Tag Archives: Donald Maass

What’s At Stake?

Yeah, not that kind.

Yeah, not this kind.

If a story needs tension on every page, it seems logical that authors writing fiction need to learn how to create tension. One technique is to increase stakes, that is, to make the action urgent.

Unfortunately, it seems this idea of upping stakes is too often equated with saving the world from aliens or stopping a terrorist attack. After all, what are higher stakes?

The problem, of course, is that not every story is about aliens or terrorists. And even in the stories that accommodate those elements, repetition has reduced these high stakes to a shrug unless there is more involved.

Not this kind either.

Not that kind either.

So how can a writer bring urgency to her story without threatening to blow up the White House or start a pandemic that could wipe out the human race? First, we need to look at what’s behind the stakes.

At the heart of a story is a character with a need or a goal–he wants to win the love of the princess or get a promotion at work or make his dad proud. To evaluate the stakes created by any actions these characters might take, the author must simply ask, so what?

What will the character lose if he doesn’t win the love of the princess? Well, the princess! some will answer. And that matters, why? Can’t he simply find another girl to love, one he can win?

Or what happens if he doesn’t get the promotion he wants? Won’t he simply continue working at the job he has? How about making his dad proud. If he doesn’t, what will he lose? A chance for better self-esteem? And that matters because . . .

The point is, stakes are built, in part, upon creating consequences for failure. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, equated their love with life. They chose dying rather than living without the person they loved.

However, in addition to creating consequences, these consequences must matter, and this is accomplished by creating a character the reader will care about.

As long as the reader merely has a nodding acquaintance with the protagonist, the stakes of a novel will remain low. Only when the reader cares deeply what happens to him will the stakes begin to soar.

Writing instructor Donald Maass states this principle clearly in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The wishes, needs and objectives of strangers are, to most of us, of little concern. The same is true in a reader’s relationship to a character in a story: That character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. If the character feels cold, distant or veiled, it is impossible to care. The personal stakes in the story feel low. Reader interest is weak. On the other hand, when characters are strong and appealing, and better still are portrayed warmly and with intimate candor, the stakes feel high and reader interest runs high, as well. (p. 74)

In short, personal stakes for the protagonist hinge upon how well the reader gets to know this character. Maass again:

we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy. Sympathy in turn gives power to stakes.

A corollary to this principle is that readers will care about circumstances that a sympathetic character cares about. To raise the stakes, however, the author must withhold what the character wants, must take him through a minidisaster that forces him to regroup. Each failure reminds the reader what’s at stake.

Besides personal stakes, a novelist should present public stakes–what will society lose if the heroine fails? Again, it’s easy to jump to the large failure–death and destruction. But there are different kinds of destruction. A writer should consider exploring moral choices, ethics, corruption, spiritual well-being and their affects on society.

One character, of course, is most likely not going to impact a government to wipe out all corruption or turn a society away from a questionable ethic, but this is where a novelist can allow the character to represent “everyman” and establish a universal principle by showing a particular life and situation.

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_2The old movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to mind as this type of story. When corrupt politicians tried to manipulate a Junior Senator, Mr. Smith, appointed to office to complete the term of the deceased incumbent, the young man ends up embroiled in false accusations and dishonest dealings. His efforts to do what is right eventually cause one old family friend to confess his wrong doings.

Is all of Washington cleaned of corruption? No, but Mr. Smith illustrates what an honest man willing to stand for right can accomplish. The stakes in this story involve the good of society, not just Mr. Smith’s reputation–though there is that, as well as his standing in the eyes of the woman he’s attracted to.

Perhaps this intertwining of personal and public stakes is the ultimate method of elevating both.

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Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

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Timeless Questions And Eternal Mysteries

church_1Writers say something. Whether that something is trivial and mundane or significant and profound depends on how unafraid they are. Yes, unafraid. Many writers are afraid they will limit the scope of their book if they place their story firmly in a particular economic or political or religious milieu. They’re afraid if they take sides in a controversial question, they’ll make enemies and lose readers.

Just this week another writer related on an email the gist of a discussion elsewhere regarding the inclusion of particular evangelical Christian denominations and their practices in works of fiction. This writer argued against generic “community churches” and in favor of the First Presbyterian Church or Grace Lutheran or Diamond Bar Baptist. In other words, she advocated including specific churches with peculiar doctrines.

The individual taking the opposite position made a case for widening the audience for a book by painting generic evangelical elements rather than specific ones.

Which is right?

According to a host of writing instructors, writing with specific details brings a place or a person alive. Consequently, writers that steer away from presenting a particular environment or view point, whether religious or political, are actually neutering their story. From Donald Maass:

What distinguishes our era? What are its look, buzzwords, issues, and conflicts? Fashion magazines, op-ed pages, sports reporting, rappers, corporate websites, and teen slang are all barometers of our times . . . I don’t mean to suggest dropping in brand names or news events. Those are shallow gimmicks. I do mean that an important component of any novel’s grip on readers’ imaginations is how that novel brings alive its times. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 168 – emphasis mine)

The fear of dating a novel scares off some authors from creating the kind of particular atmosphere that makes a story feel as if it’s anchored in reality. However, stories like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck bring alive a time and culture through which the author can then say something important and universal.

Some writers also fear taking a stand on a controversial subject or saying something significant about an eternal question. Maass again:

The mysteries of existence are also often avoided in manuscripts. Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe in God? Are our lives random or do they have a purpose? Do you think about these things? Of course you do . . . What about your protagonist? What’s her take on the big questions? Is it pretentious to include them?

Ducking the big questions is easy. So is achieving low impact . . . Is there such a thing as justice when laws are made by fallible humans? Does do no harm have any meaning when medicine becomes guesswork? Is it worth building bridges when their ultimate collapse is guaranteed? Do we teach in schools “truths” that are untrue? Does the accumulation of capital do good or does it corrupt? What are the limits of friendship? Should loyalty last beyond the grave? We read fiction not just for entertainment but for answers to those questions. So answer them. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 169-170 – emphasis mine)

A good many writers are afraid of answering these kinds of questions, thinking that by doing so they’ll come across as preachy–the death knell to fiction, especially Christian fiction.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdHaving something to say does not equate with preachy writing. Harper Lee had some specific things to say about prejudice, but I’ve never heard anyone claim To Kill A Mockingbird was preachy. That’s because Ms. Lee didn’t explain what she had to say: she showed it through her characters.

She didn’t have one of them sum up the meaning of all the events or spell out the ethical implications of why they did what they chose to do. Rather, she created believable people who lived in a specific time with a certain set of problems, and she showed one man and his daughter who lived in contradiction to the societal norm.

Clearly she tackled her subject unafraid, even in the racially charged era of the pre-Civil Rights movement, and the result was a classic story with timeless truths, still being read and studied fifty years later.

Oh, and that author opposed to specific evangelical Christian denominations in fiction? It turns out each of her books is set in the Amish community–quite particular, very unique, and yet apparently a fertile field for stories that speak to readers today.

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Deepen Your Story With Plot Layers

Super_Bowl_XLIII_-_Thunderbirds_Flyover_-_Feb_1_2009Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday. For the past two weeks since the teams have been set, reporters have been busy gleaning stories to tell as part of their preview. Of course there’s the main conflict — which is the better team and which will win? But there are also subplots and plot layers which good newsmen ferret out.

The subplots might have to do with a particular player’s path to the pros or his overcoming injury or his decision to retire at the end of this season. In other words, there’s a story inside the main story, perhaps one that deals with people not involved in the game. The scam perpetrated on Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o–with his friend setting up a fake girlfriend and then supposedly having her die–is an example of a subplot.

Jim_Harbaugh_in_2007Plot layers generally center on the main character. In my Super Bowl analogy, that usually is the quarterback, but for this article, let’s make it the coaches. You see, this year, the two opposing coaches, Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh, are brothers. So they have the obvious game connection–leaders of two teams vying for the top spot in the NFL. But below that is their life-long connection as brothers.

In a novel, the layers of a story–the varied aspects of a character’s life, should intersect at a pivotal point. In the Super Bowl, the coaches who are brothers might make a critical decision because of their relationship–one that could either win or lose the game.

In a young adult book I’m reading now, a boy is running for his life only to discover that his missing father is the key to why he’s being pursued. His desire to find his father and his need to escape his would-be killer intersect.

There are several reasons for adding layers to a story. First they add richness the way a layered cake becomes richer with a creamy filling.

JohnHarbaugh2009Then, too, layers deepen character. A character isn’t just a coach. He’s also a brother, perhaps the oldest who has had expectations put on his shoulders all his life, or the youngest who has tried to find credibility in the eyes of the rest of the family.

Thirdly, a layered plot gives the texture of the character’s varied world. The character isn’t just trying to win a game. He’s also trying to keep his marriage together, perhaps, or to gain bargaining power when his contract expires. Maybe he’s a foster dad who wants to give his new son hope that life can be better than he’s believed possible. Whatever the particulars, these added elements make the world seem complete because the character is juggling a variety of issues–the same way real people do.

For more information about and examples of plot layers, I recommend Donald Maass’s latest book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.

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Characters With Universal Appeal

From time to time I see free books offered in one venue or another that obviously appeal to a limited audience. I try to imagine, for example, a teenage boy reading a book with lots of pink and lace on the cover or with a picture of an elderly couple, no matter how “with it” they might appear.

Covers, of course, can be overcome with favorable endorsements and other positive promotion, but to generate genuine buzz about a book, there needs to be a character with whom readers connect–a character with universal appeal.

Strangely enough, according to writing instructor Donald Maass in his latest book Writing 21st Century Fiction, creating a character that fits with what we think readers will like, is the wrong approach.

First, keep in mind that characters, like genres, follow trends.

In any literary era, there are trends in characterizations. Whole decades have been defined by characters who were blithe, survivors, or edgy. The evolution of young adult protagonists makes this particularly clear. In the first half of the 20th century, children from Horatio Alger to the Hardy Boys were plucky and alert with derring-do. In the 1970s, pervasive problem novels celebrated teen angst. More recently, the norm has become snarky detachment. (excerpt from Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 104)

The problem with such trends is that writers begin to follow what seems to be the yellow brick road to the land of publishing Oz. In other words, they join the pack and write a stereotypical character that fits the current trend, assuming that this is what readers, and editors, want.

Unfortunately those characters grow old quickly. There’s nothing memorable about them, nothing unique, and in the end, nothing universal. Readers, and before them, editors, will grow weary of these copy-cat characters.

Earlier this year, I discussed stereotypical characters in “Characters Can Be Cliches Too,” but Maass makes the point that in creating unique characters, writers are actually creating ones with universal appeal.

These characters do things that are not typical of people we know, but their emotions and motivations will be ones we recognize.

I recently read a young adult fantasy with a protagonist who was unique. She was the youngest daughter of a king and happy that she wasn’t heir to the throne. She was willful, interested mostly in keeping herself entertained with her friends, but fiercely loyal to her family. Consequently, when her sister lay dying, she started on a trek to find the one thing she believed would save her. Never mind that the king told her not to go. Never mind that she would be returning to a land where one of her friends had killed a young man and his brother had vowed revenge.

Whatever we may think of this character for doing what she did, she still touches on universal emotions. Who among us hasn’t felt helpless in the face of a governmental or parental or corporate restriction? Who among us hasn’t loved so deeply we would travel to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to save the life of the one we loved?

Maass states the key succinctly:

The secret of standout characters is their uniqueness.

In other words, none of us should be trying to write the next Katniss or the next Harry Potter or the next Bilbo Baggins. We should aim to create a character like none we’ve ever read before.

Maass suggests writers start with our own uniqueness:

In a way, making a character different than any who’s existed before begins with making that character like you, only more so. The store of individuality at your disposal is your own incomparable self. Borrow it, but blow it up. Let yourself loose. The more singular you become on the page, the more your readers will see themselves there too.

I’ll admit, I have some reservations about this advice. I’ve read books before where I thought the main character was transparently patterned after the writer. In addition there’s the issue of writing book after book with a character just like … you, only blown up. It seems that approach would have its limitations.

Still, I think the principle is sound. In the same way that each one of us is a unique person, with our own DNA and blend of beliefs and experiences that shape us, each of our characters should be original creations as well.

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Pace Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

I like fast-paced, page-turner novels. They pique my curiosity and force me to keep reading so that I can learn the secret or the answer or the perpetrator or the outcome. Will he survive, do they fall in love, will she choose the best job, can they make the rent, will he catch the thief? Questions drive a story forward and keep a reader turning pages.

I’ve even written about creating a fast pace in fiction as an important technique to learn (see “Picking Up The Pace”), and I haven’t changed my mind. However I have been reminded that a fast pace should not be the goal of a story but rather a means.

Acclaimed agent and writing instructor Donald Maass, in his new book Writing 21st Century Fiction has this to say:

Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. . . How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? (emphasis mine)

How indeed! First, I think it’s important to see pace for what it is–a means by which to keep readers engaged. Sadly, it seems as if a host of contemporary writers–novelists and script writers–are under the delusion that keeping readers (or viewers) glued to their seats for a prerequisite period of time qualifies a story as good.

Seat belts do that. So do roller coasters. But rides in cars and trips to amusement parks are generally forgettable.

Good stories definitely keep a reader’s interest, but there’s more. Good stories prompt the reader to think about the characters when away from the book. Good stories prompt the reader to mull over the outcome of the story once he finishes.

In other words, there has to be more than pages whipping by like telephone poles seen through the window of a speeding car. A good story is more than one long chase, more than a ticking time bomb.

Good stories are not easily mistaken for a different title. They have a uniqueness about them, though they may still include the tropes of their genre.

What is it, then, that makes the difference? Maass again:

The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

In short, the writer being authentic and individual and fearless makes the difference. But we’ll need to explore what that means in greater depth another time. For today, the take-home would be this: pace is a tool to use. It should serve the story and not rule the story.

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After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun–even funny–and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

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Compelling Books – Inner Conflict

A quiet book, my friend said, and yet something makes you want to keep reading. She was speaking of the new middle grade novel, A Diamond In The Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Last night I discovered for myself just how compelling this book is. Yes, last night, because I began reading after 8:00 and devoured all 242 pages before I had my morning coffee. (OK, it is middle grade and there is a significant amount of white space, but for this slow reader, finishing so quickly is notable!)

Yesterday I started using Donald Maass’s excellent Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook in my own work, and came upon the element I believe is the key to Kathryn’s writing: creating inner conflict. I’ve studied Maass’s Workbook before, but I don’t think I realized how true and powerful inner conflict can be until I read A Diamond In The Desert, with Donald Maass’s words fresh in mind.

He defines inner conflict as a character with

two goals, needs, wants, longings, yearnings, or desires that are in direct opposition to each other. Wanting two things that are mutually exclusive means having inner conflict, being torn in two directions, and that is what makes a character truly memorable. (p. 19)

In Kathryn’s book, the main character, a teenager held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, comes to a point of crisis when he wants to play baseball, the only semblance of “normal” from his life before the camp and a great love, but at the same time must care for his little sister, who he also loves, while his mother is at work.

Two things the character wants — one a passion, the other a responsibility. And he takes his responsibilities seriously, especially because the family has been separated from their father. The struggle doesn’t last long. The character must make a choice. But the resulting consequences drive the action from that point on. The decision may be a done deal, but the character must learn to live with it.

As I thought about this inner struggle that made this quiet book a story I didn’t want to put down, I realized that Kathryn had also masterfully created inner conflict in her debut novel, The Year The Swallows Came Early. In that one, the protagonist loves her father and to her horror, he is arrested one day while they are walking together. Worse yet, she finds out the person who filed a complaint against him is her mother, who she also loves. Inner conflict.

In one part of Maass’s Creating Inner Conflict Exercise, he says

True inner conflict involves wanting two things that are mutually exclusive. It is most effective when it tears your protagonist, or any character, in two opposite directions. (p. 24)

Can you love both your mother and your father when one seems to be hurting the other? Can you satisfy both your passion and your responsibility? These are struggles the characters in Kathryn’s books faced, struggles which made their story compelling. What would they decide? How would it affect them?

It’s the same struggle Frodo Baggins faced in The Fellowship Of The Ring. Would he shoulder the responsibility of destroying the ring or return to his home in the Shire? As this book neared its conclusion, the conflict shifted to his facing the responsibility alone in spite of his fear or turning aside and remaining with his companions. Two things at the beginning and at the end that can’t both happen — or apparently so.

In stories that end happily, it seems authors find a way for the two to both take place, or for one to turn out not as good as it first appeared, or for one to be proper and appropriate to give up as a way of maturing. In the latter, there may be sweet sadness, the sense of necessary loss, and the story still ends on a positive note.

Quiet books are built largely on these kinds of inner conflicts. But what about adventures, thrillers, science fiction, even romance? Certainly those stories have external conflict that drives the story, but an author who also incorporates inner conflict — as J. R. R. Tolkien did — has a memorable character to go along with action-induced edge-of-the-seat tension.

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Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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Filed under Characters, Story

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 2

As we established in part one of this short series, backstory should be used sparingly, sprinkled throughout the novel, but rarely included in the opening.

Super agent and writing instructor Donald Maass explains:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down. (The Fire in Fiction, p. 208 – emphasis added).

The rule of thumb is to give backstory only when the reader needs it.

But suspense author Brandilyn Collins adds an important element to the aspect of “need.” Not only do readers need answers, they need more questions:

We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers. (“A Bit on Backstory” by Brandilyn Collins, September 22, 2005)

Raising questions in the right way makes readers curious and keeps them turning pages to find out.

The next logical question follows: what exactly is the right way?

Collins again:

When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefully written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. (Ibid.)

Author and writing instructor Hallie Ephron elaborates on ways to incorporate backstory into fiction in a recent Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory” (May/June 2011).

The first two approaches are unique to either a first person or an omniscient point of view. The last four are helpful regardless of the perspective.

Dialogue ranks high on the list, but Ephron gives this caution: “Never force words into characters’ mouths … Use dialogue to convey backstory only when it feels natural and works dramatically.”

Maass explains this idea of backstory “working dramatically.” In examining an example of backstory in a Robin Hobbs novel, he notes that the delivery of backstory does more than give facts about the past. Instead it reveals a conflicted character. He concludes by saying, “Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work” (The Fire in Fiction, p. 210 – emphasis added).

Another way of layering backstory into a novel is to introduce a document — a newspaper article, letter, will, journal, photograph, email, title to property, bill and so on. Such items can be handled in several ways. One possibility is to reproduce it verbatim. A second is to have a character summarize the contents.

In an earlier version of my first novel, I incorporated this document technique, though slightly altered. I’ve since taken the passage out because it came in the first chapter and clearly interrupted the story, but it will serve as an example, good and bad.

In the story, the main character was standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the overhang under him breaks away and he tumbles toward the rocks. He’s able to stop himself and find a spot on a ledge, then this:

Easing his tense muscles, he settled against the cliff and glanced out toward the ocean where low, dense clouds bulldozed toward shore.

Ironic! If he died like this, people might suspect he had jumped. He shook his head. How would the headlines read? Something like, “Basketball star plunges to his death.” And the lead? “In a possible suicide, James David Thompson, former NBA star for the expansion Scorchers, fell to his death yesterday south of Crystal Cove State Park near Todd Point.”

Well, yes, the imagined document works to give readers information, but do they need to know this very minute what his full name is? Or even that he is a former NBA player or that he’s south of Crystal Cove? Not really.

In addition, because of the disruption and the distraction, readers may stop caring about the present action — the character perched on a cliff above rocks and an angry sea.

And where’s the tension in the backstory? Likely the article’s wrong implication would create tension for the character, but does that translate to tension for the reader? Not really, in part because the article may or may not be written, and because the reader doesn’t have a reason yet to care for this character’s reputation.

The example, then, works to show how a document, in this case, an imagined one, can be used to layer in backstory, but it also shows why backstory doesn’t belong in the beginning of the story.

There are a couple more techniques authors can use to add backstory appropriately, but we’ll save those for next time.

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Filed under Backstory, Dialogue