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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

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The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Courtesy of bn.com

Writers frequently overlook the sense of smell to focus primarily on sight.  Smell, however, packs a much tighter emotional punch; our sense of smell is associated very closely with the part of the brain that processes emotion.  Aroma, fragrance, odor — whatever you’d like to call it — can frequently unlock memories and associations for both your characters and your readers, if used with finesse.

Where some authors skip over the most emotional of our five senses, some use it to great effect.  Vastly different writing styles can use the sense of smell to set the stage, reveal character, or move the plot forward.  Within the first few paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood incorporates scent to set the scene in an old, empty gymnasium:

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.

Atwood creates a feeling and uses this feeling to build curiosity.  Where exactly is the narrator, and why is she here?  We as readers want to know why we are here and where we are going, and in creating that curiosity, Atwood achieves an enviable goal.

Another example of scent working for a story comes up in a completely different book — but also a book that I love — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Riordan uses scent to build the character of Percy’s step-father, Gabe:

I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room.  During school months, it was Gabe’s “study.”  He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.

I dropped my suitcase on the bed.  Home sweet home.

Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.

Riordan gives us a feel for Gabe’s character and tells us something that will be very important to the plot later (though I won’t spoil it for you by revealing that bit).  Gabe acts as a foil to Percy and his mother, Sally, showing us more about Percy and Sally purely through their reactions to him and interactions with him.

However, in order to use scent efficiently, we can’t just toss on a few extra olfactory descriptors.  The use of scent needs to pull its weight within the story.  Does your use of scent in your writing pull its weight?  Does it reveal character, plot, or important background information?  Does it create curiosity or build an important feeling?  If it doesn’t do these things, maybe it doesn’t belong there.

Have you read anything where the sense of smell stands out or plays an important role?  Which scents bring back memories for you?

P.S.  Check out a fun interview of Rick Riordan from Saturday’s Guardian here.

The Power of Revealing Details

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The Giver

Courtesy of bn.com

Correctly placed details can reveal more about a character, setting, or situation than paragraphs of exposition — showing versus telling.  In revision, it’s important for us to scour every scene, every paragraph for ways to show instead of tell.  Sometimes I find that, in the frenetic rush to get the story out, my first drafts tend to be lots of telling and need to be cleaned up pretty dramatically to show more instead.

In Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, Lowry builds a fantatstic new world in barely a chapter, and she’s able to accomplish this feat with her solid use of revealing detail, as in this passage in the first chapter:

Lily considered, and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  They acted like… like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested.  He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too.  “Like animals.”

Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Without telling us directly how different this society is, Lowry accomplishes this in just a few lines by showing an example of daily life without giving it to us in straight exposition.   The conversation and comment come across casually, almost as an aside, which also shows us something about the world of The Giver and the attitudes of those within it.

Whenever I revise, I try, though not always successfully, to cut as much exposition as I can without losing the thread of the story.  Which revision tricks do you use to clean up your fiction?

P.S.  Check out what the NY Times has to say about Lois Lowry’s new book Son here and how “in many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

Can Good Writing Be Taught?

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What makes good writing good?  And can it be taught?

This topic is not new, but the recent Atlantic article The Writing Revolution reignited the debate (see here and here for more).  It certainly made the circuit among all my teaching friends.  The article follows the story of one underperforming school in New York that decided to pursue good writing with a passion, following the idea that structured writing, where students are taught tangible rules and how to apply them, leads to better comprehension of all subjects.  And so far, it seems to be working.

The school believed that the primary issue stemmed from students not understanding basic sentence structure and how to vary sentence structure, and they built from there.  If you think about it much, it’s not very revolutionary at all; it’s just focusing on fundamentals.  Varying sentence structure is a solid, basic rule of writing that is virtually invisible when it’s done well.

ImageBut let’s compare 2 paragraphs.  This first paragraph is the first few lines of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.

Collins pulls us along and controls the pacing with her masterful use of varied sentence structure.  Longer. complex sentences tend to draw us out or be more contemplative; shorter, more to-the-point sentences give more punch.  Without the sentence complexity, it might sound a bit like this:

I wake up.  The other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out.  I’m seeking Prim’s warmth.  I find only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams.  She must have climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.
Without something so simple as varied sentence structure, the paragraph sounds stilted and immature (although that is another way to play with the character’s voice).  What other writing concepts are invisible when done well, but glaringly obvious when they’re missing?
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