A couple of months ago, a writer posted a problem on the WU Facebook page. A character who would play a major role in her plot’s climax didn’t show up until the second half of the novel. This meant they never got a chance to know the character well enough given her place in the story, which made her more of a plot device than a person. The problem was, if the author introduced her earlier, the ending would lose some of its shock value because readers would guess the character was going to figure into it somehow. Otherwise, why would she be there?
Stories are artificial, with a carefully constructed internal architecture, each piece relying on the others, all of them there for a reason. And readers are aware of that. Sure, they’re willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world of a story as if it were real life. But they’re still aware of the structure behind the story, even if they’re not conscious of it.
Normally, this isn’t a problem. If your characters are engaging enough, readers are willing to forgive you a plot whose bones show through from time to time. But the more your readers notice your plot architecture, the harder it is to suspend disbelief. The most effective stories are completely transparent, with readers blithely unaware of the author’s behind-the-scenes manipulations. How do you get your story to that level? How do you give an essentially artificial construct the organic feel of real life?
The most effective way is to watch and listen to your characters as you write. When you let your events arise out of their personalities and desires, the story they lead you into will feel more authentic. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of clients who became clients because their characters led their stories right into the woods – plots that rambled, doubled back, and ended up nowhere, as often happens real life. I suspect that many overly literary stories have their stereotypical flaw — engaging, beautifully drawn characters to whom nothing much happens – because the writers want to capture real life and avoid the gauche artificiality of an actual plot.
But if you want to tell an effective story with your characters, or if you still haven’t developed the depth of imagination you need to follow your characters wherever they go, then how do you get a plot that moves along so naturally that readers feel they’re watching real life unfold? [Read more…]