Search This Blog

Five Tough Questions

It is important to flesh out your cast with motivations and believable conflicts as much as faces and names. You may hate the idea of outlining or thinking the conflicts through initially. That is acceptable. Don’t let the concept stop you from stream of consciousness writing. If that is how your muse works, accommodate her. 

However, at the end of the draft, you should be able to answer some tough questions:

1) Did the scene contain conflict?

If not, you have some revision to do. A scene should contain something relevant to keep the reader from flipping past it. 

2) What did my characters do or not do, say or not say? 

It’s easy to write lots of cool stuff. We put our pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and translate the images in our heads into print form. If, at the end of the first draft, your characters are talking but not really saying anything important, or doing things that sounded like fun but don’t advance the plot, you have some revision to do. 

3) Why did they do or say it? Do you know? 

Character intention is important. We all do things for a reason. If a character’s intention does not mesh with his actions or words, it creates cognitive dissonance for your reader. This is a speed bump in the flow. The reader pauses when things don’t make sense to them. That is not to say you can’t obscure intent. There are suspense devices that keep the reader reading to find out why something didn’t make sense, especially in Mysteries. However, if a character behaves or speaks in a way that is out of sync with the rest of the story, it doesn’t sit well. The reader is detoured from the ride you are taking them on. Once or twice, they might forgive you. More than that and you risk losing them. 

4) Does it fulfill my intention? 

If a passage was fun to write or you just love it, but it doesn’t serve your plot or characters, it may have to go. I hate cutting those parts. It’s painful, but necessary. 

5) What does the obstacle force the character to do next? 

When a character is faced with an obstacle, he must overcome it. He either succeeds, fails, finds out he needs something different, requires more information, or must take a different action to get the same result.

The answers to these questions are critical when the scene involves your protagonist, antagonist, or love interest. The answers are important for the rest of your cast unless they are walk-ons who serve no plot function. Every primary and secondary character should serve a purpose. It’s more effective if they have an opinion on, or stake in, the overall story problem or the thematic argument at the heart of it. Secondary characters should create obstacles or make things easier for the protagonist and antagonist. That's what keeps your readers interested in what happens next.

The Importance of "Why?"

When plotting your story there are key factors to establish at overall story and scene level:

1) Who (characters)

2) What (goal/result)

3) When (timeline)

4) Where (setting)

The most important and often overlooked question is:

5) Why (motive)

Faulty logic and missing motive are plot holes that cause reader disconnect. The reader growls and shrieks, “The character would never do that!” or with a woeful sigh, “I guess the script called for it.”

At best, readers smirk and continue to read. At worst, they stop reading and never pick up another book you’ve penned. Fleshing out your cast with believable motivations makes them feel real. When you provide the characters with believable obstacles, the reader cares what happens.

Thinking writers, or planners, enjoy selecting obstacles before sitting down to write. They use brief notes or full character and plot outlines before typing “Chapter One.” Feeling writers, or pantsers, balk at the idea of outlining. They prefer to channel motive based on their understanding of human nature and their life experience. Their characters “write themselves.” Whether you plan or wing it, you should take a hard look at the finished draft and ask tough questions at scene and overall story level:

1. Did the scene contain conflict?

2. What did my character do or not do, say or not say?

3. Why did he do it or say it?

4. Did it fulfill my intention?

5. Was the motivation believable (not necessarily rational)?

6. Does the conflict serve the plot in an effective way?

7. How does overcoming, or failing to overcome, the obstacle lead to further conflict?

8. What does overcoming, or failing to overcome, the obstacle force the character to do next?

9. What is the price for failing?

10. What is the prize for succeeding?

The answers to the above questions are critical when the scene involves main characters. The answers are important for the rest of the cast unless they are walk-ons who serve minimal to no plot function. Secondary characters should serve a purpose when they appear. It’s more effective if they have an opinion on, or stake in, the overall story problem and the thematic argument at the heart of it.

Secondary characters and their subplots or story threads should slow down, complicate, or accelerate the protagonist’s and antagonist’s progress toward their story goals. Secondary characters and subplots that run alongside the main plot as a distraction encourage readers to flip past those pages. Secondary characters help supply the friction in your fiction.

Speed Bumps

Speeds bumps are anything that force a reader to slow down as they journey through your story. Examples are sentences that don’t make sense, items they need to Google, and things written in languages they don’t speak.

The goal of a master storyteller is to keep your reader focused on the plot. Things like funky formatting can pull focus. You can do it, but why bother? Gimmicks usually mar enjoyment rather than enhance it. There are books published with dashes instead of quotation marks and the like. I will never know if they were good stories because the format was a turnoff. 

Let’s address one of my personal pet peeves: italics. 

There are rules about when you should use italics. One or two words, or a few sentences conveying a character’s thoughts, are acceptable. However, pages of them are a chore to wade through. I skim read or page past them.

I have polled other readers about this and received a mixed response. Some didn’t mind reading pages of italics. Others agreed they skipped over or skimmed them. 

A novel by one of my favorite authors featured entire chapters centering on a past story crafted in italics interwoven with the present story in normal type. I skimmed the first italics chapter then skipped the rest. I’ll never know if the past story was interesting. I wasn’t in the mood to work that hard and the present story flowed without them. 

You can effectively weave a present day story with a past story without resorting to italics by transitioning into and out of the passages properly. I have seen it done both ways and much prefer an effective transition over italic type or odd formatting. You could also use chapter headings to cue the reader to the transition. 

If your manuscript uses long passages of italics to convey past story, dreams, internal dialogue, etc., try replacing them with skillful transitions.

A writer’s goal is to give the reader a seamless ride, not a journey full of speed bumps and plot holes. Don’t make them work too hard. You might lose them along the way.

Conflict Overview: The Americans

The Americans is a new television series about KGB spies living in the suburbs of D.C. in the early 1980’s during the Reagan era. The stars, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, play undercover Soviet agents forced to live as man and wife (and have children) to blend into suburban America.

Let’s look at how this breaks down into the story building blocks.

The premise and overall story problem is KGB agents living in suburban DC in 1981. 

The genre/sub-genre is Spy Thriller. Which means “the promise” is cat and mouse games between the protagonists and the antagonists.

The central question is: Will they catch them or stop them in time?

Secrets a character is willing to die or kill for are always powerful. The premise raises good story questions. Will their cover get blown? Will they be executed or returned? Will they defect or turn double agents? If they defect and go into witness protection, will their marriage survive? What would the children do if they found out their parents were Soviet agents?

The interpersonal conflict comes from navigating the suburban 1980s and living with an arranged marriage (long enough to have a teen-aged child). It's fun to watch their children spout anti-Soviet rhetoric. You know the parents want to argue the point! More tension.

The internal conflict arises from the husband wishing to defect to the U.S. because their children are very much American. The wife does not agree with him. Their exact feelings for one another are in question.

The antagonist conflict is provided by the United States Government counterintelligence department. This is represented by an FBI agent who moves in across the street from the spies.

If you practice breaking stories down into their building blocks, it becomes easier to build your own stories. Whether you are watching television and movies or reading books, give it a try. Can you identify the key elements? What did you like? What didn't you like?

Once you get a feel for what worked, you can apply it when planning your next novel.