While revising my middle-grade novel April Fool, I have found Donald Maass’ THE FIRE IN FICTION to be enormously helpful. The whole book is terrific, but I’ve been focused on Chapter 3: Scenes that Can’t Be Cut. I have heard many times that a character should want something in every scene and that something should change for the character in every scene, but I haven’t always been sure about how to accomplish that. Using exercises Maass offers at the end of this chapter, I have created a scene worksheet that I have found helpful. Pick a scene, answer the following questions, and then revise the scene with your answers in mind. I hope you find it as powerful as I do! The questions from my worksheet, adapted from The Fire of Fiction, follow below:
WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT IN SCENE?
3 HINTS THAT HE/SHE MIGHT GET IT:
3 HINTS THAT HE/SHE WON’T:
NEW STRONG FIRST LINE:
NEW STRONG LAST LINE:
WHAT IS THE TURNING POINT, WHEN THINGS CHANGE?
HOW DOES THE CHARACTER SEE HIMSELF/HERSELF BEFORE TURNING POINT?
THREE SENSORY DETAILS DURING THE TURNING POINT:
FIVE SETTING DETAILS:
I hope you find this exercise as powerful as I do!
A while back, the Scrivas had a weekend retreat at a farm in Hood River. Outside the living room window “stood” this scarecrow, a stark reminder to me that the main characters in novels have to be more than the literary equivalent of a headless sack of straw and old clothes. Characters like that are for the birds. Readers deserve fully formed people, whether sympathetic or scary, if you want them to flock to your story.
There are lots of ways to create strong characters. This flowchart has made the rounds about how to craft strong, memorable female characters. I admit that I’m not as thorough. Still, I try to get to know my main characters before I introduce them to their readers. I can’t hope to make them strong until I know them well enough and craft them fully enough so that they don’t fall apart in the editing process. Here’s what works for me.
- I craft a complete physical description, including an image or two from a magazine, Google, or a photo service such as Getty’s iStock.
- I include flaws, talents, habits, or other traits, which can get the reader’s attention and serve as a way to identify that character to others in the story. Does he or she collect bubble gum wrappers, count to 18 before crossing the street, bake pineapple upside cakes during hurricanes, or, as in my work-in-progress, suffer from magical thinking about a dead parent? We all have quirks; we all are wounded in some way.
- I give the character a clear and forthright voice (at least for this one time) so that he or she can join me for a day and comment on everything I do (well, almost everything). “Why spend your time knitting socks when you could be river rafting?” “I’d never walk this slow.” “Don’t you ever eat cheeseburgers?” “Wow, so this is the library you go to. I’ve never seen anything so elegant!” You get the picture. I set the chatterbox to full throttle and listen, listen, listen.
Once I’ve followed my character-creating routine, my character might look more like this scarecrow found in a field in Japan. Now he or she is ready to meet THE CHALLENGES, whatever it is that the character has to overcome in order to, well, become an even stronger character, just like in real life.
Here’s where things get tricky. Next up, a Scriva critique. I might find something vital that I missed in developing that character. Or I might realize that the character … although not my main one … yet… doesn’t have what it takes to move the plot along in any meaningful manner. Then it’s good-bye. No matter how colorful or quirky, my character gets voted off Work-In-Progress Island.
Scarecrows and stories have been around since forever minus epsilon. So have stories about scarecrows, including one about Kuebiko dating back to the eighth century, but that’s for another post.
Go to an action adventure movie, and you’ll see cars flying, buildings exploding, and more pyrotechnics than during wild fire season in a California summer. Spend a few months reading the daily book deals from Publisher’s Marketplace like I do, and you’ll be overrun by Chosen Ones who have to save the world. Every story meant to entertain us is faster, bigger, stronger, more explosive.
Let’s face it. Our stories are doping.
And just like I’m tired of Lance Armstrong and EPO, I’m exhausted by books and book pitches on steroids. I love Harry Potter as much as the next geek girl, but not every character we write is destined to stop history’s darkest wizard.
If I could wave my magic wand and restore balance to the universe, I’d start by banning some vocabulary. Let’s shut down chosen ones and destiny. Forget saviors who must question everything they ever knew. No more magic portals and quests to save the world.
Good stories don’t require steroids. They require characters we are intrigued by facing challenges that will force them to grow.
Let’s face it folks—not everyone is the Mockingjay.
Today the Scrivas are thrilled to have freelance editor Emma D. Dryden blogging about the risky business of writing.
(Originally posted here.)
Scriva Amber had the good fortune to work with Emma on THE HUNT FOR MARA LAYIL (Relium Media, 2014). She wishes Emma could edit all her books!
If you want to up your game, make sure to check out Emma’s website, blog, and twitter.
Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All
I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.”
A few authors responded right away that it’s important to “play it safe” and they meant that it’s probably best to stay in familiar territory for picture book age readers who are too young to understand the dangers of certain activities, or too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. I hastened to add my voice to the comments with a quick DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows.
As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book: whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.
A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too. As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough.
Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same? And if we don’t do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.
We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives for themselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.
If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask “what if?” and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world–and that’s a trip well worth taking.
(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC