Monday 11 June 2012

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).

Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.

Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.

If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.

When that character’s role is strongly defined, for examples if they’re a police officer or a treasure hunter, their job allows you to make them proactive fairly easily. Their goal is clear from the outset and they take steps to get the job done. Solve the murder, find the lost diamond.

When the character is a normal person and someone or something comes into their life and forces them to cope, the time it takes for the character to work out what’s going on and then what to do about it can drag on.

Examples of this type of story would be when a character finds out they are actually a supernatural being and never knew it and now have to integrate with a new society. Or they meet a good-looking stranger who they are attracted to but don’t know what to do about it, especially since they’re getting married tomorrow.

Those first few chapters where the character isn’t sure what’s going on, where they are dealing with something new and unusual that they weren’t prepared for, are hard to write with any verve or focus.

The character seems to be confused or unsure of themselves. They don’t know what they want. Everyone else seems to be making the decisions and our hero only ever reacts to events outside of their control.

While it is easy to convince yourself this is part of the story, that it is the only way to make the story feel realistic and that things will get going once you establish this new world your character has found themselves in, that is no use to the reader. Because a passive, reactive character is boring to read about. And dull is dull, whatever the reason.

That doesn’t mean you have to turn your character into a super-spy ready for action whatever the eventuality. But you do have to bear in mind that a character with no agenda or desire of their own is not going to be very entertaining to read about. And the way around this in a story where the character is out of their element and needs time to work out what they want to do about it, is to remember the character has a life outside of the specific events of your story.

Too often, aspiring writers create a world where the MC is focused so strongly on the new revelation that they completely forget about everything else. They seem to have no job, no family, no friends, or those aspects of their life are treated in a functional, uninteresting way. When time passes it seems like they haven’t done anything other than wait for the next scene to happen.

That sense of waiting is like waiting in line at the post office. Nobody enjoys doing that. And bear in mind, as the writer as least you know what the wait is for, the reader doesn’t.

Take into consideration what the character would be doing if they hadn’t found out they were really descended from a mermaid, or if the new boss hadn’t turned out to be gorgeous. Would they be sitting at their desk twiddling their thumbs? Because if they would, then why would anyone want to read a story about them?

It’s up to you to make the wait in line interesting and amusing. Giving them an agenda that has nothing to do with the storyline, one that may well be abandoned as the plot takes over, is important because it adds depth to the character, and also gives you a solid base to draw from and go back to while other elements have yet to reveal themselves. And if you play your cards right, you may even find that agenda finds its way into the main storyline.

Every time someone else makes a decision or withholds information from your MC and leaves them standing still watching from the sidelines, ask yourself what your character would be doing if none of this had happened? Don’t just settle for the first, non-dramatic thing that pops into your head, make it worth writing about, and then use it to add depth to the main plot. 
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No one likes standing in line at the Post Office!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Great post, Moody. Bookmarking for future reference.

I worry about that with the main characters in my novels - too much reacting and not enough acting. Definitely something I'm working on improving.

mooderino said...

@Alex - another of my great insights.

@Madeline - I think most stories will have an element of reacting, but whenit becomes the whole story is when it's a problem, I think.

Francene Stanley said...

I guess it's something like passive writing to write about a passive character. It goes something like this:
The tiger roared.
Deliliah remained in her chair, waiting for Sampson. He'd save her.

mooderino said...

@Francene - there are techiques to make stories about passive characters engaging. You just have to remember you aren't the character, or even the character's friend. You are a God, and not a merciful one. You can place a man shy of women in a room where he hides, or in an elevator and have five supermodels get in with him.

Heath Lowrance said...

Another terrific and insightful post, Mood.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Great information.


Beverly Diehl said...

Struggling with this in my latest WIP. What I am doing (whether it works or not, my crit group will let me know) is having a raging internal conflict going on - kind of good angel/bad angel, though not labeled as such. So although physically my protag is sitting in a pew for a co-worker's funeral, emotionally she is re-evaluating her life and her current unsatisfactory b-f, and she is also struggling not to laugh, as the funeral itself has elements of the ridiculous.

I think it's the right place to start, as it is the emotional turning point for her (plus she meets her next b-f there), but my crit readers may hate it and I may have to find another approach. Fun!

Kaamil Garyson said...

Good post. I agree: while it is important for the MC to have a driven purpose, it is equally important for the writer to show that character's "normal" life.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I've found that for some, it not only has to do with decisions that the character makes, but with the writing style as well. Some people hate third person so much that even if the character is doing things, they feel confused and don't know what's going on, and will stop reading. Later they tell you that the character wasn't doing anything, when in fact a lot was going on. But yeah, I agree with you totally.

Unknown said...

Very helpful advice!

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh so good. Just tweeted. I'm revising something now, and this very thing is at the top of my mind, as this character is a little less outgoing than my typical main character. I need to keep lighting little firecrackers under her butt. :-)

Pippa Elliott said...

A well written and thought out post. I truly hadnt thought of the difference between 'done-to' and 'doing' - will use this in the future.
G x

LD Masterson said...

Letting the conflict the MC hasn't come to terms with somehow interfer with those normal day to day activities can spice up that dull wait as well.

mooderino said...

@Heath-thanks very much.

@Journaling woman - cheers.

@Beverly - that's a very tricky thing to pull off. Spending time in a person's head is very hard to make interesting because your own thoughts are endlessly fascinating to you and utterly tediuos to everyone else. Humour helps.

@Kaamil - good to make the MC feel three dimensional.

@Michael - I had no idea people hated third person. You may be hanging out with the wrong crowd.

mooderino said...

@Suzanne-glad you found it useful.

@Dalya-sounds like you've got a handle on it.

@Grace-thanks for the kind words.

@LD-definitely. Bringing the two threads together is often the best way to keep things interesting.

nutschell said...

great post as usual. now there's a good story prompt--begin with a character standing in line...hmmm...i might just get to work on that right now:)

Jason Runnels said...

Great food for thought. In my current story I have the everyday bit actually get in the way of my character's main driving force. He's taking decisive action but gets derailed and must react to this 'ordinary' stuff. If I get you, then maybe I'm on to something. Thanks for the tips as usual.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-if everyone in line was waiting to get kicked in the face it would make a great Jason Statham movie.

@Jason-I think that would work fine. Even if the choice is which thing to react to first, that puts him in control of his actions.

Fairchild said...

Great post and quite right. I love your direct and to the point manner of speaking.

mooderino said...


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