A is for antagonists: a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or compete with another; an opponent, the adversary to the hero or protagonist: (Dictionary.com)
The trick to creating a “good” antagonist is to NOT make him pure evil. He should be believable and able to rationalize his actions. Just like the protagonist, he should experience obstacles, setbacks, and doubts. He should never have infinite resources, nor be easily deterred. And he should have traits that contradict his actions. Even better, the antagonist should be sympathetic in some relatable way.
In my own novel, the antagonists, two Russian Mafia crime lords, hover mostly in the background. They only come into the light a few times, but when they do, they are menacing and frightening simply because you don’t know entirely what they are capable of. In the end, you find out they suffered the exact same loss as their nemesis, the protagonist, and that is what sets them on their course. They may be bad guys, but they loved and lost, too.
B is for backstory: the literary device of a narrative history and set of facts and factors all chronologically earlier than, and related to, a narrative of primary interest. Generally, it is the history of characters or other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative's start. (Wikipedia)
Generally speaking, readers do not need a bunch of backstory to understand who the characters are and why they are in the opening scenes. Readers are content to wait a long time to learn the characters’ background as long as they are continuously dealing with a disturbance. The trick to adding backstory is to drop it in in small doses and only when the need to know arises, and it must be dropped in actively. There must be tension in backstory and should be used to bridge the conflict. But make no mistake, backstory is necessary, so the reader can bond with the characters emotionally, to understand why they are doing what they are doing.
In my novel, I have two instances where backstory is vital. I use dialogue as a way for the characters to hash out their past mistakes while also bringing to light their relevant histories.
C is for conflict: a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife: discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles. (Dictionary.com)
Conflict is the essence, the very heart of a novel. A story must open with it, sustain and deepen it, and end it with a clear resolution. Conflict should be rich and highly involving. It should be layered in order to raise questions and must be felt deeply for all those involved. It should be unavoidable and inescapably true.
There are two levels of conflict: inner and outer. The outer conflict is the action, the motion, and the goal. The inner conflict is the reaction, the emotion, and the growth. While the outer conflict is what physically propels the story, it is the inner conflict that allows the reader to bond with the story. It is the inner struggle the protagonist brings with him into the story before the narrative even begins. It’s what is holding him back. The inner conflict is the product of the plot.
In my novel, the conflict is like a long rope hanging off the side of a skyscraper with all the characters hopelessly lost and stranded at different floors. As the story progresses, more and more characters jump onto the rope, trying to escape their dire fate. You don’t know how much more these characters can possibly bear as the rope stretches and becomes more and more taut, fraying and unraveling as the end draws near.
D is for Dialogue: the conversation between characters in a novel, drama, etc.; a literary work in the form of a conversation. (Dictionary.com)
All readers love dialogue on the page. It’s easy to read, and means the action will be quick. And let’s face it, long blocks of exposition can be annoying and make us weary. While we sometimes tend to scan densely worded paragraphs, we snap to attention for dialogue. It generally means we’re living in the moment, and the characters might be divulging important secrets. Dialogue is a compression of the action and should somehow be connected to one of the character’s objective, what he wants at that exact moment in time, and it must always move the story forward.
Dialogue should be easy to follow, but this doesn’t mean you need a ‘he said’ tag at the end of every line. In fact, you should use as few as possible, only enough to keep the reader on track. Incidental action is a good way to help the reader keep track without using tags, and it helps to infuse movement and emotion into the dialogue without using adjectives and adverbs. But you also don’t want to bog the conversation down.
Most importantly, dialogue needs to have immediacy and tension on a gut emotional level. It’s not that the information being relayed is all that important really, but that there is doubt about it, as well as the character delivering it. It should be a tug-of-war, but we don’t necessarily want to know whether their argument will be settled, but rather whether the characters will make peace. So find their emotional friction and exploit it, even if it it’s only a friendly disagreement.
Personally, I love dialogue that feels and sounds real. (Yes, I use a lot of contractions!) I always speak my lines of dialogue out loud so I can hear exactly what it sounds like, and therefore what it feels like to be with those characters.
E is for Exposition: the act of expounding, setting forth, or explaining; writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain; a detailed statement or explanation (Dictionary.com)
There’s a dirty word—or term rather—in fiction writing: the dreaded info dump! Why? Mainly because it slows the action down. So there are a few rules writers should follow to avoid them.
Rule #1: Act first. Explain later. In other words, begin with a character in motion and drop in only as much info as necessary, in tiny little bits as you go.
Rule #2: When you do explain, think of an iceberg. Don’t tell everything. Keep roughly 10% on the surface and 90% hidden.
Rule #3: Set the information inside a confrontation. Let it come out within a scene of conflict and use the character’s thoughts and words to do the work.
Yes, this means you need to resist the urge to explain. Hard to do sometimes, I know, but it’s that old adage of show, don’t tell. Exposition works if you remember to keep the tension high. And when you do need to explain something, hold off as long as you possibly can and don’t explain what you’ve already shown.
I had no clue about these rules when I wrote my first draft and had to go back and pull out all those paragraphs of excessive information. I added them back into a high-conflict scene, a confrontation loaded with dialogue. It worked much better.
And thank you, Alex J. Cavanaugh for posting about me today!
F is for flaw: a feature that mars the perfection of something; a defect or fault. (Dictionary.com)
In order for readers to identify with a protagonist, the character must be relatable. The easiest way to pull that off is to make him similar to the reader, as if he could somehow find himself in the same situation and have a comparable response. But to make the protagonist interesting, he shouldn’t be perfect, but rather flawed, though not fatally so. Most often, it’s this very flaw that most interferes with the protagonist achieving his goal.
He must be likeable and have redeeming qualities, but even if he seems or does something contemptible, the reader must care how and why he got that way in the first place. In this case, he should be self-aware, have a self-loathing and the courage to change. Though there is little sympathy for a willfully self-destructive man, we can forgive him if he’s at least trying to be good.
Most readers can fall in love with the lost and despondent protagonist, as long as they have a reason to want his suffering to end. Even a tragic character must have something to hope for, and a secret strength within that will allow the reader to bond. Readers respond to conflicted, fallible characters who endure the challenge and come out a different person in the end.
In my novel, the protagonist’s greatest flaw is that he can’t see, and therefore won’t acknowledge, that he is flawed. So when he does the unforgiveable, his self-image is destroyed, but he works to right the wrong he’s committed, and redeems himself in the process.
G is for Goal: the result or achievement towards which effort is directed: aim; end. (Dictionary.com)
Let’s face it, the entire purpose of a novel is for the protagonist to attain his goal, his objective. In fact, The Quest is one of the most widely used plot patterns in fiction. The goal is what the protagonist most desires and cares about, a driving force that motivates him, keeps him committed and moving forward.
Every protagonist needs one, whether it’s a dream, a longing, an ambition, or an obligation. His goal mobilizes him beyond the barriers that bind the rest of us. It is the vehicle that brings about change, that results in the lead becoming a different person, most often a better person, which, in the end, is the whole point of the story.
In my novel, the main character is, at first, driven to free his brother from the influence of the Russian Mafia, which he is unable to do. After his wife is killed, he is driven by the need for revenge, which in turn, allows him to attain his first goal and free his brother. When this need pushes him to do what he otherwise would never think of doing, he changes, as does his goal. Now he needs to make amends for the wrongs he has committed.
H is for Hero: a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities. (Dictionary.com)
Though a story’s hero is usually the protagonist, not all protagonists are heroes. In order to be a hero, the protagonist should be highly accomplished, witty, and colorful. He needs to jump off the page and demonstrate an inner strength that is both memorable and compelling, all while not being clichéd.
To be heroic, it all comes down to being likable, supportive, and engaging. He should embody the moral code of his community and inspire that community to act when it is threatened. These qualities are important when he gets cut down to size by the enemy. Sure, he may be imperfect—a human with a chip on his shoulder—but this only gives him room to change. Turn his affliction into integrity; balance his strength with humility.
Most heroes are self-sacrificing, forfeiting themselves or their own goals for the benefit of someone else. This is probably the hero’s most mythic quality, powerfully hitting the reader at a visceral or gut level. We are able to forgive anyone who is trying to be good.
My novel’s protagonist does heroic things and has heroic qualities, but he’s not really a hero. He’s too dark and steps way over the line. But it is his need to be heroic that propels him forward, to atone for his great sins.
I is for Inner: Situated or farther within; interior; more intimate, private, or secret; of or pertaining to the mind or spirit; not obvious; hidden or obscured. (Dictionary.com)
This might seem like an ambiguous topic, but when it comes to creating a story, “inner” is of extreme importance. First, there are two levels to every novel: the outer level or the plot and the inner level or the story itself. For every outer action, motion, or goal, there is an inner reaction, emotion, and growth. The outer notion to attain works with the inner notion to become.
The protagonist’s inner journey deepens when the reader learns who he needs to be in order to be whole and why that is important. Why is he broken or wounded and how does that manifest itself in his behavior and attitude? What will lead him to be whole again, to force him to change, or lead him to sacrifice?
Each major scene in a novel should have turning points with two dimensions. The way in which things change that everyone understands is the outer turning point. And the way in which the protagonist changes is the inner turning point.
A story’s greatest inner dimension is the inner conflict. This is the protagonist’s fear and doubt brought to the surface, a battle between his two sides: reason and passion. These two voices directly oppose each other. He brings them with him into the story before it even begins. It’s what’s holding him back. It is this very contradictory battle that is so compelling and satisfying to the reader.
Inner conflict is a result of the plot. It’s what leads the protagonist to realize his goal is essential to his well-being. It’s what makes him strive to attain his impossible goal. Each obstacle he overcomes provides the protagonist the opportunity to learn more about himself. In knowing his weaknesses and strengths, he is better able to transform himself.
Though my own novel is a thriller and therefore plot-driven, it is the main character’s struggle with the villain he has become that is the most compelling.
J is for Journey: passage or progress from one stage to another. (Dictionary.com)
For this post, I’m going to keep it personal; after all, it says a writer’s hopeful journey right up there on my banner. And oh, what a journey it has been. Although I was hopeful and I am ambitious and I do work hard, I never actually thought I’d get published, certainly not with my first book. I know that’s pretty rare. I figured with the provocative nature of The Mistaken, I would have to at least write one more before a publisher would be willing to consider it, kind of like John Grisham did with his first book, A Time To Kill, which was only published after his second book, The Firm, made the bestseller lists.
Though I did make it, and The Mistaken will be published (on 10/18/12), the journey wasn’t always by the book. The fact that I’m being traditionally published without an agent is proof of that. My point here is simple: Everybody has their own path, their own journey. Though you might prefer a certain road, you also might find roadblocks that provoke detours, detours that lead to unbeaten paths and open doors you never knew existed.
So don’t embark on your journey wearing blinders or allow yourself to be steered with someone else at the reins. This is your destiny. It’s your decision what works best and what feels right. Remember, regret is just about the worst feeling in the world.
K is for Key: something that affords the means of access. (Dictionary.com)
One of the best books I’ve ever read on the craft of writing is Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass. In it, he plots out an easy to follow roadmap with all the key ingredients. So I’m going to use his words and knowledge and spell out the key ingredients for a breakout premise:
Plausibility: When configuring the premise of your novel, you have to ask yourself, could this really happen? Maass insists that the premise must seem like it could happen to us, the reader. It should have a grain of truth, for it is this truth that persuades the reader to care. A little known fact that is unfamiliar, surprising, or arouses curiosity draws the reader in deeper.
Inherent Conflict: Another question to ask yourself is, does my world contain built-in conflict? In other words, are there opposing forces, both strong, maybe even both right? Stories should be set among cultural and social surroundings that are sophisticated and involve contentious groups or perspectives, somewhere it is NOT safe. Even the most utopian setting should overflow with complications and unseen hazards. Character relationships must also have conflict.
Originality: There probably aren’t any new plots to be discovered out there. The same tropes have been explored over and over. So you need to find a fresh angle. Even a story that’s been told a plethora of times and ways can be retold from a different perspective. Maass suggests authors find originality by doing the exact opposite of what is expected or to combine two discrete story elements.
My own novel is about two very different brothers, revenge, and organized crime, all tried and true premises. It’s also about mistaken identity, another popular trope. But I combined the four concepts and wrapped them around a love story, adding my own experiences and telling it from a unique perspective.
L is for LOCK: to join or unite firmly by interlinking or intertwining. (Dictionary.com)
Today, I’m using an acronym that spells out the word LOCK. This is a device established by James Scott Bell in his book on craft, Plot & Structure, a must read for all fiction writers. I will paraphrase his well-developed L.O.C.K. theory:
L is for Lead: If you go back to my April 9th post on heroes, you’ll see a complete list of what makes a good lead. As the author, it is your job to make him interesting, to dig deep inside his head and make him compelling. No story is good or complete without a single lead.
O is for Objective: Likewise, if you go back to my April 7th post on goal, you’ll see that an objective is the driving force that generates forward momentum. It could be that the protagonist wants to get something or to get away from something. Whatever it is, according to
Bell, it should be one dominant objective and should be essential to his well-being.
C is for Confrontation: This is the oppositional forces at work from other characters and outside organizations. It is an element that is used throughout the story, but most especially at the climax.
K is for Knockout: The knockout is the big climax, the highest point of drama at the very end. It’s the final clash where it appears the opposition might actually win. It should have the greatest amount of tension, stakes, and conflict, and display how the protagonist has changed, both within his inner and his outer conflicts in order to most satisfy the reader. It should be unpredictable and last minute, meaning it should be organized so all the plot points peak in a single moment. Lastly, it gives resolution, ties up loose ends, and gives the reader a feeling of resonance.
(Sorry for the wonky formatting from here on. Blogger has another ghost in the machine. ARGH!)
M is for
: a wise or trusted counselor or teacher; an influential sponsor or supporter. (Dictionary.com) Mentor
I’ve wanted to do a post on mentors for a long time. As a neophyte writer, I’ve come to depend on a select few to advise and steer me in the right direction. The three ladies I constantly call on are skilled writers, as well as savvy bloggers.
They are Jami Gold, Lynda R. Young, and Julie Musil. All three are highly informed writers who share their considerable insight and experience on their popular blogs. They each write on topics all writers should educate themselves on, both on craft and on the business, marketing, and platform side of things. I find every one of their posts to be informative and entertaining. I suggest scrolling through some of their old posts. I guarantee, you’ll learn a lot.
N is for Name: a word or combination of words by which a person, place, thing, body, class, or any object of thought is designated, called, or known; a distinguished, famous, or great reputation. (Dictionary.com)
Shakespeare wrote in his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In short, this means that what truly matters most is what something is, not what it’s called. For most things, I think this is true. But when you’re a writer, your name is your brand, and that means everything.
Most of the writers I’ve met in the last eighteen months are using their true and legal names to query and publish under. One of the first questions my own publisher asked me is if I plan on using my real name or a nom de plume, which is a literary double or pseudonym. I’ve met only two writers I can think of who are using pseudonyms. They don’t even blog under their real names. And I can’t help but wonder why.
Are they embarrassed by what they’ve written? Do they want to retain some anonymity? I understand some women use initials or a more masculine semblance of their name to compete in a male dominated genre. Some writers use pseudonyms to cross over into a new genre, one which they’ve never been published under before. This could be because they want to retain a clean brand from their previous name, or maybe because their titles didn’t sell well under that name and they need to start fresh.
One of my favorite authors, James Scott Bell, is now writing under a pseudonym because his new series of books is so different from his normal fare. Even some famous writers have written under pseudonyms: Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts. Just look at one of
America’s greatest writers of all time, Mark Twain. His real name is Samuel Clemens.
I have nothing personal against using a pseudonym; I just feel that I’ve put so much time and effort—my blood, sweat, and many, many tears into writing and polishing my novel—why wouldn’t I want everyone to know exactly who had written it? Though it does deal with some provocative and horrific events, and people often stare at me and ask how on earth I came up with all that, I want them to know me, to recognize my name, to say, “Oh, you wrote that book, The Mistaken. I know who you are.” Call me vain, but I want people to know and remember my real name.
O is for Outline: a general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project. (Dictionary.com)
There are two camps, if you will, two trains of thought in the writing world. One—of which I am not a member—is the pantsters. These are the folks who write organically, by the very seat of their pants. They might have a general idea of the plot and characters and where they want them to go, but then again, maybe not. They don’t plan. They just write. There’s no map, only a seed of an idea that they allow to germinate, sprout, grow, and flower. When I was stuck on where to start one of my WIPs, I couldn’t even figure out where to begin an outline. So a friend suggested I just write what I knew at that point, to get it down on paper, so to speak, in hopes it would generate a flow. I did just that, and it really helped. Better yet, I found it liberating.
Still, I am staunchly of the other camp. I am a plotter, a narrative outliner. I first jot down notes in my iPhone as they come to me, but eventually everything is written longhand in a spiral notebook. My notes are pretty complete, only missing descriptions and dialogue. From there, it’s easy for me to just read along in my notes and expand while I type away on my computer.
Some outliners write a mini synopsis, cover blurb, or summary statement to get started. Some use index cards, others the headlight system, in which they have an idea but can see only as far their “headlights.” Then they “drive” to that point and see a little farther. Still others generate ideas for scenes and chapters by asking themselves questions: What’s at stake? How will the protagonist react? What will happen when he does? Do I need more characters?
There are as many ways to plot and write a novel as there are writers who write them. While I prefer to outline, so I know exactly where I’m going, I still write in the moment, meaning I write whatever comes into my head at that moment. So while I am a plotter, I use many of the freebird pantster techniques, as well.
P is for Plot: Also called the storyline, it is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, such as a play, novel, or short story. (Dictionary.com)
What’s a novel without a plot? Even character-driven tales that focus more on the cast—rather than the overall story itself—have a plot, however vague. In its most basic sense, the plot is how the events in a story directly and emotionally impact the main character, how it transforms him. This dramatic action affects the character’s emotional development in thematically significant ways.
There are five basic elements to a plot:
Conflict—the very essence of the story. It raises questions and gets readers involved in such a way as to make them care.
Engage the reader’s sympathies—this is done by grounding the reader in knowledge of the character and enriching the story with personalizing details.
Complications—the conflict must twist, turn, deepen, and grow, sustaining the reader’s interest through constant development and escalation.
Climax—the highest point of dramatic action, when the thematic significance becomes clear, when all the major forces come together for a final clash with the main character, who is able to use his new awareness and skills to confront and conquer his enemy.
Resolution or Denouement—this is the sum of the character’s actions, an end and a new beginning, where those actions have relieved the pressure, providing a cathartic release. The protagonist makes peace with his past and returns to the world around him.
In addition to the main plot, each story should have at least one or two subplots, and each of these subplots must have these same five basic elements. These subplots lend a sense of connectivity to secondary characters. A novel’s texture is made richer when these secondary characters and subplots connect to the protagonist and the main plot. Subplots create complications and deepen the main plot and can create range when the characters jump between the subplots and main plot.
There are several basic plot structures which have been used over and over:
- The Quest (Catcher in the
- Revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo)
- Love (Gone With the Wind)
- Adventure (Huckleberry Finn)
- The Chase (The Fugitive)
- One Against (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
- One Apart (
- Power (The Godfather)
- Allegory or symbolic narrative (Lord of the Rings.)
My novel, The Mistaken, is a combination revenge/power/chase plot structure.
Q is for Query: an inquiry from a writer to an editor or agent regarding the acceptability of or interest in an idea for an article or book, usually presented in the form of a letter that outlines or describes the projected piece. (Dictionary.com)
Excuse me but…queries are a total bitch. I mean, how in hell is a novelist supposed to simmer an entire 90,000 word document down into 150 words? It ain’t easy, I can tell you that, yet I’ve done a total of twenty-seven of them. Writing a good query became my obsession. I wrote my first one in January 2011 then sent out the first batch of ten via email and got a request for a full from a superstar agent within one hour. I thought, I got this. A solid query.
Mm yeah, not so much.
I worked on fine-tuning my query, even put it up for review on Deana Barnhart’s Gearin’ Up to Get an Agent Blogfest. That was fun. I had some outstanding input and modified my query, but while I learned a lot about getting down to the very heart of the conflict, it had become too bare. So I worked on it some more then entered a query critique contest at literary agent Suzie Townsend's blog. She gave me some great advice which I then incorporated before I had Matthew MacNish critique it on his blog, The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment. By that point, I felt I had it down. It just needed a few tweaks. Afterwards though, I couldn’t face the whole querying process. I’d done it for three one-month-long periods early in the year, and while I had my fair share of requests, nothing had panned out. So my heart just wasn’t in it.
BUT…I decided to try one publisher and see what happened. And that’s all it took. After some back and forth, we struck a deal, and now I’m due for publication on October 18, 2012. Looking back though, I realize I did learn an awful lot about writing queries. I came up with a solid formula, one worth sharing. One thing you should know first: though you love your characters and their backstory, all that really matters in a query is the heart of the conflict. Zone in on that and you’ll have a great place to start. So here goes my formula:
First paragraph: First sentence (or two, at most,) introduce your main character and his normal world in as few words as possible, then for the hook, show how that world is irrevocably broken. Next sentence, show how this has changed your MC’s life and what he must do (his goal) to get back to normal.
Second paragraph: In two sentences, show the main complication and how it interferes with the MC getting back to normal. This usually requires a small bit of setup and the introduction of one, maybe two (at most) additional characters. Avoid throwing too many names into the mix. Try using their titles or positions instead. It’s less confusing.
Third paragraph: Show the choice the MC must make in order to achieve his goal. Lastly, show what is at stake, what the MC will lose if he doesn’t achieve that goal. And that’s it.
Last paragraph (the housekeeping): The book’s title (all in caps), the genre, and the word count first, then a little bio, but only if you have verifiable publishing credentials. Wrap it up very simply by explaining why you chose that agent (without kissing her ass,) then thank her for her time and consideration. The end. NOTHING ELSE! Sign off with your name, address, phone numbers, email address, and your website or blog.
R is for Rename: [to reassign] a word or combination of words by which a person, place, or thing, a body or class, or any object of thought is designated, called, or known. (Dictionary.com)
Back on Day 14, letter N of the Challenge, I wrote a post about name, about how, as a writer, your name is your brand, and brand means everything. But even for the least notable among us, we still have a name, an identity that is all ours.
This is the same for our characters. We create life when we birth a character and set him in a world we’ve fabricated from nothing. We breathe spirit into him as he struggles to right his destroyed universe. We fall in love with him. He feels real because we’ve spent so much time struggling right along with him, feeling every emotion he’s felt. He has a name, an identity, one we’ve researched and put a lot of thought into, that sounded and felt just right for our story.
But what if, somewhere along the way, long after you’ve fallen for your hapless hero, someone says his name is all wrong, that his name is usually seen as a female’s name? And what if that someone is a literary agent of staggering experience and note? What if she told you she enjoyed everything about your story, except your protagonist’s name? What if she suggested you change his name? How would you feel? And more importantly, what would you do?
This is the predicament I found myself in last fall. You see, at the time, my main character’s name was Skylar. I researched this name and found this definition: “as a boy’s name (also used as a girl’s name,) is an English variant of Schuyler (Danish), meaning ‘scholar, protection; fugitive; giving shelter.’” This was perfect for my protagonist and his story; fit like a glove.
But this agent, whom I greatly respect, gave me pause. She put a worm in my ear I couldn’t get out. What if every agent I query feels the same way? Sure, if they truly loved the story, they’d look past the name, maybe ask me to change it. It certainly wouldn’t prevent one from representing me. But still, something as fundamental as a name could sour the reading experience from the very first chapter, and that certainly wouldn’t be a good thing. So, even though it felt very much like renaming my child, and Matthew MacNish said it was an “awesome name” in his critique on The QQQE, I decided I would go ahead and change it. Just to be safe.
Now, instead of Skylar, his name is
Tyler, which, by design, sounds very similar, but it has a completely different meaning, borne as an occupational name for a worker in roof tiles. Not too bad considering he’s a general contractor, but still, not nearly as romantic. At the very least, most folks recognize this as a guy’s name, as well as a girl’s. So I’m cool with it. I guess. Funny though, my critique partner and bff, Lisa Regan, still calls him Skylar, or Sky, even though she’s read the Tyler version. Just like me, she will always think of him as Skylar. It’s hard to let go.
S is for Stakes: to risk something, as upon the result of a game or occurrence or outcome of any uncertain event or venture. (Dictionary.com)
When writing a story, plot is of utmost importance, but the plot means nothing if there isn’t something of high value at stake for the main character. My favorite writing guru, literary agent Donald Maass, asks in his book on craft, The Fire in Fiction, “If your protagonist is not successful, so what?” meaning, why should anyone care what happens to him? You see, life and death stakes are meaningless unless they are tied to an underlying human worth. The character’s life must have meaning, purpose, and value. Simply put, the reader needs to care. In building his value, you’re building the stakes. But how do you do that?
Give your protagonist high principles and an ethical code of personal conduct. This will make him more compelling. Then test those principles to the extreme. Make him struggle to remain loyal to his personal belief system. And this struggle should not just matter to him, but to others, as well, because stakes work on two levels, public and private, and those stakes should be high on both.
Tune into what society might lose if your protagonist fails. To do this, Maass suggests beginning with a grain of truth that lends itself to high plausibility. Deepen that by going inside the character’s mind, attend his ideas of right and wrong. Grant him the American Dream, build that dream into an empire, then put it all at risk. What would devastate him to lose? What disaster would leave him feeling insecure, lost and alone, shaken and fearful? Build your protagonist’s story around that disaster.
His stakes will feel stronger if he is sympathetic in some way. So let your reader know the main character as intimately as possible, as much as you do. And if the protagonist cares passionately for his own life, the reader will feel invested, too.
Maass writes that every protagonist needs: “an aching regret, a tortuous need, a visible dream, an inescapable ambition, a passionate longing, an exhaustive lust, an inner lack, an unavoidable obligation, a fatal weakness, an iron instinct, a noble ideal, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…that in the end, propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.”
So as writers, we must escalate those stakes, “…make our characters suffer, kill his closest ally, take away his greatest physical asset, undermined his faith, shorten the timeline he has to solve his problem.”
T is for Tension: mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement. (Dictionary.com)
I've posted about this topic before. If there is one hard and fast rule for writing a novel, it’s this:
Tension all the time, on every single page!
After all, tension is what keeps the reader reading. If it drags or slows down, the reader skims. If it’s high, the reader slows down and reads every word. It’s this moment-to-moment micro-tension that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. And this micro-tension comes from conflicting emotions.
A novel needs conflict in its dialogue, yet it’s not the information in the dialogue itself that creates tension, but rather the doubt about those facts and the apprehension of the character delivering it. It should be emotional rather than cerebral. The reader doesn’t want to know if the discussion will settle the argument, but whether they will make peace. So dumping info via dialogue only works if it’s soaking in tension, if it’s a tug-of-war. Zone in on the emotional friction instead of relying on the circumstances. Allow emotions, especially contrasting emotions, to give force to the action.
Same goes for exposition; use the conflicting passions of the characters to keep the reader reading to see if the conflict will be resolved. A character wrestling with his own mind can generate dramatic tension, too, if you include contradictions, crises, opposing impulses, and clashing doctrine.
Each scene in a novel should have its own mini arc: a beginning, rise, and a climax or reversal. Afterwards, the hero may contemplate what just occurred before he moves on, but this inner dialogue or exposition should be used only to deepen the crisis and increase the tension, not to reiterate what the reader already knows. Backstory is a common low-tension pitfall. It’s acceptable to add it in as long as it’s not the goal. Use the past to devise tension in the current conflict as it will make the reader curious and want to keep reading to find out what will happen.
Tension is not present in a setting or predicament. Description does not create tension. It comes from within those observing it, from the people inside the setting and circumstances. One place is as ordinary as any other until you populate it with people and their problems. And when you present the problem before the place, the setting may become a metaphor.
I used this device in my novel. The ever-shifting
San Francisco fog became a metaphor for trouble. Whenever something bad was about to happen, you can bet the fog would be swirling around in the background, creating a cue that the tension was building and about to explode.
U is for Unforgivable: [the inability] to grant pardon for or remission of an offense. (Dictionary.com)
If you’ve followed this blog at all, especially in recent months, then you know my book is all about forgiveness. Though I recently took the absolute worst part of my protagonist’s offense out as terms of my publishing deal, what remains is still mighty abhorrent. The main character in The Mistaken commits a reprehensible act in retribution for the death of his pregnant wife. But it’s not until after he has mistakenly exacted his vengeance against an innocent woman that he realizes just how far he has fallen from the honorable man he used to be, before grief, rage, and alcohol transformed him. Afterwards, he realizes he must find a way to atone for his shameful sins.
All along—since the very inception of the idea for this book—I’ve been searching for answers. You hear all the time on the news about some ordinary, upstanding guy who, for whatever reason, commits an unspeakable crime, something that all his friends and family say is completely against his nature. He couldn’t have done it. They just don’t believe it. George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin comes to mind.
So what makes a man (or woman) commit a heinous act, especially a good man, an honorable man who holds to the very letter of the law? That is why I wrote The Mistaken. All along, I wanted to show that a good man could be turned into a monster yet somehow find his back to the man he used to be, or a semblance thereof, anyway. I wanted to show that the unforgivable could actually be forgiven.
Most readers are pretty forgiving, though they do want someone to believe in, someone they can understand and associate with, so giving them a protagonist who commits an egregious act is risky, at best, and just plain crazy, at worst. And though I did compromise slightly by taking out his most heinous offense, what he does is still pretty deplorable. But I don’t think there is anything that is truly unforgivable. Humans are complex, ruled not only by their hearts and emotions, but also by their circumstances. Who’s to say they wouldn’t do something in the intense heat of the moment? When their life, health, or happiness, or that of their loved ones, was at great risk? Sure, we’d like to think, after years of conditioning, that we would never cross the line, but the truth is, it happens everyday, all over the world. It could happen. There is always that possibility. We are human, and therefore fallible. And then there’s that whole whoever-is-without-sin, cast-the-first-stone argument. In addition, I’ll throw in the one about walking-in-their-shoes, because you just never know. So it’s comforting to believe that forgiveness—even for what seems to be the most unforgivable—is possible
V is for Voice: the sound(s) uttered through the mouth of a living creature, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc. (Dictionary.com) Also, the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author [specific to a story.] (Wikipedia)
Literary voice is probably the single most difficult concept to explain in the craft of writing. I think it’s that feeling the reader has that there actually is a person and a personality speaking the words written on the page. It’s like you’re sitting around a campfire with the narrator and you can see and feel, as well as hear him. It’s the very flavor of the story.
Every voice has its own style that comes from deep inside the character. It’s his way of speaking, his syntax, jargon, or particular vernacular. Even his opinion is laced throughout the voice. It is the intimate details of that character’s life experiences that make his voice unique, that call to the reader to come close, have a seat, and sit a spell while he tells you a story.
Several mechanics help construct the voice, such as the point of view or who exactly is telling the story, which tense the character is using, first, second, or third, and the chronological order in which he shares the tale—whether it is linear or out of sequence. In addition, the story’s voice comes from what drives the author to tell the story, what the author’s own unresolved inner conflicts may be. Even though it may not be the author’s personal story, she assists the voice by filtering it through her own experiences.
Jami Gold recently wrote an interesting post on voice that gets down to the nuts and bolts of what it is and how to use it. While I don’t necessarily agree that it takes a lot of practice, what I do think is that it takes a keen understanding of who exactly is telling the story and why. The voice is the embodiment of that spirit. And in the end (as well as the beginning), it is what keeps the reader reading.
No matter how good the plot, if the voice falls flat, the reader loses interest. Same holds true for too much voice. I notice this a lot in YA novels. Too many authors feel the need to make their protagonists—especially the female ones—overly snarky, sarcastic, acerbic, or just plain too dramatic, which drives me up the wall. Shatter Me anyone? That book drove me mad with its melodrama.
But even adult novels can have irritating voices that keep me from bonding with the main character. The Descendants comes quickly to mind. While I did enjoy it in the end, all throughout the novel, I wanted to smack the protagonist, Matt King, upside the head for being such a dimwitted dumbass. He was so clueless, it was hard for me to believe he was supposed to be an attorney in charge of his vast familial fortune, not to mention the husband of a supermodel wife who lived life by the seat of her pants. So while voice can pull the reader and tuck him in, it can also chase him away.
W is for Waiting: a period of inactivity, as until something expected happens; pause, interval, or delay. (Dictionary.com)
You’ve heard the expression before. My writer friend and blogging buddy, Heather M. Gardner even named her blog after it: “The waiting is the hardest part.” And damn, if that ain’t that the gospel truth!
As writers, we spend our days…well…writing, of course, but we also spend an inordinate amount of time waiting. Waiting for the perfect idea. Waiting for the right words to come. Waiting for our critique partners to get our darlings back to us. Waiting to hear back from agents we’ve queried or from editors our agent has queried. Waiting to get our cover art, our content r line, and copy edits, our ARCs, our books on the shelves. It’s unending.
Wait, wait, WAIT! Ugh!!!
There can be, and often is, many years between the time we started writing the book and the time the public can buy it. As an architect, I found it very unfulfilling how long it took me to see a project through to construction and finished product. That’s why I turned to interior design. It’s much more satisfying to see your hard work realized in a few short months.
But writing… Well, writing is much, much worse. The mere frustration of it is completely overwhelming. And it’s all out our control. There’s nothing we, the authors, can really do to speed it up. It is what it is.
The best—the only thing really—I can say to alleviate it is: keep on working, keep on writing, keep your writing friends close and commiserate with them. They’ll understand. They’ll help you stay focused on the prize. They’ll keep you going and motivated. And lastly, don’t give up. It’s the tenacious who see a project through to the end. Waiting is hard, but really, what do you have to lose?
X is for X-factor: the [unknown] variable; the value that may change within the scope of a given problem or set of operations. (Wikipedia)
As a writer, I’m in control of my story, the characters, and their world. I love being a creator of new souls and throwing those souls into turmoil and chaos. Must be what it feels like to be God. But just like God, once those souls are created, fleshed out from beginning to end, I have very little control over what happens next. Not if I want to go the traditional route anyway. And I do. I am.
When a writer wants to be traditionally published, he or she usually needs an agent. (Not always though. I didn't.) That entails months, if not years, of querying, where you acquire loads of rejections and feel that it’ll never happen for you. If it does happen, you have to go through it all over again, trying to find a publisher and an editor who’ll champion your book. Even if you do, said editor has to take it through a panel to be judged by all the other editors to see if it’s good enough for that publishing house. And once it does, how will the story emerge after the editing process? Will it be recognizable to the author?
And then, after all that—the writing, the revising, the querying, the searching, the editing, the design process—which takes years, there is no guarantee that the book will succeed. There are just too many unknown variables, x-factors that influence a book’s success. Many great stories, those with massive financial backing by its publisher, have utterly failed. And others, some self-published the first time around, find tremendous success, regardless of the quality of the writing, let alone the story. Just look at 50 Shades of Grey.
We all know that word-of-mouth is the best, most efficient and influential tool used to market books. It’s not something you can buy or Tweet or post about. It’s a slow build-up of satisfied customers who tell other people how much they liked your book. It is “one of the most credible forms of advertising because people who don't stand to gain personally by promoting [it] put their reputations on the line every time they make a recommendation.” (Wikipedia)
You can’t buy this, and you can’t artificially generate it either. Why it happens with one book and not another is a great unknown. It’s all a matter of timing, of what strikes a chord at any particular moment. You can’t touch it, smell it, feel it, or even see it. It just happens. It is the epitome of the X-factor.
Y is for YA Fiction: young adult fiction is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents between the ages of twelve and eighteen. (Wikipedia)
I don’t read a lot of YA, but the first book I ever remember reading, the one that turned me onto literature in the first place, was YA. I read it at the age of fourteen as a freshman in high school. It was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. That’s the first time I remember falling in love with a character—Pony Boy Curtis— and crying at words on the page—when Johnny died. Afterwards, I gobbled the remaining two books in the series, That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish, in a matter of days. But that was the end of my love affair with YA. From that point, I turned to—don’t judge me now—historical romance.
Looking back, I don’t know why I read those bodice rippers, and it didn’t last long before I converted to my one true love, the adult thriller. But then came the Twilight series. I remember a few years back scrounging through Powell’s Books in
Portland and seeing it on a table and remembering there was a lot of hype about it. It really didn’t interest me, but I wanted to know what all the hubbub was about, so I bought it. And I really liked it. So I bought the rest. And I liked them, too.
Yeah, I know. Say what you will about the writing, but at the time, when I knew nothing about the craft, I really enjoyed those books. I’ve tried to pick them up and read them since. No dice this time. Just can’t stomach it. But since then, since I wrote my own novel and became a blogger, I’ve met a great many writers, most of whom write YA. So it’s no accident that I’ve picked up a few YA novels along the way, most of which have been recommendations touted on popular blogs.
Stolen was the first one I read in a very long time, and I really liked it even though it was written in second person. Then came Divergent and my first taste of dystopia. Yeah, I didn’t really like that one too much. The whole book felt like backstory, like it was just a setup for the next book. After that, I read Hate List and I loved it! So I tried Shatter Me next, another dystopian. This book almost ruined me for all YA. I can’t tell you how much it bothered me: the overly grating melodramatic voice, and, once again, that it read like backstory, another setup for the second book in a series. Only in YA can you get away with that.
I was a bit reluctant to try YA again after that, but I picked up Everneath, and I am so glad I did. That book was a joy to read. Then I tried Shine, but found it too slow. I recently started The Dust of 100 Dogs, but I’ve been distracted by other books, most notably The Hunger Games, another dystopian which I ‘m reading now and positively love. This book shows you can have a dystopian with a female lead and not be whiny or snarky, just strong.
Overall, I’m finding a groove for popular YA. I do like the young voices, as long as they’re not too snarky or melodramatic. Yeah, I know, teenage girls tend to be melodramatic, and they probably love that, but not me.
Z is for The Omega: the omega Ω is the very last letter in the Greek alphabet. It signifies the last, the end, or the ultimate limit. (Wikipedia)
As a child raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I remember hearing the phrase during Mass, “I am the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.” For some reason, this always stuck with me. And so, as we come to the end of the A to Z Challenge, I can’t help but think about this: the omega, the end.
I wasn’t going to participate in this challenge. It just seemed like too much work, and don’t get me wrong, it was, but I’m not sorry I did it. The challenge pushed me to do something I didn’t really want to do, but somehow found the strength to do anyway. And best of all, it brought with it many new followers and those for me to follow, as well.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and I do have a gripe or two or twenty to complain about on May 7th during the Reflection Post, but for the most part, it was a good thing. It took a lot of planning to figure out what I was going to write and get my own posts up, but mostly it was endless hours spent trolling through nearly 1800 blogs. I figure I probably hit well over 600. I didn’t connect with all, of course, but I found a lot of truly fascinating people. Can’t say many returned the favor, but what’re ya gonna do? It is what it is. But as I write this last post, I can’t help but feel relieved, because…
I. AM. EXHAUSTED!
So…are you as wiped out by the A to Z Challenge as I am? Did you manage to post all 26 days? Will you do it again next year?
Thanks so much for joining me during this incredible Challenge. I may be taking a short break while I dive into my next novel, I’m not sure. But if I do, I won’t be far, and I’ll still be dropping by your place.
By the way, don’t be shocked to see a new look to my blog coming soon, that is if I’m brave enough to implement it. My publisher has suggested I brand myself and this will be a part of that. The content won’t change though. I’m still the same as I’ve always been, still learning, still making friends, still reading all my favorite blogs.