Developing Your Characters

It’s been a while since I last talked about writing characters—I was distracted by other things—but fear not, I still have a few things to say on the subject. So, last month, I talked about how to write strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters. Now, I want to talk about developing these characters: how do you make these characters leap off the page and into your readers’ minds and hearts? Because, in case you haven’t guessed, it isn’t all about their motivation. Your characters can have excellent goals and excellent reasons for pursuing those goals, but no one wants to read about a bunch of stick figures. People want to read about other people.

 

So how do you turn your characters into real people? You develop them. There are so many ways to do this, and I’m not sure one way is better than another. I know people who write a short paragraph about each character outlining their most prominent traits. I know people who write a simple scene—like an encounter at a supermarket—about each character to get a grip on their voice and their thinking. There are character questionaires all over the internet, or you can create your own. When I was in high school, I used to fill out a 200-question worksheet of my own devising for every single character, but that got to be too much, because I tend to work with large casts, and honestly, no one cares what fruit your character would be if they could be a fruit. So I stopped that.

 

Now, I honestly tend to wing it. A character’s motivation can tell you a lot about the person, so I figure that out first, and then I extrapolate from that, and then I extrapolate some more. Sometimes, when I conceive of a character, I have a very clear picture of who they are, but other times I need to really dig into their personalities. As I write, who my characters are tend to come together for me, and this is even clearer as I revise. One time, when I had a large group of characters to introduce in one scene for the rest of the story, I spent some time looking at tropes of how personalities within groups break down. I figured out who I wanted to be what kind of personality within the group and then how they overlap, and that gave me a starting point to build their characters. When all else fails, I take long walks or long showers and ask myself one question after another until I figure out the basics. All I need to start writing are the basics. The character will grow on their own as I write and revise.

 

There are two things I like to think about when it comes to developing my characters, however. The first is character arcs. Like plot arcs, a character arc looks at the character’s path from the beginning of the story to the end. I examine where the character starts in terms of their personality, and I then look at who they are at the end of the story. Finally, I look at the events of the plot and I decide how these events affect the character—their personality and their motivations. A character’s personal journey doesn’t have to be straightforward. It isn’t just, this is who the character is at the beginning, and this is who they are in the end, and they just slowly change over the course of the book. A character can change suddenly. A character can change in a different way before they grow into the person they will be at the climax and finale of the story. A character can, and should, struggle with their growth and their identity. All these things make a character more realistic and thus more relatable.

 

The other important part of character development for me is looking at personality traits. I hear a lot of talk about character flaws, but I don’t buy that as a way to develop your characters. For one thing, it’s so general and overused that my initial response whenever anyone brings them up is “What does that even mean?” But beyond that, your characters don’t possess flaws. They possess traits. Yes, no one is perfect, and your character shouldn’t be perfect either, but I don’t think looking solely at the ways they are flawed is constructive. It’s much simpler to look at it in terms of traits that have positive and negative sides. For example, someone who is super organized might do really well in school or at work, but the minute something throws a wrench in their perfectly ordered world, they can’t handle it. Or someone who is stubborn or strong-willed might have the perseverance to pursue their goals, even against seemingly unbeatable odds, but it also means they can be single-minded and inflexible, unwilling to consider another approach or that someone else’s goals might be just as important as their own or even that their goals may be impossible. See what I mean? The important thing is the character’s traits and how they can be both positive and negative in any given situation.

 

So, that’s how I approach character development. This is what works for me, but like I said, there are so many ways you can do this, and I don’t think any one of them is better or worse than the others (except I really don’t think looking at character flaws works). However you develop your characters, it is an extremely important part of the story. You are asking your readers to spend time with your characters, to invest themselves in their lives and their problems, to cheer for them when they conquer challenges, to yell at them when they make bad decisions, and to scream and flail when they suffer. For your readers to do that, they have to feel—really, they want to feel—that these are real people.

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Music in Writing

I am still reveling in the publication of “Dissonance” (and if you haven’t read it, go do so, now), and since it’s relevant, I wanted to take some time to talk about music in writing. If you didn’t know this already, music is very important to me. I’ve played the clarinet since I was eleven, and I enjoy singing (though usually in the shower). So it stands to reason that music works its way into almost everything I write. But for me, music in writing is a two-fold concept, and I’m going to talk about both aspects here.

 

First for the obvious part, literally writing about music. I’m not talking about stories that are solely about music—though I do have several of those kicking around. I’m talking about the role music may play in a story. When you think about it, music is a huge part of our culture. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it, and it affects you. You have favorite songs and songs you like but don’t want to admit you like and songs that oh my God if you hear them again you are going to yank your ears off. Why shouldn’t it be the same in your writing?

 

I have stories where the entire world’s magic system is based on music—like “Dissonance”—and I have a novel series I’m working on where the main character’s magic operates through music. But it doesn’t have to be so big and grand at all. In almost all my other stories, my characters have songs that hold special meaning for them, and beyond that, music is always part of the world—whether fantastic or real. It is played on street corners or in restaurants and stores or over the radio in the car. People sing, hum, or whistle, or they tap their toes in fingers in time with whatever song is going in their head. It is music’s all-encompassing presence that I try to incorporate into my stories, even the stories that aren’t about music at all (though it’s considerably less encompassing for those).

 

This is all well and good, you might say, but how can you pull it off without being obnoxious? No one likes it when authors include singing in their stories. Before I read Lord of the Rings, I never understood this viewpoint. I liked songs in writing. Then I read Lord of the Rings, and I got it completely. I was less than a quarter of the way through the book when I was like, “oh God, if there is one more song, someone’s gonna die!” My trick is to keep it short—no more than six lines at a time. If I have a longer song, I break it up with description of what the characters are doing or thinking or feeling. If there’s a chorus, I intimate that it will repeat, but don’t actually write it out. I also make sure that it is relevant—to the story, to the character, to the setting, something—relevant in a way that can’t be accomplished just by describing the music.

 

The point is, music is a huge part of our world and our culture, so I try to make it part of the worlds and cultures I create in my stories. But believe it or not, I’m not always writing about music, which leads me to the other aspect of music in writing I want to talk about, because even then, there is music in my writing.

 

I’ve seen a lot of writing advice given about finding your voice as a writer, and I never really got that, honestly, because I try to develop a different voice and style for each story I write. What’s important to me is finding the musicality in the writing—the rhythm of the sentences and the lyricism in the words you choose. This is why I believe that reading out loud is such a fundamental part of the editing process, because it springboards your words off the page and into life. It doesn’t just show you places where your prose need smoothing, it lets you hear the music of your words, which are the heartbeat of your story. If you can manage it, read out loud to other people, because they might spot something you don’t.

 

I don’t believe there’s one right rhythm for sentences (in fact one of my friends and I always seem to have just slightly different ideas of what sounds good to us). I don’t believe that only certain styles produce lyrical prose. I don’t even believe that lyrical prose is always called for. But I do believe that music and writing are not separate entities. I believe that they are, in fact, so tightly entangled in each other that it would be difficult to separate them. Even if you aren’t writing about music, the music is in the writing.

Writing a Synopsis at the Last Minute

A few weeks ago, I wrote about beginning to query agents for my novel. All very exciting stuff, and it’s getting more exciting. When I left you, I said all I had to do was polish my query letter and finish up my synopsis and I’d be set to go. Well, the synopsis wasn’t going so well, but I didn’t want to lose all the momentum I had going, so I said, I’ll pick five agents who don’t require a synopsis for my first round of submissions, and once I query them, I’ll really get down to editing the synopsis. So that’s what I did.

 

Except for the synopsis part.

 

Before I submitted my queries, I had written a five page double-spaced synopsis that took a reader through the entire book, blow by blow. I had then edited it down to three pages. Most agents want a one-two page synopsis, and this was where I was struggling. If you’ve never tried it, describing a 330-page manuscript from start to finish in one page is really hard. Really, really hard. Throw in the fact that this 330-page manuscript has two storylines—one from the protagonist’s point of view in the present and one from her parents’ points of view in the past—and it gets even harder. So yeah, I was pretty stuck, and I was pretty much ignoring it. I figured I had until I was rejected by all five agents before I needed a synopsis for the next batch, and that was plenty of time.

 

Until one of the agents didn’t reject me and instead requested sample chapters and, you guessed it, a one-page synopsis. It was a moment of great excitement—my query works!—but also sheer terror. Now I needed a working synopsis—a working, one-page synopsis—and I needed it now. Actually, I really needed it yesterday so I could be submitting it now. And, oh yeah, I still didn’t know how to do that.

 

The good news was I wasn’t starting from scratch. The bad news was I felt completely overwhelmed. I had a three-page synopsis that was split into the past and present storylines, similar to how the book is set up, but it was awkward and clunky and way too long, and even I—with my expert cutting skills—was having trouble making it shorter. I started to panic. I wanted to get these sample chapters and synopsis off to the agent as soon as possible, but I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know how to make myself ready to do that. And did I mention I should have had this done yesterday?

 

Once upon a time, I was crazy organized and on top of things. I had homework done a week in advance—that sort of crazy. Then I went to college, discovered television and a social life, and learned to procrastinate. And as I remembered after the fact, this is not the first time I’ve been caught off guard and had to produce something at light speed. And it worked out really well then, too (I got into Alpha). But this wasn’t a short story. This was a whole book boiled down to a page.

 

I panicked for about half an hour all over my skype writing group and some people from Alpha who’d helped me with my query. Finally, they managed to get me calmed down enough to think straight. They reminded me that the synopsis isn’t really that important. It’s not something to blow off, certainly, but many agents view it as a formality, a way to tell that your story has a beginning, middle, and end, and nothing whacky flying out of left field in the last sentence. My sample chapters were good, they reminded me. I just had to calm down, finish the synopsis, and get it out the door.

 

And that was all well and good, but I still didn’t know how to fix the synopsis. A couple people suggested that, since the parents’ storyline really is a subplot, it didn’t need to take up nearly as much room in the synopsis. I could just include a quick paragraph about it when the protagonist finds out the relevant information. I went back and forth on this. The parents’ storyline is really important to me. In earlier drafts of this novel, I had people insist that I cut it all together, but I really felt like it added a whole other layer of complexity to the novel and to my protagonist’s motivations, so I stuck with it. So I didn’t want to just eliminate the parents from the synopsis, because I reasoned, if they aren’t important enough to include in the synopsis, why are they so important to the novel? And I couldn’t say something along the lines of “The novel is told in three points of view,” because according to all my research on how to write a synopsis, you aren’t supposed to get that meta—no themes or motifs or even discussions of writing or point of view—just the plot and characters and some stuff about the setting. But this idea of boiling down the parents’ storyline into a short paragraph and then inserting it at a critical point in the synopsis clicked with me. Best of all, it allowed me to focus my wildly scattered panic into motivation and energy and get to work.

 

I cut out all the stuff about the parents, getting the synopsis down to just over a page. Then I wrote my short paragraph about the parents and stuck it in where I thought it should go. Now, instead of a three-page synopsis, I had a page and a half. Much more manageable. I went through sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, restructuring and trimming until, at last, it fit on one page. I was victorious! And best of all, when all was said and done, I was actually pretty proud of my work. It didn’t feel like something I’d thrown together in a few adrenaline-fueled hours, it felt strong and polished, like it might stand a chance at convincing an agent that I know how to tell a story.

 

There’s a lesson here. If I had finished the synopsis earlier like I’d meant to, I could have avoided losing my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson. But here’s the thing, all that time that I was “procrastinating” on the synopsis, it was still stewing in the back of my mind. That’s why the new take on how to handle the parents’ chapters clicked with me so quickly—my subconscious was probably already halfway there. So when someone lit a fire under me, I had everything I needed to get it done and get it done well. And now, if anyone else asks for a synopsis, I have it.

 

And now that it’s done and I’ve caught my breath, I can take the time to really savor how exciting all this is. It may turn out that this particular agent isn’t the right fit, but maybe she is, and anyway it’s great to know that my query has grabbed someone’s attention and that I’m on to the next step. So keep your fingers crossed for me.

 

The Other Guys

In the past couple weeks, I’ve talked about what makes a strong protagonist and antagonist. This week, I’m going to talk about the side characters (as far as I know, there is no “agonist” term for these guys). These aren’t the good guys or the bad guys of your stories—though they will certainly have their own alliances. Personally, I find creating strong side characters can be more complicated than creating a strong protagonist or antagonist, but it’s also sometimes more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love my good guys and bad guys. It’s their story I’m telling after all. But the other guys can be lots of fun.

 

In some ways, you don’t have to know quite as much about your side characters as you do about your main characters. Of course, this depends on how important each character is, both to the plot and to your main characters. You don’t need to know as much about these characters because they aren’t going to be claiming center stage, but you need to remember that they are often important people in your main characters’ lives—friends or family or coworkers—and this means you probably want them to feel important to the reader as well. And even though they aren’t the protagonist or the antagonist, they’re still going to have goals of their own, and those goals are going to contribute to or complicate the forward momentum of your plot (this is one way you get subplots). I feel that side characters, like antagonists, should think of themselves as the protagonists of their own stories.

 

But the big difference between your main characters and your side characters is in how you have to develop your side characters, their contribution to the main plot, and their own subplots. In most cases, you aren’t going to be telling the story from your side characters’ point of view. You’ll be telling the story from your protagonist’s, or sometimes maybe your antagonist’s, point of view. It’s very rare that you’ll be telling significant portions of your story from a side character’s perspective, though it can be done. (Never fear, I’m going to talk more about point of view in a few weeks.) So, most of the time, while you’re working with your main characters from inside their heads, you’re working with your side characters from the outside. So your readers perceptions of your side characters will be colored by your main characters’ opinions of them. This can lead to interesting complications—if your main character misinterprets your side characters’ actions, for instance.

 

Complicating matters further is that not all side characters require the same amount of development or attention. The cashier at the grocery store on the corner, for example, probably doesn’t matter as much to the main character as their best friend or their sister or their love interest, and consequently the cashier probably won’t be influencing the plot as much. So you won’t need to devote as much time to him as you would to someone else. Your characters best friend or sister or love interest, on the other hand, will probably have strong influences over the main character and their decisions, as well as their own decisions and goals that could influence the story in their own right.

 

While I find working with side characters a bit more difficult than working with the protagonist or antagonist, I also sometimes find them to be more interesting and even more fun. There’s so much you can do—so many factors you can play with. Think of it this way, if you are the protagonist in your story, you do not stand alone. We do not exist in a void with our nemesis. We all make choices, at least in part, because of other people. We are social creatures by nature. Even introverts have family and friends they rely on. And if you want your characters to ring true to your readers, they have to be the same.

The Good Guys

As I’m working on my query and synopsis for my small child magician novel, I have found myself feeling very reflective. The query and the synopsis feel like a summation of all I have done for this novel, and since this novel was the novel I just couldn’t give up on, the novel that has grown and changed as I have grown and changed—as a person and as a writer—it feels pretty significant. I wrote the first draft of this novel almost twelve years ago, when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have taken enormous strides in my writing. For one thing, I learned about plot—what it is, how to do it, how to do it well. But at the same time, I also learned a lot about characters, and how characters are the key to moving a good story forward, just as much—if not more—than the plot. Also, I talked all throughout last November about plot, so I’ve decided it’s time I ramble about characters.

 

When I was in high school, I thought that the trick to strong characters was knowing every single possible detail about them that I could. I created a questionaire of 199 questions to make my characters real (in no particular order), and I answered every single question for every single character. Now, I laugh at my younger self a little bit. It’s not that this stuff isn’t important. It is. It helps you grasp what kind of person your character is. But you do not have to be as anal about it as I was. Beyond useless trivia, it probably isn’t essential that you know what your main character’s best friend’s older brother’s favorite color is. Unless it’s a significant part of the story—like he will only wear bright orange shirts, so the main character can always see him coming from a mile away—then really, no one is going to care that you know that particular fact. What I came to understand in college is that it’s much more important to know the big things than the small things. What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? What is their plan to get it? What do they care most about in the world? What are they most afraid of? What are they insecure about? It is these big questions and big ideas that shape who a person is—not their favorite pizza topping or least favorite hairstyle.

 

But there’s something even bigger that I’ve learned about characters as I’ve worked on my small child magician novel. A strong character is not only a well-rounded character. A strong character is an active character.

 

I’m going to talk specifically about protagonists right now. (In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss antagonists and side characters and how they influence the story in their own right, so stay tuned.) The protagonist is the main character of the story. They’re the character who—we hope—the reader is rooting for in the story (unless you’re writing an antihero (which I have never successfully done and don’t particularly like to read about, except when I do and then find myself totally baffled). In short, the protagonist is the good guy.

 

I think I’ve said before that the stories I most like to read and consequently aim to write are driven pretty equally by both plot and character. That means that while the story is pushed forward by outside influences—the plot—it is also moved along by the actions of the characters. A strong protagonist has agency—they are an active agent in their own plot.

 

It seems obvious, but it took me absolutely forever to get a grip on this. For the longest time, my protagonist was just flipflopping all over the story, being pushed around by the other forces in her life rather than standing up and making her own decisions. I learned that protagonists need to have agency, but it just didn’t sink in. Countless critiquers told me this was a problem, but either they didn’t say so in exact terms, or again I just didn’t get it. Then, at the end of my first year of college, it finally clicked into place. That it took this long for me to get it means that this lesson is really important for me. I think it is hands down the number one most important writing lesson I have ever learned.

 

For a story to work, your protagonist has to want something. That can be as simple as wanting to stop the antagonist, but your protagonist can have their own agenda entirely separate from the antagonist, until the antagonist gets in the way, of course. But the point is, your protagonist has to want something. Once your protagonist wants something, they have to take action to get it. This action drives the plot forward, and it also spurs character development. Because of course, it can’t be easy for your protagonist to get what they want. There has to be something standing in their way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read. It is when a protagonist takes action to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds, to tackle impossible challenges, and to come out the other side changed, even if they are not victorious (though victory is always an added bonus), that we find stories we love.

 

You can have an incredible, twisting, turning, thrilling plot, but it isn’t going to work if your protagonist is just being dragged around by that plot. Your protagonist needs to stand up and say, “No, this is my story, and I’m going to play a part in it.”

This Time for Sure

Almost six years ago, before I graduated from high school, I thought I had a completed manuscript for my small child magician novel. I was wrong on so many levels—like it is embarrassing to even think of how wrong I was—but I didn’t know it then. I got a subscription to Writer’s Market and started querying agents. At first, it didn’t go all that well. But then a friend offered to put me in touch with their friend, who was a writer. This friend of a friend offered to take a look at my query letter, by which he meant ppass the query letter on to his agent, who not only gave me some good advice on the query itself, but also requested my manuscript and gave me advice that changed my book forever.

 

I revised throughout my first year of college, and then I resubmitted to her. Ultimately, she rejected the book, but she did say she would be happy to hear from me down the line. So I continued to revise. And revise. And revise.

 

Just before I graduated from college, my thesis advisor put me in touch with her agent for my thesis novella. This agent gave me some good feedback on that project, but we also talked a lot about how I only get one debut novel. In some ways, this was an obvious point. But in other ways, it was a question I really needed to consider. At the time, I had my thesis novel, my small child magician novel, and the first draft of my memory-wiping academy novel. In my opinion, none of them were ready to be submitted yet, but I’d been given this opportunity, so I thought I should take advantage of it. But the more I thought of it, the more I leaned towards the small child magician novel. It was the novel I’d been working on the longest. It was closest to being really done. And it was the first novel I was proud of. So I decided: it would be my debut novel.

 

I finished my revisions in Italy, and last spring, I sent it to the agent my creative writing professor had put me in touch with. And I put off doing anything else to prepare to submit it. A few weeks ago, though, I heard back from the agent. She gave me lots of good feedback, and she said she would be willing to look at a final draft, but she also said that ultimately she wasn’t sure this was the right project for her. Honestly, I’d suspected this would be the case for a while, but I was also studying for the LSAT and applying for law school and starting work at the Disabilities Rights Center, so I was fine letting it sit until I heard back from her. But then I heard back from her, and I kicked into gear.

 

I went through the book one more time, putting some of her comments into a revision. Then I read all the archives on Query Shark and drafted my own query. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. Seven drafts later, I have something I’m really happy with. I bought a copy of the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents and read it cover to cover. I took notes on over a hundred agents who I wanted to research further. I am really, really hoping I don’t need that many. Now I am delving deeper into these agents, narrowing my list, and ranking them based on some criteria I established and also my trusty gut feeling. I’ve found a bunch that look like really good options, and a few I am super excited about. I’m also working on writing my synopsis. In case you didn’t know, summarizing your entire 90,000 word novel, start to finish, in only 500 words, is really, really hard. But I wrote a draft today, and I shouldn’t have too much trouble condensing it so that it’s one quarter it’s current size. I’ve gotten really good at this. Finally, I have a couple more nitpicky edits for the manuscript itself, and then it’s ready to go.

 

It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun, and the more I do, the more excited I get. I am doing this! My goal is to be ready to query starting in the beginning of March. I’ve had a couple false starts on this before, but I’m confident that this time, I’m ready.

 

So wish me luck, because here I go.

 

The First Step

Welcome to the fourth week of NaNoWriMo, where once again I will need a miracle—or a very long car ride—to reach my goal. For the last two weeks, I have talked about how I plan stories, and I’m continuing that this week. At this point in my planning process, I have an idea for an ending and an idea for a climax. Now it’s time for me to figure out how I’m going to start this story.

 

There is a lot of advice out there for how to begin a story. Some people say begin with action. Others say begin where it seems most natural to begin. In the first five hundred words, you want to give the reader some indication of the world the story is set in—whether real or fantastic. You want to introduce the main characters. If you can work in the main conflict of the story, that’s great. And while you’re doing all of this, you also want to get a hook around your reader’s neck, drag them into the story, and don’t let them go.

 

Some advice that I’ve heard a lot is that you want to start the story as late as you possibly can. You don’t need to include every single thing that takes place before the story actually begins. Any important backstory should be sprinkled in throughout the beginning and middle of the story.

 

I generally find that this is a lot to take in and a lot of advice to try to follow in my first pass through the beginning. So usually, as I’m planning and even as I’m writing the first draft of my beginning, I just try to focus on finding the right place to begin. The rest will come as I write, or else it will come as I rewrite. And more often than not, once I have a complete draft, I will be rewriting the whole beginning to start somewhere else that works better for the story. Only at that point do I allow myself to get neurotic about how much setting and character and action and whatever else I cram into my first page.

 

But for the purposes of writing a first draft, I just need a place to start. And to find that starting-point, I look at two things: the inciting incident and the ending.

 

The inciting incident of a story is the point where the plot finds the protagonist. From that point on, the story is driven by a combination of the problem presented by the plot and the protagonist’s goals. Usually, the inciting incident is a major change in the status quo of the characters’ lives, and it forces the protagonist into the action of the story, whether they want to be there or not. In my experience, it is best to start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible. That could be slightly before the inciting incident, right in the middle of the inciting incident, or even slightly after it.

 

Most stories start slightly before the inciting incident, allowing the reader to get a feel for the character and the setting before everything changes. If this is the case, the inciting incident should happen fairly quickly—by the end of the first chapter if possible.

 

Starting the story in the middle of the inciting incident is also a possibility. Starting in medias res like this has the advantage of excitement and possibly action to grab the reader’s attention, but it also means that the reader doesn’t yet know why they should care about these characters and their problems.

 

Finally, you can start the story right after the inciting incident. This works especially well if the incident itself is what allows the action of the story to happen, but it isn’t necessary for the reader to see the moment itself. I have done this only once that I can think of, in my short story “Dissonance,” which you will be able to read in about a month. The inciting incident of “Dissonance” is a fire. This fire allows the conductor of the orchestra to see the troubled clarinetist and to reach out to help her. But it isn’t necessary for the reader to see the fire itself, so I start the story the day after the fire, with the conductor dealing with its aftermath and trying to keep his grieving orchestra together.

 

Sometimes, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact inciting incident of a story. I find it can be tricky with stories I read, and sometimes even trickier with stories I write. I’ve built up this whole world inside my head, and I have these characters and their problems and their backstories, and of course it’s all vital to the story, so I should write all of it.

 

Or so I think.

 

The truth is, most of it probably isn’t vital to the story and isn’t necessary to include right in the beginning.

 

So to figure out what the inciting incident is, I look again at the main problem of the story and the main characters’ goals—protagonist and antagonist alike. I prune away what isn’t essential to that—even if I later decide to include it in the story anyway—and this allows me to see the bones of my idea. I ask myself: What is the problem? What does the main character want? What is preventing them from obtaining that goal? What is the point when the character starts actively pursuing that want and opposing the forces working to stop them from attaining this goal? That, there, is almost always the inciting incident. The inciting incident can also be the moment, without which, there would not be a story.

 

Once I have my inciting incident in mind, I then decide where the best place to begin is, depending on the story. Is it necessary for the reader to see the inciting incident? Do I want the reader to have some knowledge of the character and the setting, or do I want the reader to care about the protagonist, before the inciting incident makes everything go haywire? Do I want the action of beginning just before or right in the middle of the inciting incident to hook the reader? Depending on the genre and hoped-for length of the story I’m planning, as well as its overall shape, I decide where I want to begin relative to the inciting incident.

 

Finally, I think about the specific scene I want to open with. This is the part where the ending and the climax that I have already planned come into play. I look at my idea for the ending, the solution to the problem and the moment when the protagonist realizes what they have learned. I think about the climax, where the problem is confronted and the protagonist’s growth is tested. And one very simple thing I try to do is put the protagonist in a situation where they are facing a similar problem they will face later on in the climax—though usually much less nuanced than the climax will be. The character can either succeed or fail at the problem they face in the beginning, but how they solve it now, and how they solve a similar problem in the final act of the story, should demonstrate how the character grows and changes. Another similar option is to do something in the beginning that reflects an overarching theme of the story. Since sometimes it’s hard to know what any of the overarching themes of the story are, I usually don’t try to do this on a first draft and only attempt it on a revision.

 

Finding the perfect beginning is actually really hard for me. I have the ending and the climax, maybe some scattered scenes and ideas for the middle. I’m excited about this story. But I can’t begin until I have a scene in mind. Sometimes I can’t even begin until I have a first line in my head. This whole beginning will probably change. Usually, I have just found a starting place, and it is by no means the perfect one. It’s enough to get me going, though, and once I have a better sense of the whole story, I will be able to revise it into the beginning I need.

 

What I always remind myself, whether I’m on a first draft or a revision, is that the beginning is the first part of the story the reader will see. It is the moment when your readers meet your characters, enter your world, and face the problems of your story for the first time. You’re job, as a writer, is to invite them to stay, even to demand that they stay, and keep reading. Your story is a journey—for you and for your readers—and a journey begins with just a single step. But it is up to you where you place your feet.

Confronting the Climax

Last week, I talked about how the ending is my first step when I’m planning a story. This week, I’m going to talk about my next step: the climax. I plan the climax right after I plan the ending, because when I get to planning the ending next week, where I start the story will have a lot to do with where the story is going, and where the story is going is not simply the ending.

 

In very simple terms, if the ending is the solution to the story’s main problem, then the climax is the moment when the protagonist confronts the problem. This means that the shape of the climax often dictates the shape of the ending. The climax is the time where all of the protagonist’s internal growth and struggles that they have experienced over the course of the story are put to the ultimate test. In many stories, the climax is the moment when the protagonist realizes how they have changed—even if that realization is not expressed until after the action of the climax is over. The climax should at the same time put the protagonist’s character growth to the test and be the moment when everything the story has been building towards comes to a peak.

 

So, for this story I’m planning, at this point, I have a basic plot idea and a protagonist. I have an idea of what my ending will be. It could be a very specific idea, a specific moment where I want my story to land, or it could be broader, the solution to the problem and a feeling I want to convey. If my thinking here is broader at this point, it will probably become more specific as I plan out the climax. Also, at this point, if I don’t have a concrete grasp of my protagonist, my antagonist, their separate and conflicting motivations, and the main problem of the story, I spend some time ironing out those details. More specific detail will come as I continue to plan, of course, but I need some basic, concrete information before I move to the climax, otherwise, planning the climax now doesn’t make any sense.

 

I realize that this can seem like a pretty backwards way to think about this, and other people may plan their stories differently and just as effectively. But this is the way my brain works, and it makes sense to me, so I generally run with it. Also, it is so much fun to invision the most intense moments of a story. Often, it is the climactic scene that is the scene that sticks with me while I’m writing the whole story, the scene that I can’t wait to get down on paper, the scene that I even sometimes regret putting on paper because now it isn’t in my head anymore.

 

When I plan out my climaxes, I again think about what kind of story I’m writing and what kind of climax it should have. If I’m writing a more literary story, the climax might tend to focus on the characters’ emotions rather than high-stakes action. But if I’m writing fantasy or even historical fiction, which is most of what I’m writing, a little high-stakes action might be the right way to go. Or, you can go the middle route, my personal favorite, where there is lots of action and lots of feelings.

 

After I’ve figured out what kind of climax I’m looking for, I look at all the elements of the story that I have outlined so far (whether that outline is in my head or on paper). I have the main character, their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears. I have the antagonist with all their goals and strengths and weaknesses and fears. Personally, I really like to have the bad guy and the good guy be evenly matched throughout the story, or else the bad guy is slightly stronger, and something changes in the climax that tips the scales in the protagonist’s favor. I have the main problem of the story, which may or may not be related to the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. For example, the protagonist and the antagonist could both be working to solve the same problem, but with opposing methods. I might also have side characters I need to consider, or other points of view I’ve been narrating from that I need to deal with. Finally, I have the setting, which is one of my personal favorite elements to play with. I’m going to talk about all of these things in much more detail in future posts—I promise—but it’s important to bring them up now because they all play a role in the climax. The best climax for my story, in my opinion, is the climax where all of these elements come together.

 

Finally, I want to look at a couple real-life examples of climaxes that work for me. Again, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.

 

One excellent example of a climax that works is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus contains so many different elements and characters, most of whom the reader cares about. It has a phenomenal setting, and the antagonist isn’t so much the main characters’ teachers, but the game their teachers have forced them to play. In the climax, all of these elements come together. The climax confronts the problem not only of the conflict between the game the two main characters are playing against each other and their love for each other but also the tension over the fate of the circus, and all those who are part of the circus, when the game is over. And then the problems are resolved in an unexpected and intriguing but ultimately satisfying way.

 

I am also a big fan of the climax of The Hunger Games—the first one. It brings into play the rivalry between Katniss and Cato; Katniss’s regret, grief, and horror over the deaths of the other tributes, some of them at her hands; the romance between Katniss and Peeta that cannot possibly have a happy ending—not if only one of them can go home; Katniss’s confusion about her feelings for Peeta; and finally her desire to be more than a piece in the Capitol’s games. Here again, the book confronts a seemingly impossible problem and solves it in a unique way.

 

Finally, I am deeply in awe of Marissa Meyer’s climaxes for her Lunar Chronicles series, especially the climaxes for Cinder and Cress (I haven’t finished Winter yet so no spoilers please). In each book, as she adds more and more characters to the mix, her climaxes become ever more complicated, and yet they all work. She is also able to make each of our heroes—by the end of the third book we have a pretty large group of them—take significant action that is necessary for the success of the group in the climax. And I could keep gushing.

 

I’m having trouble thinking of climaxes that don’t work for me, mostly because climaxes are so important to endings that climaxes that don’t work are usually tied to endings that don’t work, and I already ranted about those last week. An important distinction I feel I need to make, though, is that a climax can define a character’s growth, and do so effectively, even if the ending of the book then invalidates that growth (my biggest pet peeve when it comes to endings). For example, it is not so much the climax of Mockingjay that ruins it for me. It is the moment when Katniss votes for another Hunger Games. It is not so much the death of certain characters in How I met Your Mother that drives me nuts, but Ted’s decision when he finishes the story. On the other hand, it is the decisions made in the climax of Allegiant that don’t work for me, and that just bleeds over into the ending.

 

But climaxes I love to read—and so climaxes I love to write—are complex. The protagonist is facing seemingly impossible odds. The solution is not obvious, but it’s also not so complicated that no one could figure it out ever. The protagonist needs to make some kind of choice that ultimately reflects their character growth. Something may be lost, but something else must be gained. The climax brings every piece of the story so far together. For me, if a story is a journey, the climax is the moment that every dark and twisting step has led towards. It is the moment where the protagonist stands and faces down their problem and their antagonist. It is the moment when the protagonist stands and faces a choice, faces their fears and hopes and strengths and weaknesses, and overcomes all of it. It may seem backwards, given that everything must lead to the climax, to plan the climax before I plan the beginning or the middle or most of the specific details, but for me it works. For me, the climax is integral to the ending, and if I can’t begin without an end in sight and a solution to the problem, then I can’t begin without knowing how the protagonist will confront that problem in the climax.

 

And now that I have my ending and my climax nailed down, I can begin.

Journey to an Ending

November has arrived, which means once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Unfortunately, I can’t count law school application essays towards my word count, so I have decided not to attempt to write fifty thousand words this month. Instead, I have set myself a much more reasonable goal of writing four short stories. But in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I have been playing with my basic concepts of stories that need revising and thinking a lot about how I plot my stories—short and long alike. Back in July, I wrote about how I outline stories, but now I really want to get into the meat of how I plot stories. And as I was planning this series of posts, I realized that I usually start with the ending.

 

I have no idea if this is how other people morph their idea stews into cohesive stories, but this is what I do. I start with a basic concept—a main character, possibly an antagonist but probably not yet, and the problem that main character is trying to overcome. Then, with this idea in mind, I jump straight to the ending. It’s sort of like I’m planning a trip. I can’t decide what route I’m going to take if I don’t know what the destination is. If I know the destination, I can plan the path I will take—where I will start, where things will probably get difficult, where I will pause to rest and use the bathroom and refuel my car and myself, where I will turn aside to get lost in the halls of cobwebby museums full of rare fossils that might give the whole trip meaning. Maybe this metaphor has gone too far. I can’t even drive. Yet.

 

My point is, before I set pen to paper or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, I need to know where I’m going. Many times, I don’t start a story until I have a last line in my head.

 

This isn’t to say that the ending I come up with when I am first planning a story will definitely be the ending I write when I get there. It could happen that I reach the ending and realize that I have been driving at something completely different all along. In that case, I revise my ending and do what’s right for the story. Other times I reach my ending and everything feels just right, and I write that ending, but then when I go back to revise the story, I realize that while the ending is right for the story I want to tell, the beginning or the middle or the character arc isn’t fitting in, and I need to revise that. So it doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but that is the joy of storytelling: it is an act of discovering the story as much as transcribing it for others to read. But even if I change the ending, if I don’t start writing with an ending in mind, the story will inevitably be a mess.

 

So when I have my basic premise for the story, when I have my main character and my problem, how do I come up with an ending? And how do I know if that ending is the right ending for the story I am telling?

 

For starters, I have a running list of endings I have loved and endings I have hated in my head. When I’m trying to come up with the right ending, I start there. What kind of story do I think I’m telling? What books or TV shows or movies have I recently read or seen that might be similar to that type of story? How did they end? Did it work? Why? Did it flop? How come? What kind of ending can I come up with that will be better than what they did?

 

Obviously, this strategy can only take you so far. You need to be careful that you’re not copying endings from things you like or deliberately doing the opposite of something you didn’t like. For one thing, straight-up copying is bad. Most of the time, your story is actually pretty different from the material you’re drawing on for your inspiration, so copying their ending won’t fit. If your story isn’t different from the material you’re drawing on for inspiration, you have an entirely different problem. (Believe me—I’ve been there. Revise. Revise now.)

 

But I digress. Using a particular ending as a model—a baseline—is how I usually start. I look at how that ending was constructed, why it works the way it does—or why it doesn’t work—and I see if I can produce the same effect. Once I have analyzed other people’s endings to my heart’s content, I look back at my own story. In very simple terms, I think about the ending as the solution to the problem the main character is facing (this is different from the climax of the story, where the main character confronts the story’s main problem). Then I start brainstorming all the possible solutions to the problem, including the totally ridiculous solutions that could never actually work, the solutions where everyone dies (I don’t think I’ve ever gone with this one), and the solution where the main character walks away and leaves the problem unsolved—or gives in to the problem in some way. Usually this brainstorming is all in my head, but sometimes I write it out. When I can come up with no other possible solutions, I think about my story fundamentally. What do I want the tone to be? What do I want the main character to learn (if anything)? What is the story I am telling? I start crossing off endings that don’t work. Usually, I’m left with just a few possibilities, and I pick the one I like the best (I usually have a feeling by this point).

 

I don’t always use this whole process. Sometimes the ending I’m looking for is perfectly clear to me from the start. But when it isn’t, going through this process helps me clarify a lot about the story that I may not have thought about before, and ultimately, it’s a better story for it.

 

Finally, I want to talk about what kind of endings I personally like and what endings I hate. I will do my best to stay spoiler-free.

 

My biggest pet peeve about endings is when all the character has learned, all their growth and change, is invalidated. Think the ending of Mockingjay or How I Met Your Mother. Usually, this ending feels so far off the rails to me that it ruins how I feel about the whole book or season, sometimes even the whole series. I have been following these characters for so long at this point, and now they’re making a decision that makes everything that came before not matter. I feel cheated. I feel like I want to throw the book across the room. Often, there are aspects of the ending I would have been okay with on their own, but when it’s all put together, it just doesn’t work for me. I have a visceral reaction to these endings. At best, I’m disappointed. At worst, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

 

Another ending I despise is the ending where either the protagonist dies or all the people around the protagonist die and the protagonist is left on her own in a wasteland of mindless destruction and grief. My one exception so far to this dislike is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and that’s because Death is the narrator, so I knew it had to happen at some point. Most of my dislike for this type of ending comes from the fact that I am fundamentally an optimist, and this depressing view of the world just doesn’t jive with my sunny outlook on life. I know, I know. I kill characters mercilessly in my own stories, and a lot of the time I enjoy a good character death. But only when that character death serves a purpose. When you kill everyone just to show that the world is rough, it doesn’t work for me. Also, as in another popular young adult dystopian trilogy, when you kill the main character for no good reason other than she’s nobly sacrificing herself for someone else I really couldn’t care less about, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Because I’m not reading the story for the interesting world. I’m reading the story for the character. And that was a dumb decision!

 

My favorite kind of ending, on the other hand, is like the ending of the TV show Leverage or Kristin Hannah’s book The Nightingale. It’s what I’m hoping the ending of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series will be (we’ll see tomorrow!). My favorite kind of ending brings all the pieces of the story together. It solves the problems of the plot in a satisfying way. It makes me feel like the characters have grown and changed in ways that matter. It is the sort of ending that makes me want to turn right back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again. It doesn’t have to be happy, and it doesn’t have to solve everything. In my favorite endings, there is at least one piece left for the reader to ponder, one more story for the reader to imagine. And while I always love a nice happy ending, my favorite endings are bittersweet. Because what is a happy ending worth—what is any journey worth—without struggles and losses that must be overcome along the way?

To Outline or Not to Outline

That always seems to be the question, at least for me.

 

I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo right now. I’m already behind, and writing this blog post isn’t getting me any further ahead, but whenever I do National Novel Writing Month of any sort, the question of whether I should outline or not is always something I have to consider.

 

This July, my project is more for fun than anything else. I haven’t written in quite a few months—unless you count a half-finished flash fiction piece, which I don’t because it’s just kind of sad to me that I couldn’t even finish a flash story. So I’m trying to get myself back in the writing mode with something fun. And I decided not to outline.

 

When I say I’m not outlining, I don’t mean I’m going in with a premise and nothing else and just winging it. I have a premise, definitely, but I also have an ending in mind, as well as a beginning. I also have a few specific scenes in my head and a rough plot. But largely, I’m going to discover how to get from Point A to Point B while I’m writing. And for what I’m doing right now, that’s fine.

 

But I have come to the conclusion that in almost all other cases, I need to outline. If I write by the seat of my pants, I end up with a mess.

 

A few years ago, I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo without outlining. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, but when I finished it a little after November, I put it in a folder on my computer and didn’t look at it again. I was positive that it was terrible, so terrible it couldn’t be revised and just had to be rewritten. So, the next year, I rewrote it, again without outlining, and again I felt like it was terrible. This past spring, I went back and reread both drafts, and they weren’t nearly as bad as I thought. Except where did that box of snakes come from? And why did I just kill all the people chasing the protagonists? Well, what did I expect? I didn’t outline. And something had to happen.

 

At this point, with some tweaking, I could probably jigsaw the two drafts I have together, smooth some things out, and have a pretty good draft for this book that I could work with. But in order to do that, I need an outline.

 

On the other hand, I have also had the problem where I outline so much that I don’t end up writing anything. I put tons of details into my outline, down to lines of dialogue I don’t want to forget or what color shirt each character is wearing, and then I have no motivation to write the scene.

 

I found my sweet spot when I was planning my thesis novel at the beginning of my senior year of college. My advisor told me to write one or two sentences for each chapter and leave it at that. This worked really well for me, because it was a plan, but it wasn’t so much of a plan that I didn’t want to write the book after I finished the outline. But I only recognized that this worked because I had experimented with different ways of outlining and realized what didn’t work as well. And while this might be right for me, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. And while it was right for that project, another project might require something different.

 

Now, back to writing by the seat of my pants. Happy Camp NaNoWriMo!