Monday writing roundup: writing exercises, book piracy, and more.
How to use amnesia as a plot device
Recently I was slogging through an ARC (and I do mean slogging) trying to figure out why I can’t get into the story. It’s a great idea. Something I’ve never read before. Time travel kid, alternate timelines, and a unique idea of using time as a web, which allows those with the ‘power’ to pull objects from alternate timelines into the character’s present. It should be awesome, but something was off.
The main character kept “remembering” plot-changing information, and then life went on as if nothing happened. In other words, the reader was never prepared for anything.
Preparation keeps plots from feeling contrived
Lack of preparation in fantasy is a disaster waiting to happen. Particularly one that categorized as magical realism. If you have a scruffy wizard grinding things with his mortar and pestle and something behind him explodes without explanation, the reader will forgive it. At Merlin’s table we expect magical things to happen. If the same thing happens at John Smith’s kitchen table, your reader is going to say, “Wait, what?”
In this particular book, the main character (MC) would inexplicably “remember” things when it was convenient for the plot.
During monster attack
MC: “But I’ve never touched a sword in my life.”
Sidekick: “Here hold mine.”
Never before mentioned memories of being Zorro flood back into the MC.
All enemies are dead.
MC shows no surprise at remembering being Zorro.
While this is a stripped down example, it is an accurate outline of something I had noticed throughout the book.
No, no, no, just no.
What to do instead
There are plenty of movies where an MC rediscovers lost memories. The Bourne Identity is a great example. In the movie, Jason Bourne doesn’t suddenly remember all his skills. In first fight scene he initially doesn’t fight back until the policeman touches him. The sensation triggers a sensory memory, which is a separate memory from the repressed cognitive one. Jason realizes the sensation of being attacked is familiar, and he follows the tactile memory. We see Matt Damon portray this internal dialogue through facial expressions, first surprise, hesitation, and then finally curiosity as he explores the memory. The entire sequence feels believable, despite the reality that a smaller Jason Bourne could not really wire-jitsu two much bigger men who were also trained in hand-to-hand fighting.
What to do instead
1. Plant a seed in a previous chapter.
Rather than have the master swordsman memory come out of nowhere, the author should have alluded to the skill earlier. Since the MC is a kid (Never mind that the Zorro memory in question occurred when he was 10 years old.) He could have easily been swinging a stick around in the woods and had a flash of familiarity. Find some realistic way of alluding to a hidden skill. In the Long Kiss Goodnight, ex-assassin Gena Davis is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and rediscovers her forgotten knife skills. She makes the wrong conclusion, (that she used to be a chef) but the hint is there: she’s really good with a knife.
2. The discovery
Take the reader through the process of rediscovering a forgotten or innate skill.
Internal dialogue: “This feels familiar” (recovered memory) or “What just happened?” (innate skill)
Internal dialogue: “Why do I know this?” (memory) or “How did I do that?” (innate skill)
- Test the waters
If your MC suddenly remembers he was Zorro in a past life, he is still going to be tentative the first time he uses his skills. He can gain confidence quickly, but the first few strokes will be restrained. Similarly, if your MC discovers his telekinesis, let him test it by moving a glass on a table, not by stopping a train.
- Build the new skill
Character has a small success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
- Then move on to bigger things
3. Take time to process
Discovering a new incredible gift will affect your main character. I hate it when the MC suddenly has a strange power and is “taking it so well.” Cat Winters does a great job with this in “A Cure for Dreaming. (Affiliate, but I really liked the book.)” Olivia’s sudden magical ability affects her interactions with everyone in the story, and as a result, her relationships with those around her change. Winters also explores the Olivia’s fears that the ability will be permanent and how it will affect the rest of her life. These are thoughts a person would really have. The main character needed time to adjust emotionally to her new abilities. Even a helpful skill would take time to adjust to. If your MC is no different after attaining a skill than she was before, it will not feel authentic.
I’m only a third of the way through this book, and I’m hoping that these issues will work themselves out since I love the concept. But if I were at the bookstore, this one would have gone back on the shelf. As a reader I enjoy being surprised, but I hate being confused. Avoid this pitfall by preparing your readers properly. Then the magic will feel real.
This article is part of the author toolbox blog hop
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A few final things
First: Announcing my book
Based on my “Beginner’s Guide to NaNoWriMo” blog posts, this book breaks down contemporary plot structure into daily writing goals in order to guide the novice writer through the entire month. I’m currently looking for ARC reviewers, Bloggers, and/or Podcasters for the publicity campaign for the August release. If you’d like to participate send me an email michelekellerauthor(at)gmail Thanks!
If you are a querying author, don’t forget about #QuerySwap on June 1. It’s a Twitter party where you pitch your book, find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on query letters. All for free. For more information click here
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In novels, “stage directions” are sections where the author begins listing a character’s visible actions without giving the thoughts or feelings associated with them. As a result, the reader is bombarded with useless information, unable to discern which actions are meaningful.
How to Turn your Love Interest into a Living Character
The love interest is an integral part of contemporary plot structure. But too often that character is little more than a pretty face designed to be the main character’s dream girl. Today’s love interest needs to be more than just a skirt waiting to be rescued. Make sure your love interest is a person who matters.
Steps to Creating a Meaningful Love Interest
Your love interest must be a fully realized character
If you haven’t already, make a character sheet for your love interest. For now, skip over the physical description and think about him as a person. What does he want? Yes, your love interest needs to have his own wants. He is just more than arm candy. He needs to have his own life. How does he fit into the narrative? Is he a protagonist force, or an antagonistic force?
In The Lego Batman Movie, Barbara Gordon’s role was antagonistic. She represented the rule of law, whereas Batman assumed a vigilante role. She worked with her team, Batman was a loner. She also had no interest in Batman romantically, whereas Batman became obsessed with her. If you removed the romantic aspect, Barbara still had a role to play in the plot. This is what makes her a fully formed character.
Your love interest shouldn’t be perfect
No matter what you see in Hollywood, your love interest should not just be a piece of tail in leather pants. Give him a real personality that includes a flaw. Real people have flaws. If your love interest is too perfect, the relationship will feel contrived. Readers will sense that this is a person created as a cuddle doll for your main character. Rather than feeling like a real person, your love interest will be nothing more than a personal fantasy. Your love interest needs to be more than just “hot.” If your character only ever describes him by his physical characteristics, then she isn’t really falling in love.
If your love interest is male, watch out for the “alpha-hole” problem. This is more prevalent in romance novels where the male character is basically a self-centered jerk, but for some reason, the behavior is excusable because he’s really good in bed. If your main character really is interested in this type of guy, then you need to address whatever character flaw attracts her to him and make that part of her inner journey.
Your love interest should affect the plot
This does not mean just getting kidnapped. The modern love interest needs to be more than the girl your hero rescues. Make sure you have your main character and the love interest interacting outside the romantic subplot. Give your love interest a function from the secondary character list: antagonist, side-kick, complicating factor, or teacher. Think through how this role will affect the budding romance. This will ensure the romantic subplot doesn’t feel like an afterthought.
Your romantic subplot should be fully formed
Make a quick synopsis of their romance. This will prevent you from falling into the “instant love’ trap. Instant love happens when two characters don’t have enough time to develop a relationship before falling in love. Consider your own relationships. How many interactions did you typically have with a person before a first date? How many dates did you go on before you made a commitment? If your character becomes obsessed on the first date, this could be a symptom of a serious psychological problem. While this might add an interesting dynamic to your character, make sure this is a direction you really want to go. If you want your characters to make a real love connection, you will need to make sure your romantic subplot is fully formed.
Beats for a romantic subplot
While a romance novel will have more plot points, for a romantic subplot your should have at least four: the meeting, the turning point, the crisis, the resolution. These can happen during other scenes, but you should be able to identify them in your story.
The meeting is nothing more than the moment your characters first meet. If your characters already know each other, this will be the first moment your main character begins to think about him in a romantic capacity.
The turning point is the moment the love interest becomes aware of the main character’s interest. This will change the dynamic between the two characters. Either the love interest will be receptive to the attention, or she will reject it. Whichever you choose, this will establish the nature of the relationship until the next plot point
The dark moment is the event that challenges the status quo. If the relationship is amicable, then this will be the major conflict coming to fruition. In romance novels, this conflict is usually based on a character’s flaw or fear. If the relationship is antagonistic, this will be the moment that changes something for the love interest. She will begin to see the hero in another light.
The final point is the resolution. Here, whatever problem arose in the dark moment will be overcome. This does not necessarily mean that the couple will live happily ever after. It means the conflict between the parties has ended. The guy doesn’t always have to get the girl. Having the couple split but being better for the experience is also acceptable. Likewise, the “love interest” doesn’t even need to be a romantic role. This function could also be served by two sworn enemies learning to trust one another. A Romulan and a Klingon overcoming personal prejudices could function as a love interest. The purpose of the love interest subplot is to show personal growth in the main character.
Getting Down and Dirty
Unless you are writing for a specific romance line (Harlequin Blaze, etc.) then the level of on-page sex you wish to include in your story is up to you. There is nothing that says you must have a sex scene in your story. If you wish to include one, the level of description is a personal choice. Some writers favor innuendo while others include every graphic detail. There is no wrong answer. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of writing a sexual encounter, end the scene by implying the next step and leave the details to the reader’s imagination. Then, pick up the story the next morning. If you wish to include a sex scene, go for it.
Not every story needs a love interest, but if you have one, make sure you take the time to make yours a living, breathing person.
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Inciting incident: the point of no return
And now doom
The inciting incident is the event that forces the main character to action. It is the one event that sets him on his path. Before this moment he could continue his normal life. Once the inciting incident happens, everything changes.
- Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games
- Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest
- Hagrid gives Harry a letter
The inciting incident changes something. While many inciting incidents throw your character’s world into chaos, the change does not have to be negative. Harry’s letter was probably the best thing to happen to the boy. But it did change his life. Once Harry knew who he was, his life had been altered permanently.
An inciting incident:
- Forces the characters to act
- It is the point of no return
An effective inciting incident:
Must be the results of the setup
This is the moment you’ve been building toward. (I’m looking at you pantsers.) Otherwise, it won’t make sense, and readers will feel duped. Imagine if Prim had been chosen for a beauty contest? The opening chapters in the Hunger Games established Katniss as a skilled hunter and demonstrated her need to protect Prim. None of that would have been pertinent if Prim had been chosen for a pageant.
Can’t have an easy solution
How many times have you been turned off by a book or movie where for some inexplicable reason the main character responded to a crisis with the dumbest, most complex response imaginable. Your character doesn’t need to helicopter jump to the top floor of a building when it has a perfectly good elevator.
Must be logical
This means if you want your teen to knowingly date an assassin, you need to craft your set-up so that it’s believable. Just like the Hunger Games example above, the inciting incident is the event that changes the world (normal life) you have just established for your character. It can’t be random. It must challenge the status quo.
Must be personal to the main character
Katniss volunteered because Prim was her sister. Harry wanted an escape from his miserable life. The inciting incident can’t be something that happens far away. It must happen to the character, and it must threaten him personally.
Reflects the stakes already established
As you are establishing your character’s world, you will show the reader what your character holds dear, the thing he doesn’t want to lose. Make sure your inciting incident threatens that thing. In Inside Out, Joy believes making Reily perpetually happy is her personal mission, but Sadness’s actions threaten the status quo, forcing Joy to act.
Everything in your opening chapters leads to this moment
Inciting incident is the moment everything changes for your main character. It is the result of your set up, the carefully crafted event that sends your hero on his path. Make sure yours is up to the task.
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