Vague pitches rob your query of its power. Don’t waste your precious 140 characters with these dead weight phrases.
The most frequent problem I see with drafts written in first person is the overuse of I-construction sentences, or its close cousin, “me” as object.
Why Plot Convenience is bad
This week’s shredding is from a first draft. The author was having trouble making the opening work and wanted a second look. Her initial feedback had been the standard, (but vague enough to be meaningless): get to the action sooner.
That wasn’t the problem. The inciting incident (finding a magic wand) was only a few pages into the book. She had started in the right place, took a few pages to establish normal, develop the character, all while showing the sequence of events that lead up to the inciting incident. The stakes needed raising and there was too much telling, but it was a draft, and these were easy fixes.
Then, it hit me.
The MC happened to be closing the store alone for the first time, which happened to be same night as the dance she really wanted to go to, which distracted her enough to drop something on the floor, which necessitated her going into the closet for the broom, which happened to be overly stuffed, which forced her to…which caused… In other words, the MC found the magic wand through a literary Rube Goldberg.
Well, that’s convenient.
There are plenty of examples of small, seemingly insignificant events have changed history, but lining up a chain of coincidences to get your plot moving is a recipe for disaster. Your story will feel contrived. As a result of this one flaw, I started questioning everything else that happened in the MS. Like, why would anyone leave such a powerful artifact in a shoebox? How could this possibly be the first time the MS had ever needed to sweep the floor in a store that she’s been working in for months? Suddenly everything felt false.
Are your characters making things happen or are they victims of circumstance?
Unless the theme of your manuscript is the random chaos of the universe and how it has the power to change history, you are much better off putting your characters in charge of their own fates. There are plenty of examples that effectively use coincidence as a launching point for a story. Jim Butcher uses this theme to begin his Furies of Calderon series. He succeeds for three reasons. First, he draws attention to it through a mini-preface at the beginning of the prologue. Second, he shows Tavi actively making the seemingly insignificant choice, and finally, everything that happens after results from deliberate choice.
Are solutions magically appearing when your characters need them?
Coincidence can also destroy your plot if it provides solutions. The TV show Sleepy Hollow is notorious for this. No matter what the problem is, Crane just happens to have fought one during the revolution or knows exactly which book to consult in the massive occult library that no one else in the town seems to know about. Never mind that this library was inexplicably assembled in plain sight in a Puritan region during a time where having such things could get a person executed for witchcraft. Oh, and it somehow survived down to the present day completely intact.
What to do instead:
When you map out your plot:
- Your character’s choices must be the driving force behind the story.
The story would have felt more authentic if the MC had decided to work the odd shift because she needed an excuse not to go to the dance. Maybe the guy she liked never asked her and closing the creep-tastic shop alone on a Friday night was much better than watching Mr. Love Interest dance with other girls.
- Use circumstances, or coincidences to complicate their situation, (NEVER as a solution)
Later the MC rushes off to save her BFF with her new magic wand, oh and it’s the worst snowstorm of the year, and she’s never driven in snow.
- If your MC really is a hapless boob who gets blindsided by the plot, make it clear in your prose that this is a deliberate choice.
And then write a “how-to” because making a victim MC sympathetic, rather than pathetic, is a master-level skill.
Characters need to be in charge of their own fates. Their circumstances and the story that unfolds around them need to be a direct result of their choices. Make sure your characters are driving the plot and not simply reacting to whatever the world is doing to them. Give them a goal and have them take steps to achieve that goal, rather than have them stumble into the plot blindly. This will make your story more authentic, and your characters more interesting.
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Simple tips for creating more tension in your manuscript
One of my favorite things is beta reading. Picking a story apart, trying to figure out why it isn’t working, then how it can be fixed. Sometimes the problem is obvious, other times it’s more hidden. This story fell into the latter. I kept dozing, blanking out, my mind wandered at every turn. It was the middle of the day. I had plenty of coffee, so that wasn’t it. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The prose was clean, very clean. It disappeared into the page, never drawing attention to itself. I rarely tripped over it. The premise was novel, something I had never read, and the MC’s voice had moments of brilliance. But something was off.
So where’s the fire?
Then it occurred to me. The MC could walk away at any time and nothing would really change for him, or anyone else. The stakes were just not there. In this particular example the MC was trapped in a cat’s body. There were times he got to be a human, but mostly he was a cat and a really good one. (He had a great voice as a cat.) The author even went as far as to make the point that there were things that the MC enjoyed about being a cat. So when the opportunity came to become a human full-time, I didn’t feel like it was something he “needed” to do. I kept thinking, “Well, if they screw this up he’ll just go back to his life as a cat. Not a great outcome, but not really the end of the world either.”
The End of the World
Raising the stakes is more than simply making things blow up. (sorry Hollywood.) But it should be “the end of the world.” That doesn’t mean the literal “end of the world” but the end of the MC’s world. This can come in many forms: the loss of love in a romance, the killer gets away in a mystery, the MC’s death in a thriller, or something quieter like the recovery from trauma in women’s fiction.
If my MC fails, what are the consequences?
But what if it isn’t life/death?
Here is where craft is important. Use characterization to make it feel like life and death. Add a few more layers. Ex. Your heroine has the solo in the class play. (meh) Grandmother (famous singer) comes to watch despite being estranged from the mother (better). Heroine sings the song her grandmother and mother sang on Broadway in effort to heal the rift between them. (Now it matters.) Sure it’s the plot for an ABC family movie, but it shows how something simple can become more meaningful through raising the stakes. If we love the character, we will want them to achieve their goal. Spend some time showing your reader how important it is to your MC, whether it’s a love interest, or winning the science fair, make us feel it.
Life/Death can also fall flat
Anti-climactic outcomes are not only dull, they will also alienate your audience. Major stakes demand an equal amount of effort to resolve. The reader will feel betrayed when a huge amount of tension is built up and the solution is too easy. In another MS I critiqued the MC had been kidnapped and was rescued with little fanfare a few pages later. The lack of resistance turned what should have been a major plot point into nothing more than a minor annoyance. Make sure the buildup is in line with the payoff.
- Make the reader care about your MC’s problem.
- Raise the stakes through complicating factors
- Balance the seriousness of the problem with the effort needed to solve it.
Building higher stakes is the foundation for engaging your readers. If your readers don’t feel your characters have real problems they won’t stick around to see how things end.
If you are interested in seeing how this author addressed these issues, (and used a compelling voice to tie it all together,) the revised MS was selected as part of the Kindle Scout program and is available here
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