Posted On August 1, 2011 by Print This Post

Write a HolyCowAwesome Story Part II with C.J. Redwine

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. 

Welcome, C.J.!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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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.

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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.

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23 Responses to “Write a HolyCowAwesome Story Part II with C.J. Redwine”

  1. CJ – Awesome post. This one’s a keeper for my writer’s notebook.

    I love to hurt my characters by giving them exactly what they think they want on a silver platter and then exposing it to the light of the thing they need. That moment of clarity – when they realize that they’ve chosen second best and the number one thing is now out of their reach – priceless.

    Thanks for the post!

    Posted by Robin Covington | August 1, 2011, 5:52 am
  2. Hi C.J.–

    I love your 10 tips posts! They’re great reminders and quick reference guides. Perfect.

    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | August 1, 2011, 6:23 am
  3. Hi CJ. I’m with Tracey. I’ve added both these posts to my editing binder.

    As for hurting my characters, I figure out what they love the most and I take it away from them. Sometimes they get it back, sometimes they don’t. I just like exploring how they’ll react to losing it.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 1, 2011, 6:55 am
  4. CJ -

    Thanks for the fabulous post. Maybe we need to rename your column “C.J.’s Top Ten…” :). As my gals here know, I love a list and this one for upping stakes and conflict is fabulous!

    Can you give our readers a couple of strategies of how they might come up with those less than obvious solutions?

    Thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 1, 2011, 7:44 am
    • One of the ways to come up with a less than obvious solution is to look at what IS obvious (heroine doesn’t tell hero the problem/need/dilemma because she’s been told not to or is afraid of his reaction) and do the opposite. (Heroine DOES tell hero, despite fears or being told not to and they seem to have a plan but then it blows up in their face.)

      Another method is to make a list of all the possible outcomes and keep asking yourself “How could this get worse” until you see a way you can deliver a truly high stakes plot.

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | August 1, 2011, 7:55 am
  5. Hi CJ, great post. Exactly what I needed to hear just about now. Thanks!

    I love making my protags behave like utter jerks. Make them do awful things, have broken spirits, you know make them thoroughly unlikable. Then I have those panic moments–SHIT, how do I redeem this awful person? I figure, if I feel that way, the reader’s going to feel the hopelessness too. I love watching a seemingly hopeless case redeem him/herself. But I’m faced with the issue of likeability for my characters in the early stages of my story (apparently not everyone likes dark damaged characters as much as I do). Ideas?

    Sonali

    Posted by Sonali Mayadev Thatte | August 1, 2011, 8:12 am
    • Your characters can be damaged, broken, and can make awful choices and still remain likable and sympathetic as long as you SHOW us how they became damaged, what they fear, why they’re making awful choices (and it helps if they struggle internally with the choice or with the outcome)and give us their emotional inner language. Make that emotional inner language something the reader can relate to and sympathize with, even while the reader cringes at the actions and wants the character to choose better, and you’ll nail it.

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | August 1, 2011, 10:24 am
  6. The timing of this post is perfect for me, since I’m deep in revisions. Sadly, it doesn’t make it any easier.

    I’m printing this up and using it as a checklist as I go through my story.

    Thanks for another great blog!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | August 1, 2011, 9:07 am
  7. Morning C.J.

    I’m still working on being horrible to my characters….I keep asking myself “how could it get worse?” and then I say “oh, I could give her a run in her pantyhose!” sigh. My reputation as a big meanie goes right out the window….lol

    thanks for a great post, another one to print out and read over and over…

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 1, 2011, 9:47 am
  8. Hi CJ,

    My heroine is a cop who falls for a bad guy. Trying to hide her relationship almost gets her killed. I’m still making things worse for her. I love writing!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 1, 2011, 10:16 am
  9. CJ –

    Thanks a ton for another fabulous RU lecture. This one is going in my notebook this fall!

    Kelsey

    Posted by Anonymous | August 1, 2011, 10:19 pm
  10. Hello, sir! A friend of mine posted this on her fb wall saying that all of her writer friends should read it. And I totally agree! I’m at the stage of editing/revising my manuscript – the craziest stage where I find myself bringing the holes to my sleep, and dreams. So this is absolutely helpful. I was reminded of a lot of things; and most importantly learned things as well. Thank you very much for posting. Have a great day!

    Posted by Jash Bagabaldo | August 2, 2011, 3:46 am

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