My, how conducive having one’s computer out of the house is to intensive reading: even during the last few days’ power outages, I have been spending much of my time huddled by a window or endangering my eyebrows by bending over a sputtering candle, in an effort to throw enough light upon my book. I’ve been feeling like Abraham Lincoln, studying in his log cabin.
Windstorms, the source of the recent, lengthy power outages in my neck of the woods, were very common in the small vineyard town where I grew up. (A child’s living a mile and a half from the nearest potential non-sibling playmate is also very conducive to intensive reading, as it turns out.) Wind-toppled live oaks took out fences, garages, etc, all the time. Consequently, I always know where my candles are, and how to find the matches in the dark.
When I was a senior in high school, one especially salutary windstorm brought a tree branch down upon the object I hated most in the world: the 20-foot-high sign that I, as the luckless Commisioner of Publicity and Assemblies (the things we’ll do for college application candy, eh?) was doomed to mount with a ladder every week to post notices of upcoming football games, musicals, spelling bees, and other events not likely to be of interest to the tourists driving along Highway 29, searching for wineries with offering free tastings. The morning after the storm, the sign was such a mangled mess that I could not even wrest most of the hand-high metal letters off it.
Gravity is sometimes a very lovely thing. It took weeks for the school to erect a replacement sign.
That was not the only miracle that occured during that particular windstorm. Another occured at the religious retreat center just outside of town. (Or, to be accurate, at ONE of the religious retreat centers, the establishment owned by the same church that until fairly recently owned a monk-administered winery in town, not the Moonie encampment or the former commune inhabited by a guru who, a few short years later, would abscond to Tahiti with most of the ashram’s money and one of his youngest devotees.) A charming clearing in the midst of a thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees housed a marble statue of — well, let’s just say Somebody’s Mother. The morning after the sign-destroying windstorm, the tidying groundsman walked into the clearing to discover that four trees had fallen into it.
Somebody up there must be awfully fond of statuary, or at least like it a whole lot better than garages, for all four missed Good Ol’ Mom by a matter of inches.
I’ve thinking of that pale little statue over the last couple of days, just standing there, pensively witnessing the carnage around her, helpless to do anything to save herself from falling timber — and not just because of the windstorms. No, she popped to mind as an exemplar of a common companion issue submissions with my last post’s Manuscript Megaproblem (show, don’t tell) often have as well: the protagonist who remains passive in the midst of plot-moving action and/or character-revealing conflict, merely observing it.
Or, to put it in the language of the Idol rejection reasons (see October 31rst’s post, if that reference means nothing to you), that little statue was afraid to speak; she opened his mouth, but nothing came out; she didn’t trust herself enough to reply; she sat there, waiting for the information to sink in. All of these phrases are common enough signposts of a passive protagonist that, as we saw on the Idol rejection, they are now regarded as cliches in their own right.
This is not to say that passivity does not frequently occur in real life — it undoubtedly does. TV, sports, and movies have certainly encouraged us all to be mere observers of life around us. But that doesn’t mean that it will work on the printed page.
In fact, it usually doesn’t. A protagonist who is more of an observer than a doer can slow a novel’s pace down to a crawl — and in the early pages of a submission, a plot’s not maintaining at least a walking pace can be fatal.
And the sad thing is, writers seldom make their protagonists passive on purpose, any more than they tend to wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, “You know, I think that I should be telling rather than showing in my writing today!”
Here’s how it usually happens in otherwise solid, well-writen submissions. The writer has established the protagonist as an interesting character in an interesting situation — well done. The protagonist encounters a thorny problem that requires thought or discussion to solve. (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So the protagonist dons her proverbial thinking cap…
…and two pages later, she’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting. Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred. Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.
Or the protagonist encounters another character, one with whom there is genuine, organic conflict — again, well done. But instead of speaking up, the protagonist just THINKS about how annoying/wrong/murderous the other character is, effectively deferring the conflict to another scene. So instead of the protagonist’s anger/rightness/suspicions fueling the scene in a way that moves the plot along, the protagonist watches as the plot moves past him.
Um, shouldn’t the protagonist have caught that bus?
In both cases, action happens TO these characters, rather than the characters’ passions influencing the action, driving the plot along.
Agents, editors, contest judges, and even members of book groups complain frequently and vociferously about passive protagonists — and as an editor, it’s a pet peeve of mine, too, I must admit. I suspect this feeling is shared is shared by many bloggers: for every thousand readers of a post, perhaps 4 or 5 post comments — and of those, at least two are commercial links to other websites. As a result (and if you visit many writers’ sites on the web, you’ve probably already noticed this), bloggers tend over time to gear their content to the responders more than to the more passive members of their readerships.
If a blogger posts in the middle of the woods, and nobody responds, did the post make any noise?
But I digress. Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to being mere observers: life happens to them, and they react to it. Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!
This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, agents, editors, and contest screeners are not noted for being fond of reading for pages and pages to find out where the plot is taking them. Try to avoid toying with their impatience for too long. Remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.
To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.
When in doubt about how long is too long, ask yourself this: is there something my protagonist could DO here, however small or misguided, that would affect the status quo? If I had him do it, would the part where he thinks/talks/worries about the situation for X lines/pages/paragraphs be necessary, or could I cut it?
I hear some grumbling out there (we bloggers have to develop superhuman hearing in order to hear those of you who don’t post comments, you know): yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time.
But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years? Written by first-time novelists? Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?
Come up with many? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?
Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists. They see beautiful writing where not much happens more than you might think.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an agent out there who would be fascinated by a well-written, first-person narrative from the point of view of that little marble statue in the middle of that wooded retreat. Her thoughts as she stood there, motionless, as hundred-year-old oaks crashed down around her might well be priceless. However, at some point, even the most patient agent — or editor, or contest judge, or screener — is going to want her to get the heck off her static pedestal and DO something.
Tomorrow (or whenever the local windstorms allow me the necessary electricity to post again), I shall talk about how to tell if your protagonist needs to get a more on. In the meantime, watch out for falling trees, everybody, and keep up the good work!