Tag Archives: story goals

Slump Stumped

When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?

Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!

Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.

But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.

Let’s examine these three methods separately:

  1. Hooks:  When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
  2. Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
  3. Boosting motivation:  Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Please Like Me: the Sympathetic Character

Another way to keep readers glued to your prose is through establishing an emotional bond between that audience and the story’s protagonist.

If you can create a character that readers like and care about, that connection will carry you a long way.

So how do you design such a character? How do you reach readers? Through emotion, attitude, action, and goal. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

EMOTION

The best way to touch a reader’s feelings is to evoke them through the character’s emotions. You can write something like this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit. He shivered a little, but didn’t bother opening the tightly furled umbrella in his left hand. In his other, he held a small, wilting bouquet of white roses. He’d tried to be here for the funeral. It had been impossible to get leave from work. Now, three weeks too late, he’d come. He frowned at the stone, then tossed the bouquet on top of the mound and walked away.

Or this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone with a strong sense of unreality. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Children didn’t die before their parents. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit and making him shiver. He didn’t intend to cry, but a tear slid down his cheek anyway. It felt hot against his chilled skin. Although he held a tightly furled umbrella in his left hand, he didn’t open it. His father had taught him that grown men never cried, that it was a sign of weakness, a mark of shame. But today, the rain could hide his tears, and no one would know how sorry he was for what had happened. He tightened his grip on the small bouquet of wilting roses before tossing it onto the mound. He should have been here for the funeral. He’d been too cowardly to insist that his boss grant him leave for the service. Now, he was more ashamed of that than anything else. Abruptly, he turned and walked away, trying not to run.

In these two examples, we basically have identical action. However, our perception of the character is different in each one because of the emotions that are present or absent.

Consider your reaction to Bob as you read each example. Did you like Bob in either presentation? Did you care about him more in one than the other? Why? What did you respond to positively and what did you dislike?

How readers react to your characters is never happenstance. Writers should control and manage that response.

ATTITUDE

There’s the old adage about the optimist seeing the glass as half-full and the pessimist seeing it half-empty. Identical glass; two very different reactions to it.

So, does your character have a positive, upbeat attitude? Is your character soured on life and deeply cynical? Is your character living in denial? Is your character the individual who shoves in a panic to get aboard a Titanic lifeboat? Or is your character someone who stands back and lets women and children on first?

Some attitudes we like or respect. We gravitate to individuals who show courage, leadership, loyalty, honesty, and self-reliance. We tend to shy away from people who are lazy, whiners, passive, and self-centered.

What I find appealing may repel you. Figure out what works for you personally. Chances are it will work for your characters as well. Just keep in mind that a slacker attitude in a character doesn’t usually lend itself to an active, goal-oriented protagonist who will carry a plot to the end.

ACTION

In real life, many people are willing to keep things as they are. They’re perhaps afraid to change, afraid to take a risk. So they avoid confrontation, seldom stand up for themselves, and let others take advantage of them.

In fiction, the most heroic or appealing characters tend to be ones who don’t stand around and absorb whatever life dishes out. They take action. They do something, right or wrong. They try to solve the story problem.

Granted, it usually takes a catalyst in the plot to open the story and force the character to take action. That’s why so many stories begin with what we call “a moment of change.” Change is perceived as threatening because it upsets the status quo.

In fiction, protagonists do speak up. They take chances. They dare to try.

It’s what makes such characters larger than life.

GOAL

What a fictional individual wants reveals something about his or her personality or true nature.

Think about the elevator scene in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail. The elevator operator announces that he loves his girlfriend and decides he should marry her. Tom’s girlfriend announces that she’s going to get LASIK surgery, and Tom realizes that she’s shallow and self-centered, that he doesn’t love her, and that he isn’t going to stay with her. It’s a terrific contrast between one character’s love and tenderness, of his willingness to open his heart to strangers and display vulnerability, and another character’s vain disregard for anyone but herself.

A character’s goal, whether short-term or the story objective, helps define that person. Some goals we can applaud. We’re willing to cheer that character on. We hope he succeeds. We want him to win. Such goals, whatever they may be, help create that empathetic bond between reader and character.

Other goals are signals to readers that this character is up to no good, is cruel or selfish or criminal. We don’t want this individual to succeed. We can’t be sympathetic at all.

All these methods are ways by which you can shape your audience’s like or dislike for the characters you create.

Take charge.

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