Since #NaNoWriMo2016 ended, I’ve noticed a lot of Tweets and Facebook posts about writers losing motivation to finish their novel. I confess, I’m one of them. It’s as if the arrival of December 1st gave us a “Get Out of Jail” card. We stop pushing to write 1,667 words a day and write “whenever.”
The problem may be we’re either swamped in the middle of the book and don’t see a way out; we’re near the end of the book and don’t see a way out (my problem until two days ago); or we’re caught up in life and the holiday rush, in which case, another few weeks should clear our calendars.
One way or another, we’re stuck. The following is an excerpt from a book I co-authored, The Plot Thickens, 21 Ways to Plot Your Novel. While it was geared toward the ultimate reader, the techniques involved can help you unstick your writing and propel you toward “The End”.
Never Suffer From Plot Flaws Again
SEVERAL THINGS CAN BOG DOWN a plot and make the reader lose interest. That’s not good news. You want the reader on the edge of her seat, turning page after page, staying up until stupid o’clock to read “one more chapter”, letting the bathwater grow cold as she reads in the tub. You do not want the toilet tank syndrome, where she turns your book upside down and leaves it on the toilet tank. Forever. She won’t read further, she won’t tell her friends about it, and she certainly won’t buy your next book.
Let’s take a look at some common mistakes writers make and how to fix them. Some of these are covered in other areas in this book, but repetition is an excellent teacher.
Tip: If you’re having difficulty deciding which “stake” is higher for your character, on where it should be placed in the timeline of your story, write them out on a list and rank them by how bad they will impact your antagonist.
Conflict is vital to a story. Without it, there is no character change. Without change, with its accompanying tension, why should your reader care?
Conflict is the fuel that feeds the plot and makes the character take action he normally wouldn’t. In his everyday life, the reader avoids conflict, but she can live vicariously through your character, taking on demons, saving the world from Armageddon, or simply falling in love. She’ll get caught up in the protagonist’s problems, understand his motives, celebrate his successes and commiserate with his losses. She wants your character to struggle and come out victorious, a better, stronger person.
Conflict should be twofold, external and internal. The external is the easy part. Villains are fun to write, and their goals are as important as the protagonist’s. Push the protagonist into making choices with uglier and uglier consequences. An antagonist will force a normal person beyond his comfort zone, stretching him beyond what he thought himself capable of doing. If your external conflict isn’t a person, if it’s the weather, an earthquake, a tsunami, it should be a major obstacle between the protagonist and his goal.
The internal conflict is harder to write, but you shouldn’t shy away from it. The protagonist needs to call on reserves he didn’t know he possessed, to question his values, to face his internal demons. Would Vertigo have been the same movie if Jimmy Stewart, as Scottie Ferguson, hadn’t climbed to the bell tower in search of the woman he’d loved and lost? Would Rocky be the same if Rocky Balboa had continued to not believe in himself? The literary and film worlds are filled with examples of ordinary people who have overcome their greatest fears and triumphed.
Conflicts should be logical to the characters. It should be something that matters to him and makes sense. A virus that threatens to wipe out the city’s population? He can move elsewhere. But a virus that has hit the hospital where his wife is in charge of the E.R.? Now he has a reason to fight for a cure, to locate the brilliant scientist who possess the vaccine. The conflict matters. He has motivation for staying in the face of danger.
Be on the watch for serial conflict, whereby the problem in Chapter 1 is resolved in Chapter 3, to be replaced by another short-lived problem, a string of pearls, until the end of the book. You need to write an ongoing problem that grows deeper and deeper and continues to make life miserable for your protagonist.
Also stay clear of incoherent conflict, thrown into a story to spice it up, but in reality, have nothing to do with the character, his journey, and what he needs to do to get to his goal. It’s distracting, the reader won’t buy into it, and soon, he’ll forgo your book for someone else’s.
NOT SETTING THE SCENE
Sure, you want to plunge right into the story, dragging your reader into your character’s myriad problems, but it the reader doesn’t anchor himself in the here and now, you’ve lost him. He’ll be so busy wondering what’s going on, that frustration sets in. You do not want a frustrated reader. Include a few, well chosen details that explain the space station orbits Earth in the last decade, or Mars in the next century. Is the high society party set in Regency England or aboard a yacht in today’s Caribbean? Give the reader a small reference then get on with the storytelling.
If you’re in the middle of the story, take the time to show where the action is occurring and how it relates to the last scene. Do your reader the commonest of courtesies.
Your reader wants to be drawn into a believable world from word one. He expects to be entertained. Don’t disappoint him. Skip the protagonist sitting with a cup of coffee, contemplating the letter she received from dear Aunt Sally, or in the car on her way to a governess post in the Scottish Highlands. Jump her right into the story—Aunt Sally died, but collecting the inheritance means quitting the job she loves and moving back to the town that gave her heartache. Or a car bomb goes off, leaving her stranded in the Scottish Highlands.
Conversely, don’t plunge the reader so quickly into the story with a one-line exclamation from the protagonist. The reader has no context in which to place it. It’s a cheap device that’s been overused.
Instead, start where the protagonist’s problem begins, raise questions that intrigue the reader, and filter in back-story later.
THE SAGGING MIDDLE
The middle is vital in holding your reader’s attention. It’s where the protagonist will encounter the bulk of his trials and tribulations, where her strength will be tested and flaws exposed. It’s where you torture your darlings and force them through life-changing events. It sets up the major crisis at the end of the book and paves the way for a satisfying conclusion.
To avoid a sagging middle, introduce questions that make the reader hang around until he is satisfied with the answers. What is the protagonist’s challenge he’ll have to overcome? What does he truly, truly want? (Remember the external and internal goals). How will the antagonist stop him from reaching his goal? How will the external plot events magnify the protagonist’s internal conflicts? Will his flaws get in the way of his attempts to resolve the external plot?
If you challenge your protagonist, your reader will follow.
Don’t let your reader down at the end of the book. They’ve hung with you through hundreds of pages and expect a payoff. Here are four common mistakes to avoid disappointing them:
—Ending too fast. Maybe the author was tired of the characters and wanted to move on. Maybe she didn’t know how to end it. Whatever the reason, don’t shortchange the reader. Remember, the ending is the last impression the reader has of your story. Give them satisfaction. They’ll remember when your next book is published.
—Endings that drag on too long. The opposite of the abrupt ending is the one that seemingly goes on forever. Maybe the author loved the story and characters so much she didn’t want to let go. Don’t lose your reader’s interest by going on too long. Leave them wanting more.
—The ho-hum ending. You’ve opened the book with an incredible hook, you’ve layered in plenty of conflict and tension, but the ending doesn’t live up to the buildup. Reward the reader for their patience with an ending that matches their expectations.
—The predictable or cliché ending. The fat high school kid attends his ten-year reunion, now trim and thin and a millionaire. He wins over the prom queen, takes to the stage as M.C. and has everyone eating out of his hand. This type of ending is too neat and unbelievable. Give the hero his just reward, but make him suffer to earn it.
The end should give resolution and catharsis to the reader. It should show how the protagonist has changed since the beginning of the story. Their world should be back to normal, but a new normal. They’ve gone through an incredible journey and emerged a stronger person.
The external conflict is resolved in the climax, but don’t forget to give the reader resolution to the internal conflict, for it’s what they will most identify with. It should emotionally satisfy them and reinforce the faith they gave you on page one.
Tie up loose ends, resolve all conflicts, reinforce the theme, show the protagonist’s growth and give the reader catharsis. Make the reader’s last experience with your book memorable.
TOO MUCH BACK-STORY
Yes, you want the reader to know poor Matilda was jilted at the altar and will never trust another man. It’s important they realize the hero’s fear of horses derives from an accident that crippled his sister. But, and here’s the important part, not on the first page. Nor the first chapter. Yes, details are important so the reader can identify with the characters, but too much detail will drive them away.
Back-story kills suspense. If the reader knows everything about the protagonist, they will have no reason to ask questions and wonder, what next? But once you’ve raised speculation, you have them hooked.
Back-story slows the pace. If you start out with a bang, with an explosion at the U.S. Embassy, and you segue into how the pretty receptionist shouldn’t have worked that day because her mother is due in from Sydney, and she needs to clean her apartment before she arrives, you’ve killed any interest the reader has in why the bomb went off and who set it.
Back-story doesn’t allow the reader to grow with the protagonist. If your hero has to discover secrets about himself, allow the reader to travel on the journey with him.
The best advice I’ve read, and I don’t recall the author or I’d give her credit, was to treat the back-story as a mirror. Break it and sprinkle the shards throughout the story. Pull the reader deeper into the story by giving her one piece of the puzzle at a time.
THE SCENE ISN’T WORKING
You stare at your computer screen, you read and re-read the words over and over again, and you might avoid writing because something isn’t working. The characters refuse to cooperate with you, the dialogue is flat and lifeless, or something doesn’t feel right. To clear up this dissatisfaction, backtrack to where things went wrong. Try alternative plot lines. Brainstorm different things until you hit upon the solution.
By rights, your novel’s pace should be uneven. One continuous car chase after another doesn’t give the reader time to catch their breath. You want to build in downtime to allow the tension to rise and grow again. This rollercoaster effect guarantees continued interest.
You’ve read about the danger of dumping back-story into the beginning of your story. It kills the tension. The pace slows, and the reader is lost. Save the descriptions for someplace other than the action scenes.
To control the pace in your story, structure it into one of three types of scenes.
—Action scenes. These don’t necessarily have to be full of car chases and flying bullets. They should be centered on the protagonist acting to overcome the obstacles in her way to her goal. The action should lead to a consequence. The stakes grow higher, and the reader becomes more vested in what will happen next.
—Descriptive scene. Setting, description, back-story and character reflection are found in the descriptive scene. It will slow the pace, but it gives your reader a chance to recover from an action scene. A descriptive scene should give the reader information that is important to the story.
—Transition scene, also known as sequel. This could be a change in setting, time or viewpoint. It’s used to stitch two scenes together.
Another way to control pace is with sentence and paragraph length. As the end of the story nears and the villain closes in on the hero, ratchet up the tension by using shorter sentences and paragraphs.
The important thing to remember is to include at least one event in each scene that affects the main plot.
“Little did Frank know what effect such a small decision would make on his life.”
“By Sunday, Frank would regret his decision.”
“Frank wasn’t worried about losing altitude in his helium airship. The pressure inside the envelope is extremely low, about 1/15 psi: equal to that of a column of water 4-5 cm (11/2 in) high. Because the pressure is so low, a hole in the envelope results only in a very slow leak, taking hours or even days to affect the airship’s performance.”
When the author steps out of the narrative to say, “Hey, look at how good of a story I’m writing”, or “Read these facts I found”, it’s author intrusion. Whether he does it because he thinks he’s building suspense, or from low self-esteem, or from a need to prove he knows what he’s talking about, such intrusions jerk the reader out of the story. The last thing you want is for your reader’s attention to wander. Bring out the research as needed and avoid facts tucked away in parenthesis (I’ve researched this on Yahoo, Google and Bing and find author intrusion unnecessary).
Sometimes, coincidence works.
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” – Casablanca
More often than not, you’re asking your reader to step over the boundary of believable circumstances. What are the odds your heroine, a computer whiz, investigates a security leak that leads to the man who once crushed her heart? Or the father of an ailing boy who happens to share a cab with the brilliant scientist who’s been working on the cure?
Instead, make the event happen because of the character’s decision and action. The computer whiz seeks out the job of investigating her old flame’s corporation. The father researches the best medical mind in the field and arranges to share a cab with the scientist. Make the event a part of the cause and effect the character creates. It’s more interesting, and it provides opportunity for growth and conflict.
Dark as night.
Gasp in surprise.
Burst out laughing.
We’ve all read them so many times, your eyes tend to skip over them. If you’re describing an action, an emotion or a reaction, try a unique way to portray it.
The bile ground in his stomach.
The smell of winter’s decay.
The wet ink of night paled into moist gray.
Also, avoid plot clichés. You know the type. The hard-boiled detective has run out of leads when he unexpectedly receives a phone call promising new information. Before he can meet with the mysterious informant, the person is killed in a freak accident or winds up in a coma.
At the climax of the book, when all is lost and your reader is wondering how the hero will ever get out of such a pickle, the villain goes on and on about what a clever fellow he is, and in his discourse, he creates an opportunity for the hero to free himself.
The beautiful heroine goes into the darkened basement, though she has no weapon, there’s no electricity, no one else is in the house who can help her, and there’s a serial killer on the loose. This qualifies as a plot cliché, but also as a nomination for the Too Stupid To Live Award.
- If you’ve read this device elsewhere, change your version into something fresh and new.
- If common sense deserts your character, go back to where he lost reason and fix it. Don’t make him do something stupid to move the plot forward. It’s the sign of a lazy writer.
- Brainstorm a list of annoying plot clichés you’ve read or seen on the screen. If your book is headed toward any of them, back out and make it right. Learn from other’s mistakes.
“Mattie had ill-will to see me set awa on this ride, and grat awee, the sillie tawpie; but it’s nae mair ferlie to see a woman greet than to see a goose gang barefit.” — Rob Roy
It’s asking a lot for your reader to wade through sentences like the one above. It’s easy enough to give them the flavor of the dialect without bogging them down in the correct mechanics of it and making them lose interest.
Not all of your characters have to be from Scotland, Spain or Italy. We all have accents and all have a unique way of speaking.
—Listen to how people talk. Do you have a co-worker who says “to make a long story short?” all the time? Or, “like,” “you know” or some other identifiable speech quality?
—Write like people speak. We don’t talk perfect. Pauses, phrases, stops and starts fill our every day speech. How often do you use the name of the person you’re talking to in your speech?
—Avoid stereotypes. Unless you’re deeply immersed in the culture you’re writing about, forget having your character spout colloquialisms from the region. In some regions of the U.S., a Coke is a Coke. Or a soda, a soft drink, or a Pop. Don’t appear amateurish to the reader who knows better.
—Avoid profanity and slang. Hemingway said, “Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable . . . slang goes sour in a short time.” It will also date your work. Profanity will jar your reader. Unless it’s an integral part of your character, use it sparingly.
Dialogue tags are another area where you can lose your reader. Do people hiss, moan, laugh, sputter and screamed their words? Take a lesson from the grand master of dialogue, Elmore Leonard—
“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”
MISUSE OF PRONOUNS
This is a common error if you have a scene with two characters of the same sex. He said, he moved, he pounded his fist—which “he” are you talking about? It’s easy to lose track of your characters. Print the scene and read it out loud to pinpoint areas that need clarifying with the use of a proper name.
CHARACTERS: FLAT, TOO MANY, AND UNSYMPATHETIC
A rich, layered story revolves around a protagonist and an antagonist. Secondary characters can act as sounding boards, sources of information and stars in subplots. But, every character should serve a purpose to the main plot and their own plot line. In other words, they’re not the best friend, the coworker, the TV anchor. They have their own agenda, their own goals, motivations and conflicts. You should know the secondary character’s function and where if fits into the overall plan. If it doesn’t support the main plot, think seriously about losing the character.
Is your story book three of a four part serial? Is it necessary to introduce every character from book one and two and give the reader a detailed update? Does your hero have a best friend Joe, and brother John and a coworker Jack? Can they be combined to form one person, one function? It’s not by coincidence that most TV ensemble casts consist of five to eight characters. Too many, and the viewer becomes confused.
Have you written a victim character? Do bad things happen to him, through no fault of his own making, and he suffers a lot? How about a passive character, who witnesses the events in the story but they don’t affect him? Or the bumbling character, who acts but doesn’t learn from his mistakes?
Is your character stereotypical or boring? Can the reader sympathize with him?
While it’s good to make your character suffer, if he isn’t participating in the story, why would your reader? Bad things should happen to the character because of the choices he makes. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Force him to do something he wouldn’t normally do. Find out what’s the worse thing that could happen to him, and make it happen. You want your character awkward, squirming, unsure and vulnerable as well as growing stronger, learning and applying lessons along the story’s journey. Changing, always changing.
Base your characters on real human traits, with realistic behaviors and reactions. Your reader will identify with them and follow them.
Downtown Pittsburg is different than the Arizona desert. As is Manhattan from the Redwoods. Your setting should look, feel, sound and smell true to its counterpart. If it’s an imaginary world, you have the advantage of creating a world. Don’t omit its texture. If you can immerse the reader in the setting, they’re going buy into it. If, however, they’re in a vacuum, there is no touchstone, nothing they can identify with.
The easiest way to build setting is through details.
—The smell of horseflesh and summer dust, the sweat of the crowd in the heat.
—Hard gravel cut her feet through her thin slippers.
—An indentation in the rough bark of the tree.
—The crackle of last year’s leaves underfoot.
—The vivid color of the sassafras trees cloaking the gown she wore.
Setting is the time and location of your world. It consists of three dimensions:
- Period, the story’s place in time. Does it take place in the past? What year? Is it contemporary or in the future?
- Duration, the story’s length through time. What is the timeline of the story? Does it take place over several days? Weeks? Years?
- Location, the story’s physical place. Small town? City? What buildings in that town? Which rooms?
In writing a story, setting can evoke mood, enhance the theme, acts as a symbol, and influence the character. Don’t overlook the power it can bring to your story.
We hope these tips will strengthen your writing and elevate it several levels. Plot is important to your story. Take the steps we’ve outlined to make your story everything you’ve envisioned.
Happy #AfterNaNo writing!