Posts Tagged plots
If you’re old enough to remember the TV series Charlie’s Angels, there was always a scene about halfway through where our feisty gals recapped everything they knew about the current case.
Crass though it sounds when described like that, viewers were probably grateful.
There are two reasons. First of all, it can provide a welcome breather from the hurly-burly – especially if the rest of the time has been spent in breathless danger. No matter how exciting your plot, readers can only take so much before they get numbed and will welcome a lull where everyone can relax.
Second – more obviously – it’s useful if you’ve got a complicated plot with lots of twists, turns, red herrings, thrills and spills. By having a ‘you are here’ moment, it lets the reader refocus on what’s been learned and what the stakes are.
But this can easily descend into exposition – explaining information for the sake of the audience in a way that seems unnatural. It can also be a yawn if it doesn’t move matters on in some way. Of course, your characters could spot a missing link or a deadline, which would galvanise everyone. But there are plenty of other ways to give this kind of scene more pizzazz.
I saw the ‘let’s get it straight’ scene deployed very nicely in a manuscript I recently critiqued. Two characters who had been thrown together in a dangerous investigation found themselves with time to breathe – and to discuss what they should do about the trouble they were in. Also, the trust this had built up was leading to an intriguing sizzle between them. By this time, we’d have happily watched them discuss their laundry lists, because we were really reading their reactions.
Cementing a friendship
In Dark Lord : The Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson, the mysterious main character Dirk explains for the first time where he’s really from and what he’s trying to do. This is the first time he’s taken his friends into his confidence – and we’re waiting to see their reaction.
Planting seeds obliquely
In Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey is trying to clear Harriet Vane of murder. Half-way through there’s a scene where he reluctantly visits his family for Christmas and they talk about the case and what they think about Harriet (deft use of a recap, as Peter Wimsey doesn’t want to be there). They also talk about another family member who is – perhaps daringly- marrying a Jewish girl, which draws our attention to love across boundaries. It also plants the seeds for (spoiler alert!) his ultimate proposal to Harriet.
Or you could be delightfully silly, like this scene from Carry On Screaming where the detectives list their clues and stand back to learn from the result.
Thanks for the top pic, wolfgangfoto
The ‘let’s get this straight’ scene is often necessary to keep an audience on track with a complex plot, but it can do so much more. Do you have any examples of it, good or clumsy? Share in the comments!
A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?
The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.
Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.
(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)
Not just novice writers
But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.
So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?
Because we like it that way
For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.
The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.
Stories are not like life
So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.
With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.
1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.
2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.
Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.
Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?