Tag Archives: creating tension

When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)

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Writing a Series: The Fun of Starting the Next Novel

 

9111774612_bfd9ca1b69_zBook series, whether it’s a trilogy or longer, are popular in the literary world. After book one, readers want to continue on with the story and characters. They want to see what happens next. However, writing the next book – to use a cliché – is easier said than done.

For this reason, often the following books within a series aren’t always as good as the first, especially the second novel within a trilogy. Many times the second novel in a trilogy is seen as the bridge between an extraordinary beginning (the first book) and a heart-wrenching ending (the third book).

The middle book is a transition between the start and finish, and often times doesn’t include as much drama, excitement, and action as the first and third novel. Instead of increasing the tension from the first novel, the second book’s plot drags. The thrill wears off, and the characters become tiring.

Did you know that there’s a term for this phenomenon?

Middle Book Syndrome

(Aka Sagging Middle Syndrome)

Basically, this occurrence results from weak plot structure. In other words, the writer didn’t lay out how the trilogy was supposed to go. This could have taken the form of in-depth planning or a one-page synopsis for each novel. However, if the writer only saw the very beginning and then figured the rest of the story would come to him later, this tends to create an implausible story overall, since the steps leading to the finish are fuzzy. (If the writer can’t see the steps from the starting line to the finish, neither will the readers.)

Granted, the second book can be more challenging to write than the first and last. In the first book, the story and everyone in it needs to be introduced, and if the genre is fantasy/science fiction, a new world must be brought to life. Everything is new.

In the final novel, tension is ratcheted up. Readers are looking at battles and deaths and any other sort of excitement that leads to the massive climax.

The middle book must somehow maintain and increase tension, while not leading to the conclusion. The second novel already has many of the puzzle pieces from the first novel. More pieces will be introduced, but a good chunk must be reserved for the final book. Therefore, the puzzle has to continue to be put together in the second book without showing readers the entire picture.

Not so easy to do.

One way to prevent middle book syndrome is to remember cause and effect. Each action has a reaction. Everything a character does causes something else to occur. Cause and effect allows each piece of a novel series to be part of a whole. (To see more about how “every part of a novel should be integral to the whole,” click on the “Sagging Middle Syndrome” link above. For more on how to write a trilogy, check out “How to write a book trilogy: 5 crucial steps”.)

I am currently working on a trilogy, and for each question I introduce in my first novel (plot, subplots) I record it on a separate document. Therefore, I’ll know which strings I have to continue with while writing the second book. Having this other document also helps me to remember what questions I’m introducing, so that I won’t have awkward loose ends.

Added to that, I know how I want the trilogy to end, and am currently working on a one-page synopsis for my middle book. The story might change as I get deeper into the trilogy. My first novel certainly has, but it helps to have the big picture, and some of the smaller, connecting pieces, so that I can work on cause and effect.

What do you think? Ever read any trilogies/series that had the middle book syndrome?

(Photo courtesy of Richard Binhammer.)

Ka-Pow! Writing Action Scenes in Novels

Think back to some of the most exciting scenes in novels you’ve read. Most of those scenes probably have a lot of tension and include some sort of action. I can think of Harry Potter facing off with Voldemort, Katniss with the tracker jackers, sword fighting in The Princess Bride, the Battle of the Hornburg (aka Battle of Helm’s Deep) from The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, etc.

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What is it about these scenes that make them memorable? Why are they successful?

  1. They are fast-paced.

A quick pace makes for heightened tension…and readers flipping through pages because they want to know what’s happening. Just make sure you don’t move so fast that readers get lost. You want your characters, and the plot, to move forward. Sometimes you want there to be chaos – for instance, if you’re writing a war scene with soldiers and explosions – but you want an organized chaos. You, as the author, need to know what’s going on at all times, even if your characters don’t.

  1. They advance the plot.

Action scenes can and should provide vital pieces of information, whether it’s about the protagonist or the antagonist. They should move the plot forward. If an action scene doesn’t serve a purpose, why is it in the book? To just show how cool the protagonist is? That’s not a very good reason on its own. However, too much information becomes extraneous, can slow down the pace, and clog up the action. During action scenes concentrate on the main characters, their senses, emotions, and movements, and the new piece(s) of information.

  1. The protagonist is forced to take decisive action/make quick decisions.

Whenever the protagonist is forced to make decisions based on instinct rather than logical analysis, the tension ratchets up. Instinctual responses, such as fight or flight, create faster responses, quicker pacing, and can produce unexpected consequences (both good and/or bad). By having unexpected consequences as a result of an action scene, drama is increased.

  1. They have an underdog.

UnderdogHave you ever seen a wrestling match? It’s pretty boring. Whenever you have two or more evenly matched opponents the stakes aren’t high enough for the action scene. There needs to be an underdog, and that underdog must find a way to rise above the odds and win. If the underdog (most likely your protagonist) is fighting to stay alive, to save another’s life, for freedom, or for some other purpose, then readers have someone to root for. More than that, readers have someone they want to root for.

  1. Characters are revealed.

How the protagonist fights, whether he chooses to fight or not, etc. shows readers a lot about the protagonist. You know the old saying of actions speak louder than words? It applies here. Your protagonist might be a black belt or have served in the military, but may choose to not fight. Knowing that the protagonist could seriously injure the opponent, but chooses not to says a lot about that character. Same goes for someone who would rather mind her own business, but then sees an injustice occurring and can’t let it go.

When a character is forced to make quick decisions, his true personality comes out. This is because he doesn’t have time to think about what he should show the world. He doesn’t think about what he wants to show the world. He just acts.

Bottom line: think about what you’re saying/showing about your characters through their actions.

  1. The fighting/action is unique.

I read a novel a while ago where within the first five chapters there were two action scenes. However, they were nearly identical, and both ended with the same result. It was repetitive and unnecessary. When you have action scenes, make them unique. Each scene should have a different outcome. Make each fight/action scene (because fight and action scenes aren’t always once and the same) special. You want readers to remember each action scene. If they can’t, then you need to go back and make sure each conflict is solved in a different manner.

  1. The scene(s) can be visualized and felt.

fraser1Give a close in view of the fight. Does the protagonist hear her jacket being ripped? Does she taste blood in her mouth? Is there a crack of a bone breaking? What’s going on her head? Providing both external and internal images and feelings allow readers to experience the action along with the protagonist. Plus, by keeping a close in view (think of it as pulling a camera in close) you heighten tension. The protagonist may not know what happened to her partner or the person she’s trying to protect. There may be so many attackers or so much going on that she can’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

Something to watch out for is balance. Action scenes are great. They’re necessary in stories, but they must be balanced out by other scenes. If there are too many action scenes, or if the action scene stretches on too long, readers will skim the scene in order to find out what happens.

For clarity in action scenes, why not try blocking them out? Use your friends and/or family. Have them each take on the role of a character and stage them in a room or backyard. Move them around as you would actors or chess pieces. This will help you visualize the scene and will allow you to hear input from your friends/family about whether or not they think a character’s movements are realistic.

Remember each character, no matter how small of a role they play, have motivations, dreams, fears, and goals. Their movements, especially in tension-filled action scenes reflect all those things.

What’s the most important part of an action scene to you?

(Photos courtesy of Yellow Hall StudioJeremy Epstein, and Reeling.)