Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings us back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focused on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

 

Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

 

For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

Character and Plot 1: It’s my emotional arc and I’ll cry if I want to!

Why am I here and what am I trying to do? Two of the most important questions every actor has to ask themselves about the character they are playing, regardless of whether their character’s raison d’etre is as mundane as delivering a tea tray to the posh folks in the drawing room or as sublime as soliloquising on the meaning of life, the universe and why their mother married their uncle.

Let’s be honest, a lack of purpose is distracting for an audience: they should be concentrating on the play itself, not wondering why a particular character appears to be meandering aimlessly about the stage with all the air of an indecisive rabbit caught in headlights or stuck in the middle of a scene as though surplus to requirements. So answering those two questions is an important part of an actor’s job and actor training (via Stanislavsky) has come up with various methods to help them do so.

So what has all this got to do with emotional arcs? Apart, of course, from the fact that the same rules apply to characters in a novel or short story as to those in a play or film. Well, let’s look at the whole concept of emotional arcs to start with.

First up, what is an emotional arc? Essentially it can be defined as the emotional journey a character goes on throughout the course of a story: the growth, changes, denials and acceptances of the events and incidents they experience along the way and the emotional choices they make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a character absolutely has to change by the end of a book—their tragedy might well be that for whatever reason(s) they choose not to grasp the opportunities for change offered to them, but from a reader’s perspective, watching them make those choices is where the emotional heart of a story lies. And to truly engage a reader, a story needs an emotional heart.

Here’s the traditional way of illustrating an emotional arc—a sort of character rainbow graph:

Emotional Arc 1

However, I like to think of it as more an emotional barometer than a graph. Don’t think of it in terms of the character feeling happy, sad, pleased or vexed—think instead of the emotional pressure being applied to a character at any given time in the story. At the height of the story, the emotional pressure should be at its most intense. And what gives us this increase in intensity as the plot develops is dealing with a character’s wants and yearnings—what Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream (with Janet Burroway), calls ‘the dynamics of desire’. Because the character’s yearnings, wants and desires are the driving force behind the events in the book, the momentum that will push the story forwards to its conclusion.

Which is where we return to acting. One of the ways in which an actor approaches a script for rehearsals is to break it down into ‘objectives’: ‘super-objectives’ for larger sections of the play such as Acts, or indeed the whole play itself, and ‘units’ for smaller scenes or moments of action.

By giving a character a want, goal or aim for every single moment and playing the sense of purpose generated by each objective, an actor can bring an energy and dynamism to performance which hooks an audience from the start and keeps them engaged throughout the play.

And what author wouldn’t want the same for his or her readers? So next time, I’ll look at how using objectives can help writers develop their characters and the useful knock-on effect on plot and structure.

The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers

Dangling participles

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Sighing as he sits, the mirror behind the bar catches his weary reflection. ‘How’s it going, DP?’ says the barman. ‘Not good,’ says the dangling participle, ‘subjectively speaking, I’m feeling a little mixed up.’

Yes, we’re on the thorny subject of dangling participles. Look closely at the second sentence in the above paragraph, and ask yourself, who is sighing and sitting? The DP or the mirror behind the bar?

How about these other examples:

Driving to work, the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Turning the corner, the hotel appeared in sight. 

Being in bad condition, I bought the book cheaply. 

So here’s the tech speak: an introductory participial phrase should give more information about (modify) the subject of the main sentence. In the above cases, the subject of the main sentence is ‘mirror’, ‘sun’, ‘hotel’ and ‘I’ respectively. See the difficulty? The mirror isn’t sitting and sighing, presumably the sun wasn’t driving to work, the hotel didn’t turn the corner and, equally, I bought the book cheaply because it was in bad condition, not because I was. So the modifier is misplaced or dangling.

And the glitch in the matrix reference? Well, there is a scene in the film The Matrix where a cat climbs a stairs and the film glitches: it’s as if the cat imperceptibly rewinds itself and there is a moment of double-take or déjà vu. For me, dangling participles cause the same kind of problem in prose. Your reader may or may not be able to tell you the technical reason for the stumble or the double-take, but they will clock it on some level, and it could have a detrimental effect on their enjoyment of your writing, particularly if there is more than one or two in the manuscript. So, next time you lead with a participial phrase, please make sure there’s nothing dangling!

Using introductory participial phrases

Even if you get it right, you should still spare a thought for the perils of overuse. Opening with participial phrases can give a sentence fluidity and sense of energy, but check out the following:

Leaving his office, Johnny saw Simon was still working late. Stepping out into the street, he noticed the traffic was at a standstill. Raising his arm, he hailed a taxi cab. Riding in the taxi cab, Johnny noticed the taxi driver was actually a large seething mass of green alien plasma. Being alarmed, he shouted at the driver to stop. Being really annoyed by all the participial beginnings, the driver did not oblige. Hurtling through space in an alien spaceship, Johnny wished he’d been more careful with his sentence openings.

Yes, this cautionary tale of alien abduction is obviously an exaggeration of the problem, but it serves as a good illustration of the dangers of unintentional patterns in your prose which can ruin the effect of what you are actually trying to achieve.

Murder at Cliché Manor 2: Revenge of the Stereotypes

DI Findlater turned to the attractive blonde lolling seductively in the doorway, whose ample chest threatened at any time to burst out of the impeccably tailored, tiny-waisted, blood-red designer jacket stretched to full capacity across it. 

‘Parker, don’t just stand there. Go do something useful.’

DC Denis Parker flashed a sultry look in Findlater’s direction before disappearing into the hallway with a smoky-voiced ‘Right you are then, Sir.’

Sergeant Webster glared after him.  Someone needs to explain the meaning of the word ‘plain’ to that guy,’ he growled, ‘as in plain-clothes detective.’

Maybe the maxim that there are only seven or eight plots in fiction, and everything else is simply a variation on a theme, is true. Likewise, there is a good reason that many of the clichés and stereotypes in genre fiction are so prevalent: they work well. Comedy often works by turning a stereotype or cliché on its head, whereas drama needs conflict. So enter the maverick loner detective with a drinking problem, a bad attitude to authority and a broken marriage. Yes, it’s a cliché, but with built-in conflict from the get-go!

However, accepting the limitations of a genre doesn’t mean a writer can sit back and lounge on their clichéd laurels. Colin Dexter’s detective Morse and Val McDermid’s psychiatrist, Tony Hill, are both loner mavericks, but there is a world of difference and individuality between them. Equally, there are considerable differences between, say, Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist, Kay Scarpetta and Kathy Reichs’s forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan.  In each case, the author has given their creation a unique background, setting and voice. The same holds true even when working within the confines of historical events or characters. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are wonderful examples of how an author can use a unique point of view and style to turn a stereotypical Tudor bad guy into a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent and complex man.

The key to avoiding clichés is to make clear choices for your character. What interests you about them? What makes them unique and individual in your view, even if the situation they are in, historical or otherwise, is a seemingly stereotypical one? What is it about their behaviour, their decisions and choices that differentiates them from all the other people in the same situation? Once you’ve decided what it is – that’s the angle to explore in your writing.

The same holds true for linguistic clichés and phrases. Where it is clear that your use of a particular cliché or phrase is intentional and a character choice, a reader is less likely to have a problem with it. You can also get away with more in dialogue because people often use clichés in everyday speech, but, please, always in moderation: you don’t want to over-spice the stew. However, be very wary of randomly sprinkled clichés and well-worn phrases in the actual body of the narrative: you can almost certainly be guaranteed that that’s where they will come across as lazy or unimaginative.

Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

Are we there yet? Knowing when to edit.

013zBelieve me, the quickest way to a bad editing experience is to have your manuscript edited too soon. There is no point wasting money on a copy-edit (that is, one that deals with spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and so on) until the structure and the story are completely sorted, because even the slightest redraft can result in most of the copy-edit, and the money you spent on it, vanishing into the Recycle Bin before your very eyes.

The key to a good edit is to know your manuscript and to choose the right type of edit at the right time.

Let’s imagine you have reached the end of your first draft. So, the next step is to send the manuscript to an editor? Actually, no. The next step is to give yourself a well-earned pat on the back for finishing the draft in the first place. Then shove the entire manuscript in a drawer (or the computer equivalent of a drawer) for a period of time and forget about it. Most people recommend two weeks proving time, I personally would suggest a month, or longer, if you can manage it. Go and write something else – a short story, a poem or flash fiction, assuming you aren’t already diving into your next novel.

DSC00072When you are ready, take out your novel and read it straight through, just as you would any other book.  This should give you a clear idea as to which parts of the story are working, which parts aren’t, and what, and where, the main problems are. Time for draft two, and, perhaps, even draft three or four, who knows? Repeat the process for each draft, and when you have the manuscript as good as you can get it, structurally-speaking, you can edit it yourself, checking in particular for obvious typos and spelling mistakes. Then send it to your beta readers: fellow writers, friends and family whose judgement you trust and who will be honest with you. Once you have all the comments back from your readers, proceed to draft and self-edit number whatever we’re at.

Now your manuscript is ready for a substantive edit.

Heart writing 001Many writers are sorely tempted to skip this step mainly due to the expense of hiring a substantive editor. But you should remember that the story is one of the most important elements of your novel (character being another). Forgive the bluntness, but there is enough evidence out there in the marketplace to show that a rattling good story will sell a book, even when the prose is fairly pedestrian. Hiring a substantive editor to help you get the story right could be the best investment you make. If you really can’t stretch to a full substantive edit, at the very least, have it professionally critiqued, so that you are sure there are no major plot, character or pacing difficulties lurking in the manuscript just waiting to pop out and infuriate your readers.

Now, fast-forward another draft or three to the point where you are absolutely certain there will be no further amendments to the story or structure. Congratulations, you’ve made it! It’s time for a copy-edit.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.