Tag Archives: 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.)

Antagonists: Protagonists from a Different View

 

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Antagonists. They’re usually not likeable. In fact, in most novels they’re hated by both characters and readers. But antagonists play a central part in fiction. Without them, there’d be no story.

An antagonist is the person who opposes the protagonist, the hero of the story. They’re the villain. The anti-hero. The bad guy.

The antagonist provides conflict.

More importantly, antagonists are the characters that keep people reading. If an antagonist isn’t well written or clear, then the stakes – the tension – isn’t defined.

You might say, “Well, wait a second. I care about what happens to the hero, not the villain.”

Great! However, if there was no threat to the hero, then how would you feel? You care about the protagonist because he is being threatened in some way, and thus has obstacles he must overcome to survive.

So, how do you go about writing a phenomenal antagonist?

For starters, remember that antagonists are real people. They’ve got a backstory, desires, ambitions, etc. They’re not just plot devices. In other words, character drives plot. The antagonist influences the actions and events within a story based on what he wants, and what he wants is the opposite of what the protagonist wants.

Another way to look at antagonists is to see the world through their eyes. To the outside observer, the antagonist is the bad guy, but to the antagonist he’s the good guy, while the protagonist is the antagonist. Crazy, right?

By looking at the world through the antagonist’s viewpoint, you can better grasp the antagonist as a person. The antagonist will become more of a rounded character, instead of a flat character used solely to move the plot along.

What’s fantastic about round characters is that they often fall into the gray zone located between the black and white poles you see in comic books and cartoons, or really any superhero movie.

The gray zone is a lot more interesting than black and white.

Think about some of your favorite antagonists. Darth Vader? Hannibal Lecter? Voldemort? Iago? Long John Silver? Norman Bates? Count Dracula? Annie Wilkes? Humbert Humbert? Nurse Ratched? Others?

Why do they stand out above the rest?

If nothing else, it’s because they make you feel strong emotions. You probably love hating them, or you hate that you love them. Maybe it’s a bit of both. (There are some novels I finished solely because I loved the antagonist, and though I couldn’t stand that I was more interested in the antagonist than the protagonist – guilty conscience for rooting for the bad guy – I was conflicted about seeing the antagonist lose in the end. I didn’t want to see the antagonist go because I wanted more.)

The antagonist doesn’t have to be a character. An idea, like racism, a natural disaster, like a hurricane or disease, an organization, like the NSA or some private bioengineering firm, can all act as antagonists. Think about slavery. That is a huge antagonist.

Bottom line: spend time on developing your antagonist. They’re vital to the story, and when something is a critical component, it can make or break a novel.

Got any antagonists you found yourself rooting for?

(Photo courtesy of Cynthia.)

That Sagging Middle: What You Can Get Away With & What You Can’t in the Middle of a Novel

There’s so much focus on writing phenomenal beginnings and endings for novels. You have to hook readers right away and then leave them with their mouths hanging open at the end (in a good way). But what about the middle section of a novel? You know the one I’m talking about…it takes up the majority of the story.

I’ve read more novels than I’d like where the action in the middle of the story seems to come to a standstill. There was an amazing, fast-paced opening, where I was whipping through pages, but then, BAM! We hit the brakes, skidded off the road, and are in a ditch, waiting for the tow truck.

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Ah, nap time.

Eventually, there’s an incredible ending, but the middle nearly made me throw the book out a window a la “Silver Linings Playbook” style.

Let me first talk about what you can get away with in the middle chapters:

  • The pace can slow down, a bit. There can be pauses in the action, where backstory gets filled in because you’ve already set up the story’s cadence, chapter length, tension, etc. at the start of the novel.
  • You can have fun in the middle section. Just because the pace slows down doesn’t mean tension does. You can expand on readers’ expectations by complicating expectations, adding a twist, turning them upside down, and more. As long as the bread crumbs remain consistent, feel free to play around.
  • The middle orients readers more to the story.
  • As with all well-written slower scenes, they prepare readers for what’s coming next. The urgency ratchets up in the following scenes, and we know the preceding slower scene is leading to all hell breaking loose.
  • The middle shows the stakes characters are facing.
  • The middle chapters are what make things real and believable, especially with character interactions/relationships.

Now on to what you can’t get away with:

  • Letting the tension slide. Yes, your protagonist is in training, preparing to fight the big battle. But readers tire of hearing who was wearing what, how many girls hate the protagonist because she’s somehow more special than them, how petite the protagonist is, how the protagonist is torn between lovers, etc. Get to the battle, please. Better yet, make us believe we’ve reached the final, balls-to-the-wall battle, and then throw in an even bigger, more badass battle afterward.
  • Information dump. Don’t pile on information. Backstory is important, but as with the beginning and ending readers don’t want to be told everything. We want to experience it. Make the information an active part of a story. As the protagonist is climbing a mountain – real or metaphorical – make the backstory applicable to present day events.
  • Having too narrow of a focus. Novels are long. They have only one main plot, but there are several smaller plotlines. And let’s not forget that our goal as writers is to make it seem impossible for the protagonist to achieve his goals. Adding variety and mixing it up breathes new life into an otherwise stagnant middle section.
  • Leaving in the boring sections. If you’re reading your own writing and want to put it down, imagine how readers, agents, and editors will feel. Axe the boring bits. Either replace them with something more exciting or just get rid of them. There’s only so much philosophical musings readers can take.

What do you do to keep the excitement flowing in your middle chapters?

(Photo courtesy of Devon Cottages.)

That Freaking Mountain: Plot Structure

In it’s most basic terms plot is what describes the structure of a story. It’s the arrangement of events within a novel.

Why’s plot so important? Well, without it, there’d be no story.

How about plot structure? If the plot isn’t structured correctly, then the story falls flat.

Many people describe plot structure as a mountain. That’s the best way to describe it. If you look at Freytag’s Pyramid, you’ll see his multi-point system. (I bet it’ll look familiar.)

*Gustav Freytag was a German novelist. He saw similarities in successful stories and diagrammed a story’s plot to reflect those similarities.

Here’s his pyramid:

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Below I’ve expanded on the points included on the pyramid:

  1. Exposition: Setting the scene. This is the start of the story, where the main characters and setting are introduced. Description and background are also provided. The exposition shows how things are before the action begins.
  2. Inciting Incident: Something happens to start the action. The inciting incident occurs between the exposition and the rising action. It’s a single event that starts the ball rolling. Without it, the characters would continue along in the exposition part of the story. Sometimes the inciting incident is called ‘the complication.’
  3. Rising Action: Where the tension increases. This is the series of conflicts leading to the climax, where the story gets more exciting and where the stakes keeping getting raised.
  4. Climax: Moment of greatest tension within the story. The climax is the turning point, the most intense moment of a novel. This is what the rising action was leading to.
  5. Falling Action: Decreasing tension. The falling action includes the events following the climax. Everything that happens in the falling action section is a result of the climax and readers know that the story will soon reach its conclusion.
  6. Resolution: The main problem is solved. The resolution is between the falling action and the denouement.
  7. Denouement: The end. This is the section of a novel where any lingering questions, secrets, etc. are answered. The denouement is often tied up with the resolution, but this concluding section is the final explanation of what happened. It’s the moment where the characters express their emotions about what happened, including events during the resolution, and their reaction(s) to how they’ve changed during the course of the novel.

There’s another version of Freytag’s Pyramid. This one is more commonly used today because it’s more effective. All the parts are still the same, however what’s changed is the length of those parts.

A modified version of Freytag’s Pyramid:

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In this version of Freytag’s Pyramid, the rising action has increased, while the falling action has decreased. This difference is important because tension keeps readers interested. The more rising action you have, the better. You want the decreasing tension (falling action) to be less than the increasing tension (rising action). Once the climax occurs, nothing else can surpass it.

You can have false climaxes, where the characters are led to believe everything is over and has worked out in some way or another, but you want your true climax to be much closer to the end of the novel than the beginning.

Think of it this way, if you have a 50,000 word book, you want 40-45,000 of those words to come before the climax. Then, the climax itself should last for at least a chapter (depending on how long your chapters are). The remaining word count is left for the falling action, resolution, and denouement.

If this seems like a lot, don’t worry. Manuscripts are never perfect the first time through. Most aren’t ready by the fifth time through either. Get everything written down. Get your story onto paper. Let your madman (inner creative child) go wild. The judge (your inner critic) can come out later.

How much do you take plot structure into account when you write?