Oct 8, 2015

Bringing Characters to Life Through Emotion

To bring a scene to life, your characters need to come fully to life. One thing that will kill a scene faster than almost anything is an author so obviously intent on getting the characters to pose here, say that, and do the other the characters never become real people and never actually connect with each other. Characters that don’t connect with each other on the page have very little chance of connecting with the reader.

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the need to drop witty one-liners, a piece of research, or an exciting fight sequence onto the page that you keep your characters from reacting honestly. Don’t be so concerned about getting a line of dialogue into a scene that you write cardboard characters who talk at each other rather than real people who talk to one another.

Forgetting that our characters are supposed to be in the same room engaging in conversation with one another is a common mistake. It's actually a form of telling rather than showing because the author is so focused on her own part in the story that she’s not letting the characters live the story. As a result, the reader ends up wading through several paragraphs or pages of narrative explanation or paragraphs full of uninteresting dialogue when what she really wants is to get on with the story.

Getting the mix of emotion right isn’t easy. If it were, none of us would struggle with it. While we want to make sure we include enough emotion, there are times when less is more.

Be careful not to confuse emotion with sentimentality. Sentimentality is simplistic, surface emotion. It’s clich├ęd, affected emotion, which shows only the surface without foundation. Editors are looking for real emotion, even if—especially if—it’s raw and painful. With the increase in technology, I think more people are writing and submitting today than ever before. Years ago, only the most dedicated writers were willing to mess around with carbon paper and typewriter erasers. Now that we can all point and click, cut and paste, the competition has exploded.

Your characters’ emotions are one of the few things that will make them stand out in that vast sea of similar characters out there. In the past two months, I’ve judged two contests for published writers. I’ve read 16 books for the two contests, all of which obviously made it past slush-pile readers, onto an editor’s desk, and through the editorial process.

Of those 16 books, 10 had plots so similar it would boggle your minds. (It still boggles mine.) Luckily, the books for one contest were final round picks, so they were above-the-norm when it came to the writing, the plotting, the motivation, and conflict, but those elements were also very similar. The only thing that set the books apart from one another were the different casts of characters in each book. Unfortunately, since the books were also eerily similar, their perspectives on life—their emotions—were the one true thing that made the characters unique in each book. 

For that reason, it's imperative to dig deep and discover what your characters really feel about their situations. Not what you think they might feel, or what similar characters usually feel by page ... whatever ... of your genre-specific work-in-progress, but what that unique individual you're writing about feels based on his background, his belief system, and the kind of day he's having.

Once you can tap into a character's genuine emotions, he or she will truly begin to come to life on the page of your manuscript. 

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Oct 1, 2015

To Plot or Not to Plot

No doubt you’ve heard (and probably participated in) debates over which is best—plotting in advance, or writing off into the mist. I have no doubt that you have a preference, because just about everyone does. 

Although we can sometimes get into heated debates, we all know that there really is no right or wrong way. No one-size-fits-all solution to the question of how to get from the beginning to the end of your novel. The important thing is to achieve the desired effect, to pull readers into our stories and keep them hooked from the first page to the last.

Whether you plot before you begin to write, as you begin each section of the book, or sit down every day with no conscious idea where your book will be going that day, we all plot. Even those who write into the mist plot in some way at some time, either consciously or unconsciously, or they wouldn’t end up with a story.

But let’s begin at the beginning.... What is plot? 

Plot is probably the most often-heard term when writers get together to discuss fiction. Most people consider it the essence of fiction. Without plot, there is no story. While some people begin with plot and then look for characters to enact that plot, others begin with interesting people and discover their plot by looking into the characters’ lives. Either way, plot is story.

There are many definitions of plot floating around out there. Plot is
  • an ordered structure of significant events;
  • the story of strong forces meeting and one of them triumphing over the other for better or worse;
  • a record of change.

 An ordered structure of significant events. Okay, I guess that’s true. If I’m describing my plot to an editor, an agent, or a potential reader, I’ll want to give an ordered structure of story’s significant events, so yeah. That describes plot as I know it. 

Plot is the record of strong forces meeting and one triumphing over the other, for better or worse. I agree with that, too. Plot is all about the conflict, about a person who wants something, meeting strong forces that keep him from getting what he wants, and his eventual triumph over or defeat by those forces. 

Plot is a record of change. I agree with that, too. Change alters people’s fortunes, their thoughts, and their beliefs—even if it’s only long-held beliefs about themselves. Change is what readers come to the book to find. I doubt you’ll ever run into a reader who picks up a book hoping for 400 pages in which everything in the characters’ lives remains exactly as it was on page 1.

Plot is also a force upon the people in your story, often called narrative drive. This drive is the relentless forward movement of events, and the details related to those events, that pile up until the whole teetering tower collapses into the final conflict—those climactic scenes that make the story worthwhile.

We need that force working on the people in our stories because, again, readers don’t come to the book to find out what happens in the life of someone who never experiences something beyond their control, never ends up with their back against the wall, or never has to fight their way out of a bad situation. So change isn’t enough. It needs to be a change that challenges the character to climb higher, dig deeper than s/he ever has before.

It’s a rare person who will stick with a book about nice people to whom nice things happen repeatedly until the story ends. As an author, I wouldn’t know when to stop writing if the people in my book had nothing to conquer or nothing to concede defeat to by the end. 

Readers need plot—that relentless forward movement—to keep them hooked. Authors need plot to know when and where to begin, and when and where to stop. 

In the past, I've worked with many confused writers who had no clear idea of how and when to begin the book they want to write, no clear idea where they’re going, and no clue where to end. This is a horrible feeling. It leaves a writer feeling unequal to the task they’re facing, which might be okay if they weren’t driven to face that task, tackle the book, and conquer it—a mini-plot in itself!

We’re all terribly afraid that our plots won’t work and worried that we are the rare thing among writers—the one and only author who can’t come up with a perfect plot.

Rest assured that there is no such thing as a perfect plot, but in Plotting the Organic Way, we'll focus on creating plots that are as close to perfect as humans are capable of creating—and, more importantly, plots that work.

To quote author Stella Cameron,
 “What doesn’t work in a plot is what doesn’t work. If the reader stops, frowns, re‑reads, and stops again—there’s something very wrong.”
There may be different causes that bring about the pause. Perhaps the inadvertent loss of viewpoint control throws the reader for a loop, or maybe it’s a slip in chronology, or maybe the author’s failure to create a setting the reader can see and feel. Maybe it’s an illogical or unbelievable reaction by one of the characters, or a decision no sane person would ever make. Or it could be a reaction, a situation, or a decision that was obviously contrived for the convenience of the author but which has nothing to do with reality. All too often it’s an inconsistency in plot ... which we'll have to discuss later. 

I've discovered that I'm neither plotter nor "pantser." My style falls somewhere in the middle, a plot style I like to call organic. What kind of plotter are you? 

Plotting the Organic Way: A Dancing on Coals Workshop for the Fiction Writer coming soon to a Kindle near you! 

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Sep 24, 2015

The Unlikable Character

Several years ago, while teaching a workshop on unlikable characters, I was asked this question about an unintentionally unlikable hero in a romance writer's work in progress: 
Do you find that when no one likes the hero, it is due to situational plot events or more about the writer's characterization and the character's personality traits?
The answer I gave in that workshop was this:

I think you can make any situational plot event work if you motivate it well enough.  I also think that unlikable characters (whom we don’t intend to be unlikable) come across that way because we write reactions and dialogue for them that seems childish or irrational to editors and readers. 

One reason this happens is that we create conflict based on a simple misunderstanding -- one that could be cleared up with one real conversation between the characters. 

Several years ago, I critiqued a story in which the heroine traveled across country to take over some property she’d inherited. Because of a misunderstanding she had ignored the relative who left the property to her for years and he had died without family around him. This isn't an unusual setup for a romance novel. It's familiar, tried and true, and there's nothing wrong with it. 

The hero in this story had cared deeply about the heroine's relative and was angry with her for ignoring the poor old guy. She arrived in town, and he immediately began to mistreat her without ever once discussing the situation with her or telling her why he was angry. Instead of confronting her and saying, “Why did you ignore poor old Uncle Felix?" he jumped from one conclusion to another about the heroine as the scenes progressed. As a result, it didn’t take long for me to decide I didn't like him. 

Thinking back, I can say that his anger was actually motivated well enough, at least well enough to propel the story through the first few chapters, but it was the fact that he roared through each scene without making any reasonable attempt to find out the truth that made him so unlikable to me. Far from wanting the hero and heroine to end up together, I was waiting for her to tell him to take a hike. 

Another cause of unintentionally unlikable characters is when we put motivation into the story but choose the wrong details to share with the reader. As a result, the motivation is unclear to anyone who hasn't read all your notes or who doesn't approach the world from the same place you're standing.

It’s not what happened to the character that matters so much. It's how the event affected him and why it did. Ten different people can go through the same experience and emerge with ten different reactions.What devastates one person will be a joke to another. Their reactions will be based upon childhood experiences, values and standards taught by parents, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and a whole slew of other things. 

Driving motivation is usually based on the character’s deepest fears, and it’s those human fears that create reader identification. 

Let’s say I want to write about a bad boy hero who comes home again after twenty years.  He’s cocky and he’s short-tempered, and he’s rude to people.  He was in trouble all through high school for being belligerent and fighting.  I decide to motivate his youthful attitude by saying .... what?

Let's say that the other kids laughed at him for having a big nose or big ears, or for limping, or for any other physical challenge such as wearing glasses. 

Kids can be mean, and knowing that he was laughed at by the other kids creates a tiny spark of identification with the reader. But it's still not enough to hook a reader so thoroughly that s/he will excuse the hero's current behavior.

Our characters need to be vulnerable on some level. Unless they are, readers may have trouble identifying. 

But if I explain that our hero's father called him ugly as a small boy, that his mother ran off with another man when the hero was a child, and that he has never been able to keep a long-lasting relationship, all of which fuels his secret fear that there's something seriously wrong with him, I'll have a better chance of convincing readers to understand what he does and why. A well-motivated hero will be able to get away with a lot of “bad” behavior if the reader understands what he’s secretly afraid of. 

Bottom line, when a character is unintentionally unlikable, the fault probably lies in characterization and personality traits rather than situational plot events.

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

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Sep 17, 2015

No Default Emotions

As a novelist, you can’t afford to assume anything.

You can’t assume that everyone will find the stimulus you provide funny or romantic or poignant or frightening. You can’t assume that everyone will get angry over the same things, or be outraged by the same things, or be touched by the same things. So when you fail to relate the character’s reaction in emotion and thought process, you’re leaving the reader high and dry. Readers who come to the book for the emotional experience will not tolerate that for long.

You can’t assume that the character’s emotions are obvious.  You can’t assume that if you don’t specify an emotion, the reader will somehow default to the emotion you’re feeling as you write. An emotional reaction you don’t write is not a reaction by default it is an absolute lack of reaction. A void. An empty space in the character’s head and heart.

If someone says something negative to your character and your character doesn’t react, the reader will not assume that the character is feeling annoyed or hurt or angry, but will only know that the character feels nothing. Rather than connecting with your character, the reader will back away and wonder what’s wrong with her.

(from Riding the Emotional Roller-Coaster
coming soon in Kindle format

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Jan 22, 2015

Sep 3, 2014