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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.

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