Plots · Writer basics 101

If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.

Being killed or falling in love

In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.

But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.

Finding the murderer

In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.

When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.

In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)

Fight scenes

Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.

What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.

Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)

Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.

A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.

Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity

Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!

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24 thoughts on “If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

  1. mm, two of my very favourite scenes – the wrong house in Silence of the Lambs is perfectly constructed (and in the film, the way the two houses are constantly intercut is an object lesson) and Batty’s death scene is one of the most powerful there is – completing an arc is a very good way of putting it.

    This is a topic I really struggle with – sometimes the more you make your characters work, the less natural it feels – the obstacles have to be believable to work, they have to grow out of the characters and be appropriate to them, and finding that balance is incredibly hard

    1. Hey, Dan – I remembered to put Blade Runner in this time! Any excuse, actually.
      Yes, I remember the cross-cutting in Silence of the Lambs. It’s one of the features a film can do well and a novel can’t – although I know that with rule-breakers like you around I perhaps shouldn’t say that.

      You make an interesting point about the flipside of this principle. I’m racking my brains as I’m sure there are some stories where the relentless difficulties the characters encounter get a bit too much after a while. Some that spring to mind are Gary Jennings’s novel Aztec, where the main character seems to have the most appalling bad luck. And Thomas Hardy’s novels seem to pile on the remorseless bad fortune to the extent that I find myself thinking ‘surely THIS isn’t going to go wrong…. oh yes it is’. That’s the universe of the story of course, but I still find it a bit much.

      1. I think romance novels do this the worst/most. There are always (over the course of the story) “too many obstacles” in the way of the primary love interests.

        The two protagonists hate each other at the beginning, then come to like each other, then realize they’re attracted to each other. And then things are blossoming and WHAM! something pushes them apart. Then they get past that, and you’d think they’d realize that the other person really does like them, but no, WHAM! Something else pushes them apart. (Usually stupid misunderstandings and other hard-to-believe circumstances.)

        I always feel jerked around by the author. So I stopped reading romances.

        1. Teddi, I don’t read many romances, but what you’re probably seeing there is the genre tail wagging the story dog. It has to jump through these hoops and so the characters are pushed this way and that. Intelligent readers spot there’s something fake -you mentioned that you felt jerked around, so you lost faith in the story. Better writers should be able to hit their genre spots without making you feel cheated.
          The ‘stupid misunderstandings’ problem is probably the stock-in-trade of a romance writer who’s trying to stretch the story too far. And I just finished reading Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone – not a genre novel but literary fiction. Many crucial decisions the character made seemed to be because she was an unbelievably difficult person who was determined to make life hard for herself. I had trouble believing in her extreme motivations because they seemed contrived, which resulted in her making herself rather miserable, and the more miserable she got, the more I felt like putting her on a ducking stool. What I was really objecting to, though, was the feeling that the author was pushing her around.

  2. Great article!

    One big example for me would be the early Rocky movies – you see what the Protagonist is up against externally (the other fighter) and what he has to deal with emotionally (internally), his own flaws and the flaws of those around him.
    Similarly in stories like The Fellowship of The Ring – why didn’t they just fly gryphons to Mordor? It important for magic to have rules to keep victories happening solely for the plot.
    I hope you have a great week!

    1. Lance, those are terrific examples. Rocky’s battle won’t just be to train hard enough – the writer has control over that. But put other people into the mix and some internal demons too and the conflict shapes up much better.
      And funny you should mention rules in worlds with magic. I’m just writing a piece about that for the next Nail Your Novel book. Fantasy, SF and magic all need rules for precisely the reasons you mention – because otherwise absolutely anything could happen.

  3. OH! Roz! I’m reading mountains of Simenon right now. I’m collecting his Maigrets, particularly in that great art nouveau series (early ’70s?). I have a new bio of him too–in which they show a photo of his calendar and claim he reserved eight days to write a book and three to revise.

    O, for the luxury of relying on your publisher’s editor, eh?

    1. Victoria, how funny! Dave got to the Simenon before me. I’m wrestling with Jane Eyre at the moment (and I have a few things to say to Ms Bronte, come to think of it…) So Simenon is on the TBR pile.

      Eight days? DAYS?

    1. I read about an author once who wrote his (brief) novels in 11 days. He’d get a check-up from his doctor first to make sure he’d survive each time.

      I know sort of a lot about the Brontes. Charlotte was some piece of work. And there was Emily, a certified literary genius. Have you read her Gondal poems? Do you know they had to be pieced together decades after they all died because the last thing Emily did before her death was burn all her writing so Charlotte couldn’t get her greasy little hands on it?

      Now the Gondal poems exist, but only in tantalizing and contradictory fragments.

      1. Also I screwed up and replied to the wrong comment. I have the sneaking suspicion I’ve done this before.

      2. Wow – I knew nothing about the background of the Bronte sisters! I guess it shows even great writers have family problems! Thanks so much. 😀

          1. lol – It’s odd to think that such ‘classical’ writers could live lives that some of our modern pop stars would feel quite at home in.

      3. I imagine life in the Bronte household was somewhat robust. Poor Anne Bronte; not much is made of her. I always had the impression that she didn’t get much of a look-in next to the other two. And then there was roaring Branwell.

  4. Hi Roz, good post. In my current WIP I’ve struggled to make the story non-linear. I realised early on that my characters were literally strolling where I wished them to go and that I had to make them swim upstream (or at least appear to) to make the story interesting. The problem is, as you say, the author is omnipotent, so if I need character A to go to place B, then nothing is stopping me. I understand that the magic is in making it look like they wouldn’t get there, but if the character is on a quest, can their eventual goal seem anything other than innevitable? e.g. Do we ever think Frodo won’t get to Mt Doom?

    I’ve just read the 2nd Game of Thrones Book (technically the second Song of Ice and Fire book, but you know what I mean) now there’s a writer who takes his characters and readers through the mill. By killing off apparently key characters Martin makes the reader believe in the jeopardy of everyone else.

    There are a number of fights in my WIP and I’m still struggling to think of what else is happening at the same time. I realised a while back that the fight itself is not enough (did you ever see that Fast Show sketch “The Very Long Punch Up?”). There needs to be subtext to the fight.

    The pedant in me is obliged to point out there are no gryphons in Lord of the Rings. Giant eagles, yes. Gryphons, no. If I’m wrong about this I offer grovelling apologies.

    1. Jonathan – great to see you! It’s not so bad to start with a linear story and then shuffle it up. After all, you need to have some idea where you want them to end up. When I was editing Life Form 3, I did everything to make every step difficult. This by itself turned a simple mission into a nail-biting final act (or so I’m told by the readers I inflicted it on…)

      I love The Fast Show but can’t remember Very Long Punch-Up. However, I remember Jane Espenson talking about fight scenes in Buffy. She said she didn’t much like writing them until she realised they were about the other things that were going on – indeed she’d choreograph long conversations while the blows were being swung or the gravestones hurdled.

      (I can’t comment on Frodo. I couldn’t get past page 2, let alone all the way to Mt Doom… which also means your correction about birdlife is much appreciated. 🙂 )

  5. Yes, these are things I’m having to “learn through the writing” in the novel I’m working on now – different from my more “character-driven meandering” kind of novels -this one has some violence and sex and lawdy even a kind of fight scene *laugh* . . . I usually just write them out as they come out of my head and then I go back in and start tweaking, but, I’m so aware of what I’m doing and I have to get out of my head and “picture/imagine/feel” the scene.

    really nice post!

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