“Anybody can write a novel.” Writers sometimes hear that statement from dismissive non–writer family and friends. Rightfully, we dislike the insinuation, since we know full well how much education, talent, skill, effort, and dedication is required for “anybody” to write a novel. Still, there is a certain measure of truth in the idea that “anybody can write a novel.” An average novel, that is.
A above-average novel though?
That’s something else again.
Or actually, is it?
I believe every one of us has the opportunity to write not just write a book, but something that rises above the pack to truly meaningful and impactful storytelling.
But doing so starts by recognizing the common mistakes, pitfalls, and stereotypes that dog mediocre fiction.
Get Started on a Amazing, Above-Average Novel With These 10 Steps
First: a little personal background on this post. For me, this year was one of major transitions, including a big move. As a result of all the craziness going on in my outer life, I wasn’t feeling too ambitious in my reading (although I did crack Proust). This year, I read a lot of what I call “popcorn” fiction. In other words, easy reads. And… I was disappointed by almost all of it.
The problem wasn’t that these stories were lightweight—that’s exactly what I wanted them to be. Rather, the problem was that they all suffered from unnecessary contrivances and cliches. And the most interesting thing was that, for the most part, they all suffered from the same contrivances and cliches, regardless of genre.
Now, before someone comes back with the inevitable response that “lightweight” fiction need not be concerned with the finer nuances of great literature, let me put forth my absolute disagreement. We need good fiction. We need cerebral classics like Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time, but we need good “light” fiction just as much. Indeed, “light” fiction has the opportunity to be tremendously impactful, if only because it is so accessible.
Just as much as we need heavy-duty stories that offer complicated critiques of society, we also need simple stories of romance and adventure—ones that are not dumbed down or sloppily presented. Entertainment and intellectualism should not exist at polar ends of the spectrum.
The most intellectual fiction should optimally be the most entertaining. And the most entertaining of our stories should optimally be the most impactful.
That’s why today I’ve collated some straightforward solutions to the top ten problems I noticed in “average” fiction this year. The primary antidote to almost all these problems is simple awareness. If you, as an author, can learn to spot these problems, analyze their existence in your own stories, and consciously work your way past them, you’re well on your way to writing an above-average novel.
1. Have a Plot
This one should be obvious—especially to writers of genre books. But not so much, apparently.
So what is plot? That question, of course, is one we talk about a lot on this blog (most recently in this post: How to Choose Your Story’s Plot Points). But today I’m going to sum it up like this: plot is a well-structured story with a cohesive point.
Most genre stories at least pretend they have a plot (the boy and the girl fall in love, the space captain fights the aliens, etc.). But too few execute that plot consciously on every page and every level of their story (i.e., plot > character > theme). Too many rely on random events and coincidences (e.g., the boy and the girl just happen to keep bumping into each other around every corner) that strain suspension of disbelief.
2. Give Your Characters Strong Desires and Goals
The fastest route to a solid plot is via your characters’ desires. What do these people want? I don’t mean some general principle like love or peace. And I don’t even mean just a plot goal (e.g., kill those aliens!). I’m talking about making sure every scene features a solid, driving, urgent desire and a resultant goal.
Too often, writers let characters wander around aimlessly (e.g., the depressed female lead is staring out over her favorite view of the Golden Gate Bridge again) or with only nominal goals (e.g., the space captain is on a routine inspection). This can be because the authors didn’t originally know what was going to happen next. Rather, they just turned their characters loose on the page and waited to see what happened. That’s fine in the first draft, but the rambling needs to be cleaned up in subsequent drafts.
3. Make Sure Your Characters Spend More Time Doing Stuff Than Talking About a) What They’ve Already Done / b) What They’re Going to Do
Whenever I find myself reading a needlessly wordy, rambling narrative in which nothing is actually happening, I often think of the wise words of Mattie Ross in True Grit:
I’m not paying for talk!
A character’s internal narrative is important. Readers want to understand a character’s inner landscape and inner process. In the hands of the right author, this kind of internal narrative can, in fact, make up the majority or even the entirety of the book (although never, I daresay, in genre fiction).
However, it’s important to note that characters who are interesting enough to move the story forward via large chunks of meaningful philosophizing are entirely distinct from characters who sit around rehearsing unnecessary information.
The greatest culprits of “unnecessary” information fall into the following two categories:
Learning how to properly disseminate backstory information is an important (and often tricky) skill for authors. My rule of thumb is “never share backstory until it is necessary to the plot; until then, just drop delicious hints.” But even if you have, in fact, waited until the perfect moment to share backstory, you must still be on guard against repeating it. One book I read this year spent what I estimate was fully a quarter of its word count having its protagonist either think about or talk about her tragic backstory—the same information over and over and over again.
2. “Sequel” Scenes
The “sequel” half of scene structure (i.e., Scene: Goal > Conflict > Outcome; Sequel: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision), in which characters react to previous events before deciding how to respond, is vital to a well-structured story. So much character development happens in these scenes. They are also vital to creating a sense of realism via an unbroken chain of cause and effect.
However, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of using these scenes either to simply rehash the dramatic events that just happened or the characters’ plans for what will happen. Both of these almost inevitably fall into the category of “telling.” Readers only need to be told once—and when you can show them instead of telling them, always show them.
4. Ruthlessly Chop Dramatic Subplots That Only Exist to Create Exciting Climaxes
An oft-referenced screenwriting principle is that of creating an emotional “B story” to augment the plot’s main “A story.” Although this approach offers some immediately practicable benefits, I dislike its suggestion that there can be “two stories.” Bottom line: every piece of your story must contribute to the big picture of plot and theme. If any subplot doesn’t do that, then it doesn’t belong.
Very often, genre stories will include a suspense subplot (commonly seen in romance novels) or a relationship subplot (commonly seen in action novels), either of which matters very little, if at all, to the story’s overall thematic presentation. That’s problematic in itself, but when these decidedly minor subplots are then leveraged into the all-important limelight of the Climax, just to provide an extra punch at the end, the story’s overall cohesion fractures all the more.
5. Make Your Characters Earn Their Romances
If your story features a romance, make sure you’re representing it with realistic nuance. Create realistic relationships, in which both people fight their demons in order to be together; in which both people make mistakes and suffer the consequences; in which both people have to earn their happiness together. Because, seriously, I swear I’m gonna die if I read one more wish-fulfillment romance in which some ridiculously hot, but utterly vapid guy doggedly pursues a self-absorbed heroine just because she’s the heroine. (And vice versa.)
But this only works when one character has another character to talk to. And it works so much better when the two characters doing the talking actually have a relationship of some sort and therefore something at stake within the relational aspect of the scene.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many books scatter their fantastic characters to the four corners of the globe, effectively preventing them from talking to each other for the entirety of their stories. So just tell me this: which would you rather read: a story in which the two best characters talk to each other regularly—or a story in which they don’t?
Put your best characters in a room together. If you can’t do so for plot reasons, then it’s time to create another interesting character.
7. Include Only Purposeful POVs
Point of view is a complex subject, so I’m not even going to get into basic principles and pitfalls, such as avoiding head-hopping. Rather, since this is a post about how to make the jump from average fiction to above-average, I’m going to talk about a one-up tactic: managing POVs to create an overall effect.
In short, don’t include scenes from random POV characters. Even those characters whose viewpoint you purposefully choose to use throughout the story need to be chosen to carefully present the plot to optimal effect. Recent trends aside, the best principle for above-average POV usage remains: the fewer, the better.
8. Make Sure All Characters Have Agency
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Karpman’s “drama triangle”—a social model that calls attention to the negative ramifications of casting ourselves and others in one or more of three relational roles: villain, victim, and hero.
So many of our accepted narratives are hero-based: somebody needs to be saved, so somebody else has to do the saving. Although this model certainly lives up to its name in providing drama, it also further ingrains social mindsets that are ultimately damaging.
Recent decades have offered a lot of kickback against the presentation of female characters in the victim role of a “damsel in distress” who needs to be saved by a “hero.” I believe this idea should extend to all your characters. Naturally, it’s only realistic to put certain characters in situations where they require aid (even rescue) from other characters, but challenge yourself (as I’m currently trying to do myself) to make sure all characters have agency. All characters—even those most physically helpless—should be given responsibility for their own fates. It’s phenomenal how much character development can result from just this simple mindset tweak.
9. Play By Your Own Rules
This one is important for all authors, but particularly for those writing multi-book stories. Whether you’re creating complex magic systems or simply sharing a character’s backstory or even just applying foreshadowing hints in the first part of a story—you must be consistent. Readers trust you. They believe that what you tell them is so. If that turns out to not be the case, even if it’s just the result of negligence on your part, the results can vary from a simple intellectual wrinkling of the nose to an emotional chucking of your book. Either way, it’s not in anybody’s interest. You made these rules for your story; it’s only fair you remember to follow them.
10. Have Style
You can get an A+ on all of the previous nine principles of above-average writing, but it probably won’t matter if readers end up labeling your book “bland.” Truly memorable stories are usually less memorable for what they share than they are for how they share it. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean you need a gimmick, but it does mean you need panache. This starts with creating charismatic characters, moves on to find its foundation in solid control over every structural decision, and ends with a distinctive narrative voice.
Ultimately, being able to write an above-average novel requires nothing more than the commitment to keep learning what an excellent story looks like—and doesn’t look like. Keep your writerly brain turned on whenever you read a new book. Take note of what works for you, what doesn’t, and how you can employ those lessons in your own fiction to strengthen the best bits and eliminate the weak parts. Here’s to each of us writing our personal best story in the coming year!
Large casts of characters are the thing these days. Rowling, Martin, and Marvel—just to name a few newsworthy examples—victoriously (and sometimes not-so-victoriously) throw casts of hundreds at screen and paper. Understandably, writers rush to emulate—both because, on a head level, this seems like the obvious path to success, and because, on a heart level, we like these stories and instinctively want to recreate their enjoyable patterns.
It sounds straightforward enough until you round up all your suspects in one room and try to organize their chaos of conversation. And multiple-character dialogue sessions are the easy part. Once you start factoring in each character’s personal contribution to plot and theme, the inside of your brain can end up looking like John Nash’s secret shed.
Recently on Facebook, Claire Lauzon messaged me:
I’m writing a novel about a heist and I have so many characters (20+) involved in this heist that it becomes very difficult to deal with. Have you written an article describing how to tackle this problem? I can see it in my head as if watching a film but putting it in writing is another story.
10 Rules for Handling Large Casts of Characters
Despite being a vocal proponent for small casts (more on that in a sec), I tend toward relatively large casts of characters in my own stories. The just-finished first draft of my portal fantasy sequel Dreambreaker features nearly 70 named characters, almost all of whom appear repeatedly throughout the story.
Today, let’s talk about what I’ve learned over the years about managing large casts of characters—and how you can employ a couple important rules of thumb to you help you manage your own teeming call sheets.
Rule #1: Characters Should Exist to Represent Theme and Move Plot (Preferably Both)
The first and single most important principle to consider when evaluating the size of your cast is this: does each character matter to this story?
Characters, like any element in a well-thought-out story, should never be throwaway additions. Each must contribute to the story. Sometimes this contribution may necessarily be as small as a few catalytic or informational lines in a one-off scene. But the more screentime characters have, the greater your responsibility to make sure they contribute to the story on a larger scale.
By extension of the above, here’s a truth some authors don’t like to face: fewer characters really are better. The tighter your cast, the tighter your story’s focus—in both its presentation of a forceful plot and its thematic argument.
On a practical level, small casts aren’t always possible. For example, you can’t tell an epic story about multiple kingdoms at war without a cast of hundreds or even, technically, thousands. In these cases, you will need a substantive cast simply to convey the weight of the story’s events.
But even in these instances, it’s almost always best to whittle the active cast down to a smaller handful that can represent the greater event happening in the background.
Always ask yourself: what is the fewest number of primary characters necessary to tell this story to its optimum? Any more than that, and you risk clutter.
Rule #3: Avoid Repetition by Recognizing Which Archetype Each Character Represents
Planning an optimally-sized cast begins by recognizing the archetypal roles of characters within stories. Specifically, I’m talking about the broadest of all story archetypes—protagonist, antagonist, and relationship catalyst. Every single character in your story will (or should) represent one of these primal thematic forces.
From there, we can expand the three primary story forces into a slightly broader exploration of the perspectives that will fully flesh out your story’s thematic argument, ensuring your plot is covering all its bases. These archetypes (based in large part on Dramatica‘s exploration) are:
Love Interest/Relationship Character
These roles can overlap or be represented by multiple characters. However, in recognizing where you have two characters playing the same role (particularly when they consistently show up together in the same scenes), you can often tighten your cast by eliminating the repetition.
Rule #4: Identify Which Characters Play a Role in the Climax—and Prioritize Them
Another way to determine whether your large cast is justified is by following all of your characters to the end of the story. What is their role in the Climax? As the ultimate payoff of all foreshadowing in your story, the Climax dictates what elements deserve a place in the previous acts. Characters who have no role in or impact upon the final climactic encounters are probably characters who are not strictly necessary to your story.
On the other hand, those characters who do significantly play into the Climax or the scenes leading directly up to it—these characters are ones you should be taking very good care of throughout the story. These are the characters who matter to your story.
As such, they need to be properly developed throughout the story—preferably in all three acts. Even in situations where you’re unable to give these characters a lot of screentime throughout, they should at least make an appearance and/or a sizable contribution in each act.
Rule #5: Keep a Firm Grasp on Which Character Is Your Protagonist
One common pitfall with large casts of characters is losing the forest for the trees. However, the larger your cast, the more important it is to ground your story with a solid protagonist. This is the character with whom your readers will relate; this is the lighthouse in the storm. More than that, the protagonist is the character who ultimately defines both the main conflict and the theme.
If you’re uncertain which character is your protagonist, look again to the Climax—specifically, the Climactic Moment. The protagonist is the character who initiates and/or is most strongly impacted by the final resolution of the conflict and/or represents the final thematic outcome. As such, this character needs to be given prominence throughout the story, specifically at the major structural moments. Even the largest cast can be grounded when placed within a solid structure that keeps its primary focus on the protagonist.
Now, it’s true many prominent examples of large casts—including Martin and Marvel, aforementioned—don’t really seem to follow this rule (although arguments can be made). In my opinion, their stories, despite their many good qualities, ultimately suffer as a result. Rowling (at least in the old days) is a stalwart exception, whose clear protagonist, and thus thematic, throughline perfectly grounds her mammoth casts.
Rule #6: Chart Each Prominent Character’s Personal Goal and Personal Conflict With the Protagonist—and Every Other Pertinent Character
Even after you’ve conscientiously examined and streamlined your cast down to its optimal fighting weight, you may very well still end up—as I often do—with a story that features dozens of prominent speaking roles. So how do you manage them?
Start by managing the characters’ throughlines. Remember: your minor characters’ most important distinguishing factor is their relation to the protagonist. It’s not enough for minor characters to simply be present in the story, nominally either for or against the protagonist’s goals. These characters should have distinct, concrete goals of their own. These goals should have a specific relationship to the protagonist’s goals and, in turn, to every other pertinent characters’ goals. And, naturally, you’re always going to get a little extra honey on your bread if you’re able to engineer a whiff of conflict even between allies.
Understanding your minor characters’ goals is the single most important step you can take in making sure every character—no matter how many—contributes to the larger story, rather than just being a benign space filler.
Rule #7: Space Out Character Introductions
Once you’ve got your cast planned and you’re ready to get down and dirty with the actual writing, unique challenges emerge. One of the first has to do with how to introduce readers to so many characters. The rule of thumb is simple: space out introductions.
Sometimes this takes planning. You will have to carefully engineer your early scenes to:
create plot-pertinent events that
allow you to introduce as many important characters as early as possible
with pertinent characteristic moments
and without lumping them all together too quickly.
There is no one right way to do this. But a good place to start is by making certain each character you introduce has a stake in moving their first scene forward in some way. A careful use of setting can also be useful. For example, if your story is about an army company, you can avoid introducing everyone right off by separating them. Maybe in the beginning, the captain is in his tent with his adjutant, then one of the soldiers comes in with a message, before finally the captain goes out to talk to the rest of them.
Rule #8: Lump Similar Characters Together by Characterizing Them as a Group—and Appointing a Spokesperson
Sometimes casts end up being large not because every character is important, but because the group is important. For example, you can’t tell a war story without huge armies. But every soldier in those armies need not be personally named or fleshed out.
Even within smaller, more intimate groups, in which it is necessary to name many or all of the characters (such as our story about the captain and his company), it will often be to your advantage to create groups and sub-groups that can be either represented as a whole or represented by a spokesperson character. For example, instead of characterizing all 80 men in the captain’s company, you could break it down into squads, with sergeants and lieutenants representing their men.
Rule #9: Know What Each Character Wants and/or Has at Stake in Each Scene
Characters are no good to you if they aren’t contributing to every scene in which they are present. If they aren’t there to do something, then they’re just in the way. (There are exceptions to this, obviously, such as large-scale events such as weddings, which require supporting characters merely to observe.)
If you’ve done your homework (see Rule #6, above), then you already have a good idea what each character wants and therefore what is at stake for each character in any particular scene. Now you get to put that knowledge to work. Instead of a one-on-one argument between protagonist and antagonist while side characters merely look on, now you have the opportunity for a complex representation of conflict and theme, with every character invested in what’s going on.
And if it turns out a particular character really doesn’t have anything to add to the scene’s conflict and progression? Well, it could be that person isn’t necessary to this scene (or the story?) after all.
Rule #10: Employ Dialogue Tags and Action Beats Judiciously in Multiple-Character Conversations
Let’s say you’ve pulled off the kind of scene we talked about in the previous section: a confrontation that involves not just the protagonist and antagonist but every character present. How do you juggle all that dialogue without confusing readers?
Frankly, it ain’t always easy. But you can help readers avoid confusion by judiciously using dialogue tags (he said). Action beats (she clenched the edge of the counter) are even better, since they also offer the opportunity to keep readers grounded in the setting and other sensory details.
The more characters you have present in any scene, the trickier the choreography gets. But as long as you know exactly what role each character is playing, you will have a much better chance of keeping things as focused and powerful as possible.
Stories with large casts of characters offer many challenges. Even the simplest story requires dozens of complex working parts; the more characters you add, the more you exponentially increase your own challenges. However, when done well, large casts bring depth and heft to your story. Make sure you’ve considered the above rules, then gather your characters, and start partying!
Christmas gifts that offer a mix of whimsy, fun, and practicality are the best. Whimsy, fun, and practicality are also three things writers seek on as daily basis. Guess that means we’re the perfect gift recipients! This year’s round-up of unique gifts for writers will help you find the right gift for your writing buddies, critique partners, and editors—and it just might help you nudge family and friends in the right direction for your own stocking as well.
And if you want even more fun ideas, check out these roundups of gifts for writers from previous years:
And if you still haven’t found the right gift for your list or a fellow writer’s this year, you can’t go wrong with the gift of learning. You can check out my full list of Recommended Reading for Writers and my own series of writing books below. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What gifts for writers have you asked Santa for this year? Tell me in the comments!
This has become one of those bits of writing advice that has passed into legend, right along with “show, don’t tell” and “write what you know.” There are so many good reasons for this.
Dream openings are notorious for being boring, irrelevant, misleading, and cliched. As a “fake” opening, dreams share many of the same challenges and pitfalls as regular prologues—and have received the same amount of pushback from agents and editors weary of seeing the same problems over and over again.
Of course, unpublished manuscripts (and even published ones) keep churning out dream-sequence openings just because they always have the potential to be so much fun.
There’s a reason writers absolutely love them, and it’s usually because they first loved dream sequences as readers.
We all understand the inherent drama and symbolism of a good dream sequence. We all shiver with delight with the impactful foreshadowing handed down through these harrowing journeys into the subconscious. In fact, dreams have become a trope all their own: just as we know characters are death-bait if they start randomly coughing, we can also count on the delicious doom foreboded by characters who dream.
Right? I mean, seriously, I’d ask you to raise your digital hand if you’ve ever written a dream sequence, but then we’d all be raising our hands. I’m writing an entire series about dream sequences (which always makes me feel a little sheepish when I then proceed to adamantly recommend authors not start a book with a dream).
What this tells us is that there’s obviously a lot of good storytelling juice inherent in dreams. But as we also already know, adding a dream to a book (especially trying to start a book with a dream) isn’t an easy recipe for success. There are more ways to do it wrong than right.
It can be done.
Learning From Each Other: The First WIP Excerpt Analysis
This brings me to the first installment in our series of Work-in-Progress Excerpt Analyses. Last month, I prompted the idea of an intermittent series of blog posts, in which I would analyze short excerpts from your works-in-progress, with an eye toward identifying and discussing particular techniques we could all learn from.
You guys floored me with your enthusiastic response. I’m currently planning to do probably one analysis post per month, and considering that I now have an email folder filled with over two hundred submissions, it’s safe to say we’re not going to run out of material anytime soon.
Today’s post is inspired by Jennifer Sutherland’s submission of the opening to the second chapter of her fantasy novel The First Goddess. She wanted to know if she succeeded in her use of a dream sequence to introduce a character:
I have two protagonists in my story. I know that a dream sequence is a no-no for an opening scene, but is it always a bad idea? I’d like to introduce my female protagonist in chapter two with something like the following.
Jennifer’s submission immediately popped out at me as a great learning opportunity, both because this is a hot topic, and also because she demonstrates how to successfully start a book with a dream.
Snow was falling. The soft flakes cascaded all around us, catching on my eyelashes while I stared up at the tall man before me. Clad in a sleek, red suit, he was as stark against the snow as a drop of blood on white parchment. He considered me with murky, bloodshot eyes and I shuddered, glad for my mother’s firm grip on my hand.
“Janie, don’t let go,” she said, and pulled me closer to her side.
“Why,” I asked, only to realize that no sound emerged when I spoke. Were I to let go, there would be nowhere to run anyway. Nothing but snow covered terrain surrounded us for miles. A sudden touch, something colder than the snow, made me jump. I whipped around to find the man reaching for me with hands wrapped in a swirling pattern of delicate, black tattoos.
My mother yanked me away and said, angrily, “We had a deal.”
The man angled his bald head and smiled, displaying perfect, porcelain teeth. His reply whispered from his lips like moths rustling dry leaves. “A deal requires the participation of all parties involved. You,” he emphasized the word, “have not upheld your end of the bargain.”
He looked at me again. Those putrid orbs bore into me and the scraping, fluttering sound returned. It intensified to a roar, drowning out whatever he’d been about to say.
I awoke suddenly, the familiar noise still echoing in my ears. Cold, hard rain pelted me from above and I squinted as it struck my face. Grass encompassed me, looming so high that it obscured the sky and my view of the immediate area. A tangy scent of blood drifted in the air and I sat up cautiously, worried it might be my own.
Or my brother’s.
“Jason,” I called softly.
My body was unharmed, other than a few cuts and scrapes. My clothes, however, were torn in several places and soaked in frigid, muddy water. They clung to me as I stood, weighing heavily on my arms and legs. Height was not a gift my parents’ gene pool had bestowed upon me, so I could barely see over the colossal plants around me. Peering through the wispy ends of the blades, I could make out the edge of a forest less than a quarter mile away on my right.
Hugging myself for warmth, I turned full circle in my little patch of flattened grass, looking for the highway we had left earlier. But there was no road in sight, only the long line of the forest extending into the horizon. Any other landmarks that may have been present weren’t visible through the deluge of water and towering foliage. There wasn’t even a trail of broken stalks around to denote where I had come from. As though the sky had dropped me there with the rain.
What an excellent deduction Jane. The sky is raining people.
“Jason,” I said a little louder. There was still no response. Shivering, I continued to glance around, alarmed that there was no sign of him.
The plains were as isolated as the snowy hills of my dream.
5 Ways to Make Dream Openings Work
The major complaints against starting a book with a dream usually center around dreams that lack drama, structural integrity, or pertinence. Too often, authors will slap a dream onto their opening, believing the very nature of the trope makes it an insta-hook. The inevitable revelation, halfway through the scene, that “ta-da! she was dreaming” seems inherently gripping.
But it’s not. Readers don’t care that a character is dreaming—especially in the beginning when they don’t yet have any context. More than that, readers don’t want their time wasted in that first chapter, when what they’re really wanting is to get straight to the meat and discover whether or not this story is going to offer them something worth their time
In short, authors must earn their dream openings. You can’t just slap a dream onto the beginning, believing it possesses some special power to hook readers, then blithely power on into the “real story.” Instead, you must carefully craft your dream—as Jennifer has—into the single best introduction of your plot and character.
Here are the five top signs you’ve chosen to start your book with a dream that works.
1. The Dream Isn’t Really a Dream
You know those fictional dreams that actually are exciting to you, as a viewer or reader?
I’m talking about scenes like Luke Skywalker facing down Darth Himself in the cave on Dagobah, or Jane Eyre watching a ghostly aberration rend her wedding veil in the middle of the night, or Jason Bourne jolting awake from another nightmare of assassinating someone.
They’re not dreams at all. They’re visions, premonitions, realities, and memories.
Real dreams are random and vague and largely meaningless to the conscious mind. Last night, I dreamed I was attending a chipper family reunion that was calmly dispersing because the meteorologists were predicting the descent of an apocalyptic windstorm.
Now, if it turned out, later in my life story, that I attended a family reunion under the threat of Hurricane Armageddon, then, yeah, that dream might be pertinent. But I’m betting not and filing it with all the rest of my crazy night ramblings.
That’s fine for me in real life. But it’s not okay for characters on the page whose every moment must contribute to the story’s larger structure and meaning. Dreams in a story are a promise to readers that this matters. That alone is why they offer the potential to be great hooks. They are power-packed foreshadowing.
But their foreshadowing only works when used with consciousness and purpose—as Jennifer has. Although I haven’t read the rest of her story, I trust that her sleek, red-suited man with the swirling tattoos is either a direct memory for the protagonist, a transferred memory or vision from her mother, or a premonition of something yet to come.
In short, it’s a clue to this character’s entire existence within this story. It’s not just a dream. It’s not just a random nightmare. It’s pertinent. It has given readers information they both need and crave.
2. The Dream Is a Great Hook
Just coming up with a foreboding or interesting dream that hints at good stuff to come is not, in itself, enough to hook readers.
You must also frame it as dramatically as possible. There are two specific elements to this.
1. Make the Dream Ask a Question
Hooks are questions. They introduce discordant elements that pique readers’ curiosity. The most interesting question in all of fiction is: Why? Why is this happening? Why does this matter? Get readers to ask these questions, and you’ll almost certainly hook them into the rest of your story.
2.Make the Dream Visually Arresting
In my post “Don’t Write Scenes–Write Images,” I quoted Pulitzer-winner Jane Smiley’s insightful observation that “ultimately … images are” what’s most “important and enduring” in written fiction. The principle of “show, don’t tell” is arguably nowhere more important than in your opening chapter and especially if you’re opening with something as visceral as a dream.
In her excerpt, Jennifer accomplished both of these challenges. She uses the dream sequence to raise several questions without answering any of them. Readers understand that if they want to find out what’s going on, they must keep reading.
Furthermore, Jennifer has created a evocatively visual scene. Her well-chosen descriptions of color and detail—the man’s swirling tattoos and the antagonistic snowfall—paint a picture that pops. Readers will remember this scene when finally they get to the payoff that fulfills their curiosity.
3. The Dream Is Followed By a Second Hook
The fundamental problem shared by dream openings and prologues is that they are essentially “false beginnings.” Because a dream’s events exist outside the story’s immediate plane of reality, whatever hook the dream provides is necessarily not the story’s “real” hook. That comes later when the dreamer wakes up in the real time of the main story.
What this means is that the story must essentially begin twice. And what that means is you’re going to have to write two hooks.
Transitioning from a dramatic dream sequence to the protagonist lying in bed thinking about the dream does not create a strong dramatic throughline for your opening chapter.
Again, Jennifer does a great job with this. She transitions smoothly from the eerie menace of her opening dream to the logical follow-up hook of the protagonist groping through her disorientation and fear. The character is not safe in bed with her family around her. Instead, she finds herself in another strange and curiosity-inducing environment, clearly on the run for unknown (but, we assume, related) reasons with her little brother, who may or may not have just disappeared on her.
4. The Dream Creates Plot
One of the major reasons dream sequences often fail is that they don’t move the immediate plot. Opening with a visceral dream that foreshadows delicious things to come isn’t enough if that same dream isn’t immediately pertinent to the character’s choices and reactions in that same scene.
Later on in a story, it’s possible to use dream sequences that influence their scenes tonally, rather than causally. But in your opening chapter, you’ve got to hit a lot harder. There needs to be an immediate causal link between the pertinence of the dream and whatever happens next in the real-time story to set up the plot to follow. Otherwise, the dream just isn’t pertinent enough at this moment to provide the strong opening hook you’re looking for.
By linking her two hooks—the dream itself and then the disorientation of waking up—Jennifer demonstrates one way to use dreams to move the plot. The character is directly influenced by her dream—it wakes her up and it motivates her to check on her brother. Assuming both of these actions are important to what follows in the rest of the chapter, this provides a solid structure to this opening.
Another way in which a dream might actively influence the “real” story is by providing information that turns the plot. Presumably, what Jennifer’s character learns in this dream will be a clue that factors into the story later. But had she wanted to, she could also have used it to provide her protagonist with a revelation that informs her immediate actions—which, again, would ground the dream’s pertinence in this scene.
5. The Dream Doesn’t Lie to Readers
This is the trickiest dream “rule” of all. Most of the time, dreams open with no hint that what the character (and the reader) is experiencing isn’t real. But this is a two-edged blade. On the one hand, it ups the ante of the dream’s events and can sometimes allow authors to create spectacularly fanciful hooks (there’s no gravity! the protagonist has magic powers! the protagonist’s dead parent is speaking to him!). But on the other hand, it also opens with a promise to readers that they’re getting a story about one thing—only to immediately break that promise.
I’ve been grabbed by many a great opening sequence, only to realize a few paragraphs later that the story wasn’t anything like what it had originally seemed to be about. “She woke with a start” is one of my least favorite lines to find in an opening chapter.
Personally, I find it much more advantageous to immediately tell readers that what they’re experiencing is a dream. Doing so kills almost none of the suspense, while helping shape readers’ expectations for the real story to follow. I opened my portal fantasy Dreamlander with the line:
Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you.
I wanted readers to immediately understand that the events to follow weren’t literally happening to the protagonist (or… were they?).
Jennifer’s excerpt does break this “rule.” The consequences are not egregious since she clues readers in pretty quickly. Most readers will adjust easily, especially since Jennifer follows up the dream’s hook with a credibly strong hook in the main part of the story. Still, were this story mine, I would find a way to hint within the first paragraph that this is a dream.
As with many of the “always/never” rules in writing, “don’t start a book with a dream,” is an oversimplification. It’s a reaction to the many, many, many poorly crafted dreams, most of which are written in the mistaken belief that dreams are always inherently interesting.
That said, it is a rule you can break, as long as you do it carefully—with respect for your readers’ reactions—and consciously—with a total understanding of your story’s needs and the effect you’re trying to create.
My thanks to Jennifer for sharing her excerpt and question, and my best wishes for her story’s success. We’ll do another analysis post in a couple weeks.
Last month, I invited you to tell me what topics you’d like me to write about. You flooded my inbox and comments section with suggestions. (I scheduled this as an “easy” post that wouldn’t require much maintenance while I was in the midst of the a big move. When I logged on that first day to over a hundred comments needing to be approved, I was all, Wha? Gah— Ahhh!)
I’m psyched by your enthusiasm—and excited to have such a deep well of ideas to draw from for future posts. So, first off—thank you for contributing to the discussion!
And, second, let’s get started…
How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?
One of the first questions in the queue to catch my eye was Karen Keil’s:
My biggest issues have to do with the term “enough.” How do I know when I have described enough, not described enough, edited enough, not edited enough, dialogued enough, not dialogued enough, been humorous enough… etc.
One of the most difficult things about the art form of writing is how… unquantifiable many aspects are.
What is story but a great big blast of colors and feels right smack in your face?
As a reader or viewer, you just know when something works or it doesn’t. (Lack of artistic credentials has never been—nor ever should be—enough to hold anyone back from passionately loving or hating a piece of art). Explaining the why of any particular technique’s success or lack thereof is much harder. Indeed, even identifying which particular technique is at play sometimes seems like trying to figure out what the elephant is by poking at it in the dark.
Although story is a hugely complicated beast, made up of thousands of tiny individual pieces, it should never look that way. Or at least not when done well. When done well, a story just seems like… a story. It’s cohesive, every piece and every technique flowing effortlessly into the next to create, not a mosaic, but a living photograph.
That’s the beauty of art.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s also the very thing that causes huge pain points for the artist.
We must learn to deconstruct the living photograph into the individual pixels that create it. Otherwise, we will never be able to identify what’s gone wrong when one of the colors is incorrect or over-saturated or blacked out.
This is particularly pertinent when it comes to questions of what is “enough” in any aspect of your story.
The reason this is a difficult problem is the very fact that it is so abstract. There are no concrete answers. What might be enough description or dialogue in one section of the story will not be enough in another section. Learning to understand when enough is enough in your story is largely a matter of refining your storytelling instincts to the point where you can just feel whether something is too sparse or too excessive.
Ultimately, that’s what the entire pursuit of story theory and technique has been about for me. You could argue that the entire body of work I’ve created in this blog and my how-to books has been my effort to answer that question. But today, in response to Karen’s question, let’s specifically look at ways you can quantify when you’ve done “enough” in the four sections she’s highlighted.
1. How Much Description Is Enough?
Why not start with the toughest one first, right?
Finding that sweet spot between “too much description” and “not enough description” is a tricky one for many writers. Most of us start out info-dumping descriptive details like a garbage truck the day after Christmas. We want readers to see everything we see: every room of the character’s childhood house, every freckle on the love interest’s nose, every piece of clothing in the protagonist’s warrior ensemble.
But then somewhere along the line, a wise beta reader slaps us with the dictate to “trim the description.” So we overcompensate, looking for that one, right “telling” detail that pops the whole setting without requiring detailed descriptions.
And then… another beta reader tells us, “I can’t get any kind of sense of the setting these characters are supposed to be in.”
This seesawing between extremes is, however, an important part of honing those storytelling instincts. Learning to find the sweet spot of “enough” description is very much a matter of trial and error.
Last spring, I wrote an entry in the Most Common Writing Mistakes series about “Too Much Description.” In it, I wrote over-the-top examples of what “too much” description looked like. Then I went hunting for examples, from some of my favorite authors, of what the “just right” amount of description looked like. Ironically, many of their excellent descriptions actually ended up being longer than the egregious examples I created.
The lesson here is that “enough” description has nothing to do with word count. It has everything to do with pertinence; with finding the right details; and looking at settings, people, and objects through the strict viewpoint of the narration.
Know exactly what effect you’re trying to achieve in any given passage.
Is the whole point to introduce the setting? Well then, maybe you can get away with a chapter’s worth of description as Thomas Hardy famously did in Return of the Native (or maybe not).
Is the point to quickly enliven a walk-on character? Then a swift, well-chosen detail will likely suffice.
Is the scene focused on advancing the plot? Then opt for interspersing details throughout the scene, as the characters interact with them.
Study how your favorite authors utilize description. Even go so far as to copy out whole passages of their work. Description is rarely just dumped into a story one huge paragraph at a time. Most of the time, it is a living, breathing part of the story, interacting with every other part, sentence by sentence and even word by word.
2. How Much Editing Is Enough?
Now we take a temporary step back from the nitty-gritty of actual technique to look at the broader topic of how much time we should be spending on the story itself.
To me, the question of “when should I stop editing” shares the same pitfalls as the question of “when should I write ‘the end’?”
You stop editing when the story is finished—when there is nothing more to fix.
That might sound a little blithe. After all, most of us agree with Leonardo da Vinci that:
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
And it’s true. There is always something an author wants to change about a story. We are always growing, always learning—which means the totality of understanding we bring to a story on any given day will always be surpassed by what we have learned on the next. Plus, there’s the little fact that our intent always grows at a slightly faster rate than our ability to execute it.
Still, there are quantifiable ways in which to judge whether or not a story has reached a reasonable level of completion—in both the writing and the editing. For the most part, both approaches overlap.
There are two fundamental questions I ask myself to help me know whether I’m finished with a story or not:
The only way to know whether a story has reached its end—whether it is a complete whole—is to examine whether or not it is structurally cohesive and complete. When structure is observed, you never have to guess when it’s time to end a story—it just ends itself after the Climactic Moment.
2. Is There Anything Specific Left to Change?
Even after you’ve written/edited your story into a state of structural wholeness, you will very likely still find weaknesses to fix. A structurally sound story doesn’t, by any means, instantly qualify as a good story. You may still find yourself identifying any number of issues—everything from sloppy prose (too much/too little description, anyone?) to sloppy themes to ugly plot holes to ugly scene structure.
Once you’ve got an empty list, you’re done editing.
But what if your list never empties? After all, if there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, there will always be more imperfections to address.
First off, differentiate between things you think might be a problem with the story (aka, heretofore unsubstantiated doubts) and things you know are problems. Having doubts about a story is not the same as identifying specific problems that need to be addressed.
Second, know when to cut loose. Maybe you’ll never reach the very end of that list of edits. But there will come a time when you get close enough that it counts. For this, I like deadlines. I tell myself I have five years, from outline to final edit, to get a story right. If it’s not right by then, it’s time to cut loose and move on.
3. How Much Dialogue Is Enough?
I’d like to say there’s no such thing as too much dialogue—because personally I adore dialogue. But the more accurate approach to the proper amount of dialogue is different, if just as simple.
Dialogue becomes too much at the exact moment it isn’t pertinent to the story.
Often, authors will “write their way into dialogue” in order to figure out a scene or a conversation as they go. Dialogue is exceptionally characterizing, so feeling your way through a dialogue section may also be a (great) way of learning about who your characters really are, from the inside out.
This is is all fine and well in the first draft. But meandering conversations that only gradually find their way to a point—or, just as faulty, conversations that exist just for the sake of conversation—are always going to be problematic.
Just as you should examine every single sentence of narrative to make sure each one contributes in its own right, so too you should also examine every line of dialogue. If it contributes—either by advancing the plot, developing the character, or revealing important information—then it belongs. If not, it’s too much.
One of an author’s most important (and, in some ways, most difficult) jobs is being able to identify the purpose of each word in the narrative. Once you learn to do this, it becomes easy to identify which ones belong and which ones do not.
4. How Much Humor Is Enough?
My response to humor is kinda like my response to dialogue: no such thing as too much, right?
Except that, too, is facetious. Really, what I’m responding to is the element of entertainment both dialogue and humor bring to story. I do dearly love to be entertained.
Beyond that, humor shares other qualifiers with dialogue in that it must be pertinent to the story. Funny can’t exist just to be funny. It must offer resonance and contribute to cohesion.
But do you need humor?
I honestly can’t think of a single story that can’t benefit from a meaningful inclusion of humor at appropriate moments. But humor, perhaps more than any other element of story, must flow. You can’t force it. It must arise from the situations and characters you’ve already created.
Whenever you have the opportunity to include humor, go for it. But if those opportunities aren’t arising, don’t worry. However entertaining humor may be, it’s not a prerequisite to an amazing story. There’s many a great story out there that cracks nary a smile.
Know what effect you’re trying to achieve in your writing and stick to that with confidence. The “enough” you’re seeking will always find its balance when you’re able to realize your intended effect. If, by the story’s end, you’ve succeeded in creating that effect, then your story is “enough.” If not, it’s time to go back and figure out whether you’re missing the mark because you’ve included “too much” or “too little” of any of the above elements.
Mistakes are unavoidable. To fear them is to fear life itself. To try to eliminate them is to waste life in a futile struggle against reality itself.
I daresay no one has more opportunities to learn these truths than does a writer.
As writers, our lives are a never-ending litany of mistakes. Certainly mine has been full of mistakes—everything from the opening sentences I wrote for this post, thought better of, and replaced—to literally hundreds of thousands of deleted words I’ve carefully saved from all my rough drafts—to entire story ideas (representing hundreds of hours of dedicated, hopeful work) that have proven themselves unsalvageable and earned a dusty place in a back corner of a closet shelf.
I won’t say I don’t regret these mistakes. I do. I regret the wasted time and effort. I regret the bereavement of loving and nurturing something that never came to fruition. I regret my own lack of foresight, wisdom, and understanding in failing to see pitfalls before I walked into them.
If I’m being really honest I’ll have admit that, given the chance, I’d probably take back every single one of those mistakes.
Fortunately, however, that is one mistake that the very design of life will prevent any one of us from every making.
I can’t take back my mistaken words, ideas, and stories. And in being robbed of the chance to exercise my own foolish desire to do so, I am instead given the priceless gift of being able to learn from those retained mistakes.
Learning From Our Mistakes
Learning from mistakes is unavoidably natural. Even when we’re not consciously aware of the lessons we’ve absorbed from false starts, we have absorbed them. Whatever the mistakes we make in the future, they won’t be the same ones we’ve made in the past, whether or not we avoid them purposefully.
However, sometimes we will be able to consciously review mistakes at a later date. When this happens, we are essentially getting the chance to go back in time, revisit the cause and effect of earlier mistakes, and intentionally learn from them.
Again, I daresay no one has more opportunities to do this than does a writer—since our mistakes are recorded forever in black and white.
Re-reading this book after having grown and changed significantly as both a writer and a person was an eye-opening experience. The reason I gave up on the book back then was that I could sense its problems, but couldn’t quantify them in a way that would allow me to fix them. Now, five years after abandoning it, I can see both what was wrong and what was right about the book.
The mistakes I made then were made because I had not yet learned what I needed to know in order to avoid them. They were honest, earnest mistakes, born of the struggle to understand. Ultimately, they were mistakes that, however painful in their seeming fruitlessness at the time, were the very mistakes that taught me what I needed to now see clearly.
Some of these mistakes were unique to the story itself. But some are, I feel, universal mistakes that many struggling novelists make—and instinctively recoil from without yet knowing what exactly the problem is or how to fix it.
Today, I would like to look at five of the mistakes I made that ultimately contributed to The Deepest Breath becoming one of my “lost” novels, how I could have avoided those mistakes had I known then what I know now, and how you can learn from my mistakes.
5 Lessons You Can Learn From My Mistakes
Looking back, I’d almost argue that The Deepest Breath was the one novel, out of my novels, that I worked hardest on. I outlined and researched the heck out of it. It went through many iterations. In fact, to all intents and purposes, I wrote it as three separate and distinct novels along the way.
Originally, I intended it as a dual-timeline story with the three main characters’ “present-day” story in 1925 Kenya juxtaposed against their dark backstory during World War I. I initially decided to write the entirety of the war section first, with the intent of then interweaving it throughout the “main” story (an approach I would now adamantly reject, due to its inherent problems with organic flow between timelines).
After realizing that wasn’t working (based mostly on the epiphany that the backstory had some major causal issues), I decided to scrap the idea of dramatizing the backstory and instead just focus on the main story—about the fallout in the relationships among two men who had met in World War I and the woman they realized they both loved. I wrote one iteration (in the present tense), realized it was a mess, and rewrote it extensively in another draft (in past tense).
Along the way, the book improved dramatically. But despite all my years of work, I eventually realized it was still broken—and I had no idea how to fix it.
Now, looking back, I can see that it actually ended up being a pretty good story. There’s a ton I like about it. In some ways, I think it’s the best character piece I’ve ever written. The setting in Kenya is one of my best realized settings ever. The plot is quietly foreboding, the pacing moving slowly and yet with the power of a train hurtling toward an inevitable collision.
And yet… it didn’t work because at the time I wrote it, I didn’t understand enough about the fundamental principles of story to be able to ask myself the five following questions.
1. Who Is the Protagonist?
The Problem: The one unavoidably massive issue with this book was its pervasive lack of focus. Ultimately, it’s a story of a complicated love triangle. Each of the three main characters were equally important, and I chose to equally balance the story amongst their three POVs.
Nothing inherently wrong with that. But at the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet fully understand how story structure guides and creates a story’s focus. This showed up in several areas of this story, but most obviously in the fact that I clearly didn’t understand who this book’s protagonist was. And if I, as the author, didn’t know, then how were readers supposed to know?
But… couldn’t all three main characters be the protagonist?
That’s actually a question I’m asked frequently by writers in regard to their own stories.
What I understand now (and didn’t back then) was that the answer is an unequivocal no.
So, in a story in which multiple characters are prominently important to the story, how do you decide which is the protagonist?
The best way of identifying your story’s “throughline” character or protagonist is by examining the Climactic Moment. Which character is the agent of action in the Climactic Moment? Which character definitively ends and/or comments upon the plot’s primary conflict? This character is the character who defines the story. This is the protagonist. This is the story’s linchpin. That must be reflected at every major structural point throughout the story. Otherwise, your story will fall into the same category as mine—a beautiful mess.
In my case, The Deepest Breath was actually a deeply thematic novel. What interested me most about it was its theme: of undeserved forgiveness. The title itself was a quote from the story’s climactic line when one character finally acted out that forgiveness on behalf of another.
So you’d think the theme would have been the one thing I got right.
Not so much.
At the time of writing that book, I was neck deep in learning how to grapple with the principles of structure. I hadn’t yet even begun to understand how to consciously actuate theme by purposefully creating cohesion between plot and theme at every important structural moment.
The result was a well-intentioned story that, although it may have had some great thematic moments and ideas, didn’t actually execute its theme on every page. Actually, it was kinda hard to tell what the story was really about. Was it about forgiveness? Was it about PTSD and fear? Was it about trust in relationships? Was it about striving against the confines of social class? Was it about love? Was it about friendship? Was it about justice versus mercy?
If I’d possessed a better understanding of how to create a cohesive thematic Truth against which to measure every aspect of my characters’ struggles, I could very well have written a story that unified all these ideas by pointing them toward the same end goal. Instead, I ended up with a story full of half-baked notions that seemed to be pointing in a dozen directions at once.
The Fix: Were I writing this story again today, I would start by forming my thematic idea about forgiveness into a definitive Lie/Truth for all three of my main characters. With so many prominent characters, I would have had the opportunity to explore multiple facets of my topic, but in a way that tied all their journeys into the tapestry of a larger picture.
This, in turn, would have given me a guideline against which to choose which subplots supported this thematic idea—and its ultimate realization in the Climactic Moment—and which distracted from the unified premise I was trying to create.
3. Is the Backstory Pertinent?
The Problem: Something I’ve noticed as I’ve grown up as a novelist is that when a writer doesn’t fully understand her story (or story in general), backstory has a way of trying to take over.
In the days before I understood how the structure of plot, character, and theme worked, I often spent an unwonted amount of time amassing huge backstories designed to help me try to understand what the main story—and the characters’ motivations within it—was really about.
Nothing inherently wrong with huge backstories. Indeed, they’re the deep wells from which complex novels draw their subtext. But backstory, like the main story, must always be focused and pertinent.
As I said before, I originally intended The Deepest Breath to present dual timelines that alternated between the characters’ past and present. Looking back, I realize this idea was mostly a crutch designed to try to help me flesh out character motivations I didn’t yet fully understand. The reason I eventually rejected this approach and axed the novel-length backstory section I’d already written, was that the backstory was a crazy mess of boring trench scenes and unrealistic spy thriller stuff that had very little to do with the main story.
The Fix: Backstory is always important. Even when it is not shared outright with readers, it will always influence the author’s understanding of the characters and their story. Therefore, it must be pertinent. It can’t be a fun, rambling romp through ancillary adventures. It must be the staging ground for the character’s journey through the main story.
I did understand this when I wrote Deepest. In fact, the whole point of the backstory was to create the Ghosts that would drive my characters in the main part of their story ten years later. Unfortunately, I got distracted and created a whole rambling mess of a backstory that detracted from the main story’s focus far more than it contributed. Had I this book to do over again, I would vastly simplify the backstory, focusing it less on all the stuff I’d researched about World War I, and more on the needs of the main story’s plot and theme.
4. Are You Clinging to “Ugly Darlings”?
The Problem: We write stories because at some point we fell in love with some beautiful kernel of inspiration. It’s only natural we wouldn’t want to relinquish that special kernel. And yet… sometimes as a story evolves, it evolves past its early inspirations.
Deepest got its start as a dream—the only story I’ve ever written based on a dream. I woke up one morning with a vivid memory of a man dressed in early 20th-century clothes, escaping with his injured wife on a passenger liner.
I loved that scene. I still love it. It’s incredibly evocative to me on both a sensory and an emotional level.
But I tried way too hard to keep that scene, exactly as I’d dreamed it, in the story.
This principle gets harder and harder to enforce the more time and effort we spend on an idea. Axing an imagined idea is one thing; axing an idea you’ve spent perhaps years writing and rewriting and tweaking and fixing is a thousand times more difficult—not least because familiarity and propinquity cause us to lose perspective.
When I wrote this book, I had a hard time cutting elements that, at the time, felt like the whole point. Today, from a more distant perspective, I could dispassionately identify, chop, and rearrange for the story’s greater benefit.
5. Do You Truly Understand the Story You’re Trying to Tell?
The Problem: Stories are strange beasts. Sometimes the story we think we’re telling isn’t the story at all. Other times, we may understand what we’re trying to do, but get hung up on habitual techniques and approaches that don’t serve the art as well as they might.
Five years later, I recognize The Deepest Breath is an entirely different type of story from anything else I’ve ever written. It’s more character-focused, less plot-driven. It’s darker. It’s quieter. It’s more realistic, more literary.
I knew all of that, on some level, when I wrote it. And yet—I still tried to shoehorn it into my own familiar tropes of the heroic action-adventure genre. The story’s Climax, in particular, suffers from my mistaken attempt to take a hitherto subdued character story and funnel it into a shoot-’em-up finale.
The Fix: It often takes time and experience to recognize, but an author’s two greatest commandments are:
1. Know Your Story.
2. Trust Your Story.
Looking back, I didn’t trust my story—or myself—enough to let it be what it wanted to be. I feared its quietness, feeling it was too slow or too boring. However, in re-reading it, I was surprised to realize how strong and compelling the tension is throughout the book. Had I just trusted that in the beginning, I might have written a much better Third Act.
Again, this principle returns to the idea of cohesion. The point of any piece of art is the creation of an effect. We wish to have an effect on our readers, to leave them with a specific feeling or thought. To do this, we must consciously craft that effect at every stage of the story—bringing plot, character, theme, tone, setting, and pacing together into a unified whole, with each piece trusting the other to support it.
I know what you’re thinking. Now that I think I’m all old and wise and have figured out all of my book’s problems, I should go back and rewrite it, right?
Honestly, I’m just happy to have returned to what has been a somewhat painful memory and discover that, after all, I had not betrayed or been betrayed by this dear friend from whom I had parted on less than genial terms.
The Deepest Breath is not, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever written. But perhaps for that very reason, I do think of it as my greatest mistake. I doubt I will never return to fix it; there are just too many new stories to write. Happily, however, every one of those new stories will benefit from the many, many mistakes I made when writing that particular novel.