You know the old saying, “What you see is what you get”? In a story the opposite is true. What you see is the surface – the plot, the structure, the words. What you get is what’s beneath the surface – it’s what gives the surface its real meaning. That’s what stories are actually about.
After all, we understand the surface world. It’s clear, it’s physical, and it’s what you’re sitting in right now. What we really want to know is how to best navigate that world, and the means understanding its inner workings. We don’t simply care that a character did something – that’s the surface world; what we really care about is why they did it. Which is why stories aren’t about what people say out loud, they’re about what people are really thinking while they’re saying it. We come to stories to get the inside scoop.
Thus as writers, it’s crucial to know what that scoop is: for every character, in every scene. And therein likes the secret of spinning a compelling story. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar believes that the key to becoming a good writer – and why good writers are so rare – is the ability to keep track of what several people are thinking at the same time, along with what’s really true, and, what the reader believes is true.
The thing is, keeping track of everyone’s agenda is hard enough in real life, plus we always have that great excuse: “Hey, I’m not a mind reader you know!” But when you’re writing a story you’re held to a much higher standard. You really do have to know everything, including what other people are thinking.
What the reader assumes you, the writer, know:
You know the big picture. You’re aware of what’s really going on, objectively, in the world where your story takes place. You also know what each character thinks is going on, subjectively, which is often a very different thing indeed. Remember, we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. Which means that each of your characters sees a very different world — a world that’s shaped and colored by their own desires, fears and longstanding beliefs. Thus they’re often at cross-purposes — with each other, and with the facts. That’s a good thing, because it begets suspense and the mounting conflict that drives the story forward. Provided, that is, that you know exactly where each character is right, where they’re wrong, and where they’re completely misreading what’s going on.
The trouble is, it’s very easy to lose sight of bits and pieces of who really believes what. When we do, the story tends to go off the rails and come to a dull, grinding halt. For instance, imagine if in Act V, Scene 3, Shakespeare forgot that in Romeo’s world Juliet really is dead as a doornail. Romeo would have ambled into her crypt, killed a couple of minutes waiting for her to wake up, and they’d have lived happily ever after, totally ruining one of the most heart-wrenching, audience-pleasing tragedies ever staged.
So, what’s a writer to do? Luckily, there are two nifty ways you can make sure that none of your characters’ beliefs, fears, or misperceptions slip under your radar.
First, here are five questions to ask of every scene, whether you’re about to write it, or hunkering down for the umpteenth rewrite:
- What is actually happening in your story’s “real world” — that is, objectively?
- What does each character believe is going on?
- Where are what the character believes, and what’s true, at odds? Keep in mind, this doesn’t just apply to factual information the character may have wrong, it also applies to the mistaken motivation they assign to others. For instance, Jane’s heartbroken, believing that Mike’s ignoring her because he doesn’t like her, but it’s really because his old girlfriend Betsy threatened that if he so much as smiles at Jane, she’ll tell everyone he cheated off her in chemistry, and he’s sure if his beloved Jane finds out he cheated, she’ll hate him.
- Given what each character believes is true (as opposed to what’s actually true), how would they act in the scene? And digging even deeper, how would they then misread the motives and actions of others?
- Does each and every character’s action make sense, given what he or she believes is true?
You’ll be shocked how often you’ll discover that a character has gone rogue, and is doing something totally out of character, simply because you were focused on a different aspect of the scene. Just like in life, when you’re so focused on how much your daughter wants a puppy that you completely forget that your husband is terrified of dogs. Except in real life you’d then have to deal with the consequences (which weren’t fun, let me tell you). Whereas in a story, should you forget that the protagonist’s husband is afraid of dogs, there would be no consequence. Which is precisely the problem.
One way to avoid this problem entirely brings us to the second way you can keep your story on track.
Charting “Who Knows What, When”
This can be fun, and you might break out a big ‘ol pad of paper and a few of markers to do it. Since there will be no real writing involved, treating it as an art project might even trick that hyper-critical editor’s voice in your head into taking a nice refreshing nap while you play for a while.
The first thing to do is make an overarching, scene-by-scene timeline of the external events – the plot – the stuff that happens. That is, the objective, surface world of your story. Think of it as the airplane-flying-over-the-field view.
Underneath this timeline, make a corresponding timeline for each major character, charting what they believe is true in each scene. So, for instance, in the case of Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene 3 might look like this:
PLOT (aka what actually happens): Juliet eagerly gulps the draught that will put her in a temporary death-like coma. Happily closing her eyes she dozes off, knowing that when she awakens, Romeo will be there and they’ll run off together with no one the wiser.
ROMEO (aka what Romeo believes is happening): Romeo learns from his faithful servant Balthazar that Juliet is dead. He races to her crypt and sees her “corpse” with his own eyes. After commenting on how surprisingly lifelike she looks (oh, the irony!), he takes out his dagger and promptly exits this earthly plane for real.
Thus these side-by-side timelines will not only reveal exactly where and when characters are at cross purposes, but also help you make sure your characters’ reactions are in accordance with what they believe is true in the moment.
The final overarching timeline you need to chart tracks the reader’s point of view. To do that, ask yourself what the reader believes is happening in each and every scene. How much of the truth do they know? What might they believe is true that isn’t? What don’t they know because you’re going to reveal it later, that the characters do know? This is a place where writers tend to mess up big time. They forget that when they’re keeping something secret from the reader, the characters can’t act as if they don’t know it either. In fact, often it’s what’s driving their action, and the very thing they’d be fretting over most.
And don’t forget the flipside: What does the reader know that the characters don’t? It might be a little, it might be a lot – and often it’s the very thing that keeps them riveted. After all, a huge part of the thrill of reading is knowing what’s in store for the protagonist, anticipating what she’ll do when she finds out, and rooting for her every step of the way.
While this might seem like an enormous amount of work now, it’s much easier to pinpoint these things on a chart, in advance, than it is in prose. Not to mention the amount of rewriting time it can cut down on – and how often can you say that about anything in the writing process?
Once you’ve made your chart, tack it on the wall where you can see it when you write. Sure you might revise it as you go, but think of it as your story’s anchor. It takes all those abstract concepts and the bits and pieces of who knows what, when, and holds them in place, making them concrete, clear and accessible. You’ll always know what your characters are up to — when they’re trying to pull a fast one, when they’re on the up and up, and when they’re so clueless that they totally miss what’s actually happening. Think of it as a multi-layed cheat sheet.
Sheesh. Imagine if we had one in real life?
Image via Flickr by Daniel Dimarco