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Don’t Accidentally Give Your Characters a Time Out

photo by Tobias Leeger via Flickr
photo by Tobias Leeger [1] via Flickr

Pop quiz: Where do your characters go when they aren’t in the scene you’re writing? Are they pacing in the greenroom? Maybe chowing down at the snack table, catching a quick nap, or binge watching old episodes of Murder She Wrote on Netflix while waiting for their next cue. Or – and this is the most likely – have you inadvertently pressed the pause button, and sent them into stasis? As in, out of sight, out of mind.

After all you have so much on your mind – you’re focused first and foremost on the scene you’re writing. In fact, you may be so focused on what your protagonist is doing, that even the secondary characters right there on the page have blurred a bit. They’re no longer specific people, but representatives of a general category: mom, dad, BFF, sibling, co-worker. Uh oh.

A gifted writer I work with had that habit. Whenever her protagonist, Tess, appeared in a scene with her parents, Tess remained vivid and driven, but her parents turned bland and generic. When asked what was going on, the writer said, “Well, that’s how most parents I know act during a family dinner – so it’s totally believable.” But it wasn’t believable at all, because it wasn’t what Tess’s parents would have done; in fact, it wasn’t what anyone who had a specific past would have done — and sheesh, we all have a specific past, every last one of us. Ditto each and every character we create.

So in order to figure what actually would have happened at that family dinner, the writer had to plumb Tess’s parents’ story-specific pasts in order to unearth what, exactly, they would have done, and far more importantly, why they might have done it. This didn’t simply apply to that one scene in question, but to everything they did throughout the novel. Which, in turn, changed a bit of what Tess herself did, because now the writer had a much better handle on the situation Tess was dealing with, who she was, and how she saw the world.

The work the writer did to give her characters well-developed, story-specific agendas was invaluable, because now she had reliable, sturdy guidelines, enabling her to both create and track the arc of all their storylines – scene by scene — throughout the novel.

Which brings us right back to the question we started with: Where do these well-developed, story-specific characters go, and how do they keep themselves busy, when they’re not in the current scene?

The answer is amazingly simple: just like out here in real life, they do everything they can to achieve their agenda. The only difference between real life and a story, is that in real life people do a whole lot more than strive to fulfill one agenda – they eat, sleep, argue with the cable company over the movie the were billed for that they never ordered, and they spend way too much time checking their email (if I’m any indication). You don’t care about that when it comes to your characters. What you do care about is the action they take to put their story-specific plans into motion, as they attempt to achieve their story-specific goal.

For instance:

The point is: not only do these secondary characters keep themselves busy, but off the page they’re doing things that directly affect what is happening on the page, things that will affect the protagonist both in the present and in future scenes.

This is especially true in thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, and any novel with even a hint of intrigue. Which basically boils down to just about every novel.

The problem is that it is maddeningly easy to lose track of characters who aren’t in the scene you’re writing. It’s something a brilliant writer I work with was struggling with recently. She’s writing a multi-generational historical novel that unfolds in 17th century China, and involves myriad levels of ongoing political and social intrigue.

But because writers are seldom taught to figure out what characters are doing when they’re not on the page, she was so focused on the scenes she was writing, that she rarely gave a second thought to the characters who weren’t present. When she thought about them at all, it was in general. As in: the prince is plotting revenge; the emperor’s estranged head wife is working to undermine her successor; the youngest brother of the emperor is planning to lead a coup against him in the future. But she hadn’t thought about what the prince was plotting, or how he was carrying it out. She didn’t know what the estranged wife was up to, or how the younger brother was arranging this coup. In other words, there was no specifics, thus no action, thus no clue where danger lay, and so, basically, no danger. No intrigue. No story.

Because how could her protagonist walk into a trap, if no one was actually laying a trap? How could her protagonist figure out what was going on, if nothing was going on? The answer is simple, he couldn’t. And therein lies the irony: the scenes she was writing, although each and every one was extremely well written, were flat. Because nothing was ever at stake, nor was there a concrete consequence looming. No one had a real, specific agenda, and so no one actually did anything. And so the things that did happen were situational, episodic, and surface. They couldn’t be anything else, because there was nothing going on beneath the surface.

But – and this was so exciting – the minute that writer began to focus on what was happening off the page, the things that happened on the page began to take on a sense of urgency that now makes it hard to put her pages down. And just as important, it energized her and gave her a renewed sense of confidence, because she could see where her story was going.

So, the question is: with so many interwoven storylines, how do you keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why?

The answer: before you write any scene, make a list of the other storylines that are playing out off the page, and ask yourself: what is happening in each of these subplots right now, in real time? What are these characters actually doing? Specifically? Plan it out just as fully as you will plan out the scene you’re about to write. Jot it down, so that you can track it throughout the novel.

The good news is that once you’ve begun to spin these storylines – meaning: make them specific, so that things are actually happening off the page – they soon begin to unfold almost on their own. And best yet, you are aware of it every step of the way.

After all, everyone in our lives – our beloved, our children, our pets, our nemesis – is up to something every minute of every day, just like we are. But in real life, we have to imagine what they’re doing (and heavens knows we’re often embarrassingly wrong). The beauty of being a writer is that you know what all your characters are doing at all times, and just as crucial, you know why. Or at least, you should.

What about you: What do you do to keep track of what your characters are doing when they’re off the page – you know, just to make sure they’re not slacking, eating way too many barbecue potato chips at the craft services table, waiting to get called back onto the page?

About Lisa Cron [2]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [3] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [4] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [5]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [6] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [7]