How to Fix Flat Scenes

You know the feeling. You’ve been writing along, feeling the gut-punch of creating an awesome scene, and when you take a break and re-read, the scene reads flat. Limp. But you’re a pro, so you know this is probably just because you’re too close to it now, so you let it go and decide to come back later. Maybe you keep writing, maybe you go read a great book or do some research to reset your brain. But when you come back, it still sounds lifeless. There’s a lot of action– someone is in danger, someone revealed something painful, or maybe it’s a fight scene. Whatever scene it is, it’s one you need to really grip your readers and land that blow, but it’s just sitting there, and you know in your gut you didn’t deliver the punch you wanted to.

Don’t ignore that feeling. If you can sense that, you have fantastic instincts. That’s your writer’s brain trying to get your attention, saying “Hey- we’ve got a problem.”

If you think about that for a minute, that will lead us to the answer. A flat scene is one that’s not getting up off the page. It’s just sitting there. It’s not alive, it’s not true-to-life in some element. We’re seeing it through a character’s eyes, but somehow that character’s experience isn’t hitting us. And it should be.

That feeling tells you you’re missing something. But when you know where to look, it can be pretty easy to see what you’re missing.

A character’s experience breaks down into 5 separate things:

Thought– In 1st and 3rd person where we’re very close to the character, a character’s thought is often also exposition. For punchy scenes, blend them better. Use the character’s voice to phrase things, don’t use too much exposition, use thoughts that heighten the tension. Make as much of the exposition thought from the character as you can– this tightens the psychic distance (the distance from the readers to the character’s mind) and gets us right in the middle of things.

Action– Usually this one isn’t the culprit, but make sure things are happening. If it’s not a particularly active scene, don’t let people just sit there. Have them use actions and gestures that heighten tension and show their emotional state. Grip things, rearrange things, pace, throw things, etc. Reaction is a big part of action– most of what we do on a daily basis is reacting to something else, and reactions are powerful things. Use your character’s reactions to show how this is affecting him/her.

Dialogue– Technically dialogue is an action, but it’s a distinct one that often either dominates a scene or gets left out, so it’s separate. Check to make sure you’re not letting it take over the scene; sometimes what’s not said is more impacting. Let us read between the lines. Make sure, too, that you actually do have dialogue in there somewhere. People accuse, demand, and give ultimatums through dialogue. Most escalation happens through dialogue, so make sure that you have it, and that what you have contributes and is the best way to show the detail.

Sensation– We all know to use the senses when we’re writing, so bring us the action through textures, instincts, sounds, detailed sights, scents (which often carry memories), even taste. We can sense something that your character doesn’t, so channel the sensations to us through him.

Emotion– This one often gets the same treatment that dialogue does– way too much or none at all. The most impacting use of emotion is usually brief and powerful. We don’t need long, winding paragraphs that drown us in grief or loneliness. By the time the reader finishes those, the action has paused for so long we’re looking around for something to happen and we’ve lost interest. Basically, we don’t care. Keep it brief, make it deep, move on. But keep it going, too. Come back to how all these actions and dialogue and sensations and thoughts are affecting your character emotionally. We get worn thin. Old wounds get opened up. We become desperate. Sometimes we’ve just had it. Keep the emotional progression of your character advancing; don’t let what they’re feeling sit there. Make it go somewhere.

If a scene feels flat, it’s almost always one of two things- 1) either you’re showing, not telling (a different post) or 2) one or more of the 5 things above is missing from your scene. In all the pages I’ve seen come through slush or edited or written, most often I see emotion and thought being the ones missing or over/underdeveloped.

Check through your scene to see if you’re missing any of those. Use highlighters if you want, and color each one of the five a different color in your scene. See what dominates. See what’s missing or needs boosted. See if any moment carries more than one.

An impacting scene is a dense chemical blend. Miss one element, and it doesn’t affect us like it should. That denseness is important, too– if you’ve got all of those things happening, it’s a lot, but it can’t take forever on the page. Make sensations carry thought. So, combine them. Make action show emotion. Use dialogue to push the action. Get two or more from that list into each moment, and you’ll have something dense and impacting. Your scene won’t be flat; it will get up off the page and have a life of its own. We’ll walk into it, and you’ll have created something we can live in, too.

Pixar Rule 16: Stakes and Sweat

Since I posted Olivia Mayfield’s fabulous cover reveal today, Kiersi Burkhart is jumping in to discuss rule 16! And she’s tough, guys- I’d love to read about her characters, but I don’t think I’d like to be one!
Welcome to the blog, Kiersi!

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I love Kate’s project here, so I wanted to chip in today on one of my favorite rules on the list:

#16: What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

This is going to sound silly at first, but bear with me: I think the best part of Rule #16 is the word “stakes.”

Stakes are everything in writing. I mean, of course there’s good character, story, crescendo, climax. But to me that all sounds like wah wah wah without some serious stakes.

What are “stakes”? I mean, other than things with which you stab vampires and they explode and cover you in gooey bits?

I propose this definition:

Stakes are the potential consequences to failure; what could or will happen if the hero does not succeed in his or her mission.

Think about this: you have a great hero. A complicated hero that we both love and hate a little. She’s quirky. Her flaws are funny at best, and tragic at worst. We want to be her. We want to be with her. She’s smarter than us but sometimes we think, “What are you thinking? No! Don’t do that! Why would you do that?!”

But what is she other than a quirky hero we love to hate, if she doesn’t struggle a little? How will we ever know her flaws and her virtues unless she’s put in a position where she has to use them?

You can build the best character you like, but unless we see that character under duress, we readers won’t fall in love with her. We won’t root for her.

Stakes invest the reader in the character. Stakes give her meaning, purpose, and conflict. What happens if she succeeds in her mission? What happens if she fails?

And now, my second-favorite part of Rule #16: “Stack the odds against.”

A lot of writing is really just clinical abuse. I’m pretty sure that if our characters were real people, most of us writers would be sitting behind bars.

Think about it: when are you most thrilled in a story? When do you find the pages flying by? When the hero is under stress; when it seems like there is no possible way this will all work out, and you keep reading in hopes that it will. (You know, because you’re invested?)

Not only does it seem like the hero going to fail now, but the consequences of her failure have just doubled. No, tripled! Not only will her best friend die, but the world will implode because of that mistake she just made. And then not only will the world implode, but it will also set off a chain reaction resulting in the total destruction of the universe.

And then? Make it look like she’s going to fail. For real. The hurdles between the hero and her best friend have multiplied ten-fold. Literally, she cut the head off the hydra and it grew ten more. Then, each head grew wings and became independent hydras and she is super, super screwed.

Now we really get to see our hero sweat. We get to see her smarts and her courage and her talent with a bow-knife, and we are floored when she has some clever, sneaky little solution and somehow manages to succeed. She kills the hydra, saves her best friend, and the world is safe again.

Stakes unite your work. Good stakes set up conflict, imply the consequences, and make your hero’s success (or failure! Failure is a fine way to end, too) vindicating and enjoyable for the reader.

And don’t forget that characters aren’t real people! You don’t have to feel bad about grinding them into the pavement before you let them win.

Kiersi’s website
Follow Kiersi on Twitter!
Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

Flip Flops and Sexism: Pixar Rule 13

We got snow last night. About six inches of it. The snow came after an ice storm- branches are down everywhere. Several hit our house- no damage, thankfully. The trees and roads and even the grass are encased in a solid layer of ice, and now we have 5-6 inches of snow on top of that ice.

The adults are grumbling. The children think it’s magical. My husband and I think it’s kind of cool. My Siberian husky is overjoyed, because we didn’t actually get much serious snowfall this winter.

Opinions. Even something like snow brings out reactions and opinions in people. Your characters need that, too. Here’s Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, rule 13:

 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Your characters, especially the character through whose eyes we’re seeing the story happen, have to have opinions. Until recently, their whole lives didn’t revolve around the main conflict. Chances are, not too long ago, they were fairly normal people. Even if they weren’t, they still have a complete personality- or they should. How do they feel about global warming? Flip flops? Sexism? Onions? Preferences and opinions on even small things will help add real-life texture and believability to your writing. A passive character who is just a lens through which we watch the story, reporting what happens around them, would be even less fun than watching the evening news (hey, look an opinion!).

Of course, opinions about what’s going on in the plot need to be included, too. Do they think justice is being served? Do they think, even as rush to rescue her, that their sister brought most of this on herself? Your characters should personally react to the events going on around them, and that means they are even going to disagree with each other. I’m going to jump ahead to rule #15 here because it applies so well:

If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Think about how you would feel if your sister disappeared. How would you feel if your brother was running for mayor, but you knew he wasn’t the right man for the job? Put yourself in your character’s shoes and track those emotions for a while. Jot them down so you can see what fits your character later on, but give it some time first. Really daydream about how you would react. Of course, don’t create your characters as yourself, but doing this will add a layer of believability and genuine emotion to them.

The flip side of this whole “give your characters opinions” thing is that your characters are going to disagree with each other. Mary likes olives. Claudia does not. Father thinks John should support his brother’s campaign regardless of political differences, because they are family.  John can’t support him in good conscience, brother or not. Adding real-life texture to your characters through preferences and opinions and disagreements will deepen your characters. It’s also going to make their world more complex- small conflicts, things to enjoy, preferences people surround themselves with that start arguments or create inside jokes. And of course, all of this is going to  complicate the main conflict. The good guys aren’t all agreeing on what to do. Not all of them are 100% good. Rivalry between the bad guys means things don’t go as planned.

So think about what you prefer, what things you argue with others over, what conflicts you have with your friends and family. Listen to the opinions that crop up that guide people’s lives. Work bits of those things into your characters, and they’ll be more active, more complex, and more enjoyable.

Check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Destroying Your Character’s Comfort Zone: Pixar #6

I hope you all had a great Easter! After a one-day break for the holiday, we’re back to discussing Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Today rule 6 is up:

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

Pixar 22: Rule 1- Character Struggle

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.

The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.

Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

We’d love it if you’d comment on our posts and share anything you enjoyed as we do this blogging challenge to keep us accountable and motivated! As always, thanks for reading!

The Basics of Character Development

As I work on revising my novel this week, I’m going over my character development. My novel has a wide cast and that’s challenging (but fun) to manage. Currently I’m working out notes on each character to make sure my portrayal of each one is consistent and that they are as fully developed as their roles require. This has, of course, brought me back to my books.

My post for this week will therefore be a breakdown of the nuts and bolts of character development. As always, challenge, question, and comment below, please!

The goal of character development is to create characters  exactly suited to your purpose. In my experience, there are 3 levels of characters. Tertiary characters (background people- the cab driver or cashier, perhaps) should be flat characters that don’t distract your readers. They aren’t interesting and they shouldn’t be interesting. For them, this this is good character development.

Secondary characters are much more complicated, of course, as are primary characters. These two types of characters are what I will generally be referring to throughout this post.

With primary characters, the goal is exactly the opposite of flat and uninteresting. They should be, as Brandi Reissenweber puts it in Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, “real enough to cast shadows.” Before we look at how to do this, let’s look at why we want this from our characters. In Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton says, “If they are well-wrought, stories intrigue, entertain and satisfy us. But it is characters that we love— and love hating. In the short stories and novels we read and reread, it is characters above all that we cherish.” Characters are what make your readers attached to your work. They make your writing memorable. Ebenezer Scrooge, Neville Longbottom, Elizabeth Bennett and Anne Shirley are an enormous part of what makes their novels compelling.

So, how do you make the next Huck Finn, the next Atticus Finch? There is no recipe for characters like that, and a lot of it has to do with talent (both learned and natural talent). However, there are consistent elements involved in developing characters that are complex, memorable, and realistic.

Active protagonists are essential. With few exceptions, a story with a passive protagonist will eventually wither and die. Protagonists set the story in motion; they drive the action. If they aren’t active, neither is the story. An active protagonist is one who wants something. This is key to a good protagonist. Again, Reissenweber says, “Desire beats in the heart of every dimensional character. A character should want something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it creates a steam of momentum to drive a story forward.” How badly the character wants  whatever they want tells the readers how hard to root for them to succeed– if Atticus only sort of wants to win the trial, readers will only sort of care.

This desire must be something internal and external. Characters have to desire something tangible that is core to their identity. For example, a teenager put into foster care as an infant may desire to know his birth-mother. This may be borne of an internal desire to find his identity- who he is and why. The tangible, plot-propelling expression of that is the hunt for his mother. Note that because this desire is key to who he is, he will, guaranteed, want it badly. Linda Seger, in her book, Making a Good Writer Great, notes says that “Yearnings push and pull at us…Sometimes they’re so strange that we wonder what anyone would think about us if they really knew what we yearned for, or how much we yearned for it… Too many characters lack guts and vibrancy because they only have a wee bit of want, rather than raging desires.” An internal desire to be loved, to be accepted, and to take control of one’s life (and many more desires like these) are realistic internal desires that a character could have, and the tangible, concrete counterpart desires he may have are endless. Your character must have them, however.

One more important note is that this abstract, internal desire is often a big part of what connects us to a character. For instance, most of us know and empathize with the need to be loved, and we will connect with a character who wants that badly.

Besides a strong internal desire mirrored by a strong external desire, there are 4 more main traits of solid characters. The second trait is complexity. No human can be reduced to a stereotype, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Characters may start with a type- the farmer, the feminist, the rural preacher, the hipster, the gold digger– but they must, absolutely must, transcend type. They must be different from anyone else of that stereotype. The farmer might secretly study foreign politics. The feminist may love gardening with a passion. The preacher might be a compulsive liar. The reasons why they do these things that separate them from their stereotypes make them real people. These differences should include flaws and virtues, as well. The sinless hero and the completely evil villain are stereotypes themselves.

The third element is contrasting traits. All people, as you peel back the layers, have conflicting characteristics. Personally, I am a social person– to a point. I am social, and I am also not. One of my characters in my novel does not want a husband- but she does want children. Ebenezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser, but deep down (deep, deep down), there is a part of him that is still a little boy. These contrasting traits happen because of all the baggage we carry around with us. All the things that influence who we are help create these contrasting layers. My husband still surprises me with the things he does, and not because I don’t know him well or because he’s an inconsistent person (he isn’t). It’s because people are complex beings with multiple reasons for why we do what we do. Sometimes one reason wins out, and sometimes another does. This creates those layers, those contrasting traits, and the characters in our fiction should have them too. A character without them won’t be convincing.

I just mentioned consistency, and that is the forth element of round characters. Consistency is  the effect of readers being able to see why the contrasting traits exist. So as your characters live out their lives in  your plot, make sure there are solid, consistent reasons behind why they do what they do. They may do surprising things (and they should) as long as we can see why that choice was made. Elizabeth Bennett said she’d never marry Mr. Darcy, but she did, and we believe it because we can see why she did. She changed her mind, but the reason she did is still consistent with who she is.

Of course, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy both changed as characters over the course of the novel, and ability to change is the fifth characteristic of sound characters. The possibility for characters to change keeps us reading and keeps the characters from being predictable. We want to know if Scrooge becomes a better, happier soul; if Neville Longbottom rises out of his shy, bumbling childhood; if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can change enough to value each other as they ought to. They might, they might not– we read to find out. Here too we find ourselves rooting for this kind of character, and if he or she has a strong internal and external desire, we’re doubly captivated.

Those 5 things -desire, complexity, contrasting traits, consistency, and ability to change- are the main elements of compelling, realistic characters. Now, say you’ve got that all worked out. More than that, you’ve got pages filled with who this character is beyond these 5 traits. You know his his backstory, his favorite kind of peanut butter, his nervous habits, and what makes him happy, sad, and angry. How do you make all this complexity come across in your writing? How do you characterize him within your story?

There are 4 main methods of characterization. The first is what the character does. This is the closest thing we have to objective information about who a character truly is– what she does. Adam Sexton also points out that, “if readers have observed an aspect of character in a scene, they will more likely remember it.” So, instead of telling us what she did, have her do it in a scene. It gives us strong evidence about who she truly is, and we’re likely to remember it since we saw it.

The second method of showing character is through what the character says (or thinks, if we have access to that through the point-of-view.) This is, of course, more biased and subjective than actions. Kind words, judgmental statements, or pithy thoughts let us in on how characters think and who they are. Complaints, wise advice, thoughtful responses… these things are great opportunities for readers to see who your characters are.

The third method is through what other characters say or think about that character. This method is especially useful because it characterizes both the speaker and the character about whom she is speaking. If I say harsh words about a friend of mine, it may tell the reader something about my friend, but it will likely also tell the reader something about me. It may tell a great deal, in fact.

The final main method of showing characterization is through what the narrator tells us. Except for cases of unreliable narrators, the narrator is honest and unbiased. We don’t have to filter what he tells us. Make use of this reliable perspective for elements of your character that you absolutely don’t want doubted, and then support those traits with the other methods.

In all these things, subtlety is the goal. If these things are done heavy-handedly, readers will feel forced or manipulated. Being too obvious is just as bad as being confusing, if not worse, so this is where practice and good feedback is important in character development. Learning to see where you are overwriting and where you are being too subtle is important to having truly realistic characters, characters who keep readers coming back and are real enough to cast shadows.

Of course, there is much more that can be said about each of these areas, and I have glossed over and abbreviated many things. The three books I reference in this post have excellent sections on character development and I highly recommend turning to them for additional examples and explanation. Thank you for reading!