Writers In The Storm welcomes back double RITA finalist, Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo. Don’t miss Kara’s writing tips the first Friday of every month.
Here are the links for Parts 1-7:
Part 1 – Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 – How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 – A Lack of Goals
Part 4 – Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing
Part 7 – Pick up the Pace
by Kara Lennox
Sometimes, I read a manuscript and think, I’ve read this before.
I can almost predict the next line of dialogue. There is nothing on the page to surprise and delight me.
This a tricky situation, because editors say they want new, fresh voices, but they tend to buy familiar stories. The trick is, to tell a familiar story (Cinderella, for example) in a fresh way, giving it some fresh twists. Otherwise it comes off as stale and predictable. Editors want to be able to put something “marketable” on the cover, but they don’t want readers bored into a coma.
Here is one of my favorite exercises to thwart predictability. As you are working out the plot for your book (or, for you pantsers, as you are trying to figure out what happens next,) make a list of all the things that could happen next.
If your heroine has to make a decision, make a list of at least ten (or twenty) decisions she could make. You’ll get four or five easily; the next five might be more difficult. When you absolutely cannot think of one more decision, look over your list. Toss out the first five, for sure. Sometimes it is number 10, 11, or 12 that you should use.
You don’t want your heroine to act out of character, so be careful of that. But this exercise can help cure the plot doldrums. This exercise, by the way, was suggested by literary agent Donald Maass, but I’ve heard it for years, from a variety of sources. This is another good time to think, “What is the worst that can possibly happen?”
I have a writer friend who loves her characters so much, she can’t bear to make them suffer. Her first drafts often have a very “ordinary” feel to them, because she doesn’t fling enough bad stuff at her characters. Her critique group (me, among others) have to remind her to torture her characters in new and different ways.
Remember — seeing a character suffer undeserved misfortunes is one way the reader connects with them. Think of poor Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. He’s skinny, weak, and he has a horrible name. He is an embarrassment to his father. He is thwarted at every turn. The girl of his dreams ridicules him (I just watched this movie tonight, and it’s a perfect example.)
Another handy exercise is to think about your character, decide what is the very last thing he/she would ever do, then find a way to make them do that very thing. An oft-cited example is Indiana Jones, who will face caves full of giant spiders and poison darts without flinching, but he hates snakes. So later in the movie, he gets dumped into an underground chamber full of snakes and has to brave them to save himself and Marian.
When you force your characters out of their comfort zone, you show character growth, and that’s a good thing. Would the Cowardly Lion ever scale the Wicked Witch’s castle walls to save someone? Not when we first meet him.
Most editors will tell you to err on the side of “too much” rather than “too little,” so don’t be afraid to make a daring choice, try something that’s never been done. An editor can pull you back if you’ve gone too far over the top, but they can’t fix a bland scene.
I recall judging a contest entry once that was so hilarious, I fell in love with it and I knew, without a doubt, the author would one day be published. She sold that book shortly afterward, but the final version that was in print was substantially toned down from the original (so it was more in keeping with the tone of the category romance line that published it.) The author’s daring plot decisions won over the editor, and it didn’t matter that it had to be strenuously edited. This worked in my favor once, when I was unpublished.
One of my favorite authors, Jane Graves, once wrote a love scene between two people who were inside a rickety shed with a hungry tiger on the roof. It was fresh and different, and was the highlight of a memorable book.
Look at your various plot points. Are some of them too predictable, too familiar, or too ordinary? Choose one and make a list of at least five alternative things that could happen. Do any of them jump out at you as brilliant, funny, unexpected? Can you make your hero do the one thing he swore he’d never do?
So tell us – have you ever tried this technique? What did you do to your poor undeserving character to make things worse?
Great things to think about, Kara. I totally get the person who doesn’t want bad things to happen to her characters. You’ve given us some wonderful tools for adding tension. Thanks for the helpful post!
This is great advice. Thanks for sharing. I often think of different ways to torture my characters, but I’ve never made a list. I think I’ll start.
Kara, I’ve had CPs who said the same thing to me you said to your CP. Glad to know I’m not the only writer who doesn’t want to hurt their characters too much. Be sure to tell your critique partner I said hi. 🙂 My problem is I don’t even like to read books, where too much bad happens to the heroine. Too much angst is a downer for me. I will try the list thing next time. I might start midway down the list rather than at the end. Move into this thing gradually.Good points to think about, Kara. Thanks.
I too find it difficult to put too much bad karma on my characters. But I’ve learned that the more conflict abounds, the more likely an agent/publisher will snatch up your work. Thanks for passing on these helpful tips.
Thanks for sharing some great ideas and tips. Have to remember when I’m stuck to try the list thing.
Thanks, everyone, for your comments!
Marsha, I sometimes don’t like to read a book if my main characters suffer too much. Recently I had to stop reading a novel by one of my favorite thriller authors because a secondary character was being tortured and repeatedly raped. Although she’s going to be rescued at the end, I’m pretty sure, I can’t help thinking of all the years of therapy she’ll need.
Kara, this is another of your posts I can save and learn from. Yes, I love to put my characters in unseeming places. What I do is let the story finish the first time and then go back and add layers of confusion, pain, heartache and fun. It can be said that there are X-number of universal plots … but it can never be said (like a reworked cliche) that we can’t make twisted variations 🙂 Thanks so much for another great post !!
Kara, this is an excellent post! I really liked your idea of writing down the list of decisions your heroine would do and the process by which to choose. Excellent for writers. Keep up the great posts
Love the advice. I thought “Donald Maass” before you popped his name into your post.
It’s sometimes easy to forget in the midst of writing frenzy. Thanks for the noggin bonk. I’ve bookmarked your post — and pulled Maass’ Writing the Break-out Novel from my shelves.
I forgot how powerful his reminders were when I needed a kick into gear. I used to sit outside at SBUX for a ten, fifteen minute break and read something in the workbook. Invariably something pinged.
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Great advice, thanks! I shall go away and consider all the things that COULD happen to my characters right now… 🙂
Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
Great tips, thanks 🙂
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