novel or a book on Jungian archetypes or a writing guide. Sometimes the reading came hard too. But I maintained enough discipline to keep at it, and as long as new information kept coming in, I always found the trickle of creative energy necessary to be interested in it, to think about it, to absorb it, and—eventually—make use of it.

3. Faithfulness in Projects

Early last year, someone asked me how to keep writing when it was tough. It was a pertinent question for me at the time. I only remember part of my answer, but it has stuck with me as a sort of personal challenge throughout the hard times. What I told him was that there were many days when I didn’t want to show up and write. There were many days when I wanted to just give up and take a break until life was clearer and my creativity returned in force. But when I looked into the future, the one thing I was sure of was that I would be much happier to have a completed novel under my belt rather than nothing.

And I am. During the period of my creative doubt, I wrote a massive novel and half of a massive outline for its sequel. I didn’t feel creative during that period. Clearly though, my sheer faithfulness in chipping away at my projects a little every day proved I was much more creative than I knew.

4. Excitement and Passion

The best kind of creativity is the kind that whirls you into that ecstasy of excitement. When you’re so passionate about what you’re writing that you can’t think about anything else, it’s the best high in the world. Life is filled with meaning and purpose, love and joy, satisfaction and anticipation. Even the comparatively hard days when you’re sure what you’ve written is terrible, there’s still that urgent sense of life itself buzzing through your body.

It’s awesome, in every sense. It’s the reason we create. I daresay it’s even the reason we live.

I look forward with a true and homesick longing for that creativity which I have not felt in so long now. In gaining a better understanding of why it seemed to have drifted so far away from me, I have total faith it will return to me and I to it. But in the meantime, I also see that my creativity is still there, manifesting in all the ways necessary to recreate a foundation solid and healthy enough to sustain future surges of excitement and energy.

***

Writers always joke that the writing life is hard. Sometimes it’s hard in ways that we, in the innocence of our First Act, didn’t always expect it would be. But life goes on. Energy is renewable. Our stories have more than just one act, and with patience and discipline, we all get second chances. If you find yourself in a period of creative doubt or difficulty, know at least that you aren’t alone. If you happen to be walking in this tunnel with me, it may be that I am now a few steps ahead of you on the path, and from here I can tell you the view shows me there is a light at the end. Keep writing, friends.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever found yourself struggling to be creative? What helped you? Tell me in the comments!


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Critique: 10 Ways to Write Excellent Dialogue


write excellent dialogueFor many people, dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. As arguably the only true form of “showing” in written fiction, it offers an inexhaustible source of energy for dramatizing characters, catalyzing conflict, and enhancing every available opportunity for entertainment. That’s why it’s so important to take full of advantage of dialogue, and that’s why we’re going to be taking a look at ten ways to write excellent dialogue.

The essence of dialogue is familiar to any of us old enough to have exchanged words with another human being. It is communication. It is expression. Sometimes it’s comfort. Sometimes it’s anarchy. Often, it comes easily. Usually, it’s interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s boring.

You know how it goes—both in real life and on the page. Boring conversations are those in which one or more participants isn’t hearing anything that interests them. That’s simple enough on its surface, but the most important takeaway for novelists is that the reasons dialogue might fail to be interesting are sometimes counter-intuitive.

Sometimes the problem is the content (i.e., the characters really aren’t saying anything interesting). Other times, it’s the delivery (i.e., the characters are saying important things, but the words feel stiff or forced). Still other times, the problem is that the dialogue is too on-the-nose (i.e., it spells out too much for readers instead of creating subtext) or perhaps it’s that the scene itself lacks forward drive within the overall story.

When all these problems are recognized and corrected, what you end up with is dialogue that captures readers’ full attention and drags them through the story, one fast page flip after another.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the fifth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today’s post is inspired by Lenna V.’s excerpt from her historical novel. She wanted to know if she succeeded in her first attempt at writing dialogue:

This is the only full scene I’ve completed so far, and honestly, I can’t recall ever writing dialogue before… I would love any feedback you’d be so kind as to give!

Before we get into the excerpt, let me just say that for a first attempt, this is excellent! Lenna has also got a good handle on staying in POV and creating an engaging narrator voice for her child character (something even more evident in the earlier portions of the excerpt, which I won’t be sharing since they’re not pertinent to today’s topic of writing entertaining dialogue).

So let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)

Bouncing onto a vacant armchair that was a lot firmer than he’d expected, Jory sat back to scan the room. There were people scattered around doing a variety of quiet activities, and it made for good people-watching. He loved people-watching….

A little lady with snowy white hair tied in a knot behind her head caught his eye. She sat at the piano, facing away from him, but unlike a lot of the people here, her back and shoulders weren’t hunched. She sat up straight as she played a pretty melody he sort of recognized with no sheet music in front of her….

He recognized her. She lived in the apartment next to his great-grandma. She was one of the ones that smiled and waved if she caught him looking in the open door. Not so bad. He could try talking to her. Slowly, he pulled himself up and shuffled over to her. She looked even older up close, but she had kind eyes.

“Hi.”1

“Hello there!”

After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him,2 he caved.3

“It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.”

“Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”4

“I don’t think so.”

She turned back to the keys and began a simpler version of the song, singing quietly along this time. As she sang through the chorus, he started to recall two guys with funny hats and canes. It finally clicked.

“Oh, it’s in that Christmas movie my mom makes me watch every year.”

White Christmas? Yes, it is! I am so impressed that you remembered it.5 You were tapping out some fun rhythms.”

“Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped.”6

“That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul.”7

He gave her an odd look8 and glanced around for his mom. She was still talking to the girl at the desk.

“My name is Mrs. Murphy.”

“Nice to meet you. My name’s Jory Wolanski.”9

“You live next door to my prababcia.”

“Prababcia?”

“Sorry, my great-grandma.”

“Ah, you’re Mrs. Wolanski’s great-grandson?”

“Yep. I’ve seen you sometimes when we walk by to visit her.”

“I’ve seen you too, now that I think about it. Your… What was it? Pra…?”

“Prah-bahb-chuh.”

“Thank you. Your prababcia seems like a very nice woman. We haven’t had much opportunity to talk yet.”

“She is. She moved here ’cause she fell and broke her arm, so now my dziadek—sorry, my grandpa—thinks she needs to have extra people around to make sure she’s okay. She said she agreed ’cause she likes being around people she doesn’t have to cook for all the time.”

Her eyes lit up, and her mouth twitched into a small smirk as she stifled a chuckle. “Well, that’s a good reason.”

“No, it’s not. She’s the best cook!10 I miss her Sunday dinners.”

10 Ways to Write Dialogue Readers Love

Beyond the basics of properly punctuating dialogue and creating a sensible back-and-forth flow between speakers (which Lenna aces), the next level of great dialogue becomes something of a magic act. Just as in real-life conversations, good dialogue is as much about what isn’t said—or what is said with eyes and body language alone—as it is the words we use.

Great dialogue is more than just a functional exchange of information. It’s a dance of unexpected motives, fears, desires, uncertainties, and revelations. This is true for “big” scenes, but just as true for small exchanges. In fact, the nuances of great dialogue are often more important in “small” scenes because there’s less going on and readers need a little somethin’ extra to keep them fully entertained.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten fast ways to boost your dialogue from good to great.

1. Clarify Your Speakers

Within the back-and-forth of a conversation (especially if it’s between just two characters), you can often get by with very few identifying speaker tags or action beats. Readers understand that if one character said the first thing, then the other character is the one saying the second thing, and so on—to a point.

For this to work, readers must have no doubt about which character speaks first. In this instance, the introductory line “Hi” could feasibly belong to either character. Adding a simple “Jory said” to this first line would be more than enough to clear up any initial confusion.

Usually, it’s best to punctuate dialogue with an action beat or speaker tag at least every three lines or so, both to orient readers and to avoid “talking-head syndrome,” in which the author fails to keep characters grounded in the setting.

2. Place Each Speaker/Actor Within a New Paragraph

One of the most important rules of formatting dialogue is putting each new speaker in a new paragraph of their own (something Lenna demonstrates throughout the majority of her excerpt). An important variation of this rule also gives each new actor a line of their own, even if they have nothing to say. This addition isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, since pacing and other considerations will play in. But usually you’ll get the cleanest flow of intent by simply giving  silent actors their own lines, prior to the next bit of dialogue.

Sometimes, as in the case of our excerpt (“After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him, he caved”), you may need to rework the former part of the sentence a bit to put more emphasis on the actor (e.g., “She smiled at him for a minute. / He caved.”).

3. Place Action Beats on the Same Line as Their Dialogue (Unless the Preceding Action Is Lengthy or Indirectly Related)

In a rule related to the previous one, make sure action beats appear on the same line as the related dialogue, as in “He caved. ‘It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.’”

The exception to this is when the action goes on for more than one sentence or isn’t directly related to the dialogue. If Jory’s action beat had been a two-sentence description of him looking around the room, trying to avoid the old lady’s eyes, then it probably would be better placed on a line of it’s own with the following dialogue separated.

4. Build Subtext by Creating Dialogue and Action That Don’t Fully Support Each Other

And now we get to the good stuff. On-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says nothing more or less than what it seems to be saying. If the old lady is saying nice things, well, then, she’s nice, which is… nice. But it doesn’t give the author much room to initiate curiosity or understanding within readers. It’s a wall instead of a cracked door.

When Mrs. Murphy explains the song to Jory by saying, ““Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”, I think there’s a subtle missed opportunity to really get to know this character. As it stands, her thoughts seem to go no deeper than her dialogue. But is this truly all an old woman in her situation would be thinking?

What interesting subtext could be suggested here with a more surprising line of dialogue or a contrasting action beat (e.g., she looks sad or isn’t initially quite so interested in talking to Jory)? Unexplained emotions, especially when at odds with dialogue, offer a wealth of interesting opportunities, not just for developing your characters more but for unfolding them in an artful way that tugs at reader curiosity.

5. Use Each Speaker’s Motivation to Create an Undercurrent of Forward Motion and (Probably) Conflict

Some dialogue statements will have only one meaning—the obvious one. But optimally, these statements are evened out by many others that have double and even triple meanings. When Mrs. Murphy tells Jory she’s impressed he knows the song, that’s a statement with a single obvious meaning. But the fact that it also comes across as a bit patronizing piques the possibility of a bit more.

Maybe she means what she says and is only being unconsciously patronizing in the way all adults occasionally are with children. But maybe amidst her niceness, she really is a little patronizing—and Jory hears it and resents it. Suddenly, the tenor of the conversation shifts ever so slightly. Suddenly, there’s a little bit of conflict, a little bit of push and pull in the undercurrent of the characters’ personality and motivations.

This is why it’s important for authors to identify their intentions for a scene’s forward motion and thematic content. If a scene is just what it is (i.e., an introductory conversation between two people who will become friends), then you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen the scene’s complexity and, via that, your readers’ investment.

6. Substitute Evocative Action Beats for Dialogue Where Possible

Although I see dialogue as one of written fiction’s purest opportunities for “showing” (since dialogue translates directly and requires no added description), it’s also still true that actions speak louder than words. When it’s possible to replace a line of dialogue with an evocative action beat, it’s usually best to do so. Not only does this create variety in the dialogue, it can also add powerful visual subtext.

For example, Jory’s on-the-nose spoken response “Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped” could be conveyed with a simple action beat such as “He shrugged.”

7. Look for the Latest Possible Entry Into Dialogue Sentences

One of the most common bits of advice you’ll hear about leveling up your dialogue has to do with mimicking real-life speech patterns (without being slavish to them). In real life, most people don’t speak in full sentences all the time. Depending on the character’s voice, it’s often a useful idea to begin a sentence at the latest possible moment. (As a general example, the question “Did you have a good day?” could be shortened to “Good day?”)

In our excerpt, both Jory and Mrs. Murphy have similar voices, largely because they both speak in full sentences. An example of tightening up the dialogue might include changing Mrs. Murphy’s “That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul” to “That’s the best kind of music—straight out of your soul.”

8. Watch for Out-of-POV Action Beats From the Narrating Character

Like any part of fiction, action beats need to properly reflect POV. In this scene, told from Jory’s close POV, the action beat “he gave her an odd look” feels jarringly out of POV. How can Jory know his look his odd? Would he really think of it this way? It would be better to rephrase the adjective to something more narrator-centric, such as “he gave her a questioning look.” Or, for my money, you could replace it altogether with the more evocative “he squirmed.”

9. Cut Any “Throat Clearing” or Filler Dialogue

Good dialogue is tight dialogue. This means cutting lines that advance neither plot nor character. Filler, such as that often referred to as “throat clearing,” usually qualifies as useless since it advances neither. Character introductions and other bits of small talk are common culprits (unless the banalities are contrasted with an ironic context to create subtext).

For example, our excerpt uses a straightforward exchange of names. Although functional, the exchange feels clunky. Were this my piece, I would consider deleting these two lines outright and introducing the names through another medium or working them into the dialogue more casually or obliquely. You’ll notice  the conversation runs on smoothly with the introductions deleted—a sign the intros aren’t adding anything beyond their basic info.

10. Eliminate Sneaky Repetition

Another way to tighten up dialogue is to look for accidental repetition. A great example is found at the end of the excerpt when Jory says, “No, it’s not. She’s the best cook! I miss her Sunday dinners.” The last two sentences here are conveying the same emotional information. Either one could be deleted to tighten the dialogue, but of the two, I would choose “she’s the best cook”; it’s more on the nose and creates less subtext than does “I miss her Sunday dinners.”

***

Dialogue offers so many ways for writers to play creatively with their stories in a powerfully expressive way. Learning to use it to its utmost is what will set your stories a step ahead of the pack.

My thanks to Lenna for sharing her excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most important part of writing great dialogue? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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Writing’s Secret Formula: How to Write Stories That Matter


STORIES THAT MATTER

“Writing is magic,” notes Stephen King, the most prolific author in history, “as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

I concur, so much so that it is the featured quote on my website.

But is it magic? Is writing so capricious an enterprise to be subject to the whims of inspiration or throes of futility (writer’s block, anyone)? In fairness, it can feel that way. From one moment to the next, we find ourselves cursing or extolling our muses. The muses are a beleaguered lot, if you think about it. Wantonly summoned and dismissed, their wisdom is heartily imbibed in the intoxication of the moment, then all too often forgotten.

King, is course, is referring to the act of writing, rather than implying some fortuitous sleight of hand. Writing is a craft, loaded like any other with peaks and valleys, joy and anguish, victory and defeat. Inspiration is needed, but is only as good as the habits and hard work it compels. Find your muse, I have argued, and then fire her. There comes a time to face that beckoning blank page on our own.

So what, then, is the secret King talks about? What is the magic—that strange and elusive alchemy which can be at once our scourge and our salvation?

I thought I’d put math in my rearview mirror long ago, but turns out there is a formula, which if practiced consistently, unlocks that magic box after all. Okay, well, maybe not formula of math, per se. But it is an indispensable literary calculus. And it is…

Writing’s Secret Formula: SW2C

So What and Who Cares.

If as writers, we can answer this equation for our readers—or, preferably, they get them to readily answer it for themselves—we’ll have done our job. We’ll have discovered that magic—or rather created it.

Of course, a magician doesn’t reveal his secrets, and neither should we. If our readers find themselves thinking about our techniques and literary elements as they go along (even if admiringly), then we don’t quite have them. As storytellers, we want to conjure such an immersive experience that it transports our audience to that world.

Anton Chekhov famously said:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

What Checkov is referencing is technique—that seminal edict to show don’t tell—but his directive also applies to the totality of a work. We must make readers care about our characters and what happens to them. There is no right or wrong way for them to feel or care—what matters, is that they do.

If You Build It, How Will You Know if Readers Will Come?

If you build it, they will come.

Some still cling to that wishful axiom. One of the reasons for this, may be found in our allegiance to that wisdom which exhorts us to write for ourselves. There is no shortage of pithy, poignant quotes to this end. And they’re right. If you’re writing for others and not yourself, your work may ultimately ring hollow, may lack passion and authenticity. Of course, if you want to be published, you can’t be cavalier about your desired audience, or no audience shall you have.

It’s just a matter of balance, sequence, and connecting the dots. The concepts are intrinsically related, and drawing tight the ties which bind them can be a game-changer for your work. Don’t let the tail wag the dog: write first for yourself, then tell your readers—show your readers—why it should matter to them.

So much writerly advice turns on the construction of story from a careful assemblage of vital literary parts. Nothing wrong with that. A car can’t run without its parts; so too with a story. Characterization, plot, setting, POV—well, you know the drill. And it’s not enough that the parts are there—they must be well-executed and come together as a cohesive whole.

Okay then, you’ve assembled a story: will they (your precious readers) come?

If you make it worth their while—if you make them care—then, yes.

But how? 

Find Your Why for Writing This Story

You might be familiar with Simon Sinek’s work around Finding Your Why. Its applications to leadership are wide-ranging, which is perfect for writers, because isn’t great writing also about inspiring people? Your words are your wand; you can entrance your audience and lead them through a wonderful journey. This is especially if you’ve mastered the formula: So What, and Who Cares. This is a question and equation you must answer thoroughly, first for yourself, then for your readers.

A decade ago, I conjured a tale of magic, immortality, and adventure. I promised my young son I would write it for him (with the protagonist based on and named for him). I wrote intermittently—for years—partly because, well, life happens but also because my story was missing something. It had some good parts and some good writing, but something was eluding me. My why. I was missing the heartbeat of my tale. Beyond the promise to my boy—a covenant I took quite seriously—I still needed to determine why the story mattered. So what? Who cares?

How I Found My Story’s Why

One day when my son was playing with his little sister at a park, I saw him suddenly rush forward, scoop her up, and backpedal rapidly away. Unnoticed by me, a large bee had circled over her head. Bee-sting allergies run in our family. David, despite his own trepidation, removed his sister from harm’s way.

My heart welled as a father, but something else crystallized in that moment: I had found the heartbeat of my tale.

I remembered how Jurassic Park was, at its core, more about Chaos Theory than it was about dinosaurs, and I knew my story must be about more than magic, duels, and secret worlds. It had to have characters who mattered to readers and who had goals and obstacles that would collide in a nexus of conflict that readers wanted to see—needed to see—unfold.

5 Questions to Help You Figure Out Why Your Story Matters

Whether you’re a loyal outliner or an undying pantser, there are a few questions which if properly considered, will serve you and your story well.

1. Why does it matter to you?

2. Why will it matter to others?

3. How can you make it matter?

4. What effect do you want to produce?

5. Do you want readers to feel something, and if so, what?

There is no right answer. Don’t confuse the means for the end. Masterfully present your literary elements, wield those tools at your disposal, but first you must still find that locus, that heartbeat, that why.

Trust Your Instincts

Consider what your favorite stories did for you, and how they did it.

Why do they matter to you?

What are the things that matter most to you in life?

You’ll be surprised how a few minutes contemplating such matters can get the writerly wheels turning. Ideas are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Don’t fret about originality. As Shakespeare mused, there is no new thing under the sun. The trick is to find an idea and make it yours.

My favorite nonfiction scribe Erik Larson noted how most if not all of his subject matter had been tackled many times before. The trick was finding an angle, perspective, subplot, or story yet to be told. In other words, why write another treatise about the sinking of the Lusitania, unless he could find a genuine way to make it matter? (He did.)

Keep It Simple

Don’t complicate things. A few key questions, such as those I have suggested, ought to suffice. Sure, you can ponder such things as target audience, genre, market trends—and definitely must do so when revising and eventually promoting your book—but again, sequence. You first must answer the equation as it pertains to yourself, and to your readers. Once you do, you’ll be well on your way. You can keep the formula secret. Let ’em think it’s magic.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Why do you think you story matters and why do you care about writing it? Tell me in the comments!

The post Writing’s Secret Formula: How to Write Stories That Matter appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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Creating Your Character’s Inner Conflict: Want vs. Need


character's inner conflict pinterestMan vs. Self—it’s the most archetypal of all stories. This is because all stories are ultimately rooted in the primal and personal struggle of a character’s inner conflict.

As individuals, our conflicts with others or the world itself are almost inevitably either reflections or projections of our inner conflicts—our cognitive dissonances, our conflicting wants and needs, sometimes even our conflicting wants and wants or conflicting needs and needs. Finding inner peace is ultimately about working through the chatter of the many competing voices in our heads (some of them accurate, all of them passionate) on our way toward understanding the following:

  1. What each voice is saying.
  2. What underlying motivation each voice is representing.
  3. Which motives and desires are healthy and which are not.
  4. How to harmonize those that are healthy but still seem competitive.
  5. Letting go of some desires in favor of others.
  6. Coming to peace with all choices.
  7. Moving forward in holistic action based on those choices.

As I’m writing that list, it all sounds pretty lofty and serene. (I keep hearing Shifu from Kung-Fu Panda: “Inner peace… inner peace… inner pea— Would you please quiet down!”) But actually what that list describes is nothing more or less than the (positive) arc of a character over the course of a story.

In a story, that internal progression may be the forefront preoccupation of the author and the character. But more likely, the internal conflict is happening behind the scenes and under the surface of the external plot—which, as we’ve talked about before, can often be thought of as an external metaphor for the internal conflict. The external plot is the reflection/projection of the character’s inner struggle upon the external world.

Today, I want to take a closer look at that inner struggle. In discussions of character arc and theme, I’ve talked a lot about how a character’s inner conflict is framed around the dichotomous struggle between the Thing the Character Wants (which is Lie-based) and the Thing the Character Needs (which is Truth-based).

Although this black-and-white dichotomy is helpful for an at-a-glance understanding of the character’s inner conflict dynamics, we can find greater nuance by looking a little deeper at what is actually going on inside your character.

The Thing Your Character Wants: What Is It Really?

At its simplest, the Thing Your Characters Wants is the plot goal. Usually, the Want is part of a bigger picture—a desire or goal that existed prior to the specific conflict of your story’s Second Act—but it will funnel directly into your character’s plot goal.

Luke Skywalker’s Want is to escape his lonely orphaned adolescence and find a life of meaning and purpose in the larger galaxy. In the first movie, this translates to the specifically-iterated goal of wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”—a desire that progresses throughout the trilogy and frames his entire arc.

FAQ: How to Write Character Arcs in a Series

In any kind of Change Arc, the Want shows the Lie the Character Believes in action. The Want itself may not be a bad thing (more on that in a bit), but even if it is positive in itself, it represents a negative mindset or motivation. Within the character’s inner life, the Lie has created either a hole or a block. It is preventing the character from growing toward health; it may even be actively pushing him toward mental or moral sickness.

>>Click here to read about all the different types of character arc.

At the root of the Lie and its ambiguous motivations is a Ghost from the character’s past—something that created that hole or that block.

Luke Skywalker’s Ghost is his orphanhood, particularly the absence of his seemingly heroic father.

Luke Skywalker’s Lie is that to fill this inner hole and be worthy, he must be just like that father. This false belief fuels his impatience and reckless desire for adventure and glory.

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

Because the Lie and the Want are linked (as are the Need and the Truth—see below), the obvious implication is that the Want is bad.

Sometimes this is true. Sometimes what a character wants is blatantly destructive and evil. However, even in these situations, it’s important to note that the character will rarely see it so clearly. He wouldn’t pursue the Want if he didn’t believe, on some level, that it was worthy, that the end justified the means. As T.S. Eliot so chillingly noted:

Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.

At the very least, the character may believe that a “bad” Want at least represents the best possible outcome (as, for instance, when a woman believes she’s safer staying in an abusive relationship rather than leaving).

However, even more often, the Want won’t, in itself, be a bad thing. In fact, the Lie and its resultant motivation may not be obviously destructive either. After all, the reason the character believes in the Lie and wants the Want is because he thinks it will make his life better. Rather than recognizing his misconception of reality as part of the problem, he sees it as the answer.

This delusion is only possible if the character himself is either utterly deluded or if he’s caught between two conflicting choices, both of which bring their own benefits and consequences. In the case of the abused woman needing to leave her destructive relationship, there will be good things and bad things about either of her choices—which is why the struggle to choose may be waged down to the very bottom of her soul before it can be completely manifested in her external conflict.

Luke Skywalker’s Want and plot goal aren’t quantifiably bad or destructive. On the surface, all of his Wants and plot goals are actually quite healthy: wanting to become a Jedi, wanting to join the righteous Rebellion and fight the evil Empire, and wanting to move into a more meaningful life in a broader context.

star-wars-new-hope-death-star-luke-skywalker

Don’t get confused by the terminology. The “Want,” as a technical term within the theory of character arc, specifically references a plot-advancing desire that doesn’t (yet) represent a wholly integrated or holistic mindset. But just because the character currently wants the wrong thing or wants it for the wrong reason doesn’t mean that thing isn’t also something he does in fact need. The Ghost almost always represents a deep gaping need, and the character’s initial attempts to fulfill that need are rarely 100% misguided.

The Thing Your Character Needs: What Is It Really?

Whereas the Want is a direct equivalent of the plot goal, the Thing the Character Needs is a direct correlative of the thematic value. Whatever Truth your story is positing about reality, that is the ultimate Thing the Character Needs.

Luke Skywalker’s Need is to overcome the fear and anger that tempt him into darkness. He Needs to give up his hubristic desire to fight his way to glory as a means of protecting those he loves. What he learns over the course of the trilogy is that being a Jedi has nothing to do with being “like my father.” (Indeed, his father must learn to be more like Luke.) Even more than just that, being a Jedi is about surrendering the need for glory, accomplishment, or even control. He learns these Truths slowly, over the course of the series, climaxing in the moment when he refuses to give in to his hate and throws away his lightsaber.

The Need is always available—an often simplistic antidote to the character’s inner pain and conflict. But the character is confused, usually because the Want realistically seems to offer the correct solution to her problem. Just as often, the character may either push away from the Need or embrace it only halfway because she can’t gain the Need without also accepting significant consequences (for instance, in leaving an abusive relationship, a woman might have to leave behind much more than just the abuse—not to mention facing punitive reactions from the abuser).

And yet, no matter how difficult or Pyrrhic it might be to pursue and accept the Need, the character will never find health or wholeness without it. Ultimately, what the Need/Truth represents is a resolution of the inner conflict. Embracing the Truth shows the character which of the competing voices in her head is right. With this rightness—with Truth—comes a realignment with reality. When that happens, the character may have to face difficult consequences, but she will instantly be freed from the tremendous burden of fighting against reality itself.

Luke Skywalker’s Need is to let go of his fear, anger, and hatred. But in choosing to do so, he consciously puts at risk his own life, those of his family and friends, and even the success of the Rebellion. As it turns out, his story ends positively, since his choice catalyzes his father’s subsequent decision to destroy the Emperor and save his son. However, in a story with a Disillusionment Arc, the choice to embrace the Need and the Truth might, in fact, end negatively with the character facing the full consequences of the choice (e.g., Han and Leia die and the Rebellion fails).

What Is the Role of Theme in a Story's Climax

Just as the Want is not always quantifiably “bad,” the Need is also not quantifiably “good” in the sense that choosing it means everything is suddenly sunshine and roses. If embracing the Need were that simplistic, the character would have no reason not to choose it outright at the beginning of the story.

The only reason any of us obstruct our own progression toward health is because pursuing health is hard. Anyone who chooses to lose weight for health reasons can attest to this. Even knowing your excess weight might someday threaten you with heart disease or diabetes does not mean the daily grueling sacrifices of exercising and eating right are easy choices. This is true even when your bad choices have direct consequences. Maybe you know eating that donut is going to make you feel crummy about five minutes from now. But saying no to all that yumminess is super-hard, so you eat it anyway.

The same goes for healthy mental and spiritual choices. Doing the right thing doesn’t always get you a pat on the back; sometimes it gets you crucified—metaphorically and even literally. Choosing to recognize truths about yourself and the world around you doesn’t always make life easier; sometimes it rips off the Band-Aid and makes your psychic wounds start bleeding all over again.

That said, the Need always represents the path toward health and recovery. A nuanced presentation of the Need will accurately portray all the reasons the character doesn’t embrace it outright. But this does not always mean the character might not also actively want the Need. For instance, anyone who is overweight (and lots of people who aren’t) want to lose pounds. They probably even know they need to lose pounds.

This is where some of the most powerful of a character’s inner conflict comes into play. A conflict between something a character Wants and something she does not (even if she Needs it) can be powerful and compelling. But usually, an even more compelling scenario is that in which the character internally struggles between two competing wants—or even two competing needs.

She can’t have both. She can only have one. In these cases, the true Need (in its technical, character-arc definition) will be the one that serves the greater good. For example, the character might Want to be with her true love. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the relationship may represent everything that is good about her. It promises nothing but health and happiness for the future.

But the character also Needs to do the right thing. For example, she has to make the big sacrifice and save the world because only she can do what must be done. Or, on a smaller scale, maybe doing the right thing means staying faithful to her marriage vows and making sure her children grow up in a stable family environment. If she were to choose the good Want over the better Need, she isn’t the only one who will suffer. And she will suffer. Choosing a Lie over a Truth is always a recipe for suffering, even if the consequences are delayed.

***

Why is all of this important? It’s important because as you’re planning your character’s arc and trying to identify the Want, Need, Lie, and Truth, it can be confusing (and limiting) when you feel you have to make the Want and the Lie obviously “bad” and the Need and the Truth obviously “good.” Even a good-vs.-evil conflict as obvious as Star Wars offers a nuanced view of why a character might simultaneously need the Want and want the Need.

Don’t get too caught up in the terminology. Ultimately, a character’s inner conflict is always between two things the character wants on at least some level. This is, in turn, mirrored in the outer conflict, which also represents want vs. want—the protagonist’s plot goal vs. the antagonist’s plot goal.

The more nuanced your approach to the dichotomies of Want vs. Need and Lie vs. Truth, the more nuanced your thematic discussion and your presentation of plot and character will always be.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What Want and Need represent your character’s inner conflict? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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How to Use a “Truth Chart” to Figure Out Your Character’s Arc


truth chart“How do I figure out my character’s arc?”

This is a question I receive commonly—and with good reason. Not only is your character’s arc central to all your other story choices—plot and theme foremost among them—character arc can also seem like one of the most daunting parts of story. Mostly this is because of its very integrality. In so many ways, your character’s arc is your story.

As we’ve discussed lately, character arc is particularly essential to your development of theme. If you don’t develop your theme and your protagonist’s character arc as two halves of the same whole, the story is likely to feel inorganic. Central to this relationship is your main thematic Truth, along with the character-specific Lie obstructing your character(s) from benefiting from a more realistic and holistic perspective.

Over the years, I’ve created quite a few resources for helping authors (me too!) understand how to organically evolve a character’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of a story’s central thematic Truth. My blog series and book Creating Character Arcs offer an act-by-act, plot-point-by-plot-point examination of the relationship between character arc and plot structure. If you’re new to the idea of consciously constructing your character’s arc, I definitely recommend starting there for a big-picture view of the subject.

Today, I want to share a new tool, one I’ve refined for my own use while writing the sequels to my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I’m calling this tool a “Truth Chart.” It’s a fast, one-page beat sheet designed to help you get your head around the big picture of theme and character, so you can see at a glance if everything is holding together and progressing realistically.

Thematic Truths (and, to a lesser extent, Lies) often seem unwieldy in their abstract vastness (for example, the thematic Truth underlying your story may be something as titanic as Love). Because these universal subjects can be accurately expressed in so many ways, they’re often difficult to pin down. Over the course of your story, you may find yourself expressing the same core Truth in a dozen different ways. When trying to create a thematically cohesive story, the abstract nature of the subjects with which you’re dealing can often be bewildering. After all, we all want complex thematic premises, right?

Several years after writing my book Creating Character Arcs, I decided I needed a standalone post that addressed the Truth, so I wrote this one, using Marvel’s Black Panther as an example of how the thematic Truth can be developed act by act. While in the middle of outlining the (still-untitled) third book in my Dreamlander trilogy, I found myself referring to this post over and over again to help me ensure my plot and character arc were thematically sound at every beat. Somewhere along the road, this practice turned into a exercise all its own—the Truth Chart.

What Does a Truth Chart Look Like?

In a minute, we’ll define each of the specific parts of the Truth Chart, but first off, here’s what it looks like:

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme):

Story’s Big Lie:

 

Character’s Specific Truth:

Character’s Specific Lie:

 

The Thing the Character Wants:

The Thing the Character Needs:

Ghost:

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”:

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth:

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth):

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie:

3rd Act—Climactic Truth:

Building Your Thematic Truth Chart—Line by Line

For the entire picture of what each of these elements are and how they should interact with your story, you’ll want to check out both Creating Character Arcs and the previously-mentioned post “How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme.” For now, here’s a quick overview of each piece.

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): This will be your story’s thematic premise. It should be a universal principle (e.g., “hope gives people a reason to go on living”) rather than your character’s specific Truth (e.g., “hope will help you survive and escape an unjust prison sentence”). It’s also best if you can create an intentional statement, rather than just a single-word principle (e.g., “Hope”).

Story’s Big Lie: This is the Big Lie standing in opposition to the Big Truth. Like the Big Truth, it is a generalized version of the specific Lie the Character Believes. This is the Lie that will affect every part of your story, including supporting characters, the world around the protagonist, and the antagonistic force.

Character’s Specific Truth: This your character’s specific version of the Truth, as found in the circumstances of this specific story. Many stories offer a “Big Truth” about “Redemptive Love,” but the manifestation of your story’s specific Truth can be as vastly different as Jane Eyre is from Logan. 

Character’s Specific Lie: I positioned the Big Truth (and Big Lie) at the top of the chart because that Truth is your story’s defining principle. However, your creative process will more likely discover your story’s thematic premise via a specific Lie the Character Believes. This Lie is at the root of the plot problems. The character believes something about himself or the world that is untrue—and his lack of understanding will create consistent obstacles (aka, conflict) between him and his ultimate plot goal.

The Thing the Character Wants: Although often representative of a larger, more abstract desire (e.g., “to be loved”), the Thing the Character Wants will manifest specifically in her plot goal. Often, the Thing the Character Wants is at least partially misguided, based on the character’s mistaken (Lie-based) reasons for wanting it or methods for gaining it.

The Thing the Character Needs: The Thing the Character Needs is ultimately an understanding of the Truth. Usually, the Need will also be represented by a more concrete and specific outer-world objective. Sometimes the character will run away from the Need in the beginning, but in many stories, he may consciously “want” the Need, which exacerbates the inner conflict between his Lie-based Want and the Truth-based Need.

Ghost: The Ghost (sometimes referred to as the Wound) is a motivating event in your character’s past, which represents the moment and the reason the Lie first took root in her life. Often the Ghost is a traumatic event (e.g., the death of one’s parents), but it can also be a “good” occurrence (e.g., receiving too much praise for a specific accomplishment) that led to a misunderstanding about life.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: In the First Act, the story’s Big Lie will initially manifest in a specific message that is either urging the protagonist toward the Want and/or presenting a direct obstacle to the protagonist’s ability to move forward toward the Need and/or the Want. It is usually a mindset or belief presented by the Normal World around the protagonist (even in most Negative-Change Arcs). The character will likely take this manifestation of the Lie for granted without questioning it much, if at all.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: Although the protagonist will spend most of the First Act in a comparative state of tranquility in which the Truth does not proactively contradict the Lie, the Truth will still be present via a “small” introductory version of the story’s larger thematic premise. This will often be the thinnest edge of the spear, the first tiny prick of Truth that begins to slowly wedge open a Change-Arc character’s awareness of the Lie (which, in a Negative-Change Arc, will prompt still greater resistance to the Truth).

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): After the setup of the First Act, the Second Act will represent the protagonist’s full-on immersion into the conflict—and, as an extension, her full-on immersion in her inner conflict between Lie and Truth. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, events will conspire to grant her a growing (if often unconscious) awareness of the Truth.

This finally manifests in the external conflict at the Midpoint, when the character experiences a Moment of Truth. How the character reacts to this revelation will depend on what type of arc she is following. Regardless, the Truth she finds here will not be the complete Big Truth. Rather, it will be a “halfway” Truth of sorts. In order for this thematic revelation to flow properly with the external plot development, the Moment of Truth should be framed as an “antidote” to the specific Lie the character believed in the First Act.

Throughout the subsequent Second Half of the Second Act, the character will not fully reject the entire Lie (or embrace the entire Truth), but the Lie and Truth in which she believes are now modified versions of those with which she started out in the First Act.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: The Third Act can be a tricky time for character arcs. The character needs to have completed most of his growth by this point, but the biggest revelations should remain in order for the Third Act to feel properly climactic. This is why it’s important to retain the “biggest” chunk of the Lie for the character to confront in the Third Act. By this point, the character will have embraced most of the Truth. But there’s a big mote still in his eye. There’s still a crucial bit of Lie that he (or the world around him) hasn’t seen past. This will be the Lie’s final “argument” within the story.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Combating the Third Act’s “big chunk of Lie” will be the climactic version of your story’s Truth. In essence, this will be the Big Truth of your thematic premise (see above). But it’s helpful to refine that Big Truth into the very specific Truth needed to resolve your story’s main conflict. You can see various ways in which your character will interact with this final Truth, depending on what type of arc she is demonstrating.

How to Find the Right Answers for a Character Arc

You almost certainly will not (should not) fill in the blanks on this Truth Chart right at the beginning your story-creation process. Discovering the proper Truth, Lie, theme, and character arc(s) for your story will be an organic process. You won’t know the right answers until you first (and simultaneously) have accumulated enough knowledge about your story’s plot and your characters’ journeys within that plot.

To work well, your story’s thematic Truths must emerge organically from every other mechanical piece within the overall structure. Once you’re far enough along to know the general shape of your story, you can start looking for its emergent Truths.

Consider what questions your story is asking. Some thematic questions I recognized in my WIP included:

  • Why am I here?
  • Who am I supposed to be?
  • What is my destiny in this life?
  • What is my responsibility in this life?
  • What is Life’s narrative?

Just talk to yourself on the page. What themes do you see emerging? What themes do you want to explore in this story? Start trying to sum up the theme in a single Truth. You may find several. Keep going, keep refining. Always check yourself against the Truth that emerges in the Climax. How does that Truth tie in within the characters’ struggles and misconceptions earlier in the story?

Eventually, you should come up with the single best option for summing up your story’s Truth. Hang on to all the other Truths you may have written down, because some of them may turn out to the be the “smaller” Truths your character has to work through in the First and Second Acts, on his way to overcoming the Big Lie and accepting the Big Truth in the Climax.

Truth Chart Examples From My Dreamlander Series

To help you see what the Truth Chart looks like in action, here are examples from my outline for Book 3 in the Dreamlander trilogy. (For those of you interested in the series, I suppose this might be a little spoiler-y, but only on an abstract level. Plus, the book won’t be out for several years, so you’ll probably forget all about this in the meantime. :p )

I’m including two different versions of the Chart. The first is for the protagonist and therefore represents the story’s main theme. The second is for the most prominent supporting character. You’ll see how her chart riffs off the main Lie/Truth but explores some ancillary angles.

***

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): What you do matters (and you know what to do).

Story’s Big Lie: Destiny is a lie; your life has no narrative, no meaning.

Protagonist/Main Theme Truth Chart

Character’s Specific Truth: Responsibility to my truth is my greatest destiny.

Character’s Specific Lie: I am not destined to to save the worlds; my actions are all random and some are mistakes.

 

The Thing the Character Wants: To save the worlds—and live happily ever after with Allara.

The Thing the Character Needs: To live a meaningful life.

Ghost: The apocalyptic consequences of his mistakes.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: There’s no guarantee my actions will turn out for the good.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I can’t give up; I have to act.

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): What I do matters because only I have the abilities, as Gifted, to do what must be done.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: Either Destiny is a set narrative, or life is meaningless.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Destiny is inscrutable but still accessible if I am willing, no matter the cost, to listen to my inner truth.

Supporting Character/Subplot Truth Chart

Character’s Specific Truth: My destiny is bigger than my understanding of a narrative.

Character’s Specific Lie: The narrative is true, so it must be just me messing it up.

 

The Thing the Character Wants: To fulfill her narrated destiny.

The Thing the Character Needs: To surrender into the faith and freedom of a larger, more complex acceptance of reality and her place in it.

Ghost: Realizing the narrative she had believed in, regarding her destiny as a Searcher, was not what she always believed.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: My destiny is found in my identity: Queen of Lael and Searcher.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I must stop denying the truth about reality and my place in it.

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): If I want to fulfill my destiny, I must give up my stubborn grip on my own identity and my own limited narrative.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: To fulfill my destiny, I must understand it.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: The only thing I can do that matters is act in faith.

***

I hope you’ll find this Truth Chart as useful a tool as I already am. Go forth and write powerful themes!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What thematic Truth are you exploring in your story? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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How to Tell if Your Story Has Too Much Plot, Not Enough Character


too much plotCan a story have too much plot?

It might surprise you (especially if you’re a regular reader of the site), but the answer is absolutely, yes.

Implicit in the question of too much plot is the idea that a story should have more of something else. Usually that something else is character. This is where we find the well-entrenched battleground of “plot vs. character.”

It’s unfortunate these two crucial ingredients of story are often presented as exclusive opposites—bitter rivals who can barely stand each other—because the discussion at the heart of “plot vs. character” is much more nuanced. As you probably know if you’ve spent any time on the site, I dislike the whole structure of the “plot vs. character” discussion. Too often, it’s presented as a simplistic either/or paradigm that demands a the clear winner: either plot or character must be the undisputed Monarch of Story.

Ultimately, what that argument is really about is a style of writing. Those arguing for more plot are usually arguing for more conventional, often genre fiction; those arguing for more character are usually arguing for more interior-oriented, often experimental, literary fiction. That’s a discussion for another day, but suffice it that both types of story almost inevitably require both plot and character.

As we’ve discussed in many previous posts, plot and character are less competitors and more symbiotes. Once you understand the self-generating cycle of “character creating plot creating character creating plot,” you understand that the two work optimally when they balance each other within the overall storyform.

But what happens when something is out of balance? What happens when your story has too much character? Or too much plot?

Can Your Story Have Too Much Character Development?

It’s actually really hard to do too much character. Usually, if there’s “too much” character development in a story, it’s a sign not so much of character problems as it is self-indulgent writing in which the author counted too much on readers’ loving the characters enough to watch them do… nothing.

When characters are vibrant and well-drawn, they enter that beautiful cycle of creating plot. It’s tough to write good characters without also writing plot of some sort. Even in more literary-leaning books, such as Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which are obviously preoccupied with character, the characters are vibrant enough to create a forward-moving plot out of even mundaneness such as farm chores.

(It’s true that even more “literary” stories may spend almost their entire word count within the characters’ head, with little happening in the exterior world. Plot is admittedly thin in these stories. The authors have intentionally created a “story” that is more about the descriptive detail or philosophical thesis. Sometimes you’ll also see these devices woven into a larger, more obvious plot, as in some of Thomas Mann’s or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s brooding asides.)

Pretty much the only time you’ll run into problems with a story having “too much character” is if those characters are either failing to generate plot and/or aren’t entertaining enough to carry the story past scenes that are lacking in external conflict or momentum.

What About Too Much Plot?

Much more common than “too much character development” is the complaint of a story that has “too much plot.”

Poor maligned plot. It’s always getting a bad rap:

“That book was too plot heavy.”

“Too much plot vs. character!”

“That movie was nothing but stuff blowing up.”

But as it turns out none of these problems are about plot. Rather, the problem is “not enough character.”

“Too much plot” is almost always a sign the external conflict is operating on its own accord without being driven by dynamic characters. Stuff is happening, but the characters are just ciphers along for the ride. As a viewer or reader, I’m sure you can think of more than a few stories that fit the bill. They’re frustrating as all get-out. The plot might be great. If it’s a movie, the cast might be stellar. The theme might even be powerfully strong. But if the characters are just vapid automatons, the story feels empty.

5 Signs of Cardboard Characters

Recently, I watched several movies that checked all the above boxes. They could have been great. But they all stumbled and ended up just going through the motions, not because their plots were problematic but because the characters just weren’t there.

Today, we’re going to look specifically at Netflix’s recent army/heist flick Triple Frontier (along with The Red Sea Diving Resort and Amazon’s The Dressmaker) as a way of discovering what went wrong and how you can identify and rectify imbalances between plot and character in your own stories.

1. The Characters’ Personalities Don’t Inform the Plot

Why are your characters in your story? Why are these specific characters in this story? If there’s no reason why this specific character is important to this story, you know you’ve got a problem.

The surest symptom is an unmemorable character. Almost always this lack of memorability is really a lack of specificity. It points to the fact that this character—his personality, his choices, his actions—are so bland and generalized that the character could be switched right out for an alternate take.

You might also recognize the problem if you realize the character’s most important actions in the story could be undertaken just as easily by a different character. When this happens, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a character (or two) who’s nothing more than an interchangeable part—a Lego guy who just needs a new head.

For Example: Triple Frontier has the sweet double advantage of a simple plot and a simple cast—just five main players. But why five? Why these five? With the exception of Oscar Isaac’s protagonist, most of the other characters have little to no development. In particular, Garrett Hedlund and Pablo Pascal are immediately forgettable. One’s a boxer dumb enough to get his brains beat out every week; the other’s a pilot dumb enough to get caught running drugs. That’s pretty much the only specific contributions either make to the story.

Triple Frontier Garrett Hedlund

The Red Sea Diving Resort suffers exactly the same problem. Its protagonist is sketched pretty well, but almost all the supporting characters exist in the story with no more than one defining characteristic—none of which impact the story. We’ve got tough judo chick, vain beach dude, and stone-cold assassin—but none of them are developed past their characteristic moments.

Red Sea Diving Resort Chris Evans Haley Bennett

2. The Story Isn’t About These Characters

Do you know what your story is about? I mean do you really know what your story is about?

The easy answer is that stories are always about their characters. Events in a story exist only to develop character. Either specific characters generate specific events, or they react to events (generated by other characters) in specific ways. If not—if your story is peopled with characters so bland they could be replaced at a moment’s notice—then you end up with a story that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. This is true no matter how great the premise or the action may be.

For Example: In its very first scene, Triple Frontier tells us what it’s about: the negative effects of the warrior lifestyle. It opens with Charlie Hunnam’s character talking to a group of soldiers about how his stint in Special Forces made it difficult for him live without violence or in his post-Army life. This throughline is emphasized many times, culminating when [SPOILER] the team’s once-respected leader, played by Ben Affleck, murders a farmer and is then retributively killed himself [/SPOILER].

ben-affleck-triple-frontier-1552466986

But these developments never play organically, mostly because Affleck’s character isn’t well-developed. His Corruption Arc plays out more like a crazy personality shift than it does an organic devolution as the result of his specific choices and actions within the story. Had the script allowed its characters’ development to generate the plot, rather than shoehorning their character twists into the plot beats, the story could easily have shifted into a compelling and thought-provoking thematic discussion.

3. The Characters Lack Concrete and Specific Motivations

Often, the root cause of cardboard characters is a lack of concrete and specific motivations. What a character does in the plot is often much less important than why she does it. Monumental events can end up feeling bland when we don’t understand what is personally at stake for characters. Even small everyday events take on new significance when we understand what motivates the character (think of Liesel’s reading in The Book Thief).

Even if a character’s motivations aren’t explored in depth, if they are at least indicated early in the story they will have the ability to inform the subtext. What might otherwise be a two-dimensional hero in an action flick can take on at least a semblance of depth (think of Jason Bourne’s deeply personal and existential motivations adding unspoken depth and meaning to even the straight-up-race-em-chase-em of the third installment Bourne Ultimatum).

For Example: Triple Frontier didn’t totally bomb on this one. Viewers are given to understand that all five of the main characters have agreed to the central heist because of their problems in their post-military lives. We are given at least the hint of a specific personal reason for each character, even though only Isaac’s and Affleck’s motivations end up being pertinent.

Triple-Frontier-Pedro-Pascal-Garrett-Hedlund-Charlie-Hunnam-Ben-Affleck

The Red Sea Diving Resort fares even worse in this regard. Only the protagonist, played by Chris Evans, is given a slight backstory with an explanation of his fanatical motivation for rescuing the Ethiopian refugees. His teammates aren’t afforded even that. They’re there because they’re there, and that’s that. Not only does this skip over what might have been a lot of compelling development, it also robs the film of the potential for much stronger interpersonal conflict than what we get from Alessandro Nivola’s two-dimensional doctor.

red sea diving resort chris evans allesandro nivola

4. The First Half of the Story Spends More Time Setting Up the Plot Than It Does the Characters

If your story spends more time setting up the plot than it does the characters, that’s almost always going to point to a disparity.

Complicated plots are annoying. And boring.

Yep. You read right.

We don’t like stories because the plots are complicated. To begin with, complicated plots usually don’t work. (Think about it. There’s nothing simpler than a good whodunit.) But more than that, complicated plots take time away from what audiences really do enjoy—and that’s complex characters dealing with simple but difficult situations.

These situations often seem complicated, but they’re not. Good plots are as simple as presenting characters with a really difficult lose-lose (or win-win) choice. The mechanics of the choosing might be complicated, but the question itself is not.

When this happens, a ton of story space is freed up for—you guessed it—character development. Most of that development should happen upfront. If the characters aren’t the most compelling thing about your story, then chances are audiences won’t stick with it (or, best case, they stick with it but promptly forget about it).

For Example: Neither Triple Frontier nor Red Sea Diving Resort were terrible in this respect. But compare them to a classic action movie: Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park balances plot and character just about perfectly. The entire first half of the story is spent on the characters and their reactions to the dilemma with which they’ve been presented (dinosaurs are back—is this a good thing or a very, very bad thing?). No action whatsoever happens until the Midpoint when the tropical storm unleashes the dinos. By then, the characters have been suitably developed so we care what happens to them and we understand why they make the choices they make. From the Midpoint on, the plot can roar furiously to the forefront without seeming like it’s “too much.”

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

5. Characters Are Specific But Exist Only as Shallow Stereotypes to Fulfill Plot Points

At this point, you might look at your cast and be relieved to discover all your characters have specific roles to play, they all have specific personalities and motivations, and none of their actions could be seamlessly handed over to another character.

But there’s one last problem to be aware of.

Sometimes characters check all the above boxes and yet still exist not to generate plot, but to serve it. Almost always, this character emerges as a stereotype of some sort (either a stereotyped character or a character whose development is forced to fit a formulaic plot). Two of the most common culprits are antagonists (who are bad just because they’re expected to be bad) and love interests (who fall in love with the protagonist just because they’re expected to fall in love). But even protagonists can fall into this pit when they’re heroic just because they’re expected to be heroic or they end up “winning” the conflict just because they’re expected to win.

Be wary of characters going through the motions. Make sure there is a solid and compelling reason for a character’s every action within the story. Just as importantly, make sure his arc is developed throughout the story. Whatever happens to him at the end must fulfill two requirements:

  1. It must be properly set up in the story’s beginning.
  2. It must resonate thematically in the story’s end.

For Example: Most of the characters in Triple Frontier and Red Sea Diving Resort are so one-dimensional they don’t even risk this problem. A better example is found in The Dressmaker. Characterization in this film is excellent until the Third Act when everything falls apart to little thematic purpose.

By far the weakest character throughout is the protagonist’s love interest, played by Liam Hemsworth. Throughout the story, he has little to do except fall in love with Kate Winslett and little reason to do so except… why not? (I have a feeling that might have been better executed in the novel, which I have not read.) But this doesn’t become blatantly problematic until the Third Plot Point when [SPOILER] the character dies out of the blue—and the rest of the Third Act fails to make his death a plot-generating catalyst. Rather, what it feels like is that the love-interest character existed for no other reason than to shock both the protagonist and the audience with his death.[/SPOILER]

dressmaker kate winslett liam hemsworth judy davis

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The holy grail of good storytelling is great characters in a great plot. Learning to recognize the proper balance of plot and character is sometimes easiest when you first learn to understand what an imbalance looks like. If you can spot and correct instances where your plot is operating without enough input from your characters, you’ll be well on your writing exceptional stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever feared you’ve written a story with too much plot—or too much character? Tell me in the comments!


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The post How to Tell if Your Story Has Too Much Plot, Not Enough Character appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness”


evoke readers emotionsHave you ever read a book for a second, third, even tenth time—just to experience the emotion the story evokes? Clearly the elements of the story aren’t a surprise. You know exactly what to expect. If so, you were benefiting from an author who knew how to evoke reader emotions.

Literary agent Donald Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery–when readers aren’t noticing we are manipulating them. He says:

Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.

I can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own reactions.

We writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected—so that even when readers know what emotion is being stirred in them, when they see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.

The Net of “Surprisingness”

C.S. Lewis said people go back and reread certain stories over and over not to be surprised (because the reader already knows what is going to happen) but for the “surprisingness.” It’s the quality of unexpectedness that delights us, just as it does children who want the same story read over and over. The fact that children know what is about to happen only makes them more excited. Like children, we savor the richness of a story again and again.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis calls the plot of the story “the net whereby to catch something else.” That“something” is what he refers to as “much more than a state or quality.” Real life, he says, is a series of events, but if that is all it is, there is no deeper meaning or feeling of adventure. That net of the story, for a little while, transcends us and entangles us in the wonder and awe of living. That is what Lewis says the best stories will do.

When we can catch readers in a net of emotions—especially unexpected and surprising ones—that’s powerful magic.

Research shows when someone is surprised, dopamine increases and emotions intensify up to 400%. Heightened attention ensues, as does extreme curiosity, in an attempt to figure out what is happening.

Surprise also causes a shift. It forces a change in perspective. Your reader becomes hyper-alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state for receiving the unexpected emotion.

How to Evoke Reader Emotions That Are Unexpected

art of racing in the rain garth steinWhen I began to read the chapter in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo the beloved narrator dog is dying, I just knew what was going to happen to me, what I was about to get into. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions.

While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first-person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs. And it says something that this novel was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 156 weeks.

The key to its brilliance lies solely in neither the wonderful writing nor the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love.” Rather, it’s the masterful execution of the scene as joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.

Pay attention to that.

You wouldn’t expect a scene that has you watching a dog die—one that breaks your heart—to make you simultaneously happy even to the point of laughing. That’s what makes that scene so brilliant. The whole time I was crying in anguish, I was also laughing with joy. The scene was absolutely authentic in every way. It was utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.

Don’t Try to Name Emotions

I can’t put a name to the composite emotion I felt when reading Enzo’s death scene. I could toss around a whole lot of words, but trying to name complex emotions is like trying to catch the wind with chopsticks. The secret lies in Hemingway’s brilliant advice:

Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.

Think of it this way. You might not know what to name a particular color shade, but if you have a few tubes of paint and play around with the quantities, you just might be able to re-create the color. That’s what you need to do with the words on your palette to create the same emotion you wish readers to experience.

There is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. It might be hard to evoke emotion in readers for a character to whom they have only just been introduced. This is why Garth Stein placed his most powerful emotional scene near the end of the book, when readers are fully committed to Enzo and Denny, so it might pack the biggest emotional punch.

If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the power of “surprisingness.” Those of you  who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story. Note the universal feelings the old dog Enzo expresses that make you think, Me too!

Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.

Finding a way to surprise your character and your reader adds micro-tension to your pages. This sparks those emotions in your readers that keep them engaged, whether it be something positive like amusement or negative like outrage or fear. Know how you want your readers to feel and lead them there.

***

Yes, readers love to be surprised. The unexpected surprises us. It might scare us, delight us, or move us profoundly. Yet, often a character’s reaction to a situation is wholly predictable and still it moves us deeply. Consider just about any love story that ends in happily ever after. Predictability really has nothing to do with emotional impact. It’s how the story is shown that matters—how those emotions are conveyed in a way that is believable, masterful, and moving.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link!

Emotional Mastery Course Imag

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you hope to evoke reader emotions by the end of your story? Tell us in the comments!

The post How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness” appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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