Happy Monday to the RU Crew! Last month, the ever generous and wonderful C.J. Redwine talked about the reasons a reader might not stick with your book. This week, she goes further, explaining how to raise the stakes, up the conflict and keep the reader IN the book.
In my first segment on how to write a HolyCowAwesome story, I discussed the top ten reasons I’d put your book down and walk away. I hope you had the opportunity to take a hard look at your manuscript and diagnose any issues that post brought up. If you’re anything like me, you looked at your beautiful, shining Novel of Perfection and began to notice a few cracks in the foundation. Maybe a cosmetic flaw or two. Maybe you discovered you had a Sagging Middle. Maybe you realized your characters are no more substantial than those cardboard cutouts they stand along the walls in the movie theaters. (Dibs on Captain Jack Sparrow!) Maybe you looked at your novel’s stakes and had the uncomfortable realization that you aren’t sure they actually matter to anyone but your mother and your supportive best friend.
The good news is, every writer has those realizations. Some of us have those sucker-punch-to-the-gut epiphanies on every single book. That’s a good thing! Why? Because everything I just mentioned can be fixed. It seems to me (after hours of critique reading, book reading, and discussing plot synopses with clients) that the most pressing issue facing writers of every skill level is this: How do I raise the stakes and make the conflict matter to the reader?
Here are my top ten methods for addressing this issue:
- Make the characters matter: A character, even a secondary one, isn’t there to serve the plot. A character is there to participate in the plot. And every character, including those who briefly wander across a scene and are never heard from again, have a history that influences how they participate in the plot. If you want readers to care about the conflict, you have to make them care about the characters. You can do this by using deep POV (Writing from one character’s point of view in a way that feels like the reader is literally sitting inside their brain experiencing thoughts/events/emotions through that character’s very personal responses/filter.) You can make sure you push yourself to give the readers non-verbal cues to your characters’ emotions. You can really get under the skin of each character and make sure each voice is unique. If you aren’t sure what this looks like, grab a book you’ve read whose character is indelibly etched in your heart and read it again, paying close attention to how that author delivers that connection.
- Make the inner conflict matter: It honestly doesn’t matter so much what your character’s inner conflict is as long as the choices she faces will cost her something either way. Even a simple conflict (Should I try out for cheerleading?) can have deeper layers as long as you understand what it costs the character to say no and what it will cost the character to say yes. And please, PLEASE, do yourself the favor of having threads of inner conflict that aren’t resolved. No one goes through a short phase of their life and exits out the other side with all the answers tied up in a pretty little package, so why should your character? You can resolve things, maybe resolve the major inner conflict for that story, but leave more for your character to learn and discover. If you don’t, your character has now become stagnant and that is the death of good storytelling.
- Have a strong external conflict: The external conflict must be strong enough to propel the story from start to finish. No Sagging Middle for you! The external conflict must matter enough to push the characters into action, force them to make choices, and then deliver consequences for those choices. If the characters’ choices don’t have consequences, your conflict will wander off into the corner and die a quiet, lingering death. If you aren’t sure your conflict is strong enough to propel the story, then take a hard look at it and ask yourself, “How could this get worse?”
- Have continuous conflict growth: Don’t start with a bang and then find yourself at the 30k mark with nothing causing problems for your characters until they finally wander through enough exposition and setting to hit the 50k mark where things finally get good again. Start strong and escalate. I prefer to break up my word count before I start a book and figure out where I want my big “game changing moments” to fall. Then I figure out what those game changing moments will be. I have three. One at the 1/ 3 mark, one at the ½ point, and one at ¾ which forcibly propels the characters into the final showdown. You may have a different pacing or method for plotting, and that’s fine. The important thing is to make sure your big conflict moments are escalating: each worse than the last.
- No obvious solutions: Nothing bugs me more than a book where I can see the solution coming fifty pages from the end, and then I wind up being right. Boring! If you must let a character try an obvious solution at any point in the book, I suggest having it blow up in that character’s face. What an intriguing surprise for your reader. It’s a lot more work as a writer to toss out the obvious solutions and force our brain to come up with something else, but I promise you this: if the problem of how your characters will finally overcome their obstacles is keeping you up until 2 a.m., it will keep your reader up too.
- Push your characters to their limits: No matter what kind of book you write, you can push your characters to their emotional or physical limits. Or both. Give them tasks that require them to perform at the very edge of their skill set. Make the reader worry about the outcome. The instant you let up on your characters, the fizz begins leaking out of your story.
- Don’t neglect the emotional impact of the conflict: Here’s a simple formula to remember: escalating outer conflict increases inner conflict. If your character stops reacting emotionally to his or her surroundings and circumstances, if your character no longer weighs decisions or regrets choices, you’re neglecting the emotional impact of your story. If you neglect the emotional impact, you risk writing a forgettable book.
- Don’t take away your character’s hard choices: What if J.K. Rowling had decided it would be too hard on Harry to realize he was the unintended Horcrux? What if she’d kept Dumbledore alive so maybe Harry wouldn’t have to face dying to save the world? Then I wouldn’t have spent half of Harry Potter 7.2 bawling my eyes out at the theater while my children cringed in embarrassment. Give your characters the hard choices. The road paved in broken glass. Let them hurt.
- Don’t neglect the consequences for their choices: Each choice a character makes has fallout that should propel the conflict and push the character closer and closer to the final showdown. And please don’t make the mistake of protecting your hero/heroine by making all the consequences for their choices good. Characters make bad choices. Or make good choices that end badly. They should pay the price for that, and so should everyone around them.
- Don’t forget that victory costs something: If you truly want your stakes to matter to the reader, they must matter deeply to your characters. Your characters must want their preferred outcome more than they want any of the other choices in front of them, even though it will cost them something. What did it cost Harry to take up Dumbledore’s quest and pursue Voldemort’s demise? His relationship with Ginny. His last year at Hogwarts. His relationships with any remaining father figures within the Order. Nearly his friendship with Ron. A comfortable roof over his head. And finally, his life. He didn’t wander into those consequences on accident. He chose them because in his eyes, they were a worthy sacrifice to his goal of bringing Voldemort down. Did your character willingly choose to actively pursue his/her preferred outcome, regardless of the cost? Is the cost so high the reader will worry the character might not be able to pay it?
I hope you found one or two nuggets you can take with you to your manuscript so you can whip it into shape! Next month, we’ll finish discussing how to write a HolyCowAwesome story by listing ten ways you can create vivid characters who come to life on the page.
RU Crew, what’s your favorite way to hurt your characters? What hurts your heart (you know those little twinges I’m talking about) when you read a book?
Stop by Wednesday when we highlight a post by Michael Hauge on how novels and movies differ.
Bio: C.J. Redwine writes YA fantasy and is repped by the fabulous Holly Root. Her debut novel, DEFIANCE, will be published in Fall 2012 by Balzer & Bray. To learn more about C.J., visit her blog at http://cjredwine.blogspot.com.
- 10 Ways to Create Vivid, Compelling Characters, by C.J. Redwine
- Writing A HolyCowAwesome Story, Part 1 C.J. Redwine
- C.J. Redwine – How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel
- C.J. Redwine: What To Do When Your WIP Turns Against You
- Four Key Elements Every Pitch Needs