Trouble Your Darlings: Bringing Life to Pallid Plots

The premise of your story is fantastic, and the characters are well-defined. Yet something seems missing. Your plot is just going through the motions, or maybe the central challenge of the story just seems too easy for the characters to overcome.

It’s not… bad, it’s just not exciting. Or funny. Or stirring. It’s too straightforward and it has the characters do boring things to achieve their goals. It just feels limp.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board, yeah. Sadly you’ll need to start over from page one. But if you’re ready for a radical departure, try one of the following complications (or, obviously, make up your own) to wake things up:

What if the Bad Guys already won? Your villain wanted to turn the hero’s family into zombies. What if that happened? What kind of psychological changes would your hero have to go through to fight their own loved ones? What if the MacGuffin everybody was looking for was actually fake, a complete myth? This is sure to get your characters agitated.

How would your plot change if it was set 100 years ago? Or 100 years in the future? You don’t need to take your heartbreaking coming of age story and make it over into science fiction. Maybe the future/past world is very subtle, maybe it just means cell phones work a different way. Maybe you don’t have to define the setting’s timeframe at all, you just keep it hazy and complicated. Alternatively, maybe the story is actually being told by the grandchildren of your protagonist. Maybe your hero failed… but their descendants still have a chance to make things right.

How many characters/set pieces/words do you really need? One of the big reasons that plots fail to sing is that they’re too bloated. You have too many people doing too many things–look at every character in your story, and what they do. Would it be more interesting if the protagonist had to do their job, too? Are there characters who are just there for emotional support, or a funny scene? Cut ’em out! Find a way to make their scenes work without them. Even better, cut out the big turgid set pieces you love so much but which don’t advance the plot. Finally–are you sure this needs to be a 300 page novel? Would it move faster and be more exciting as a 10 page short story?

What if your central plot was actually a ruse? Your villain stole the McClintosh Diamond from the National Museum. It’s clear she’s going to build a death ray with it! Or is she…? What if the whole plot of your story is just cover for what the antagonist is secretly doing (bonus points if it’s a cover for what the protagonist is up to, and you keep the reader guessing until the last page)? If that doesn’t work, think about what kind of diversion the antagonist might stage to throw the hero off the trail, something they could do early on that ties your story up in knots? Red herrings can be frustrating if used too preciously, but they’re great for building suspense, especially early in the story.

Is this waking life? Or a dream? The worst ending you can possibly have for a story is “…and she realized it was all just a dream.” But what if that’s the first line of your story? What if your protagonist thinks they’re having a dream/vision/acid trip… and then it turns out to be real? What if you keep the reader in the dark as to what is real and what isn’t? Your straightforward plot is suddenly a deadly game of chasing the white rabbit–is the goal in sight? Does it even exist? Or is it more real than real? Blow our minds, man!

Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.

Love Stories

For Valentine’s day, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts on one of the hardest things in fiction–writing effective love stories.

This is one of those things that’s so much easier to do in a screenplay. Of course Trinity falls in love with Neo–have you seen him? He looks just like Keanu Reeves! In fiction, though, you can’t just say “two pretty people met and fell for each other, and it was super hot.” In a book or a short story you actually have to show it happening. You need to give your reader actual reasons why the two people involved enjoy each others’ company–and why they want to take time out of their busy schedule of slaying dragons and surviving alien invasions to be together. I’ve put together some basic tips here that should help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of romance stories, especially as they’re deployed in genre fiction.

You may not actually need a love story. A lot of stories don’t. If your characters don’t get along, or if it feels like you’re just shoehorning in a romance subplot… try not doing that. Let the characters be happier as friends. Not every two people who meet in a book are destined to be together. If the love story is taking up too much room in your plot or if just feels forced, let them go their separate ways.

Opposites repel. If your characters have diametrically opposed goals–say, one is a hero and one is a villain–or if their personalities actively clash, why would they even want to date? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but when your characters are constantly squabbling, they’ll often come across more as obnoxious than lovable. Instead, try giving your characters something to bond over. You’ll be surprised how when two characters actually respect and like each other, feelings can just naturally blossom. It makes them want to spend more time together, and have more scenes together. Speaking of which!

Put your characters in the same room. Nothing feels more artificial than a love interest who is always away on quests or only shows up in the character’s life when it’s least convenient. This is the fictional equivalent of the significant other who lives in Canada or goes to a different high school so we can’t ever meet them. The lover who can’t be tied down may be a romantic archetype, but it always feels like a device, not a character. You want your two characters spending LOTS of time together. We need long dialogue scenes between them, and to have them go on adventures together to increase their bond. The more of them we see enjoying each other’s company, the more we’ll believe it when they have that first, awkward, tentative, beautiful kiss.

Give love time to grow. Yeah, this is important. Like any kind of plot or subplot, the love story happens over time. It has its ups and downs, its reversals and its misunderstandings. Having two characters meet in scene one and be making out in scene two only works if scene three is them realizing what a terrible mistake they just made (and scene four is them wondering if it really was a mistake after all, and scene five is…). This is a plot, which means it needs to develop. Which means you need to devote a lot of time to it. Don’t have enough room in your story for that? See tip number one, above.

A lover should never be a prize. Just because you broke up the drug cartel doesn’t mean you get the boy. Saving a woman from zombies doesn’t mean she owes you anything. This is an old, old trope from a bad time and it deserves to die. Both characters in a love story have their own feelings and their own value. They don’t exist just as motivation for the protagonist, and they don’t just fall into bed every time something dramatic happens. In fact, it’s a good general rule–never have a love scene immediately after something traumatic or violent happens. That’s just super creepy.

Love is a two-way sacrifice. Love means both parties giving up something of themselves to be with the loved one. Both of them. A character who drops their entire life just to go chasing after a pretty other isn’t a character, they’re an appendage. If your aspiring wizard stops practicing magic because he met a pretty woman at the library, he’s a dud. If a woman quits her job so she can move to Alaska to marry the salmon fisherman, her story is over. Your characters both need to make choices to be together, or their love feels like a plot detail rather than a story in itself.

When You’re Stuck: Things to Try

There are days when you just can’t write. You can have the world’s best idea, be sitting in the world’s best writing chair… and nothing comes. When it feels like every sentence you put down just takes you farther from what you wanted to say.

And you know what? Sometimes there is no solution, except to stop, walk away, and find something more constructive to do with your time. Absolutely.

But before you get to that point, there are things you can try to bring the magic back. I can’t guarantee they’ll work, but it’s better than losing an entire writing day, right?

Change Your Viewpoint: I wrote a story recently where I just couldn’t find the right voice. I had great characters in mind, but I couldn’t make them jump through the necessary hoops. They were too smart to do the dumb thing, or too weak to effect the needed change. I tried writing that story four different ways, and in the end, the answer was to write the story from the perspective of the villain. Suddenly the evil machinations all felt natural. The dialogue, which had been forced, was suddenly crackling with malice. It turned a mournful, quiet story into a fun romp–exactly what that story needed.

Write Backwards: There are some writers, I’m told, who write the middle of a story first, or the next-to-last scene, or whatever. I’ve never been one of them, myself. I need to write chronologically, both for the sake of continuity and flow. But every so often I’ll find that the answer really is to write the climax of the story first–and then write the penultimate scene, and then the antepenultimate scene, until I get to the beginning. It’s like when you’re stuck solving a maze–often just flipping the maze over and starting from the end is the best solution.

The Extended Outline: The worst way to write, typically, is to just list a series of events, as in; this happened, and then that happened, and then another thing… except when that’s exactly what you need to do. If you know the structure and plot of your story, try writing each chapter as a single sentence (as convoluted and nonsensical as it needs to be), as if you were writing a dry and clinical synopsis of the story. Then go back and fix those terrible sentences! You may find they turn into scenes because you can’t bear to leave them as knotted up and mechanical as they look on the page.

Change Act I: If the ending of a story isn’t working, if it seems hackneyed or lifeless, often times you just haven’t earned it. Your characters haven’t gone through enough trials, or the solution to their problem is just too easy or too obvious. Go back and look at how you started the story. Did you not give your protagonist enough obstacles to overcome? Did you forget to mention that your heroine is a wizard? Find some simple detail early in the story and change it. How does that affect your ending? It could unlock whole new possibilities. Of course, the opposite can be true as well–that is:

Simplify! A story that is too complicated is one of the main causes of stuck writer syndrome. The problem may be that you’re trying to do too much. Do you really need that subplot where the characters open a bakery, only to realize they actually needed to find the Jade Parrot statue before it was too late? Are you trying to create rich, multi-dimensional characters in a pulpy potboiler? Cutting out extraneous material and diversions will free you up to really explore the things that excite you about the story.

And of course the best advice you can get when you’re stuck is this: Don’t give up! Keep plugging away. Write ten bad sentences in a row and maybe the eleventh will be the one that sings. You can always go back and edit later. Remembering that is often the golden key that unlocks your creativity. Don’t be afraid to fail!

Bad Advice: Static Protagonists

Everyone knows that your characters need to go through arcs. They need to change, or grow, or learn a lesson, or discover something about themselves before the story’s over.

Don’t believe it. Plenty of great stories are led by static characters. Most writing guides will insist that every character you create needs to be dynamic and grow over time, but in fact this is a choice (like everything in writing), one you can forego under some circumstances.

There are many different kinds of characters–many varieties of protagonist–and some of them don’t benefit from deep, character driven stories.

Let’s look at a couple kind of characters that benefit from not being so three dimensional:

Aspirational characters don’t–and shouldn’t–develop over the course of a story. These are characters who are held up as paragons of a certain desirable quality. Kind, noble, smarter than the rest of us. Sherlock Holmes never changed, in the original stories. Modern attempts to recreate the character focus on giving him substance abuse problems or neurological impairments. They never improve on the original. Every time they try to make Superman more human, or flawed, the story falls apart. Why? Because Superman isn’t supposed to be human. He’s a symbol of something nobler and more pure, something we aspire to. He has weaknesses, sure, but no movie ends with him accepting that he is helpless before kryptonite, or understanding that he and Lois Lane are never going to be happy together and moving on.

Tragic characters, as well, lack arcs. They start out with a flaw and we watch as that flaw tears them apart. The only lesson they learn is that fate can’t be avoided. In fact the whole point of the story is to show that people can’t change, that they are locked into preordained paths. Think of Oedipus, bound by prophecy–his story is not improved by him learning to love himself. Jay Gatsby, who is defined by his attempts to redefine himself, ends up dead in a swimming pool, because he found that there was something in his heart he couldn’t reinvent.

Badass characters start as their best selves and end there, too. Action movie stars don’t have arcs. Oh, they may discover that they care about the orphan child being hunted by the cartel. But that soft spot in their hearts was always there–it’s never developed beyond one touching moment of recognition. I have a friend who despises the movie 300, because he feels Leonidas starts out as the ultimate warrior… and then simply lives up to his reputation. From the perspective of character-driven drama, sure, 300 is a failure… but does anyone really think it would be made better by giving Leonidas a lengthy subplot where he has to discover the Spartan within?

Static protagonists do not have self-realizations; they simply end the story better informed than they were before. They don’t grow and mature, because we are told from the beginning they’re already at their wisest and best. They may not stop at every station on the Hero’s Journey, but sometimes we don’t need them to.

It’s up to you to decide how much your character needs to develop in the course of your plot. In fact, you will often have to choose between having a more complicated external plot and telling the story of a character’s more human side.

It’s not my position here to suggest that character-driven stories are bad in any way. Simply that they are not the only way of telling a story. Of course, you can have a story about a superhero who fails, and has to learn to live with the fact they aren’t the hero they thought they were. You can have a story about a tragic character who rises above their suffering, and accomplishes something noble even as they watch their doom approach. Sure! Those can be great stories, too! The point I’m trying to make is that arcs, like everything in writing, are choices and you don’t always need them. You can write a book that’s one long character sketch or a series of farcical events with no real plot. Some of the great works of literature don’t go anywhere. There are lots of really terrible books with exquisitely engineered character arcs. As always, it’s up to the writer to choose which rules they want to follow, and which they want to ignore for the sake of the story.

 

Three Act Structure

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to write a book. In these articles I’ve been outlining how I do it, because that’s what I know to write about, but there are no binding rules, no arbitrary guidelines. That said, there are some structural… suggestions that can benefit almost any writer. Stories can have more impact when they follow a basic architecture. Even here there are variations. I know people who stick to the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. I know writers who like five act structures, because that was good enough for Shakespeare, dammit. Personally I work with the three act structure, which is the simplest and, I think, the most effective.

You can think of three act structure as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Or the setup, the buildup, and the punchline. I like to think of it this way;

ACT I: Oh, look, I’m in a forest.

ACT II: Oh, no! I’m getting lost in this forest!

ACT III: Oh, look, there’s a way out of this forest.

Perhaps I should elaborate.

Act I of any story is the shortest. Sadly, it also has to do the most work. This is going to make up about 25% of your total word count, but it needs to do the following things: establish all the main characters of your story, as well as the setting, pace, and tone. Establish the problem of the story, as well as the stakes (what happens if the problem is, or isn’t resolved). By the end of act one your protagonist must be stuck on a path that leads to a final conflict. That can mean that the evil mustachio-twirling villain has kidnapped their boyfriend. It can also mean your hero has realized they have a drinking problem, and they’re headed for rock bottom.

Act II is the longest act, the most fun, and absolutely, without question, the most dangerous. Act two is where you develop all your clever ideas, where your protagonist tries out various solutions to the problem (none of which, of course, work). It’s where you have room and time to explore the setting and build character arcs and do all the fun parts of writing… and if you make a misstep, your story will go right off the rails. Act two is a time of steadily increasing tension, modulated with (occasional) moments of relief. All that exploring you’re doing? Imagine a maze with one exit, and all the various paths through the maze MUST lead to that exit, even if they wind a little bit. It’s way too easy for something to go wrong in act two which then sabotages the most important act…

Act III is longer than act one, but shorter than act two. It’s the most laser-focused of your story’s sections and often the easiest one to write–although, perversely enough, it can also be the thing that kills you. When act three begins the die is cast. Your protagonist knows (or thinks they know) how to solve the problem. They have good, compelling reasons why they MUST solve the problem. The stakes have never been higher. The protagonist works at nothing else past this point–they will sacrifice anything to resolve the story. The antagonist (whether you have a bald, cat-stroking villain or a natural disaster like a mudslide) is moving steadily toward an easy win and they have every reason to be confident. Then the magic happens. Somehow (you’d better know how) the protagonist gets the better of the antagonist in a surprise twist and the world is set to rights. Yay! Then you can have a denouement that’s as long or as short as you like (I prefer super-short), and you’re done.

Of course none of this happens by magic. You need to outline your story (if only in your head) before you start writing. You can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. There’s an old bit of writing advice I’ve found to be almost universally true: if there’s a problem in Act III, it’s a problem with Act I. Go back and look and you’ll see you didn’t set something up properly.

I’ll add two corollaries to this chestnut. First: If there’s a problem in Act I, it’s a problem with Act III. If you have trouble making your protagonist believable (could a four year-old really build a rocket to escape the Mars-beasts?) it’s because they’re the wrong person to face down the big antagonist at the end of the tale. If the setting feels off or boring, it’s because it’s too small to hold the ending.

And finally: if there’s a problem in Act II, it’s because you’re writing the wrong story. Act II is for exploration. Often times, you can explore so far you find yourself in a completely different story–maybe the story you really wanted to write in the first place. If this happens, don’t despair! Either go off and write that story instead… or put it aside, somewhere safe, and go back and find where your act II maze got side-tracked, and fix it!

Plot: The Melodrama Pile-Up

What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.

Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.

I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?

Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.

The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.

When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.

When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.

This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.