The Good Seed III

PhotobucketYou know how in relationships everything you need to know was, in retrospect, revealed in the first twenty-four hours? It’s the same in pitch sessions. Everything important is revealed in the first twenty-four seconds.

Ask the question, what’s your novel about? One of two things happens. Either a numbing blow-by-blow plot summary begins or you hear a statement of theme that’s both vague and grand. My novel’s about life!

Uh-huh.

Plot summarizers may have lots of story to relate but they can have a hard time saying what that story means. Theme ministers may have high aspirations but the impact of their pages usually is low. Both would benefit from the third principle of premise development, but each needs to try a different approach.

Here, then, is the third principle of premise development: turn problems into characters. Or, conversely, grow through your characters the conflicts that will make your story universal.

Characters embody conflicts that everyone knows. Envision this character: mother-in-law. What do you immediately imagine? Meddling, nosy, clingy, pushy. I’m against stereotypes, as you know if you’ve taken my workshops, but this one illustrates my point. Characters stand for something. Magnify it and make it more obvious and your story will have greater impact. Reverse your readers’ expectations of what a character stands for and you’ll have a character they’ll never forget.

You can enact this technique the opposite way. Say that you want your story to be about life! Well, you can immediately see the flaw in that idea. It isn’t specific enough. What particular aspect of life is, for you, the most interesting, challenging or painful? Start there. That’s the core conflict.

Let’s say that conflict is wanting an environmental law career when your mother-in-law wants a grandkid. What forces tug your heroine in two directions? Two instincts: killer and maternal. To generate story events each force needs a champion. Hand out briefs, assignments or a mission. Story happens and your theme (life!) becomes active. From her firm’s fearsome senior partner your heroine will learn the depth of a father’s love; from her mother-in-law your heroine will learn the tactics of red-in-tooth-and-claw victory.

Here are some ways to embody problems in your characters, or to have your characters enact universal conflicts:

  • List your cast. Make each the embodiment of an idea or principle. Don’t tell the reader. Instead create moments in the story so strong that your reader will know, without being told, what each character stands for.
  • Pick a character who’s in danger of being a stereotype. List things associated with the stereotype, especially a way of interacting with people. As your story begins, demonstrate the stereotype. By the end reverse it in that character.
  • List your themes. Express each as a human conflict. For each side, appoint a character to represent it in the courtroom of your story. What is each character’s shining Atticus Finch moment?
  • What’s the biggest emotion you want your readers to feel? Which character in your story feels it the most? Who feels it the least? Work until each feels, at least in one moment, like the other does.

Stories are not about ideas they’re about people. Or–? Maybe people in stories have the most impact when they stand for ideas. Whether your inclination is to be obvious or to be artful, the characters in your stories will stick in your readers’ minds when you do more with them, and when what they do carries meaning.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Neal.

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

Comments

  1. says

    My critique editor asked the question at least four times and in four ways. “What do your characters want?” It was as if she was talking to a kindergartener. Deservedly – I was being as stubborn as one. (And I’m embarrassed to say this was after reading Writing the Breakout Novel. I thought I knew, but I still couldn’t clearly articulate what any of them really wanted.)

    I tell this story because once she forced me to actually do the work of examining what they wanted and articulating it, the conflict was laid bare in such a new way. It was embodied in the primary characters. What each wanted was in direct opposition to what another wanted. Sounds simple, but it was really illuminating… for a writing kindergartener, anyway.

    The character is the conflict. Another zen-like lesson. A good seed, indeed. Thanks.

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  2. says

    It’s amazing how easy it seems to describe your story in vague terms in your head, until you try it out loud and realise everything sounds confusing and you spot that “I see…but not really” look on the listener’s face. I definitely need to follow these points, particularly on what each character stands for. Thanks for this brilliant advice.

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  3. says

    Don,
    Your posts are always so helpful. What you said about characters embodying ideas resonates with me. It makes it so much easier to draft dialogue and create realistic scenes with genuine conflicts when the writer has characters who are rooted in ideas, especially conflicting ones. Thanks again!

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    • says

      CG, you could conceptualize characters in lots of ways (say, as animals, mythical archetypes, etc.) but your’re right: the point is to get them in opposition to each other.

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  4. says

    I really struggle with this idea of boiling my story down to just a few powerful sentences. As I suspected, the real root of the problem often lies in the story itself.

    The concept of theme and how to present it without standing on a soapbox and bashing readers over the head while a violin plays in the background can seem so daunting. You just made it incredibly simple. Thank you!

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    • says

      Roxanne-

      I find that anything that looks hard, for instance “voice”, can get a lot easier when you let your characters to it for you.

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  5. says

    I got off track yesterday when I realized that for half a page, my protagonist/amateur sleuth and the sheriff’s detective were actually being nice to each other. No, no, no! When I remembered the old conflict between them, and what each wanted, and got brave enough to scrap the page and let their conflict and desires drive new story action — well, I got a much stronger scene. And that led to the next scene, and … .

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  6. says

    I just got the title of your posts! I’m a little slow, I guess. :)

    Wonderful help as usual! I am in the process of starting novel number two, and I only have characters and a general feeling of what I want the novel to be about. I’m going to be using the suggestions you listed in your post to develop the story.

    First, though, I need to go back and print out the Good Seed series, and reread them all!

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  7. says

    I love talking characters!! Since my books are fairy tale retellings…I’m always conscious of the stereotypes…I’m working with archetypes all the time: Stepmother, Prince Charming, Wicked Queen, etc. There’s a balance between following the stereotype and going too far in the other direction…making the stepmother into an angel or demonizing the prince. I strive to muddle all of my characters, but especially these familiar ones. Let the reader hate the good guys and love the bad guys. :)

    Thanks for the great post!

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  8. says

    “Stories are not about ideas they’re about people.”

    It took me so long to realize this, but once I did, there’s no going back!

    And you’re 100% right on not wanting to use stereotypes but still needing to understand their use. Great article!

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    • says

      Bronson-

      I was a bit concerned about raising this approach to characters, as it might seem to promote stereotypes. I don’t mean that, of course, but I do find that many characters in manuscripts don’t have a strong idea behind them. That’s something to work on.

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  9. says

    So much goodness!

    “List your cast. Make each the embodiment of an idea or principle. Don’t tell the reader. Instead create moments in the story so strong that your reader will know, without being told, what each character stands for.”

    Yes. Love that. At first glance it might seem like a rigid way of doing things, but if I look back on most of my favorite stories, I can boil down the characters to their essence, and then see how all those different essences interacted and/or conflicted with one another to create the story.

    “Stories are not about ideas they’re about people. Or–? Maybe people in stories have the most impact when they stand for ideas.”

    Aha!

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    • says

      Kristan-

      Love to see that” “Aha!” Also appreciate your frequent comments here on WU. Makes this feel like my dream neighborhood.

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  10. says

    Yes. As with pitches, where many of us writers get befuddled, we may forget some of our goals along the way to 80,000-ish words. You did a good job of boiling these concepts down in a way I can relate to.

    Of course we want to write about specific, believable people who have universal struggles… getting it all spilled out of our minds and onto the paper/computer is the challenge. I think you’ve given us some helpful tools. Thanks!

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  11. says

    “Maybe people in stories have the most impact when they stand for ideas.”

    Absolutely. Just like in real life: People who stand for ideas are the ones who have the most impact on us.

    Conversely, if a person – or a character – doesn’t stand for anything, how can we really care about them?

    Great stuff, Don. But I’m still pissed off at you, because you keep sharing insights that make me realize the thing I’m working on isn’t good enough yet. Bastard.

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  12. says

    Once again, you’ve created a very useful technique that I’m going to have to use in revisions. A few of my secondary characters in my current WIP may be in danger of being stereotypes, particularly the friendly doctor and the gruff government guy. I’ll be sure to analyze their actions and see if there are ways I can reverse any problems! And I’m already getting ideas about giving some of my other characters even more depth by looking at what they do or could represent.

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  13. says

    Crumb. Had I only been privy to your insights before I wrote my pitch, I would have saved myself months and many lousy drafts.

    This is a post I will keep for novel number two . . . though like Keith Cronin, I’m miffed that you are so good at forcing me to remember the basics that I always manage to forget. It’s embarrassing.

    Still, thank you.

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  14. says

    For the longest time after my debut sold I dreaded the question, “What’s your book about?” even though I should have welcomed the interest! Wish I’d had these tips long ago, Don, but I’ll benefit from them moving forward. Thanks!

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  15. says

    Thanks, Donald!

    My next book debuts August 1 and I’ve been wondering about that all-important ‘elevator pitch’ to proclaim in the 15 seconds I’m allotted when folks will say, “So, what’s this new book about?”

    Now I’m going to put my conflict into a couple of sentences that show what’s ‘universla’ about it!

    You always give me a very useful tool in your blogs.

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  16. Denise Willson says

    Thank you, Don. I’m knee deep in your workbook, and you’d chuckle to know I see you as Yoda floating three feet from the mossy earth, walking stick in gnarled hand. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  17. ABE says

    I was sure someone would comment about the part of your post I found most fascinating: “You know how in relationships everything you need to know was, in retrospect, revealed in the first twenty-four hours?”

    Sometimes the insight comes AFTER the inspiration: this is exactly what I’m doing, and that is why it feels right. The first chapter should catch those 24 hours, and plant every one of the seeds necessary later, and the last chapter has to be the bookend to the first – and show the harvest.

    I guess it is better to do this, and not realize exactly what I’m doing, than the other way around, but it is nice to have the words for it.

    Thanks!

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  18. says

    To me, characters mean more than anything else. A powerful plot falls flat if I don’t have the characters to carry it off. I like to think of characters as people I know and develop them based on what I have seen and observed- in others.

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  19. says

    I’ve learned that many times people ask this to be polite or because they are interested in you even if they will never read your book *laugh* So, as I just told someone on WU-FB, I just say one little sentence and if they nod or say “cool” or whatever and the conversation goes on to other things, then I’m off the hook :-D but if they are interested in the book(s), they then ask me other questions and we go from there. It’s been the best thing ever . . . took lots of pressure off.

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