Monday 1 September 2014

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.
This post first appeared in June 2012.


Saumya said...

This is such great advice and is helping me with revisions. Thank you.

dolorah said...

Its why I have to revise so much; it takes a long time for me to fully develop a well rounded character.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If your character is waiting in line at the post office, you really need to write a different story.
Maybe most people aren't proactive, but our main character has to be.

Anonymous said...

Great post--it gave me all kinds of ideas for my (currently whiny and static) MC. So glad I stumbled over here!

(I clicked over here from Wavy Lines--I love this community!)

LissaJ said...

Great post but I also found myself thinking what Alex posted - I would prefer to avoid any 'waiting in line' passages and revise the story to eliminate them.

Unknown said...

I think what happens to the character has a role but what the character does has a bigger role.

When I think about what happens to a character, all those things seem to bond me to the character, making me sympathetic to the character. Then what the character does makes me cheer for them or fear for them. So at this point, I'm already invested in the character. It's no longer necessary to keep making things happen to the character, it becomes too much.

Melissa Sugar said...

Wonderful advice as always. I've been on an extended leave from blogging and I knew that one of the first blogs I needed to return to was yours. Each time I land on your page, I find a useful article - full of tips, advice, resources and examples that I can always apply to my work. I like knowing that I will always find a relevant writing article, regardless of my current writing issue or problem.

It just so happens that once again, you've touched on an issue I'm struggling with. I hate waiting in line at the post office and I certainly don't want my readers as bored and fidgety as I am while they wait. I don't want them to be in a waiting position, at all. You made it clear that if your protagonist is a police officer or if their role is clearly defined then it is easier to make them proactive much sooner. I agree and my protagonist is a lawyer who has a duty to act - immediately.

But, here is my problem. Yes, I want her to be proactive from the beginning, but like you said, I don't want her to be so involved in the case that readers don't realize she has a family, friends etc. But, I am writing a thriller (and if not for my problem with where to begin, I might actually have completed my final draft) but I keep coming back to the same problem.

I read and listen to the advice of so many people, all of whom I respect, admire and trust. I am torn. One person tells me to jump right in with an edge of your seat opening while another tells me that I need to show my protagonist in her ordinary world. I've tried both and I am stuck in this vicious cycle of write, rinse, repeat.

I show her in her ordinary world - the courtroom, but not involved in the immediate and compelling dramatic question of the novel and I hear that I'm wasting those precious few seconds in which I might gain a reader or agent's attention. On the other hand, when I write the opening with a shocking hook (the first murder told from either the victim or the villain's POV) or the discovery of the body, another great author tells me that I'm jumping in much too quickly and not giving my readers (agents) time to even care about the characters.

So ... I'm stuck. Stuck searching for middle ground, I suppose. Any suggestions? I would be grateful for any tips or advice that you or any of your readers/commenters have to share.

Thanks for another helpful article. Sorry my comment is so long, but you've touched on an area that I'm pulling my hair out over.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

So glad you re-posted this. I'm starting a new novel in which the MC is in just the position you describe. I'm headed to the drawing board (computer keyboard) right now - oh wait, I'm there - to figure out what my girl's doing in the rest of her life. Thanks.

Unknown said...

When I was younger I remember reading a book. After I got though the first 50 pages and they were still setting up the characters, I just gave up. You really need to capture the audience in the beginning.

Chemist Ken said...

Great post. I'm currently writing a story where the MC suddenly gains some new powers, but I don't want her initial confusion to be boring. My usual strategy is to put her in humorous situations at the beginning so the reader is entertained (hopefully).

mooderino said...

@Saumya - thanks, glad you liked it.

@Donna - sometimes, of course, it all comes together form the outset. At least for other people.

@Alex - I expect it is possible to write a fun post office queue scene, but it takes some doing.

@Melinda - hey, welcome.

@Lissa - a perfectly reasonable approach.

@Diane - yeas, there's nothing wrong with things happening to the character, it just shouldn't be the central focus of the story.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - i think what you describe is fairly common, and trying to find the write approach/balance is what most people try to do, but there tend to be a few easy to fall into pitfalls.

Basically the problem with trying to decide between a big actiony opening or a real-world intro or even a suspenseful-but-unrelated to the main plot type of first scene is that none of these is what makes the opening attention grabbing.

Or to put it another way, all of the above can work and you can find many examples of each in best selling novels. All three are completely solid types of openings.

Because what readers are drawn to isn't whether it's a slow or fast start, it's whether what's happening in the scene is interesting. A chase across rooftops can be extremely dull, a breakfast argument can be taut and affecting. The type of scene you choose to open with is a matter of taste and personal predilection. Some writers have a knack for doing it one way over the other.

What i do think a first scene needs is to show the reader what kind of character they're reading about and that what you're showing is interesting.

Accurately depicting someone bored with life or sleeping isn't going to be much fun to read about. Equally, being vague and mysterious about the character's dark secrets that won't be revealed until much later is not very seductive either.

I would suggest focusing on what your character's main attributes are (whether protagonist or antagonist) and then don't just write a scene that demonstrates that trait, write a scene that questions it.

So if your hero is a crusader for justice, put her in a position where she has to represent a guilty person. Or if your villain has to kill redheads, have him abduct a woman who turns out be wearing a wig. Or whatever. My point is start with their main purpose in life and then use it against them. How they react or come out of it will make for good drama whatever type of scene you choose to build out of that.

mooderino said...

@Carol - it's all in the timing.

@Lilith - very true.

@Ken - humour is a great way to keep the reader involved.

Shah Wharton said...

Still learning and loving these posts. Especially as I'm about to receive a novel critique and I just know it's got a long way to go. :)

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