The plague of passivity

Have you spent the last few days mulling over what I said on Friday about how easily the average reader — to say nothing of the professional ones like agents, editors, contest judges, and our dear old friend, Millicent the agency screener — can turn off to passive characters, protagonists in particular? Not due to any anti-literary hatred of interior monologue, as aspiring writers fond of slow-moving plots tend to assume, but as a matter of pacing and plot momentum.

I heard what your mind just shouted: no, Virginia, that ISN’T just a publishing world euphemism for a reader’s getting bored at a speed to rival a four-year-old’s attention span. Or a gnat’s. This is a legitimate manuscript megaproblem.

Which places the responsibility for fixing it squarely upon the writer.

What, no cheering at the prospect of talking about a submission problem it’s entirely within your ability to solve? That should make a frustrated aspiring writer rejoice, shouldn’t it?

And even if it doesn’t, after the sentence-level self-editing focus of the past few weeks, the kind that had your eyeballs glued to your manuscripts, I thought it might be something of a relief to sit back for some conceptual editing. Today, I want to talk about editing to make your characters more active, both to improve your manuscript’s pacing and to make your protagonist more likeable.

That’s right: I said LIKEABLE, not just more marketable. If the tension starts to lag due to protoganist inactivity — or, heaven help us, extended periods of feeling sorry for himself — readers often begin to find the him less likeable than in periods of activity.

(Yes, even in literary fiction.)

We’ve all read books starring the passive protagonist, right? He’s the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist as the plot put-puts along, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

Since you brought up marketability (hey, I was planning to focus purely on art today, but you had to go and start me thnking), let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another submission.

Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.

So tell me: how are they usually going to react to a submission whose first chapter features a passive protagonist? Or whose first five pages does?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” some frightened frequent submitters protest, “what if the manuscript in question is by a market-savvy writer, someone who realizes that most rejections occur, if not actually on page 1, then certainly within Chapter 1? If the opening 50 pages are quickly-paced and open with a good hook, I — I mean, the hypothetical writer in question — can rest easy, right?”

Not necessarily, alas. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but amongst submissions that have made it to the whole manuscript request stage in recent years, a storyline’s slowing down somewhere around page 50 is a rather well-known phenomenon — for precisely the reason you pointed out: many writers now know that for those first 50, every sentence has to pass strict scrutiny.

After that, revisers tend to relax. A whole heck of a lot.

Resulting, often, in a manuscript megaproblem known in the trade as sagging in the middle. (So called because many manuscripts pick up again in the last 50 pages. We writers do like our endings, don’t we?)

But wait, the news gets even worse: as those of you who have been slaving to perk up your openings already know, a protagonist does not need to be passive for very long to be diagnosed as such. Or even particularly passive.

Again, try not to think of this as the industry’s problem, or as the noxious result of Millicent’s notoriously low thresholds of boredom: that would be a passive response, to a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative.

Instead, I find it’s more helpful for a reviser to think of it as an activity level problem: it’s hard for a reader to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.

It’s no accident that early screenwriter Elinor Glyn (she who discovered Rudolf Valentino, Clara Bow, and first identified the elusive quality of It) advised those who would create screenplays never to allow their heroes to feel sorry for themselves for more than a minute on film.

She meant a literal minute, by the way, not a figurative one, but her advice easily translates into a page for our purposes here.

If there’s an ongoing plot problem — and, as we’ve touched upon in our discussions of tension-building, the characters should face problems more or less constantly throughout a story, to keep the pacing tight — audience members and readers alike prefer to see the protagonist DOING something about it than SAYING or THINKING something about it.

Even, surprisingly, if that action is completely misguided.

Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it is completely misguided; poor life choices for a character are often great fun for the reader, right? One of the quickest ways to add complexity to a two-dimensional character is to have her act out of character at some point early in the book.

To be fair, the vast majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a static character). In most manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.

Unfortunately, they often do so during those interview scenes I was discussing a few days back. You know the ones:

Our guy Jerry is on the trail of a secret that could bring down City Hall while his brother, Arnold, is sitting on death row, accused of a murder he didn’t commit that was — mirabile dictu! — actually committed by someone at the bottom of THAT VERY SECRET. Jerry has been rushing all over town, dodging bullets, in order to seek out answers, yet anytime he bumps into someone who might be able to shed light on the matter, he just sits there while the source spills his proverbial guts.

Even, amazingly, when the source has just spent the last 50 years in excruciating emotional pain, keeping that particular portion of his guts inside. Go figure.

Frequently, Jerry doesn’t even have to ask a single question beyond, “What do you know about it, old timer?” to provoke this innard exposure. (Passive protagonists’ skin apparently secretes some sort of truth serum.)

As I’ve mentioned before, TV and movies have inured most of us to this kind of spontaneous truth-telling; it has seeped into our collective consciousness to the point that it seems almost normal.

Why, just the other night, I was tapping away on my computer while my SO Rick was watching the season finale of one of the five million LAW & ORDER franchises. By the time I had finished my post and sat down next to him, there were only ten minutes left. A harried-looking woman was on the witness stand, being grilled about a long-ago rape. Apparently, she’d kept the identity of her rapist a secret for the past 26 years.

I got up to fix myself a sandwich.

“How can you leave at such an exciting point?” Rick asked.

I yawned. “Because she’s about to blurt out that she was raped by her father. Are you hungry?”

THAT’s how common this kind of interview scene has become: the instant we in the audience learn that a character is hoarding a great big secret, we EXPECT the whole truth to pop out of her mouth within minutes. (And on the original LAW & ORDER, if a victim survives a rape and is female, she usually is an incest victim. Or invented the whole thing, despite the fact that in real life, the false report rate for rape is no higher than for any other crime. Annoying. And predictable. But I digress.)

The point is, passive interview scenes are now ubiquitous — which should set your marketing antennae wiggling automatically. Pop quiz: what do we know about how Millicent tends to respond to ANYTHING — be it a plot twist, formatting error, or cliché — that she’s seen 20 times already this week?

That’s right: “Next!”

Again, this isn’t because Millicent is peevish: novels and memoirs (or, really, any book) featuring a passive protagonist is going to be harder for an agency to sell in the current market. In fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that. (What are you complaining about? It’s longer than Glyn’s minute of screen time.)

You can see your assignment coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s not going to be as bad as you think.

Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it.

Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™ flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.

After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother?

Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?

The conflict need not be earth-shattering: it can be something quite small. Many aspiring writers make the mistake when trying to increase conflict of being too literal about it, inserting actual arguments, assault, battery, etc. all over their texts, thinking this must be what the pros mean by conflict.

Yes, all of these things ARE conflict — but so is the protagonist’s saying something pleasant whilst thinking something evil in a first-person or close third-person narrative, potentially. Or the protagonist’s doing something insignificant to subvert his tryingly anal-retentive boss — moving the paper clips to the wrong side of the storage cupboard so they’re harder to find, for instance.

There are countless ways to introduce conflict, in short, if the author is willing to try. Ordinary life is stuffed to the gills with it.

Next, take a gander at scenes where everyone is being polite. Courtesy is predictable, and thus comparatively dull on the page: is there a way that you could make these exchanges less so?

Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing in this section, whether this scene is actually essential to the book.

If not, could you cut it?

I know, I know: some of my favorite scenes in published books are quiet, too. But it’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development.

When a scene adds to neither, it’s a prime candidate for trimming. Because, really, in a submission, there’s no room for filler. (And don’t bother to start listing published books that are filler-fests; as I’ve said time and again, the standards for a manuscript breaking into the biz tend to be substantially higher than what an established writer can get published.)

Well, those two tasks ought to keep you busy for a while, I imagine. So when I return next month…

No, but seriously, I shan’t leave you hanging for that long. Next time — tomorrow, in all probability — I shall delve into the nitty-gritty of ferreting out protagonist passivity. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “The plague of passivity”

  1. One of my favorite authors is Wallace Stegner who had an amazing ability to write softly with crashing conflict. I thought of his work as I read today’s post. This is such helpful information, Anne. You’re makin’ me work hard for this, you know! You and Wallace.

    P.S. I found out today that my poetry submission to that Unnamed Association’s literary contest was selected as one of eight finalists. I was told the poetry category received an unprecedented number of entries, so I feel very humbled and amazingly lucky. Thanks for letting me crow!

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