Character and story arc

I had someone ask me about character and story arc, so I thought I’d blog on it today.

A novel or story is about the journey of a character from point A to point B. The protagonist starts out his day, smiling under blue skies as he heads to work, but before noon, his entire life is turned upside down.

This disaster is the launch or inciting incident of the book. Every book has to have this. Otherwise, the story meanders. What is the story about? What is the story question? You should be able to summarize in a few sentences. Even a literary novel can be summed up quickly if there is a inciting incident that sends that character on a journey.

Along the way, the story and character encounters problems. Obstacles. More disasters that keep the character from his goal. The character’s story arc is effected by the story arc. Think sets and subsets.

Let’s say my story is about Jane going to the grocery store. She leaves her a house, point A, the top down on her convertible, radio blasting, a melody in her heart, on her way to point B. As she backs out of the driveway, she has a fender bender with another car. But this is no ordinary car.

The driver is distracted, beat up, bleeding, and definitely  hiding something. The cops arrive and the other driver runs. Now Jane is involved in a conflict. The police want to ask her a few questions. She’s driven down to the station. The other driver had stolen money in his car. It appears Jane was involved in the robbery. But what? She was just backing out of her palatial driveway.

Some how, some of the money got in her car. Meanwhile, her husband calls her cell to say one of the kids fell off the monkey bars at school and broke his arm. Hubby is in a big meeting and can’t leave. His promotion, and their lively hood depends on it. But Jane is stuck at the police station. Hubby can’t stay on the phone long enough to listen to her problem, so now Jane is burdened with the welfare of her kid.

What’s going on in her heart about now? This is the character arc. Jane was a happy suburban house wife with the world at her fingers until she suffered an injustice. Now, she’s angry. She can’t get anyone to believe her. She’s been falsely accused. Her heart is railing within her. She must face her worst fear — imprisonment, unjust accusation, loss of freedom.

Her response to the story journey is her character arc. The story presses her into some kind of change. She must confront an issue in her life.

In the Sweet By and By, Jade is confronted with the truth about her relationship with her Mama. There’s so  much resentment, she doesn’t want Mama at her wedding! Pretty serious. But, after pleading by her mother-in-law to be, Jade drops the invite into the mailbox. The journey is launched. Will her mother attend? If so, what will Jade do? If she doesn’t, how will it really impact Jade’s heart.

For Jane, still sitting in the cold interrogation room, she’s faced with her own brand of injustice. How she’s been treating her husband, her children, her friends, and how she’s grown distant from God.

The black moment comes when no one comes to rescue her. She’s tired and hungry, worried. Angry. She’s left a message with her husband, but he doesn’t show. Her best friend is too busy. The officers really believe she was an accomplice. She’s half crazy with the unfairness. Her children are waiting for her to pick them up from school. Who is caring for the injured child? Her reputation as a great mother is being challenged. Her very identity is in question.

In the end, Jane is cleared. But her hearts been scoured. She does not leave the police station the same woman. There are realizations and changed to be made in her life. She goes home to her family with a new perspective. When she drives to the grocery store, finally, the next morning, she’s made plans to volunteer at the homeless shelter and and recommitted her life to Jesus, apologized to her husband for her attitude, repented to her kids.

So, the arc of the story is getting the action from point A to point B. Jane going to the police station, enduring the police station (and there are all kinds of obstacles her preventing her from getting free) to getting home again. Many times the plot can go full circle. Jane starting out on a journey to the grocery store, ending up at the grocery store but with a different perspective.

In the midst of the journey, Jane’s character is challenged. Her greatest fear is realized. It’s preventing her from her greatest desire – a lovely, peaceful, prosperous life with her family. Her initial goal, going to the grocery store is symbolic of her life and the provision within. The accident and police interaction is symbolic of life changing in a moment. We can’t know what tomorrow may bring and this is a hard reality for Jane.

But, she’s changed in the end. This is the character arc. You need to have a loose idea of how your protagonist will change through the story and how the plot action will impact and move them.

In Lost In Nashvegas, Robin is a talented singer/songwriter but she’s terrified to sing in front of people. Terrified! So, when she makes it to center stage after clogging triplets fall off their stage, she realizes she can overcome her fears. She realizes she loves singing. The audience responded to her. Loved her.

When her sister challenges her to go to Nashville to live her dream, Robin has just enough courage and confidence to do it. But, there are obstacles. Her own fears. The music business itself. Family secrets. As the story moves toward Robin finally singing her song at the Bluebird Cafe, her fears are being challenged and changed. Her heart is growing in confidence.

In the character arc, the character must experience some kind of change. Revelation. The light bulb going on over her head. Think of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.”

Think of PJ Sugar in “Nothing But Trouble.”

Now, there are stories where the characters don’t change that much. Iris in Maggie O’Farrell’s “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” doesn’t have a large character arc. But what she knows and believes in the beginning of the story is very different from what she knows and believes at the end. The story action and arc did impact her life.

As you read, pay attention to what is happening to the protagonist. They have to do more than react to the plot action, they have to be IMPACTED and changed.

Story arc = the plot movement from incident to black moment to climax to satisfying ending.

Character arc = the impact of the plot action on the character so that she is not the same on the last page as the first page. The story journey has changed her in some way. A crisis solved. A value changed. Her beliefs renewed.

Happy writing!

Dialog, Subtexting, Talking Heads

Let’s talk. Dialog. My passion.

When I was a preteen, my friends and I created worlds where we were scientist, teachers, single women living in a loft in Minneapolis. (Mary Tyler Moore anyone?) Weight Walkers, our twelve year old version of Weight Watchers.

We played out our scenarios in my friend’s basement. In our bedrooms. Outside, riding our bikes. (The Weight Walkers version of make believe.)

And without a doubt, the only way our pretend world worked was with dialog. We could motion, gesture, observe each other, pass notes, write on the chalk board and speed past one another on our bikes calling out, “race you!” and never created a make believe world.

We had to make up dialog. We had to become characters in our play world. This is such a critical part of story telling oral or written. The power is in the words.

DIALOG

I have a saying: “Tell the story between the quotes.” If you are delivering key information or thoughts outside the quotes, you are only pandering to the reader. “Watch this, I’ll keep all the other characters in the dark. You and I are the only ones who know what’s wrong with the heroine.”

Tension is NOT telling the reader the hero has a felony record while NOT telling the heroine. Where’s the tension in that? If I, the reader, already know, what is to keep me turning the pages? Maybe, I guess, to see what the heroine does when she finds out, but I want to GASP with her.

Dialog reveals the character’s personality. Through them, the reader learns the story. Dialog is used to create tension. Dialog is created and specific.

Phrases like Hi, how are you, okay, thank you, please, I don’t know is NOT dialog. (More on subtexting later.) Here’s what I see a lot.

Her cell rang. It was Tom. “Hello?” She told him not to call her.

“You’re not answering your phone,” he said.

“The ringer was off.” She exhaled. Does he expect her to believe he was only talking with Jane?

“Aren’t you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I can’t talk.” If he didn’t know, she wasn’t going to tell him.

END

ALL THE GOOD STUFF IS OUTSIDE THE QUOTES. Why? Who is the author/character talking to? Why is the character keeping her best material in her head? Let’s try it again.

Her cell rang. It was Tom. “I thought I told you not to call me.”

“And I said I wasn’t going to stop calling until you told me what was bugging you.” he said.

“You can be so obtuse.” She exhaled. “I saw you with Jane.”

“Saw me doing what? Helping her carry food? Iris, come on, this is stupid.”

“Exactly.” She pressed End and tossed the phone to the bed.

END

Repeat after me: Dialog and action. Dialog and action. 🙂 Like a movie. Keep internal thought to what’s going on before she answers the phone or the door. To what SHE ABSOLUTELY CANNOT SAY OUT LOUD. But wait, hold on! If you keep her thoughts at minimum, are you upping the tension? Yes.

Let the story unfold for the reader as it unfolds for the characters. If you were following Jane around, and she was bound and determined to keep her love for Tom a secret, we’d NEVER hear her internal thoughts. We’d only know her feelings as she shared them with friends, or Tom.

Recap: Create dialog to be specific. Cut responsive dialog like hi, okay, I don’t know. Tell the story between the Quotes. It creates stronger banter.

SUBTEXTING

This is the time when you might say I don’t know or whatever, or hey. This is when the characters act one way, but speak another. If Jane is really mad at Tom, she may greet him with quipping statements when he comes in the door.

She looked up when Tom entered. “Hey.”

“Sorry I’m late.” He bent to kiss her cheek.

She turned away, flipping the page of her magazine. “No problem.”

END

Clearly, there’s a problem. 🙂 She’s acting one way, saying another.

But how can we enhance this subtext scene?

She looked up when Tom entered. “You’re late.”

“Got stuck in the parking lot talking to Liz Bartly.” He bent to kiss her cheek.

She turned away, flipping the page of her magazine. “What’d she want?”

END

This conversation is prime to launch us into a key argument. She’s asked a question. He has to answer. In our first example, we were about to spend two pages ping ponging between “what’s wrong” and “nothing.” By the end, the reader is more irritated than entertained.

Yes, those are real scenarios. But are they the BEST for fiction? Probably not. Let’s get to the meat of the situation. Go straight for tension.

This is new for me and I’ve really started incorporating this theory in the last few books, but let’s make even the subtext count.


TALKING HEADS

Talking heads is when you have a string of dialog without names, speaker attributes, or action tags. So the reader gets lost. Talking heads are an easy fix. Use the character’s name. Add a he said, or she said. Move the characters around.

She walked across the room. He reached for the remote.

Long strings of dialog can have a mix of name, speaker attribute and movement. Sometimes, action just gets silly. If two people are sitting on the sofa talking, once one reaches for the remote and the other tucks a blanket around her legs, what else can they do throughout the course of the conversation? Move them around too much and they look like they have ants in their pants. Have a sigh, or staring out the window, or flipping channels.

Have fun! Dialog away.

Meet the Voices: Nick Daniels

Nick Daniels Meet the Voices presents Nick Daniels!

Nick was born in the late 1970s, in a bustling city in South America. He wrote his first short story in third grade about a explorer lost in the Amazon jungle, then discovered Jules Verne during sixth grade and was hooked into fiction for life. He spent the next few years reading literature classics (mostly Dostoievsky) and contemporary Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, and Mario Vargas Llosa, plus every book in the library that picked his interest. At age fifteen, he decided to write a novel about a woman who loses the ability to love. It remains (thankfully) unpublished.

After graduating from journalism school, Nick moved to the United States to continue his education and write about science and faith issues. He worked as a science writer for several years until he gradually found his way back into fiction. Nick now lives on an island in the pacific, in what can be described as a writer’s paradise.

What is the biggest writing challenge you’ve encountered this past year – craft, career, writing life, etc.

My biggest writing challenge has been to stay productive in my writing through the hardships of life: fleeing from a hurricane, relocating to a different country, virtually loosing my job and going freelance, house hunting. Hey, but I’m happy and ready to publish my first novel!

How did you solve it?

Being part of the Christian Writers Guild helped a lot. The fact that I had deadlines for my lessons and a group to be accountable to, helped me to keep writing.

What is the one thing you learned that you can share with other writers?

I learned to be more concise in my writing and ruthless when cutting unnecessary words. I was blessed to have great writers and editors look at my manuscript and point what was wrong, like a few months ago, when Jerry Jenkins read my first few pages and cut them almost in half.

For instance, I had a tendency to narrate every movement my character made in certain situations, but now learned to describe the action in less words

Tell us about your current WIP.

The Jihad’s Messiah

A man’s dream of becoming a General in Iraq’s army is threatened by false accusations that he is an Israeli spy. When a childhood friend whose brother has gone missing invites him to Jerusalem, he seizes the opportunity to spy on the Israelis and vindicate himself. But war breaks out between Iraq and Israel and he has to run for his life—both Muslims and Jews wanting to kill him. The missing brother’s Christian faith proves to be the key to putting the man’s life back together, but first he must reevaluate his Muslim beliefs and his prejudices against the Jews to discover the truth that would set him free.

Nick, thank you for being our featured Voice this week. To learn more about Nick, visit his website.

Visit the Voices forum and Meet the Voices thread to discuss writing, life, and everything in between with Nick. Be sure to join us on Friday evening at My Book Therapy at 8 pm EST, 7 pm CST for a guest chat with Nick and our book therapists, Susan and/or Rachel. To access the chat forum:

* Log onto My Book Therapy.
* Click on the forum button.
* Sign in with your username and password, if necessary.
* Along the bottom of your browser window, you will see MBT Voices Chat. Click on that and the chat window will pop up.
* Your name will show up in the box on the right hand side. To comment, type in the box in the bottom under the yellow smiley face.
*In the chatroom, we will abide by chat etiquette–type ? for question, type ! for comment, and type GA for go ahead after you’re completed your question or comment.
* If you have any questions, send an e-mail to meetvoices@mybooktherapy.com and put Chat in the subject.

Brainstorming: Tips and Tricks

Earlier this week, we talked about crit groups. While I wholeheartedly support critique partners and groups, I’ve found another partnership works best for me.

Too often I found my critiques were simply line edits. Receiving more than one or two crits from anyone overwhelmed me, especially working against a deadline. I was wasting people’s time. Several attempts to partner with a friend one-on-one to critique never panned out. Just. Didn’t. Work.

After an ACFW conference, several of us got on line to brainstorm. Susie Warren, Tracey Bateman, Christine Lynxwiler and Susan Downs. We had a great time, but it was hard to brainstorm the deeper points in a chat room. And we never got much beyond one person’s story.

So, we’d call each and work out the story. Susie was the “head brainstormer” so if we needed help, we all called her.

Two years later, three of us ended up in an impromptu brainstorming session Sunday after the Dallas ACFW conference. We had a blast. Out of that session we had Taming Rafe, Sweet Caroline and Forever Christmas by Christine Lynxwiler.

The next year, we scheduled to stay after. We spent 7 hours brainstorming. Out of that came Nothing But Trouble, Along Came a Cowboy, Love Starts With Elle and Annalisa Daughtey’s first novel, Love is a Battlefield! We had a blast! All the ideas and craft talk bouncing around the room was exhilarating.

Here’s what we’ve learned about brainstorming.

1. Large groups are wonderful. It’s a great way to flesh out a one line idea. “I was thinking about a girl who owns an art gallery.” A tableau of people with various experiences can really help you dig out what that story is about.

2. Smaller groups get into the details. It’s hard to really plot and define characterization when there’s a large crowd. Hard to stay focused and hard to find an exact method of defining story points. So, for really hammering out your characters and plot, get with one or two people and specific set of rules and questions to be followed and asked.

3. One-on-one brainstorming. This has worked best for me. I work on an idea, doing as much as I can before arranging to brainstorm with Susie. Once I’m on the phone with her, she asks the same questions I’ve been working through. Or, she may, as has happened many times, say, “No, no, no, don’t have him be like that. . .” Don’t cry for me, I do it to her, too.

Here are some brainstorming tips and guidelines.

1. Leave your sensitive skin at home. Brainstorming is about hammering out ideas. You can’t get upset or offended if one of your partners doesn’t like your ideas. Ask why? Listen to what they are saying. Maybe you’re thinking too narrow. Maybe you’ve not explained the characters well enough. Listen to what they are saying. This is my favorite part. I love the banter, the colliding of ideas. Often we’d listen to each others ideas and one would invariably interrupt, “What? No way?” Or, “wait, wait, wait, I’ve got it.” It’s really energizing.

2. Come to the party with as much story, goals, motivation, conflict as you can. The more details you have, the more the brainstorming session can help. If you have a loose idea, you’ll spend most of the time pulling it together. If you have a tight idea, you can spend most of the time building on it.

3. Ask these questions of your protagonist(s): What does she want? What is the story question? What lie does she believe? What is her greatest fear? Secret desire? What’s her love language? Why does she want what she wants? Why does she believe the lie? What can solve her issue? What obstacles can I put in her path? How will the other characters help or hinder her? What about her career impacts her life — good or bad? How does her family and setting play into her journey?

HINT: Everything should hinder, distract or complicate her life. Her family should not be kind and sweet every time, telling her to “go for it, honey.” Her job can’t be perfect. It must cause stress. And you need these elements because the human condition is impacted by all of them. I can’t ever know how much of my mental and emotional landscape has been crafted and molded by 17 years in the corporate software world. So you characters must deal with these things as well. It’s part of their journey in the story. And make it troublesome to her! Or him.

In Love Starts With Elle, my heroine Elle is broken hearted. She’s literally lost everything. When her sister comes  to help her, she’s caring, but tells Elle to get out of bed and stop moping. She’s better off without that man. This ruffles Elle. Causes tension in the scene. See what I mean? Not every scene has to be a cliffhanger, but you want the conversation to be just this side of a full blown argument.

Back story:

Write out your characters history and bio. What has brought her, or him, to this point. Why is she doing a job she’s completely unqualified to do? Why is she angry at her mother? What secrets is she keeping from her fiance or husband?

Pile it on!

I usually add lots of complications and problems. Rather to have too many than too little. Every character has to have some kind of problem. Small to large. If I come across a comic relief character, then I’ll use them in a few scene to lighten the mood. If you find you can’t manage all the problems well, then you can remove the unnecessary ones. But it’s worse to have too few and try to add.

Working through the story:

As you brainstorm and figure out these character issues, the plot sort of comes together. Often Susie and I will come to the session with a fleshed out character as well as major plot points. THIS IS KEY: We start weaving the plot with the character.

For example: PJ Sugar wants to get over her reputation of always causing trouble. This is a character issue for her, but when she returns to her hometown in Minnesota, she finds herself involved in a mystery that plays right into her character weakness.

In Sweet Caroline, the heroine can’t say no to helping others. So, when she inherits a run down cafe that is home to a few employees and the morning breakfast routine of a couple of retired Marines, Caroline knows she can’t abandon them. The story is how she manages to find her own life calling while keeping the cafe afloat. The cafe brought out her strengths as well as her weaknesses.

Summary:

1. Come to the table with a fleshed out idea.

2. Take in all ideas and don’t get offended if the others don’t love your idea. WORK IT!

3. Weave the plot and character together so you’re fleshing out the who, what, when, where, how and WHY of the character’s journey.

4. Every character must have some kind of problem.

5. Why. Keep asking why!

6. Build a world around your character to create those complications.

7. Have fun!

An excellent benefit of brainstorming with someone is when you’re stuck, all you have to do is call! 🙂 When I’m not sure where to go next in a story, I call Susie. “Here’s what just happened. I need to go here next. How do I get there?”

We might rehash character goals and motivation. We might back up and retrace steps. She  might ask why I put the character is a certain situation. Then we plot forward. Ten minutes later, I’m back to writing.

Have a GREAT writing day!