“And Then” vs. “But”

Here’ a piece of brilliant advice on how to build your plot, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon. Don’t plan out your action linearly: she did this, and then she did that and then she did something else and so on.

She did this, but something happened, so she had to do that (completely unexpected). If you can fit “and then” in a scene, rewrite it so you can fit “but”. This works particularly well when you have to deal with those saggy middles, where not much happens.   http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/09/07/arts/television/100000001039812/a-clip-from-stand-in.html

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Is Structuring your Novel a good Idea?

Structure is a good idea when it enriches the meaning of your story, but it comes with its own risks. 

the_luminariesEleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Everybody is in awe with the structure of this huge novel. The proof that it is indeed huge? I have just completed my third 1.5 hour cycling session while listening to it and my Audible app informs me I’ve still got 23 hours of listening left.

What’s mind-bamboozling about this novel is not only its size or indubitable literary merit – obviously recognised by the Man Booker Prize judges this year as the best out of some 150 literary books – it’s its byzantine structure.

How does structure affect a novel? Does an intricate structure enrich it or does it risk making it a predictable, if not dull, tale?

Simply put, The Luminaries is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one. Moreover, each character is linked to a celestial body in a deeply mysterious way. For any writer, this structuring will have to be so accurately planned, I fear it might impact on creativity and many reviewers have pointed out the reins with which the characters seem to be held in place at the disadvantage of creativity and narrative flow. (As well as the self-conscious and highly strung connection to the Victorian literary style and Wilkie Collins in particular).

Structure is important in Catton’s novel because it is part of its rich symbolism. The whole story, including setting and characters, are linked to astrology and the zodiacal signs. So Catton didn’t structure the novel the way she did just because such a door-stopper is easier to read and certainly easier to write according to a predictable map. She did it to add to the meaning of the whole story.

This has a certain appeal. A construct so accurately built it could compete with the structure of a mathematical formula. But, as an author, if you plan to structure your novel so rigidly and attach this structure to a very intricate system of symbols – such as linking character traits to zodiacal signs and trusting the reader to understand the similarities and make the connections – there is a definite risk that you will make your novel so esoteric, many will miss the meaning of at least some of your messages.

The Luminaries has been described highly experimental because of its structural aims, but so what? This year we have the proof that an experimental novel (‘the kiss of death for any publisher’ in the words of Jonathan Cape’s editor, Dan Franklin) can still win the Man Booker Prize. The precedent has been reset for the army of experimental writers. Heaven help us from now on!

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Plot and Story

visual-1After a few months off the blog, during which I wrote a two-page monthly column on self-editing fiction in Writing Magazine, I am now ready to resume the instalments with new content on how to edit your own fiction manuscript.

This month, we’ll go back to where we left it. It’s all about story. Here I discuss some of particularly common shortfalls I encounter in editing fiction manuscripts at the level of plot and how to avoid them.

In most fiction and especially in genre fiction, the story in your book will be determined by a plot. Get the plot wrong and you got the story wrong. Get the story wrong, readers will find it hard or impossible to follow it.

The plot is the way you structure your story. Having a clear idea of your plot is crucial to developing a compelling story.

How can a plot go wrong?

The list below is a collection of particularly common shortcomings I have personally encountered in fiction manuscripts submitted for assessment.

The conflict is not strong enough. My local free paper could break records in no-story headlines. The last time I’ve ever opened it, the front-page headline was “New Home for abandoned Moggy”. Out of curiosity, I read the first paragraph. A local couple that always wanted a cat have found an abandoned kitten by the Manchester Ship Canal and took it home. A huge photo of the smiling couple holding what looked like a pretty relaxed and happy kitten was next to the headline. Could you use something like this in the story? Yes, as part of your backstory or characterisation. A character finding a kitten he or she always wanted could add enormously to his or her characterisation, could move the story forward if used effectively (it could be a clue, an alibi, a reason for further development in the story etc). It would be beyond silly to use it as the main plot in your book. Does the protagonist’s quest in your synopsis sound strong enough? It is worth pursuing? Could it change someone’s life?

The story doesn’t suspend disbelief. Suspending disbelief enhances the reading experience, it is an integral part to an immersive experience, so count on this when you make your story extraordinary in every way. However, even if not everything in your story would make sense in the real world, it should in the universe of your story.

The conflict is not escalated. If the obstacles are easily overpassed, the conflict needs to be developed further. If the solution to an obstacle seems too convenient for you as the author, it’s the surest sign you need to ditch it.

The story is not believable. If your main plot is too far-fetched to convince anyone of its plausibility, it needs changing.

The main plot is delayed unnecessarily. Here you’re simply taking too long to introduce the quest into your story. You’re concerned with too much setting description or character introduction. Example: Don’t use a really long dinner scene if it doesn’t add to character development. In fact, please don’t use a really long dinner scene at all (unless you’re Alan Hollinghurst of course). If you choose to let the readers know the quest in your story by the end of the first chapter, you’re pretty much on the safe side.

Plot Holes

A loose or weak plot results from plot holes. Sometimes the metaphor is extended when critics refer to plots as being “watertight”.

Too many red herrings. Cluttering the story with irrelevant details, causing confusion for the reader is a particularly common inadequacy in new writing. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” (Anton Chekhov, Letters). Remember this piece of advice from Chekhov every time you use any object at all in your story. Nothing in your story should be random. If it’s in the story, readers will expect it to be used at some point later on. That’s why writers have called this extremely effective plot device Chekhov’s Rifle. When you read your manuscript again, keep a very close eye on any objects being mentioned along the way. Are they used later? If not, exclude them or replace them with something characters can use. In Joanna Price’s Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, a mystery we have published last year at Aston Bay Press, the protagonist goes for a run at sunset and she takes a deodorant can in her pocket, knowing there is a vicious rapist on the loose, targeting local women. She gets back home safely, but the forgotten deodorant can in the pocket of her coat plays a major role in the story denouement. This device is valid not only for objects. An event or detail of any type can work just as well, as long as the reader is made aware of it in advance, before it gains any importance at all. Example: In a science-fiction manuscript we have received for assessment, the protagonist hides from a group of rioters in the ventilation tunnel of an underground mine. Just when we think he’s safe, out of rioters’ sight, the electricity is cut out, stopping the oxygen supply in the ventilation tunnel. This is a superb twist, especially if used as a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter, but it would work even better if readers were made aware of a threat to the electricity supply earlier in the story or if the incident has happened before, during an important event, thus suggesting that there is a problem with the electricity. When it happens again, this time with potentially devastating consequences, it doesn’t feel as forced in the story for the sake of suspense.

As an editor, I’m mildly obsessed with randomness. I find details such as “12:43:47” as the time on an email heading in a novel completely annoying. I would appreciate it adds to the realism of the email, but if there is no reason for the time to be exactly 12:43:47 and not one second later, this kind of detail really should not be added in at all. It comes across as childish and attention-seeking for the wrong reasons.

Becoming aware of the potential power every little thing has in your story will help you dispose of any unnecessary objects or scenes that don’t move the story forward.

Inconsistencies, also called “Homeric nods” (after Horace’s annoyance in The Art of Poetry at Homer’s “nod offs”), are particularly common plot holes too. A detective that’s mentioned briefly as working on the case, when he was known to be on holiday (unintentional “nod off” on the author’s side).


For the last four pages, Jim travels through a third world country. He loves it. He loves the people, the happiness of the children dancing in the street and so on. Four pages later, bang, ‘Jim was grateful to have escaped the city and spend some time in the mountains. The air, the bad smells and the general misery around him had almost driven him crazy.’

Deus ex Machina. Your characters need a hand from God, fate or coincidence to complete their quest. When you decide to use this device, you accept that your plot can’t work on its own, hence it needs rethinking. Example: Jim the detective meets a psychic who tells him the name of the killer.

A random or matter-of-fact ending. Think about your ending as the conclusion of all your characters’ efforts in your story. Would the story end the way it does anyway (i.e. even without the characters’ input)? An example would be a detective novel in which the killer is revealed not through the investigation carried out in the novel, but by a completely new character who makes a phonecall four pages before the end of the book and tells the Police he witnessed the murder and reveals the killer by name and surname. A novel’s ending needs to be meaningful – the ending simply makes sense and we can easily see why it ended in A and not B, C or D – and satisfying – we are convinced by the necessity of this ending can easily anticipate what the characters’ lives would be like after the end of the story. Necessity is a powerful attribute endings need to possess. If you story could go on for another one hundred pages or, worse, could have ended one hundred pages earlier, your ending needs improvement. The more necessary your ending comes across, the more it resonates with the reader’s sense of justice.

Loose ends. Think of everything in your book as part of an arc: it starts, it raises and it discharges. This applies to everything, from characters to plot. If a character arc can be perfectly symmetrical or almost linear, in a minor character’s case, the plot arc would be slightly asymmetrical, with the climax closer to the ending.

The Sequel Trap. When you intend to write a sequel to your book, you must ensure you end the story of the first book at the end of the first book. This means the plot needs to close and the characters must solve the main quest. It’s not fair on the readers to ask for their time for hundreds of pages only to have them find out that they need to buy the second book to find out how this story ends. If you want a tie-in with the second book, consider adding a minor background storyline towards the end of the first book and leave it open, a storyline possibly to become the major storyline/quest in the second book. A love tension between two major characters that doesn’t completely discharge by the end of the story seems to be a preferred choice among writers.


Write a very detailed synopsis of your book (not suitable for agents and publishers, as we’ll see at the end of the series). Having a clear outline of events in your book will help you focus better on the quest to be solved. Read your workshop synopsis to a friend and take the “lazy student test”. The lazy student is the student pestering everyone in the half-hour before the exam with the question, “What happens in this book?” We’ve all been there. If they’re unlucky enough to have, say, Marcel Proust as the topic for the exam, the hard-working students can find themselves a little stuck. But if they have James Patterson, they can talk.

The lazy student’s reaction to your synopsis can give you clues about your story. “Is that it?” means your story doesn’t suspend disbelief and is too weak; “Give me a break!” – not convincing, too far-fetched; (interrupting you in mid-flow and checking watch), “OK, so what happens?” – the story is too delayed; “Hang on, but you said…” – the story is inconsistent; “What happened to the detective’s father, who was dying in hospital?” – loose ends; “The cheat!” – the sequel trap.

Once you’re happy that your plot is 100% watertight and the ending works perfectly, please visit the Workshop section of my blog, http://www.self-editing.net, and share with like-minded writers fragments from your manuscript before and after self-editing.

Next month we’ll talk about narrative and the tricky-to-master skill of creating perspective and point of view.

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How to Handle Criticism on your Fiction Writing

Feedback on Writing Fiction

As a writer and especially as a writer of fiction, you’re likely to crave feedback. It’s only natural. Exciting stories and plots take place in your world, complicated and impossible quests are resolved by amazing characters. It’s nothing if not worth talking about.
The only way to handle criticism in every area, not just writing, is to put it to good use. Your best friend has just informed you, “Your point of view is all over the place.” Ouch! It hurts, OK, but what can you do next? Try asking for details. Why? Where? That’s how criticism can be easily turned into a precious resource for improvement.

Some criticism is simply nasty and it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. You are likely to receive this type of pointless feedback on online forums and so-called “writing groups”, where no one knows anyone and strangers find gratification in insulting other strangers. If you find a particular feedback has been given just for the sake of criticism, i.e. with no arguments and no details, the best thing to do is stop taking notice and move on.

It also makes sense to ensure you’re dealing with fair-minded parties when you get feedback on what you write. Especially after best-selling crime author R J Ellroy admitted to reviewing positively his own books and very negatively his competitors’ on sites such as amazon.co.uk. He wrote on his Facebook page: “Over the last 10 years I have posted approximately 12 reviews of my own books, and I also criticized a book written by Stuart MacBride, and another by Mark Billingham, both of whom had done nothing to warrant such criticism.” If this happens to you, it’s likely to hurt more than the cross-eyed point of view.

Stephen King recognised that bad criticism can be damaging in his On Writing. As a teenager, he wrote a horror story, designed a black and white cover on an A4 paper, printed it out in a few copies and sold it at his high-school for a profit. A teacher, Miss Hisler, told him it was “trash”, made him reclaim all sold copies and refund all the kids’ money. As a result, Stephen King spent many years being ashamed of his writing.

He says: “I think I was forty before I realized that every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

You can turn this instance into a precedent every time someone will try to make you feel lousy about what or how you write.

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Here’s a piece of brilliant advice on how to build your plot, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon.

Don’t plan out your action linearly: she did this and then she did that and then she did something else and so on. She did this, but something happened, so she had to do that (completely unexpected). If you can fit “and then” when in your scene, rewrite it so you can replace it with “but”.

This works particularly well when you have to deal with those saggy middles, where not much happens.


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Self-editing videos

We now have a YouTube channel and our first self-editing video is up and running. Quite apart from the fact that I chose the wrong microphone, everything else about it seems acceptable.

Please visit our new Videos page (see left hand side) for quick tips on editing your manuscript. Until next time, have a look at our first video:


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Stephen King’s On Writing

I’m finally finishing Stephen King’s On Writing, my permanent, it seems, holiday read. One thing struck me as true.

When he was about 13 and he started to write horror and sci-fi fiction, Stephen King didn’t just leave it in his desk drawer. He sent it to the editor of his favourite kids’ magazine. When he got rejected, he tried another magazine. He got rejected again and again. He self-published his first short-story and sold it to his schoolmates, four pages of single-spaced type-writing. 

He literally forced himself to send Carrie to Doubleday, a novel that would turn him into a bestselling author worldwide. He didn’t just write for personal enjoyment. He wrote to get published and this goal had a firm grip on his mind from the age of 13.

As a new writer, never underestimate the importance of getting your work seen. Send it to magazines, competitions, hundreds of agents, your favourite authors’ publishers, anyone with even remote industry connections. If there is genuine potential in your work, you will be discovered, I can practically guarantee it. The saying ‘To succeed, start by doubling your failure rate’ never seemed closer to the truth.

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Show, don’t tell

ImageWhat’s wrong with this:

‘Jim felt hurt that his wife did not discuss her plans with him.’?

It sounds like an excerpt from a psychological report. Surely not one from the narrative of a sci-fi thriller. Yet, this is where it’s from.

The temptation to spoon-feed the reader about your characters’ thoughts, emotions, real intentions and so on is hard to resist. It’s wired deeply into the way we think not to go around in circles if we can go in a straight line. Why on Earth would we show Jim starring blankly at his cup of coffee, just after a row with his wife over her secret plans? Why would we wonder whether the reader might get the message, when we can make sure they get it by stating it loudly and clearly instead?

One of the answers would be that it requires more effort. We would have to build a scene to show Jim’s sadness. We would have to worry about its atmosphere: is it atmospheric enough? Is it developed enough? Is it too much? On top of it all, it might mess up our characterisation – after all, it’s not like Jim to get all sad and melancholy over a row. So we might have to go back over the whole thing and do a lot of rewriting that we wouldn’t have to do if we just went for the, ‘Jim felt hurt that his wife didn’t discuss his plans with him.’

But fiction works well as a form of escapism and we read fiction because we seek to get involved in an extraordinary and enthralling story, empathise with amazing characters, put simply, compensate for the lack of drama in our lives. As a writer, you achieve a dramatic effect and give your readers the experience they seek by showing, not telling.

Showing, not telling means creating a word picture instead of a block description. It also means organic character development instead of block characterisation. It means building scenes with an absorbing atmosphere around them, rather than simply stating that Hannah felt this way and Jim did this followed by that.

I don’t think there is one book on editing fiction out there that doesn’t point out this weakness of weaknesses.

Let’s take another example of telling:

‘Hannah was in a foul mood.’

This is a particularly common variation of telling, not showing: showing and telling at the same time. You build a convincing scene, the right atmosphere, convincing dialogue, followed by telling us what the scene has just successfully showed.


‘Hannah breathed deeply, her piercing eyes still pinning Jim to the wall. She kept her voice low and pressed on every word. “Jim, I know we should try and make an effort for the sake of the kids, but right now I want to rip your head off for being such a complete loser.” She drew breath in and said through gritted teeth, “You’re wasting my time, Jim, get the hell out of my office!” Hannah was in a foul mood.’

I hope this illustration will prove how unnecessary the last sentence is. Just resist adding it!

This kind of telling uncovers a certain lack of belief in the reader – in their capability of comprehension. It is also a sure sign of first-time writing, so stay away from it as much as you can. Any editor will spot it, it is by far the number one weakness of new fiction writing.

Why is showing, not telling important? Because it engages your reader by transporting them into the universe of your characters and thus it enhances the reading experience. Writing witness reports won’t allow your readers to escape from their everyday lives into your extraordinary universe and experience first-hand the feelings and emotions your characters go through.

If you ever doubt that your audience is capable of understanding artistic messages, join a readers’ group or read readers’ reviews of your favourite books.

Telling adverbs, adjectives and phrases

As a tell-tale sign, instances in which you state how a character feels (e.g., he felt scared, he felt happy etc) are always and without a doubt telling, not showing. Never use them in your writing. A reader should be shown how a character feels through what a character does, thinks, his facial expressions and so on and never through plain statements. Also try to avoid adverbs such as obviously, curiously, surprisingly etc, as they are telling adverbs too. Phrases such as to his great delight, against his wish, against all odds etc are also signs of telling, not showing.


Open your manuscript and type in the Search box “obviously”.  Reread every instance in which you have used “obviously” and decide whether it is telling, not showing. If it is telling, ditch it and rewrite the fragment, paying particular attention to scene and atmosphere this time, not primarily characterisation. If you haven’t started the editing yet, this is the ideal first step. Once finished with “obviously”, repeat the process with “apparently”, “visibly”, “understandably”, “against his wish”, “he didn’t want that to happen”, “he felt hopeless” etc.

At the end of this exercise, you’ll feel pleased with your result and your manuscript will be one step further on the improvement scale.

More on Style in Self-editing Fiction that Sells (Paperback, ebook, 2014)

Next week’s post: How to add efficient plot devices to move your story forward

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The page-turner effect: Cliffhangers

ImageIt’s a well-known fact that we prefer to read a book in full chapters. Usually it’s one, two, three or more chapters per sitting and therefore, the more grabbing the end of a chapter is, the more likely we are to continue through to the next chapter without interruption. Best-selling mysteries and thrillers seem to grab the readers’ interest in such a way that they, of course, ‘cannot be put down’.

Cliffhangers are a by-product of serialisation. At the end of each episode at the end of each episode, authors such as Thomas Hardy, would add a cliffhanger in the hope that readers will feel engaged enough to buy the next issue of the newspaper. Cliffhangers were added as an extra, they were mainly conversational (the author would add an extra bit of dialogue and end it with a question) and understandably, the practice came across as rather manufactured and forced-in for the sake of selling the newspaper. That’s why, in the full version of the novel, these cliffhangers were often left out. I can’t even imagine now reading a thriller or mystery without at least a few cliffhangers in the right places.

What’s in the anatomy of a cliffhanger? Anticipation and build-up are part of a good cliffhanger and, for maximum effect, the tension never discharges immediately.

Cliffhangers work well at the end of chapters or, in the case of a multi-layered plot, at the end of a section followed by a change in plot layer. In this case, for maximum effect, break the narrative flow mid-scene, create a cliffhanger, start new chapter with minor backstory event and discharge cliffhanger scene ideally mid-chapter later on.

In thrillers that have an extremely fast pace, you can comfortably create a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and discharge the tension at the very beginning of the following chapter, because very shortly after, you will be starting to build up towards another cliffhanger and so on. This technique seems to create the famous ‘page-turner effect’ most effectively.

Be careful, as while building an effective cliffhanger, you could fall into a trap you have set up for yourself, like in this particularly common example:

After a huge struggle with the Militia, Jim manages to hide inside the ventilation tunnel of a mine. Suddenly the electricity is cut out and the ventilation stops, ending the Oxygen supply for Jim.

If there was a short mention of the Militia threatening to stop the electricity supply in the mine when the detail bore no importance (see Chekhov’s Rifle in Plot Devices, link coming soon), this is a great cliffhanger and it works brilliantly, as it will form a workable twist – unpredictable, yet explicable.  But if the Militia accidentally cut the electricity just for the sake of a cliffhanger, the trick fails. In this example, based on real writing, the author has created a cliffhanger, but he has missed the opportunity to extract the most potential from his existing material. That’s where an editor would prove helpful.

Mid-chapter cliffhangers

If you have a multi-plot novel (i.e. a novel with a main plot and a backstory is a particularly common instance) or a multi-layered plot (i.e. different characters pursuing different threads, but converging around the same quest), mid-chapter breaks can work especially well in building suspense, engaging the reader and moving the story forward.

The breaks are usually signified by “*” or “***” and they show a change in setting or at least point of view – it could be the same scene, but changing narrators or character’s perspective.


Open your manuscript and go to the end of your first chapter. Is there a cliffhanger? If not, consider breaking the chapter earlier in the middle of a tense scene. If there are no such scenes, it’s time back to rewriting time. Consider rewriting the chapter ending or rewrite a mid-chapter scene that could work well broken up. Repeat the exercise with the following chapters, save for the last one.

More on tense, pace and suspense in SELF-EDITING FICTION THAT SELLS (Paperback, 2014)

Next week’s post: The No 1 style weakness in unedited writing – telling, not showing.

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Genre fiction: Is Unpleasantness enough to make a great Villain?

Or how to tell if your villain needs more development
Take this example:
“Jim drew his face closer to Hannah’s so, when he started to speak, a spray of spit landed on Hannah’s face.
‘You park in my spot once more,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘make sureyou check your tires when you get back.'”
What makes itdifferent from this example:
“Mr Hazell hadpulled up alongside the pumps in his glistening gleaming Rolls-Royce and saidto me, ‘Fill her up and look sharp about it.’ I was eight years old at thetime. He didn’t get out of the car, he just handed me the key to the cap of thepetrol tank and as he did so, he barked out, ‘And keep your filthy little handsto yourself, do you understand?’” (Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion of the World, Puffin Books, 2007, p. 45)?
That’s right. Avillain that is all unpleasantness and no serious menace is fit for achildren’s book.
Victor Hazelltries to intimidate little Danny and his father by coming across as simplynasty in the way he talks to them. Yes, nastiness does add to the reality of yourcharacter, but the menace a villain poses needs to build up so convincingly, itcould well be that it gives readers the chills – which is an experience readersseek.
What makes a good villain?
Unpleasantness,yes, but in a thriller, the obstacles it throws in the protagonist’s way seem to weigh more. Does the villain actuallyjeopardise the protagonist’s quest at any given time in your story? If theanswer is no (he’s just threatening to though!), your villain is underdeveloped.
Underdevelopmentis one of the particularly common shortcomings in first-time writing. A villain is the ideal candidate to be a two-dimensional character, as it has one single mission: to create some menace for the protagonist. In its quest to do just that, an underdevelopedvillain seems to forget to do anything else.
What makes a silly villain?
Simplyput, too much talk and no action. In one of the manuscripts I have recentlyworked on, a corporate thriller, the villain was a boss meant to oppose amanagement buyout from the good guys. He was nasty, he was spiteful, he was evenugly, but what he crucially wasn’t was a solid opponent. The material was therefor him to use: a womaniser manager who could be easily blackmailed intoundermining the deal. A few unsure wives who could be persuaded to discouragetheir husbands from signing the deal. Instead, all he seems to do is just beunpleasant in the boardroom, threaten everybody with the sack and generallyshout a lot. On top of it all, all the way he is preparing to submit his ownbuyout proposal, however, when the day comes, his proposal is rejected withintwo paragraphs and that’s it, the good guys win.
Thiskind of villain damages not only the protagonist’s characterisation – after all, he only deals with silly baddies, but thestory too. Genre fiction is all about obstacles to surmount; themore insurmountable they seem, the stronger the effect on the reader.
Sowhen you go through your manuscript next time, think about how serious of athreat your villain is to your protagonist’s quest. Is it strong enough? Ifnot, time to add some more peril in the mix.
More on what makes a great villain and characterisation in SELF-EDITING FICTION THAT SELLS, out January 2014.
Next week’s post: Tense, pace and what creates the ‘page-turner’ effect.
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