All works of fiction, no matter what their genre have several commonalities. Protagonists and side characters begin in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray. This is the inciting incident.
Once they recover from the first stumbling block, our protagonist realizes they want or need something: an object or person that will resolve the situation they are in. This is a moment of truth, a point where the protagonist realizes they could lose everything.
To resolve their situation and acquire what they need, the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances. They will flounder and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation.
In my own work there have been times where I was so busy setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost.
For a particular event to have a place in the narrative, it must fulfil several requirements:
- It must entertain the reader.
- It must enable new circumstances.
- It must force growth on the character, for good or for ill.
We do not insert random incidents simply for the sake of action. The events the protagonist experiences must be there to facilitate change. The action must force personal growth or otherwise affect the characters involved in it.
When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve. Morality, love, coming of age—these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.
Perhaps you are experiencing writer’s block. Inspiration has abandoned you, and you become desperate to get your narrative moving again.
It may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about, and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it hope?
When you first imagined you had a story to write, you had an idea of what the characters would be like. Did you picture them fully formed? At the beginning, we must leave room for growth and change, for us to show the character evolving, growing to that finished state. This is how we involve the reader in the hero’s journey.
When an author becomes desperate and inserts outlandish events or conversations “just to show they are human” it disrupts the story arc. At that point, the author frequently loses interest in the story and believes they are suffering writer’s block.
Think about novels you may have read where the author became too focused on the action and neglected to devote a few sentences detailing the character’s introspection. Their protagonist went from one death defying incident to another, without a pause or a moment to catch their breath. The protagonist may as well have been a crash test dummy, ricocheting from one event to the next with no thought or feeling.
The constant onslaught of random action became a loud noise that didn’t make any sense because there was no chance to link the events together and put them in perspective. Events inserted for shock value and with no pause for reflection don’t show personal growth. This can make an otherwise good character two-dimensional.
This need for pauses between the action has been referred to (by better educated people than me) as: writing the way a skater skates: “push – glide – push – glide.” Action – reflection – action – reflection. These small pauses give the reader a chance to breathe and process what just happened.
What will the protagonist gain from the experience? Action, deeds, and accomplishments are necessary to force change and growth on the characters. When you write a scene, ask yourself, “How will their fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event?” If there is no personal cost, the scene is a side trip to nowhere and should be removed.
Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.
I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.
In the greatest, most memorable novels, the reader experiences the characters’ lives as they react to the events and setbacks.
This is what we want to achieve in our own work. The genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a stage upon which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control—the author.