Friday, 12 April 2013

Knowing What To Do Next

In life, sometimes you come to a point when dealing with a problem where you don’t know what to do next. Either there’s no obvious solution, or it’s in somebody else’s hands and you have to wait.

In fiction, characters can face this same issue. Leads can dry up, tests have to be waited for, procedures followed.

However, in fiction, taking a break from the story isn’t really a viable option. Waiting six to eight weeks for the blood tests to come back from the lab isn’t going to be very interesting if you approach it realistically.

Or, if the character has come to a dead end, having them go to a woodland retreat to thinks thing over isn’t going to be received well, although it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do when faced with a complex problem.

Even if you have some entertaining stuff planned for what they get up to, the loss in momentum and general disconnection from the main plot is going to pull most readers out of the story.

And while the kind of character who always knows what to do and how to do it makes life a lot easier for a writer, that may not be the sort of character you want to write about.

If you want your characters to come to conclusions in a natural and realistic manner, you can’t rely on gung ho leaps of faith all the time, but you don’t have the time to let them slowly mature to a point where they understand life a little better (which is how most of us deal with what life throws at us).

Finding ways to keep the story moving forward without resorting to impulsive acts that conveniently pan out every time can be quite tricky. There are various ways to deal with this.

You can just skip ahead in time. Three days later the boss called a meeting...  Nothing wrong with that if it fits the story, although if nothing of note happened in those days it may raise questions about the importance of the matter at hand.  Or it may interrupt the flow and momentum of the story.

Another approach is to make sure the set up makes it impossible for the character to sit on their hands. If the bank says they’ll be in touch about the loan in 10-14 business days, and the gangster wants his money by tomorrow, the character will obviously have to make other arrangements.

The problem with forcing the issue like this is that it can affect the tone since most of the time in order to leave the character no choice you have to raise the stakes pretty high, and you may not want to put your character into panic mode at this point in the story.

You can also have the character seek advice. Going to a ‘wise old man’ allows your character not to have to act rashly but still move forward.  The thing to watch out for here is to not let the character become too passive. Being told what to do and then going and doing it isn’t particularly engaging to read. 

Which is why those sorts of ‘helpful’ mentor types tend not to offer easy answers. They make life harder for the main character, setting them tasks that force them to work things out indirectly.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Or you can continue to pile on new issues while they are trying to solve the first one. Trying to find answers can also lead to more problems.

Al Diaz said...

I usually go with giving new problems if the first one cannot be solved soon. Or give them one hell of a problem made of several smaller problems, so they are always busy.

Mina Burrows said...

I agree. I've done this sort of thing. I'm better now at not getting trapped. Good advice here. Thanks Mood.

mshatch said...

nevermind putting your characters in a difficult position, how about putting YOU in a hard place! I've done that before, gotten my characters into a horrible predicament and then been like, hmm, now how the heck am I going to get them out alive?!

Thankfully I always figure it somehow - or maybe that was my muse...

Fairview said...

Good advice as always.

mooderino said...

@Alex - as long as you don't let them sit and stare out of a window you should be good.

@Al - answers leading to more questions helps keep things busy.

@Mina - yvw

@mshatch - I think it's good to give yourself that problem. Produces interesting results.

@Fairview - thanks.

Sarah Foster said...

Great advice. The beginning of my WIP is sort of like this, where my narrator is in a situation where he knows he can't rush things. It can be a good spot to sneak in some subplot if you have one.

Unknown said...

Very, very true. I always find it amusing in fiction how sometimes the not realistic road is the one that's better to take. I do like to keep my characters hopping though.

Sandy said...

Loved your photo....we all I'm sure feel like that at times trying to solve a problem. Though I'm thinking of life, not writing, as I'm not a writer.


mooderino said...

@sarah - yes, definitely good place for subplot.

@Janeal - reality has all sorts of drawbacks (mine does anyway).

@Sandy - nothing's ever easy, sadly. At least we have chocolate.

Unknown said...

And then there's the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" method -make the waiting a major part and fill it with the second main character and a love relationship before continuing with the plot.

Sometimes the wait is a good thing.

Cath from Dramatics and Words

Unknown said...

I love the picture you chose to illustrate this post. That feels like me sometime, staring so long at a blinking curser that I decompose.

Elise Fallson said...

Karate Kid. Loved that movie.

Robin said...

I struggle with timing in my books. I know so much time has to elapse-between the first day of school and Thanksgiving, for instance. I can do some three days later, but sometimes I am at a total loss. Loved the picture of the Original Karate Kid!

Thanks for visiting my blog today.

Emily Genther said...

This is a problem I often run into when writing. Some good advice here.

Jay Noel said...

I posted about the Karate Kid too!

And making sure the story does move forward is important too. I've read some books where there was meaningless filler until something important happens.

I don't like wasting one single word.

LD Masterson said...

I usually go with the new problem or new complication route. While my character is trying to decide what to do about this, thrown in that.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Just had a great 'wax on, wax off' nostalgic moment!

Because I want my characters actions to be believable, I usually have them try a few stupid attempts to resolve their problem first, that can provide a bit of humour and fill in time until the real solution arrives in the post.

Unknown said...

Your picture made me laugh out loud. I'm in the revision process and I'm seriously thinking about making this my new Facebook profile.

Jenn @Scribbles From Jenn

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I like the idea of cutting out the boring bits and coming up with other solutions to keep the story moving.

Amanda Saint said...

Great post. I am currently editing my first novel and the review revealed that my way of dealing with it was to leave massive gaps in the story at first draft! I am now busy writing 5 new chapters to fill them :)

mooderino said...

@Cath - if you can make interesting stuff happen while waiting that can work well.

@JM - I think we all feel like that sometimes.

@Elise - my crane kick is just waiting for the right opportunity.

@Robin - it's one of those minor things most people don't think about, but when it happens to you it can be very unclear how to handle it.

@Emily - glad you found it useful.

@Jay - I feel you can have interesting filler, but it's not easy to keep the reader's attention for more than a line or two.

mooderino said...

@LD - Occasionally maybe throw in the other.

@Charmaine - good point, there's no reason why plans should work out first time.

@Jenn - I know how you feel.

@Lynda - you just described my editing process.

@Amanda - a perfectly reasonable approach.

MadelineAnn said...

I have no good plan - just keep writing till eventually they get moving again. Then trim out the rubbish later!

mooderino said...

@MadelineAnn - I think that's an excellent way to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

that's the spot subplot comes in handy

PK HREZO said...

I like skipping ahead, then giving a sentence or two of reflection. And as Madeline says above, sometimes just plowing thru and later trimming works best.

mooderino said...

@sassy - very handy!

@Pk - the one, two approach works well. It's the longer reflections that can be problematic.

Stephen Tremp said...

Sometimes its difficult to keep things moving forward and on track. That's when I look to make a left turn that the reader does not expect.

And I have a new blog. Hope to see you stop by and say hi!

Michael Di Gesu said...

I am so glad I have wifi again. I've missed your insightful and well written posts, Mood.

Timing is an important element in writing. The pace must be good or the story will not flow.

SpacerGuy said...

Somewhere, someplace theres something incredible to be known.

mooderino said...

@Stephen - of course! Glad to have you back in the blogoverse.

@Michael -Nice to see you back, too.

@Spacerguy - Well, not going to argue with that.

Unknown said...

I love the observation that good mentors don't give easy advice. They may be giving the character direction, but they're still making life more difficult.

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