Monday, 2 March 2015

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

No new post this week as I've been struck down by a mystery illness (or possibly just a cold). In the meantime here's one from the archives.
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 wants to wait in line at the post office.
Things can happen to them, but they have to react. As you said, they can't be passive.
Sorry you're sick!

dolorah said...

One of the problems with my original women's fiction novel was things happened TO her and she reacted, but never attained any character growth. It is important not only to show reaction, but self sufficiency of some sort.

I've had a stuffy head all week too. Makes it hard to concentrate. Hope you feel better soon.

alexjrado said...

Excellent post. I appreciated your writing. Keep up the good work.

LD Masterson said...

Good points. And I hope you're feeling better soon.

mooderino said...

@Alex - feeling much better now thanks.

@dolorah - characters doing stuff is what makes story entertaining, I think.

@alexjrado - thanks.

@LD - Cheers.

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