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Characters are often under-developed in beginning fiction writing. An unknown villain is a common example. That is a villain whose characterisation is not strong or compelling enough to convince us that he or she can pose some seriously menacing adversity to the protagonist.
However, we can also encounter an over-developed character. An over-developed character is a character that comes with unnecessary development in the story.
Sometimes it can be as little as a dialogue line. Passing characters, for instance, a hotel receptionist with no relevance to the story, doesn’t need an active presence in a scene, if he or she will never be mentioned again. Example: “‘Good evening, sir, welcome to Ambassador Leisure,’ said the receptionist smiling. I handed her my passport and filled in my credit card details just before making my way to the lift.” (Fictitional example). If such a frgament has no relevance to the story development, ditch it.
However, the most common encounter is a minor character with pages dedicated to his or her past. Don’t waste readers’ time with unnecessary details about your characters, such as their past, their family life, their work schedule, their hobbies, their lifestyle, their preference for underwear colour and texture. If the detail doesn’t add anything to the story development, ditch it.
What’s wrong with this fragment, found in a novel:
‘Their conversation was stilted’?
That’s right: it tells, it doesn’t show. Instead of creating a scene with the right atmosphere to show us that the awkwardness, boredom and self-consciousness of the characters involved in this conversation, the author chooses to summarise it all with a generic adjective: stilted.
For fiction, this is as good a report-writing. Imagine you were a witness of this conversation and you had to write a report about it. You would write a summary of it and you would use generic adjectives. They looked uncomfortable to be there, their conversation was stilted. You wouldn’t desciebe the scene, you’ll be unlikely to repeat their dialogue lines, the look in their eyes, the subtle gestures and facial expressions. But in fiction, it is exactly this kind of minimalism that creates atmospheric and immersive scenes to enrich our reading experience, not the report-writing.
To illustrate my point, I’ll use this beauitful fragment from Edgar A. Poe: “The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once golden hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with ringlets now black as the raven’s wing, and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and I shrunk involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips.” Here, Poe could have easily summarised it all with ‘Berenice looked ill’, but of course, he didn’t. He offered us instead a piece of real description and allowed us the opportunity to interact with his writing and understand the meaning of it, that she indeed looked ill.
Other generic adjectives to look out for and pluck out of your fiction writing, are ‘bad’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘gloomy’, ‘angry’, ‘delighted’, ‘elated’, ‘amused’ and so on. The best way to go about it is to schedule one editing session with generic adjectives in mind and go through the whole manuscript isolating them one by one and deciding whether a proper scene or description would be suitable instead.
For more on showing, not telling and how to avoid summarising in fiction, check out Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.
If you always wanted to find out how your book fares and would also like to learn how to edit and improve it yourself, then July is your month.
You can submit your manuscript for assessment in July and, if you’re a new client, you will receive 10% off and a signed copy of Self-editing Fiction that Sells.
Feedback from literary agents is a precious thing and new writers would do well to take it seriously and follow it. Sometimes, the feedback is crystal clear: ‘the stakes are not high enough,’ ‘a third-person narrator might work better’, ‘I would lose the prologue, it doesn’t seem to add anything to the story.’ When you get this type of feedback, as a new writer, you know exactly what you need to do (or at least you know exactly what to experiment with and see how you like the result).
But you can also receive a much vaguer type of advice, such as: ‘your voice is not strong enough’, ‘the narrative lacks drive’, ‘your characters fail to convince’, ‘your scenes are not immersive enough’, ‘your story needs tightening.’ Yes, in other words, ‘you haven’t quite pulled this one off’, but what exactly can you do to pull it off?
What does all this mean? It sounds like ambiguous, generic advice hundreds of thousands of writers may receive every day from agents around the world. Where do you start to revise your manuscript in order to add more drive to your narrative?
Clients often come to us with a briefing note from their agent, ‘the story needs some tightening’. Personally, I love receiving a manuscript with a briefing from an agent because there is a lot more scope for me to work with the author and improve those specific areas the agent has isolated.
Loose stories are a common encounter in new fiction writing. The good news is that tightening your story is easy to do once you know how. So when I receive such a briefing, I usually look at two things:
1) is there enough action in the story?
2) if there is enough action in the story, is it structured so it follows a logical and necessary path?
It’s easy to deal with number one: just add more action to your story. If you have long fragments where nothing happens – such as a sagging middle – adding more action will increase anticipation and suspense, and so it will improve the reading experience.
Number two is a little trickier because the overall effect can still fail if the action is random, i.e. it doesn’t follow a logical and necessary path.
To give your action structure, you can use two very effective techniques:
1) the action-consequence technique, in which every single bit of action in your story is either a cause of a future action or a consequence of a previous action, thus making sure that everything serves a purpose and moves the story forward in a logical and necessary way. For more on this technique, you can watch this video.
2) the foreshadowing technique, in which strategically place details of seemingly no importance earlier in the story so they can gain a major importance later on. Example: Jim’s plans of getting to the crucial meeting on time can’t be ruined by the fact that his car fails to start in the morning. The detail of a broken down car is random and unconvincing in the context of its importance. To improve its plausibility, you can show Jim’s car failing to start at least once before this needs to happen in order to move the story forward. As always, I’m using over-simplified examples for the purposes of illustrating the principle. In literary criticism, this technique is called Chekhov’s Rifle, after Chekhov’s saying that, in drama, if a rifle is casually hanging on a background wall in a scene, it needs to be fired sooner rather than later.
By using these two techniques, you are likely to achieve a much tighter structure and delivery of your story. If an agent tells you your story needs tightening, make sure you employ these two techniques and, once you’re done, get back to them and let them know how you achieved it.
Find out more about plot and story in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.
This is particularly the case with novels written without a clear plot in mind. You know how to start it all, you know the ending, even the climax is crystal clear, but what happens in the middle is a bit blurry. A long car drive, a long walk in the park, a never-ending conversation over dinner. It seems to go on a bit and at some point you breathe in relief that the climax is approaching and the ending will shortly follow.
There are some proven and tested ways to deal with saggy middles.
1. Call in backstory. One of the great ways to push your middle up a notch is by using the backstory. This is why a compelling backstory is so important in a thriller. You can rely on it to create a variation when your main story sags a little. So make sure you plan out a parallel plot for your backstory and the beginning, middle, climax and ending are not overlapping, but rather arranged in an alternating pattern, similar to a lattice. A twist in the protagonist’s personal life is a good example. Her mum was taken to hospital (Chekhov’s Rifle opportunity flags up here, make sure you mention her mum’s health problems earlier in the story, before they are needed) or she meets someone she falls for completely (make sure this would work with your audience).
2. Escalate the conflict even more. Increase the stakes by adding even more obstacles in the protagonist’s way. James Patterson is the master of all second-paragraph twists. If something unexpected happens and ups the stakes of the whole quest, this is great conflict escalation. On a smaller scale, think of mini-conflicts you could escalate: does your protagonist have any phobias? Make sure he or she overcomes the mother of all encounters with the biggest subject of their phobia. No reader is going to put your book down when, while opening a bag of rice, your protagonist, a well-known to readers arachnophobe, finds a scorpion inside. A living scorpion. No reader is going to put your book down when your protagonist, a long-time sufferer of asthma, drops her inhaler through the drain grid inside a smoky and dusty mine. In the same way, you can reveal a secret with devastating consequences for the protagonist, which he obviously overcomes in ways unexpected by the reader.
3. Keep alternating. What quite a few writers submitting manuscripts for assessment to our consultancy do is use a vast part of the middle of their book for ‘character development’. This sounds like a good excuse, except that characterisation should be done organically and throughout the book, not in a block at the start of your book or in the middle. Character development here often means bogging your protagonist down with endless inner monologue and moral dilemmas over completely everyday things (like recycling vs. dumping). While a good old inner conflict can’t do any harm, while revising, pay particular attention to whether action alternates with description and reflection just like in the rest of your book. If it doesn’t, make sure you see to it. Reflection scenes are scenes in which nothing happens. They are there to develop character, add depth to narrative and maybe create further suspense and conflict. Use reflection to delay suspense, but never to end it.
Example of bad usage of reflection
Hannah stopped breathing when she realised the revolver was pointing at her forehead.
This could be a good cliffhanger, but completely wasted if you start the next paragraph or chapter with:
Thinking about it now, while watching the clock on the Mayor’s Dome, from her seventeenth floor window, that was a close encounter. That revolver could have easily had six rounds instead of five.
Contrary to popular belief, saggy middles are only easy to spot in another author’s book, but not in our own. Just like bad writing in general. I once heard an editor saying, ‘If the author gets bored while rereading, imagine what a paying reader will be like.’ But this is the trap: the author never gets bored. The author knows the focus and the perspective and where the story will head and he or she also knows that there is a good reason why that fragment is in a particular place. In informal conversations about manuscripts, I’ve never seen a greater speed of reaction than a writer defending his or her own choices. It almost defies the laws of physics.
Find out more about how to improve pace, plot and narrative drive in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.
Confusing plot and story is surprisingly common, so I think a very brief mention of the difference could be useful.
Contrary to common belief, plot is not what happens in the story. That is the story. Plot is the structure in which the story is arranged.
The plot is the way in which the author decides to scatter crucial bits of information for the readers to put together. If you decide to write your story as, for instance, a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the way you structure it – beginning, middle and ending – is the plot.
On the other hand, the events taking place in chronological order make up the story.
Let’s use this timeless theme as an example: Jim and Hannah have known each other since they were kids, as teenagers they fall in love, Hannah’s father opposes marriage, Hannah and Jim run away and live happily ever after. This is the story.
The plot could be this: the opening scene shows Hannah and Jim planning to run away (middle of the story). The following scene is a flashback to Hannah’s and Jim’s childhood when they first met (beginning of the story) and so on.
In conclusion, the story is what the readers reconstruct by summarising the events in their chronological order and the plot is the order in which the story is presented to the readers.