Saturday, 6 April 2013

Focus On What Matters

Characters in stories tend to be single-minded. Either they’re driven by some internal need, or circumstances force them, but they rarely live a carefree existence going from one thing to the next as they please.

There’s a reason for this. Once a reader is interested in what a character’s doing, they want to know the outcome. Of that story.

If you go off in various tangents, even if you intentionally do it in an attempt to generate tension or suspense or mystery, there’s a good chance you’ll just annoy or frustrate those readers.

But there’s a problem here. In order to make a story dramatic and layered, you actually need to go off in different directions, to pull the reader off the main road every now and again.


The trick is to divert the reader’s attention by using even more pressing matters.

There’s no point having a character stop looking for her missing daughter to drop into an antiques store because she's into collecting old china plates.

But pausing in the search to rescue another child kidnapped by the same madman does make sense.

You have to put yourself in the mind of your character, make it clear to yourself what the main goal of that character is, and then only let them deviate from their target for things that merit it. Even if she really adores old china plates, now's not the time.

What's considered important enough to accept veering off is going to be different for different characters (and different genres), but it has to feel worth it. Both in the mind of the character and the reader. Rather than just going wherever your mind takes you and hoping the reader won’t mind too much. They will. 

There are also ways to integrate scenes so you don't have to stop one thing to do another. If, for example, the detective discovers where the killer's cabin is located then he's obviously going to head there straightaway. You can't decide to wait until morning because you have a great scene planned over dinner between the detective and his partner.

However, you can make the cabin a three hour drive away, and he can have the discussion planned for dinner in the car instead.

It’s not enough to change the character’s focus because it suits the story or if its importance is to be revealed later, you have to provide a fitting excuse for taking the reader away from the main storyline up front, or you have to find a way to do it at the same time.

As long as you do that, the reader will happily go off with you, maybe even enjoy the diversion. 
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26 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just like in real life, there are always obstacles and situations the character must deal with in order to continue on the path.

mooderino said...

@Alex - There's the scenic route, and then there's the really scenic route.

CBame13 said...

As always, great post. I'm having some issues with my story right now trying to make sure everything my characters do is natural and keeps the reader engaged. Tough, but this post definitely helps narrow my focus.

sassyspeaks said...

Sometimes the veering off is sub plot and you learn more about the characters without taking away from the main goal. Good idea about the 3 hour car riide however I like placing characters in restaurants as more opportunity for varied writing. Sitting in a car doesn't allow too much room for beats description or action

Elise Fallson said...

I suddenly have the urge to set fire to my wip.

V. N. said...

lol @ Elise's comment.

I'm sure it's fixable? :)

mooderino said...

@CBame - it's one of those things that as long as you keep it in mind shouldn't be too much of a problem.

@sassy - Depends how far you veer. Because the writer is already invested they can sometimes assume the reader is too.

@Elise - Don't.

mooderino said...

@VN - I'm sure it is. A nice piece of cheese and a glass of something fruity should sort it out.

Patricia Lynne said...

Another post full of great advice. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - Yes, I'm full of it. Wait, that didn't come out right.

Karen S. said...

Very sound advice on characters, and it he especially true in movies...characters keep the show/story moving.

Lady's Knight said...

gr8 point
working with a MS where the character needs wings to do everything he needs to do (clipping needed)

Karen Jones Gowen said...

This comment cracked me up: There’s no point having a character stop looking for her missing daughter to drop into an antiques store because she's into collecting old china plates.

LOL.

millvallison: mary allison tierney said...

this is such good advice; I worry too much sometimes about the writing being boring and in an attempt to make something more exciting, kinda go off the rails. guess that's why there are editors/first readers?

mooderino said...

@Karen - the time constraints of movies tend to tighten things up (unless you're Peter Jackson).

@Lady's K - thanks.

@KJG - hard for some people to pass up a bargain.

@Mary - I'm usually tempted to introduce a new character every time things get dull. Then i end up with a cast of thousands.

Melissa Sugar said...

Very good character advice . This was an informative post and one I'm sure we will all benefit from. Sometime I get so distracted in my writing that I forget to focus on issues like this and I appreciate the reminder and useful tips on diverting the reader's attention

Kate said...

So true! I think as long as it feels like there's a reason for the tangents and as long as they move the story forward, whether it deals with plot or character arc, the reader will stay with you. It's when there's gratuitous information or scenes that lead to nothing, that we get annoyed.

The Wicked Writer said...

Brilliant advice.

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, it all comes down to character motivations behind their actions. Great advice.

Tammy Theriault said...

Dang antique stores, they are such bad deversions! Ha! Great info here!

Paula R C Readman said...

Thank you for sharing this with you. It's a great point I shall keep it in mind as I set off on my new journey.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - glad you found it useful.

@Kate - I think there are ways of integrating plot and subplot if you pay attention to the characters' focus.

@wicked - thanks.

@Lynda - cheers.

@Tammy - but you might find a plate worth millions. All your problems solved!

mooderino said...

@Paula - hope it's a fun journey.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Oh! You use wattpad. I'll have to check out your story tonight.

mooderino said...

@Michael - it's more of an experiment at the moment, to see what it's like. Most of the users seem very young.

emmlyjane said...

Great advice.

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