Building Narrative Tension: Summary and Checklist

Book Nanny’s top tips for creating and sustaining suspense and tension in your novel:

MH900449057Over the past months, we’ve examined some of the key issues involved in building tension into the structure of a narrative.

So, to be sure that your scenes are creating maximum suspense and reader anticipation, here’s a checklist of the main points:

  1. Do the events and locations in each scene move the scene along physically, geographically, emotionally, and in terms of time?
  2. Is reader knowledge level or one step ahead of at least one of your POV characters?
  3. Are all readers’ expectations fulfilled and all reversals of key decisions explained?
  4. Does the reader have enough information in each scene to be able to anticipate an outcome?
  5. Does the scene up the ante or put physical or psychological pressure on the character or characters?
  6. Does the scene place external and internal obstacles and hindrances in the character’s way so they have to manoeuvre around them?
  7. Are the characters actively choosing to take action to achieve their objective in the scene?
  8. MB900411376Does the scene link to the theme of the book for one or more characters?

If the answer to the majority of the above questions is ‘yes’, chances are your scenes are doing what they need to do in order to keep readers engaged.

If not,why not have another look at Book Nanny’s series on building narrative tension:

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises, dah … dah … doh? 

Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving the Story Along

Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Continuing our analysis of the sequence of scenes from our Building Narrative Tension 3 post, in this post, we will focus on how combining the tension-building elements discussed in the previous posts with objectives and obstacles and links to the theme of your book can help ensure readers stay fully engaged and turning the pages.

Here are two possibilities for the next Simon POV scene:

SCENARIO 1: Late afternoon: Simon bumps into an old friend from out of town who asks him to go for drink. Simon considers it, but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to be home on time to get ready for the family event. He smiles wryly. Julia always said he was a creature of habit, and he’s proving her right. But this is the last time: from now on things will be different.

MH900324712OR

SCENARIO 2: Late afternoon: Simon is stuck in traffic, but deviates from his normal routine and takes a short cut up a one-way street. He’s pleased with himself – this is the new him – being bad for a change and not the boring old codger Julia thinks he is. He’ll be home in plenty of time.

Both scenarios (going for a drink and the traffic jam) present an obstacle to Julia’s plans and tantalise the reader with the possibility of Simon escaping her murderous clutches, so both equal there. And in each case Simon decides that getting home on time is his priority, so, again, we’re level. In both cases, we learn more about Simon’s character, which, as explained in Building Narrative Tension 1 is the ‘added value’ bonus that comes with fulfilling readers’ expectations, but if we focus specifically on what Simon decides to do in each scene and why, will that make a difference?

Objectives, Character and Theme 

Let us assume that the themes of our story are love dying, and a yearning for freedom and redemption.

MH900414074Scenario 1 offers Simon the opportunity to do something spontaneous, and thereby possibly save his life. True to form, he chooses not to go for a drink. and thereby possibly save his life.

In Scenario 2 Simon grabs the opportunity to begin the process of change; to experience a moment of freedom, unfettered by authority or Julia’s opinion of him. Unbeknownst to him, he plays right into Julia’s hands, because she is banking on his being home exactly on time as usual.

In Scenario 1, Simon is a victim of his own fundamental inability to change, despite his hopes for a new beginning in Antarctica. His decision is based on a negative: he declines to do something rather than taking positive action, as he does in Scenario 2, to achieve his objective to get home on time.

Scenario 2 has more impact in terms of action, and, in showing that Simon can change, it opens up the possibility of redemption, unlike Scenario 1, which appears to firmly close that off.

MB900303675aTherein lies the crux of the matter: if we close off any chance of redemption for Simon, we’ve already consigned him to his fate at this point in the narrative. Essentially, he can do no more to save himself and any reprieve will have to come from Julia. But how likely is that, given that it is Julia’s determined and controlling nature that is causing Simon to flee to Antarctica? So, if a reprieve from Julia can only be achieved by her acting ‘out of character‘ (which screams plot contrivance), then from a reader’s point of view, any attempt to build up further suspense from here simply gets in the way of the story. Essentially, we might as well cut to the chase and get to the murder showdown.

Which might work if we didn’t have redemption as one of our themes.

Therefore, faced with a choice between two equally workable scenes, ask yourself the question, which one best fits (all) the themes of the book?

In the present case, it’s Scenario 2. And as an added bonus we also get the painful irony that Simon’s attempts to change become pivotal events leading to his possible destruction.

Moving swiftly along (and yes, time will now begin to speed up as we hurtle towards the climax of our sequence), let’s get back to Julia, who has managed to withstand the psychological pressure of the phone call with her daughter, Poppy, in Building Narrative Tension 3. This is her ‘eleventh hour’, and we put one more obstacle in her way: a memory of the days when she and Simon were a new beginning and love was not dying or already dead.

SO01677_aEarly evening: Julia sits in the kitchen, gleaming butcher’s knife beside her on the table in readiness. A picture on the wall of her and Simon in happier days causes her a nanosecond of hesitation. Or regret? Perhaps Simon will surprise her this time. Perhaps he won’t come home at all, or he’ll be late; or he will come home and do something extraordinary? As the clock in the hallway chimes 6 o’clock, Julia holds her breath …

Does Julia kill Simon? Or does the success of his trip up the one-way street inspire Simon to be a changed man on his arrival home and do whatever ‘extraordinary’ thing Julia is hoping for from him? Or will Poppy, disturbed by her earlier call with her mother, turn up early for the party and on time to save Simon?

For the purposes of this exercise, suffice it to say, the journey to this point is more important than the actual ending. Along the way we have looked at how to structure our sequence from the original sketchy outline so that each scene builds on the previous one and works on a number of different plot, character and thematic levels to increase reader anticipation and engagement in the narrative.

And, for that, reason, I’ll leave the decision as to poor Simon’s fate up to you, dear readers. What do you think happens next? Oooh, the suspense!

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving The Story Along

In this post, we’re taking a look at how to build a sequence of scenes to maximise tension and keep readers hooked to the end. We’re using our old friends, Simon and Julia Specimen, from previous posts. As before, we have two POVs, so we will be switching between the two.

To start with, the notes for our first draft version of the sequence run something like this:

BD09315_It’s the day of the family gathering before Simon leaves for Antarctica – Julia and Simon at  breakfast – atmosphere strained and tense. Simon goes out to work – his day progresses as usual. He has an important meeting; goes to lunch with his best buddy; they talk about him leaving for Antarctica. Julia is in her garden; she chats to the neighbour, talks to her daughter, reminisces about her youth/early romance with Simon. Simon arrives home and goes up to have a shower as he always does. He’s a creature of habit. Sometimes Julia hates him for it. This is one of those times. She makes a snap decision – he won’t leave her – she won’t let him. Julia grabs a knife and rushes upstairs. 

Let’s analyse the sequence above from the point of view of building tension. First of all, showing the general ‘averageness’ of the day could be a problem; either we are in danger of repeating information from earlier in the book, or the reader will be wondering why this information wasn’t given before now. Instead, we should look at sequence carefully and pick out what is actually interesting for the reader. How about the last sentences: ‘Julia makes a snap decision’ and so on? The question is how can we make the whole day as interesting as these sentences and really build tension for the reader?

  • Reader knowledge: keep your reader level or one step ahead of your POV character.

MB900310506We discussed reader knowledge in Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs. So putting that into practice: what if Julia’s decision to kill comes earlier on? In this case, the reader is level with Julia and ahead of Simon. Rather than giving the game away, this cranks up reader anticipation.Once we are aware of Julia’s intentions, average and everyday events take on a much greater significance and provide a dramatic contrast to the possible fate awaiting Simon at home that evening.

So now our first scene looks something more like this:

Early morning: as Simon’s car disappears down the driveway, Julia unloads the dishwasher to make room for the breakfast dishes. She stares at the butcher’s knife in her hand and makes her decision: she will not allow Simon to leave her. She will kill him that evening before the planned family gathering to wish him well before he leaves for the Antarctica posting.

Now that we’ve grabbed our readers’ attention, each subsequent scene needs to move the story along.  But how do you make plot choices which do just that?

  • Forward momentum: time and movement 

MB900411376Generally speaking, each scene should move on in time, bringing us closer to the climax of the sequence. Or perhaps the movement is geographical: a step further along in a character’s physical journey? Either way, actual time passing or physical movement towards a particular place or point in time helps to build a sense of forward momentum in a narrative.

  • Emotional momentum

And forward momentum shouldn’t be confined to the physical. Each new scene should move the story along emotionally or psychologically by providing readers with new character information or events which increase their sense of anticipation. So, let’s switch to Simon’s POV and ask ourselves what is important about his day, given that we now know what Julia is planning for him? Let’s move him on in time, place and give our reader some new information which will ratchet up the suspense:

MH900434593It’s mid-morning: Simon’s workplace. He’s in the middle of a good-humoured, boozy, leaving do and happily accepting good wishes for the future from his soon-to-be-ex work colleagues. Mixed feelings about leaving work, but he’s excited. He’s looking forward to the evening – after tonight everything will be resolved and he will be free of Julia and their problems.

Everything in Simon’s world is rosy, because, he, unlike the reader, has no idea of what Julia has planned for him. It’s this emotional juxtaposition of character ignorance and reader knowledge that keeps the reader on tenterhooks.

  • Put the lid on the emotional/psychological pressure cooker and turn to maximum.

We’re back with Julia; so how do we push the story along for her? Should we show her weeding the garden and waving to the nosy neighbour as usual in a bid to keep up the pretence of normality? But it’s no longer a normal day for Julia, so, instead, let’s twist a few psychological screws and see what happens. Let’s put her in a position where she has an opportunity to reveal, or is in danger of revealing, what is going on inside her:

Early afternoon: Julia’s list of things to do for the party lies on the kitchen table unread.  MB900389154Her eldest daughter, Poppy, calls. She wants to come round to help Julia out with the preparations for the family get-together. Julia has to stop her. Poppy senses her mother’s turmoil, but she thinks it is because Julia is upset at Simon leaving. In fact, there’s a hurricane blowing inside Julia and the effort not to vent her true anger and bitterness at Simon’s betrayal is almost unbearable. 

Poppy’s call raises both external and internal obstacles to Julia’s plan: there is a moment where she could change her mind, or be found out and, as readers, we are wondering whether Julia’s resolve will hold, will she crack and reveal all or will Poppy realise in time that something is terribly wrong with her mother?

TO BE CONTINUED

Building Narrative Tension 2: A Trail of Delicious Crumbs

How much information do readers need to be able to fully understand what is going on in a story? It may appear an odd complaint, but sometimes when structuring a series of scenes to build tension, authors can be just as guilty of giving a reader too little plot information as too much. Sometimes it’s a case of giving them the right information at the wrong time. But what is certain is that readers don’t enjoy being treated like mushrooms: that is, being kept the dark and having stuff thrown at them unexpectedly.

To illustrate, let’s go back to our two resident Book Nanny characters: Simon and Julia. The last time we met Simon in Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah…doh?, he was trying to find a good time to tell Julia that their twenty-five year marriage was over. And so we continue:

MB900023351‘Finally they were alone. This was it. Simon grabbed the opportunity and blurted it out. Typically for Julia, she took the news rather stoically at first. ‘Well, that’s that, I suppose. There’s nothing to be done, is there?’ She inhaled deeply, as if trying to breathe in the entire room. A bitter, strangled cry escaped as she exhaled. It’s all her fault, isn’t it? She’s to blame, I know she is! This would never have happened if you hadn’t been offered that posting in Antarctica.’ 

So what’s the problem here? Well, personally, as a reader, rather than focussing on the emotion of the moment, I find myself instead taken completely by surprise by the reference to Antarctica. It even overshadows the news that someone else might be responsible for the couple’s marital difficulties. It’s one of those confusing reader moments when you feel obliged to go back to the earlier scene to check you haven’t missed something. Rather than drawing me further into the story, the revelation pushes me away. I feel excluded and left out, as though the characters and the author were in possession of some important information all along, but nobody bothered letting me in on the secret.

As a general rule, to avoid such unnecessary shocks to the narrative, you should err on the side of allowing the reader to be at least on the same knowledge level, or even one step ahead, of your POV characters rather than two jumps behind them. 

Reader anticipation is key when building suspense. So set your scene. Give your readers enough information to allow them to think ahead of your character and anticipate what happens next. Think of it as a trail of intriguing information crumbs which increasingly ‘ups the ante’ for a character, rather than bombarding readers with a series of plot surprises or sudden events which can come across as contrivances or manipulations.

So how do you decide which information is important to impart to a reader at the start and which can hold until later? Consider the two pieces of information from Julia in the scene above: (1) that someone else is to blame and (2)  Antarctica. MH900414074Well, Julia’s accusation is exactly that: an accusation. We don’t know if someone else is to blame for the break-up of their relationship – that is something that will be explored over the course of the story. Julia’s reference to it in this scene moves that element of the story on from the first scene and is the right reference in the right place. However, the Antarctica trip is clearly a pivotal plot point for Simon: either he has already been there and something has happened to make him want to end his marriage to Julia, or he has taken the posting for whatever reason and wants to deal with the marriage issue before he leaves. Either way, its existence has a direct bearing on what he wants (there we go with objectives again!) and the steps he takes to achieve his goals. Which is why the mention of it only in the second scene strikes a reader as an omission or exclusion.

So let’s see what happens when we add Antarctica to the opening paragraph of the scene in my previous Building Narrative Tension 1 post:

‘Do it, do it now!’ The small voice in his head urged Simon on as he made his way to the greenhouse. In three weeks’ time, he would be holed up in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, and it would be too late. But Julia was alone at last, and he would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. Yes, he would do it. He would tell her. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

Much better, don’t you agree? Putting Simon under time pressure to have the ‘Big Talk’ gives this scene a far greater sense of urgency. It also provides an intriguing hook for the reader as we want to know more about his upcoming trip to the South Pole. In fact, even without Julia’s allegations in the following scene, we will probably still wonder about the someone or something Simon is running to or away from in Antarctica. And rather than being out of the loop, we readers are now fairly chomping at the bit to know more. Job done!

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah….doh??

The issue of readers’ expectations cropped up in my earlier post ‘The Ins and Outs of Writing Character’ in relation to keeping your protagonist in character rather than out of it.

MH900390992However, readers’ expectations also play an important part when it comes to structuring scenes to create tension in your novel.

As a general guideline, if you set up your reader to expect a certain development, event or revelation in a scene, you must deliver in some form or other, or risk incurring their (wholly righteous) anger and annoyance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to tell the reader everything immediately. Revealing character secrets bit by bit is an essential part of building tension, and keeping your reader engaged. But one of the structural problems I come across as a substantive editor is what I call the ‘unfulfilled promise’ syndrome, which usually shows up when an author is trying to create tension by drawing out, say, a confrontation or the revelation of a secret over a number of scenes.

To illustrate my point, let’s bring in Simon and Julia from my earlier post in relation to Point of View shifts:

Simon made his way to the greenhouse. Julia was alone at last. He would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. He would do it now, while she was alone. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

‘There you are, darling. Almost finished here. I’ll be in shortly.’

BD09315_He gulped.

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

Simon decided he wouldn’t do it. Not yet. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

‘Oh, yes, please.’ 

As a reader, this encounter leaves me feeling dissatisfied and a little cheated. And asking some awkward questions. Why did Simon say he was going to tell Julia their relationship was over and then decide not tell her after all? What caused him to change his mind? And what exactly was the point of that scene?

So how do you build tension without giving everything away at once? The answer is the same way you keep your character ‘in character’: by managing your reader’s expectations, not simply walking away from them or changing the subject at the crucial moment.

Let’s look at our Simon and Julia scene once again. What we need to do is to make it clear to the reader why Simon doesn’t go through with his intention of telling Julia their marriage is over. So why doesn’t he? Remember objectives and obstacles in The Terrible Twos? What if Simon’s objective is to tell Julia of the break-up while she’s alone, but just as he is about to do so, someone else arrives:

 

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

AN00363_A loud bark from their excitable cocker spaniel and the sound of a small car pulling into the driveway alerted Simon to the fact that their two youngest daughters had returned from their shopping trip rather earlier than expected.

Now was not the time, after all.

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

Or perhaps the obstacle is internal: to do with the type of man Simon is. Perhaps he simply hasn’t the bottle to go through with it, or he shies away from conflict, or perhaps he still loves Julia deep down, and just can’t bring himself to do it.  You’re the author, it’s your character, you choose. But whatever you choose, please keep the reader in the loop.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes?’

MB900412716Simon hesitated. The thought of his wife’s distress at what he was about to say made him feel sick. No, he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not while she was alone, with no one to comfort her. He’d wait until their daughter, Poppy, arrived. Yes, that would be better. He’d wait until Poppy was here, then he’d do it. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

So by fulfilling the promise set up in the scene, you not only gain a wonderful opportunity to impart some great character information, you also keep your readers engaged and wondering what will happen next.

Of course, if you really want to make it interesting, you could try this:

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

For a moment Simon thought he saw a look of dark suspicion cross Julia’s face. But then she smiled sweetly at him. 

‘Oh, yes, please.’

Dah, dah, dah….

For Dickens’ sake, please don’t tell!

‘I am a mortal,” Scrooge remonstrated, “and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

It’s almost Christmas and, in the—ahem—spirit of the season, we are back with A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who is about to tell that old miser Scrooge what’s what.

‘Ho, ho, ho, Ebenezer Scrooge, sit yourself down there, and let’s talk about you. 05 Ghost of CPA lonely child, left behind at school when all the other boys went home for Christmas; one sister, Fanny, frail body, big heart; she died young; one child, your nephew. You were devastated. All that resentment and bitterness, dude—not good for the soul. Then you were in love with Belle, and she loved you. Oh, yes she did. But it didn’t last. You were too ambitious, too greedy; it became all about the money: you and Jacob Marley grubbing and scheming, until there was nothing left to you but each other and your false idol. And now look at you: wizened and miserable. Do you know what you need, Ebenezer? A change of heart! You need to start caring about other people again. People like Bob Cratchit and his poorly son, Tiny Tim, who’ll surely die if you don’t start caring. And then you’ll end up dead yourself and unmourned. Nobody will even miss you; well, not for longer than a moment (your nephew really is a decent sort, you know). In fact, there’ll be some doing happy dances at the thought. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? So here’s the deal: repent and redeem yourself, or die and suffer like Jacob Marley, with a long chain trailing behind you for eternity. A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think? Right, got that? So, we’re good? Pleasure doing redemption with you. Must dash, other places to go and people to see, and next door has mince pies! Ho, ho, ho…’

Not quite Dickens, is it? But it does raise a number of interesting questions. As a reader, the Ghost of Christmas Present’s charm, joie de vivre and his illuminating banter notwithstanding, would you expect the embittered, miserable, petty Ebenezer Scrooge as depicted in the first chapter of the book to repent, as the late, great Tommy Cooper would say, ‘just like that’? Would you believe Dickens if he tried to make you believe Scrooge would change so easily? I don’t think so. In fact, in those circumstances, I’d be inclined to believe Scrooge was correct when he surmised that the whole ghostly experience was likely the result of indigestion. No, all in all, I’d want a little more emotional and psychological incentive over and above the jolly warnings of a fat old ghost dressed like a Victorian Christmas tree.

01 Jacob MarleyWhich is exactly what Dickens gives his readers: he doesn’t tell us about Scrooge, he shows us using images, events and relationships to which both the reader and the character can relate. He carries us, just as the three ghosts carry Scrooge, on an emotional journey towards redemption, through the memories of his character’s past: the sad childhood, his devotion to his sister, his friends and first love—all possibilities in Scrooge’s youth for a different outcome—into the bitter-sweet present of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, and the bleak future promised by a refusal to change.

A Christmas Carol demonstrates very clearly the difference between showing and telling. You get the same facts by telling, but you don’t get the emotional connection that showing can give you.

If you still don’t believe me, cast your eye over the Ghost of Christmas Present’s story once again. Who or what are we really focussing on when we read it: the Ghost of Christmas Present or the story he is telling us? Which of them is engaging us emotionally? Are we so busy being entertained by the ghost’s character and anachronistic style, that the story he is telling fails to move us enough to shed tears at the thought of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise?

The moral of this Christmas tale: watch out for those telltale signs of telling: chunks of back story, exposition and information dumps, and replace them instead with scintillating dialogue, thrilling action and warm fuzzy feelings.

And so to Dickens for the last word:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Quotations and illustrations are from the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech.

Full copy available to download on http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

Love at First Draft xxx

Congratulations to all those who took part in NaNoWriMo last month. I hope you are all basking in the delight of having the bones of your next first draft safely stored away!

MH900410653Ah, first drafts—the writing equivalent of love at first sight! A whirlwind romance, a lovers’ tiff and break-up, followed by a hot, sexy weekend together in Paris all rolled into one! In other words: ecstatic, chaotic, wonderful, infuriating,  heart-breaking and inspirational.

So to ease the process along, here are a few first draft ground rules:

  • Firstly, there are no rules! And even if there were rules, they were made to be broken. It’s your first draft, for goodness’ sake! All yours, just for you, for your eyes only! Enjoy it! Just get it down on paper or computer screen—you can sort it out later!
  • Accept and rejoice in the fact that it is in the nature of first drafts to contain some or all of the following:
    • Clichés
    • Typos
    • Coincidences
    • POV shifts
    • Unbelievable leaps out of character and back in again.
    • Extraneous characters you didn’t even know existed until you started writing.
    • Lots of other good and bad stuff.
  • Don’t be afraid to play around with your novel. Write scenes you know from the outset will never make it—write five versions of the same scene—even if you know all five are ‘wrong’. Ask yourself a lot of questions about the book: ‘what if’, ‘why’, then write down all the answers regardless of what they are. There is no right and wrong in writing—only what works and what doesn’t—but deciding which is which comes at a much later stage in process – that’s what editing is for.
  • Take active steps to shut off the editor in your head: if typing on the computer is encouraging you to edit, try writing with a pen and notebook for while. Try free writing – jotting down the first thing that comes into your head – just to get the creative juices flowing. Experiment a little, and find out what works best for you.

MH900280567

  • Remember that you are unique: what works for someone else will not necessarily work for you—find your own process and inspiration. Equally, each book you write is unique: the process you used for your first book, may not work for your second. Don’t forget, you’ve progressed as a writer, and learned from the experience of book 1; book 2 will be different, so don’t give yourself a hard time when it is.
  • How to’ books, blogs and other people’s advice are not ‘rules’ you have to follow: they are possible ways which might work for you when you need to troubleshoot a particular issue that’s causing you problems when you come to review or edit your work. You’re not at that stage yet, so forget them for the moment.
  • Don’t show your work too early; make sure you and your first draft are strong enough together before you start showing it off.
  • And remember, it’s a first draft, so ignore all of the above and just write!

The Ins and Outs of Writing Character

‘Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I raised the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in my earlier post ‘A Conspiracy of Coincidences’.  But what exactly does this mean?

MH900013240

In everyday speech, we would usually describe somebody as being ‘out of character’ if they do something we don’t expect. But, I hear you say, the whole point of my novel is that my character doesn’t do what everyone expects. And what about character nuance and complexity? Surely, my hero is allowed to be contradictory, or change his mind without being considered ‘out of character’?

In fiction, as in real life, the key to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character depends on other people’s expectations. So the key to keeping your character ‘in character’ is to manage your reader’s expectations. Your character can change his mind and be as contradictory as often as he likes to all the other characters in the story, as long as it is clear to the reader that this unpredictability and contradiction are part of his essential nature, and not something tacked on by the author to get him out of a rather too deep and awkwardly constrictive plot hole.

If your story turns on the fact that your character is going to face his demons and do something he has never done before, you need to prepare your readers in advance.

 Take Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for example. His employer’s post-Ghost behaviour is so out of character for him that poor Bob Cratchit assumes the man has lost his wits entirely. So why are readers so willing to accept the curmudgeonly miser’s complete change of heart and personality?

MH900020689Because Dickens has set up the hope of redemption at a plot and character level from the start of the book: Jacob Marley’s ghost is a last chance warning to change before it is too late, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us a kinder, more innocent Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting to surface underneath all that miserly cynicism. Bob may not expect Scrooge’s redemption, but we readers do, and all is well.

So don’t wait until your hero has his back firmly against the inescapable wall of whatever jeopardy you have in store for him before he discovers his hidden depths of character and abilities. Your readers won’t thank you for pulling convenient and hitherto unknown character traits from nowhere like rabbits appearing from a magician’s hat, but they will appreciate a carefully structured pay-off for all their emotional investment in a character.

Book Nanny is running a workshop on writing character, ‘Write them for real’, Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 9.45 am, Carousel Creates Writers’ Centre, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14. Full details here

Character and Plot 4: A Conspiracy of Coincidences

MH900059565The subject of coincidence in plotting is a thorny one. Many years ago, a TV development executive told me that one of the key plot flaws they asked their script readers to look out for in a sample script was coincidence. If the story hinged on it or there was a pattern of rather-too-convenient events or coincidences, then more than likely the script would get the thumbs down. A little harsh, perhaps, but their view was that the presence of coincidences in a story would invariably lead to two killer audience complaints: ‘the plot was contrived’ or ‘the characters weren’t believable‘.

Before the outcry begins, let me be clear that we’re not talking about the merely fantastical or serendipitous here: we’re talking about the type of plot coincidence in which it is clear that an author has essentially attempted to ram a square character into a round plot hole or vice versa.

Unit Objectives 

Take our two characters from ‘The Terrible Twos’: in the last post we left Character A battling her spontaneous combustion demons and trying to prevent Character B from being on stage—two interesting dilemmas (and obstacles to Character A’s objectives) keeping the audience engaged. So how do you think the members of the audience will feel if any or all of the following happens?

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(1)    Character A states that she has been suddenly and miraculously cured of her fear of bursting into flames and sits down; or

(2)    She sits on the chair, and the whole ‘spontaneous combustion’ thing is conveniently ignored; and/ or

(3)    A letter arrives from Character B telling us that she’s decided to move permanently to the Caribbean and won’t be coming back.

Fair enough, these ‘coincidences’ may seem a little too obvious, but the fact is that the more complex the story, the easier it can be to fall into the coincidence trap. You know you need a character to be at a certain place at a certain point in the story, and you just keep hammering away until you get them there, ignoring the instinct that is telling you loudly and clearly that something is just not quite right. We’ve all done it, and hitting that kind of plotting block can be hugely frustrating for a writer.

One of best ways of sorting out these structural blips is to play the objective: this time not just the super-objective which drives the overall emotional arc of the story, but the small scene or unit objectives we spoke about earlier.

So how do we get at these ‘unit objectives’ and how can they help with plotting our story?

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Essentially unit objectives derive from those other all-important dramatic building blocks: character and character choice. Each move, each action should involve your character in a choice. Whether the impetus behind it is conscious or sub-conscious is immaterial, but it should come from the character asking her or himself: what do I want to achieve and how do I make it happen?

Let’s assume Character A above has reached crisis point: she needs to get rid of her ‘spontaneous combustion’ fear in order to achieve her super-objective. Perhaps hypnosis is the answer? But how to get Character A and a hypnotist together at this juncture? If she leaves the building, Character B will take her seat and A’s super-objective is finished. We can’t have our hypnotist simply turn up in a ‘here’s-one-I-called-earlier’ sort of way—that really would be a coincidence! But what if A could persuade someone to fetch one for her? What if she could somehow even manage to persuade Character B to fetch the hypnotist, thereby unwittingly causing B’s own downfall? Now that would be a psychologically interesting scenario. So next question, what strategy should Character A use to persuade Character B: seduction, bribery, brute force or all of the above? And what to do if Character B doesn’t take the bait?

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As you can see, each choice a character makes leads to another question and another choice. It also clearly pinpoints the intersection of character and plot because Character A’s answer to each question posed and each strategy choice will be determined by what type of person she is. We’ll look at the whole issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that as long as A remains within character, then the action will push forward naturally and organically and accusations of authorial manipulation or contrivance can be avoided.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget that in building a story, you are not only dealing with one character’s objectives. Other characters, even minor ones, have objectives too, and their objectives can provide useful obstacles or assistance to help you weave what Sir Walter Scott called a ‘tangled web’ to keep your main characters under pressure (it’s that emotional arc again) and your readers turning the pages.

Happy plotting!

 

Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

MB900294304What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. MH900389348 Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings usMB900441386 back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.