Purging the plague of passivity, part VII: raising the stakes for your protagonist, or, wait — wasn’t the baby supposed to STAY in that bath water?


Before I launch into the topic at hand, I have a bit of good news to announce about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community (and sometime guest blogger here): Arleen Williams has been named a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition! Congratulations, Arleen — our fingers are crossed for you!

(If anyone reading this is thinking, “Hey, I made the cut, too — why isn’t Anne congratulating me?” about this or any other literary contest, please leave a comment and let me know. I love announcing my readers’ triumphs, but I cannot do it unless I know about them.)

Should any of you want to take a gander at Arleen’s entry — or, indeed, any of the quarterfinalists’ — Amazon has conveniently provided free downloadable excerpts. (And no, I have no idea how the contests’ organizers decided what or how much to excerpt.) Do a little browsing, perhaps leave a few comments — and, more importantly, get a sense of what kind of prose contest organizers are handing Mehitabel the veteran contest judge these days.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt keep saying until my terminal breath, one of the best crash-courses a writer can have is an opportunity to be a literary contest judge, at least in the early rounds of competition — it’s the closest an aspiring writer can get to replicating Millicent the agency screener’s daily experience. See the same types of manuscript megaproblems turning up in seventeen or eighteen consecutive entries, and you’ll start to gain a pretty concrete sense of why our Millie has developed such a hair-trigger for rejection.

Another means of extracting this kind of practical information: have a nice, long chat with anybody who reviews books for a living. Even long before these dissolute days when newspapers and magazines have been dropping book reviews from their pages like the proverbial hot potatoes, reviewers rejected hundreds of potential review-objects, often using strikingly similar criteria to Millicent’s.

Don’t believe me? Take a peek at the recent confessions of a literature-loving book reviewer — he’s already thinking of tossing that review copy aside by the end of the second sentence.

Yes, of the book. Sound at all familiar?

Which brings me back — and it was a rather circuitous road, wasn’t it? — to the burning question of my last post, just how long a protagonist may safely remain passive (or feeling sorry for himself) before Millicent’s hand begins drifting toward the form-letter rejection pile. Last time, I suggested that since that hand can start drifting after just a few lines, and since that drift is equally likely to occur on page 273 as on page 1, a prudent writer edits with an eye toward keeping that protagonist pretty darned active.

If, as the pros say, there should be conflict on every page, the protagonist should be involved in it as often as possible. Ideally, of course, the bulk of that conflict won’t be merely random — there’s a limit to the number of times a protagonist can stumble down the wrong alley and onto a knife fight, after all — but integrally connected to the ongoing struggle in which Our Hero is engaged.

Was that giant crash I just heard the sound of a thousand eyebrows hitting a thousand hairlines? “But Anne,” writers of comparatively peaceful plotlines protest quaveringly, “what on earth do you mean by ongoing struggle? I don’t think of my protagonist as engaged in a constant struggle. Sure, there are things he wants, but I want to keep this book realistic — he struggles sometimes, but in other scenes, he’s resting, playing softball, tending his rock garden, and other real-world activities. I think this makes him easier for the reader to identify with, dag nab it.”

Easy there, slice-of-lifers — no need to devolve into the aggressive idiom of Yosemite Sam. If I may take the liberty of verbalizing the unspoken question that tends to linger in Millicent and Mehitabel’s minds while perusing, say, the third similar rock-gardening scene in a book, if a scene doesn’t either move the protagonist toward his goal or present a new obstacle, enemy, or ally, does it really belong in the book? Or is it merely marking time until the next action scene?

Hey, they asked it, I didn’t. But I must admit, in most manuscripts — especially overly-long or rather slow ones — they have a point. While off-plot scenes, like pages on end of unbroken interior monologue or clever summaries of what has just occurred, are often abundantly justifiable from the writer’s viewpoint as subtle character development (hey, a protagonist who thinks about things must be smart, right?), from a reader’s point of view, they can start to seem like detours, distractions from what’s going on in the book. As a result, many sagging-in-the-middle manuscript could be firmed up by the simple expedient of trimming the scenes that are not integral to the plot.

I know, I know: cutting a scene outright seems like too blunt an editing tool to apply to finely-constructed literary fiction, or indeed, to any nice piece of writing, but remember, in order for an agent to be able to pitch even the most beautifully-written book to an editor, that agent is going to have to be able to say what that book is about. Typically, books are about their plots, not the sentences that are the medium for presenting those plots.

Or, to put it as an agent intending to pitch it might, a good book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is about an interesting person (the protagonist or protagonists) in an interesting situation (the premise) who wants something (the goal), but faces obstacles before she/he/them can obtain it. In confronting and overcoming those obstacles (that struggle I mentioned earlier), the protagonist(s) creates, strengthens, and/or breaks relationships, as well as grows personally/collectively.

Oh, your plot isn’t like that? What are you writing about, a completely antisocial wallaby?

I’ll bet that if you thought about it hard, you’d find that even that wallaby wants something, though, and faces obstacles in getting it. From Millicent’s perspective, that’s the essential story of WALTER THE LONELY WALLABY — and no matter how much she might happen to love wallabies, scenes that are extraneous to that storyline, or seem to slow it down, or appear to be recovering the same territory as a previous scene, are going to have a harder time keeping her interest than those in which Walter is actively engaged in confronting those obstacles.

In other words, the scenes with plot-relevant conflict in them.

Some of you aren’t all that comfortable with the implications, are you? “Wait a minute, Anne,” a few pale wallaby-distracters ask. “What did you mean about scenes that cover the same ground as a previous scene. You couldn’t possibly be referring to — gasp! — scenes where my protagonist tells some other character what’s just happened to her, could you? I’d been thinking of those scenes as active alternatives to internal monologue — dialogue is action, right?”

Well, not necessarily — and dialogue in which all of the parties basically agree with one another and share the same goals tends not to contain much conflict. There’s no denying that such scenes usually recap plot that the reader has already seen first-hand; to Millicent and Mehitabel, they are merely redundant.

Again, they have a point — and not merely because repeating the same information makes some readers feel that their intelligence is being insulted. (“What? This author thinks I’m incapable of remembering what happened ten pages ago?”) Review scenes, whether they take place mentally or via the ever-popular (and plot-stopping) I’ll talk it all over with my best friend/mother/spouse/coworker/fellow foxhole denizen dialogue, seldom add much forward momentum to a plot.

They may appear to do so, by showing how the protagonist comes to a decision about what action to take next, but by definition, such scenes force the reader to travel the same road twice. Like scenes where the protagonist mulls over his options for a few pages, even fairly lengthy let’s talk it over scenes can usually be replaced by a quick Sheila talked it over with George, then they headed out to the abandoned mine to check for ghosts. The reader doesn’t really need to see the recap; most of the time, it may safely be assumed to have occurred offstage.

What’s the inherent risk of keeping such scenes front and center? Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: is a scene where the protagonist thinks over what has already occurred (perhaps while tending that pesky rock garden) more likely to depict him as active or passive? What about the scene where Sheila and George nurse a few beers while speculating about whether those noises she heard in the abandoned mine were really the restless dead?

Uh-huh. Still want to take your chances that Millicent or Mehitabel will be engaged enough in the plot to plow through ‘em?

If your answer to that last question was a resounding, “Yes, by Jove!” that’s certainly your authorial prerogative, but I would strenuously advise taking some writerly action to increase the reader’s investment in the outcome of the plot — or at least in the protagonist’s overcoming the barriers between herself and her heart’s desire.

How do I know that your protagonist does in fact face barriers to attaining her heart’s desire, you ask? Simple: if she didn’t, you wouldn’t have much of a plot going there, would you?

That does not mean, obviously, that all struggles for all goals are equally engaging for the reader. Generally speaking, the less sympathetic the protagonist, the less worthy her heart’s desire, and the less challenging the obstacles, the harder the narrative must work to keep the reader interested in the outcome. Ditto with clichés and predictable plot twists.

So take a good, hard look at your central conflict: are the stakes for which the protagonist is fighting high enough for the reader to keep rooting for him to win? Are the obstacles he faces serious enough to require some genuine ingenuity, persistence, and/or other character trait you want the protagonist to develop over the course of the book to overcome?

If not, could you ramp up the stakes? Make the obstacles more varied? Have an ally suddenly transform into an enemy — or vice-versa?

And yes, it is possible to pull off all of these feats within any storyline, even the most mundane. Realism need not be the enemy of either complexity or conflict; the writer of the real is merely limited by what’s plausible.

Okay, so that’s a pretty big merely. As an aspiring slice-of-life writer wrote in to point out, it can be difficult to ramp up the stakes for

…a protagonist whose problems are — well, trivial is such a harsh word…shall we say not of life-bending importance? This seems to be the problem I’m having with my work-in-progress. While my readers like it, they’re not thrilled by it. Which makes me wonder if I will ever see it published.

Today, it seems you can’t write about an ordinary person and her troubles, but have to throw earth-shattering obstacles at her. As if life isn’t hard enough already.

I hope you’ll discuss this situation and offer some pearls of wisdom to remedy it, without throwing everything out and starting over. Yikes!

Funnily enough, just a few days before the reader posted this suggestion, I had been discussing this very problem with a literary agent at a book launch. Naturally, when he brought up the issue, he described it from the other side of the submission envelope: “I keep getting manuscripts with good characters and good writing, but there’s just not enough at stake.”

Did that collective harrumph I just heard indicate some disbelief that my commenter and the agent were talking about the same phenomenon? Trust me: I’m fluent in both writer- and industry-speak.

Both parties were referring, you see, to a very common manuscript megaproblem, a little something I like to call the Cinema Verita Dilemma: how does one write truthfully and movingly about ordinary life — which is, at least most of the time, stubbornly resistant to the basic rules of drama — without producing a text that’s too ordinary to excite reader interest?

Would it surprise you to hear that the agent probably wouldn’t agree with the writer’s suggested solution of throwing earth-shattering problems into the protagonist’s path in order to make the piece more marketable? Nor would I, as it happens.

Most of the time, it’s just not necessary. More than that, it’s not always plausible.

But I’m overjoyed that the writer brought up the possibility, because many revisers do go a bit overboard in response to the suggestion that they raise the stakes of their protagonists’ conflicts a little, give them a more complex array of problems, and generally make the journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z a bit more circuitous.

How far overboard, you ask? Well, let’s just say that giving the protagonist’s best friend/husband/child a fatal disease, lingering addiction, or propensity to wander out into traffic is all too frequently the FIRST step. From there, the changes can get truly dramatic.

Finding ways to make the ride more interesting is a more useful way to think of adding conflict, perhaps, than simply throwing more obstacles into your protagonist’s way. Most writers are pretty fond of their protagonists — so the notion of making that nice character’s life HARDER can be pretty distasteful.

Especially if, as is often the case with a first novel (and pretty much always the case with a memoir), the protagonist’s original situation was based all or in part upon some aspect of the writer’s life. “Make her life more difficult?” these writers exclaim. “But millions of people struggle with the problems she had in my first draft every day! Surely, that’s important enough to carry a whole book, isn’t it?”

Well, as that agent would have been likely to tell you, it all depends upon the writing. But the fact is, ordinary life tends not to be all that interesting, dramatically speaking.

So whose job is it to make it so on the page? That’s right: the writer’s.

I suspect that pretty much all of us who write about the real are already aware of this on some level. I mean, the fact that we writers tend to describe such stories as ordinary is kind of a tip-off, isn’t it? If the characters are just surviving, rather than engaged in an active story arc, it’s difficult for the reader to feel pulled along with the story.

Let’s face it: the Fates, while unquestionably gifted at producing real-life irony, are not always the best at dramatic timing. So, again, whose job do you think it is to correct for that on the page?

This is equally true of fiction and nonfiction, by the way. Even memoir is seldom just the straightforward reproduction of life as it is actually lived — or, to be more precise, memoirs that sell are seldom just that. In order to make readable stories, memoirists tell their stories through their own individual lenses, selectively, and in a manner that makes a particular point.

Which, if we’re honest about it, is more than whatever deity is in charge of the running order of quotidian life tends to do.

In fiction, simply reproducing one’s diary (or real-life scenes verbatim) doesn’t very often work on the page, either — and, as I mentioned a few days ago, I suspect the fact that most of us were first taught to write short stories, not novels, tends to disguise that marketing reality.

Possibly because good slice-of-life short pieces of the type that most of us were weaned upon in Comp class are usually DESIGNED to disguise that marketing reality.

I’m not joking about that: the essence of slice-of-life literature is conveying the illusion that it is ripped from real life and displayed more or less as is, in much the way that found art is. But actually, considerable craft is required to produce that effect.

What, did you think that David Sedaris just stood in his childhood living room with a tape recorder, writing down transcripts of his family’s hilarity? (Can you believe the ridiculousness of that so-called exposé of Sedaris’ writing, by the way? Some humorlessly anal-retentive researcher went over his books with a fine-toothed comb to try to figure out how much of it was literally true. Apparently, no one involved had noticed that Mr. Sedaris is a COMEDY WRITER — or had heard of poetic license. But I digress, and that’s bad for plot development.)

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there — and not with the writer of that exposé. “But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers protest, “hasn’t there been a lot of great literature that reveals truths about everyday life through closely-examined, beautifully elucidated moments of life as it is actually lived?”

Of course there has been — and still is, amongst each and every year’s crop of literary fiction, memoir, and fiction in every genre. No need to fear that such writing isn’t getting published anymore, because it undoubtedly is. However — and this is one whopper of a however — the reception such a book tends to receive depends almost entirely upon the quality of the writing.

Wait — where have I heard that before?

I’m not going to lie to you: a book that aspires to consist of nothing but such moments and isn’t billed as literary fiction or memoir would probably experience some resistance from Millicent. And before any of you dismiss her taste as philistine-ish, remember that it’s her job to sift through her boss’ submissions, looking for work that has market potential, not just what’s well-written.

Suffice it to say that few agencies are charitable organizations; they exist to sell their clients’ writing, not just to serve the interests of High Art. (Just a quick comprehension check before I move on: everyone out there IS already aware that literary fiction and good writing are not synonyms, right? The former is a marketing category; the latter is a descriptor of work in every book category. If you’re unclear on how to define the former, well, you’re in good company: ask any two agents who represent it for a definition, and you’ll probably get at least two different responses. For more on the ongoing debate, please see the LITERARY FICTION category on the list at right.)

Which brings me back to my little chat with that agent at the book launch: what he was saying, I think, is not that he would like to see writers of books about ordinary people toss them aside in favor of writing something completely different, but rather that he would like to see those ordinary people be a bit more interesting on the page.

As, indeed, my slice-of-life-loving commenter asked me to explain how to do. So I suppose I’d better get around to it.

Unfortunately, like so many good questions about craft, there isn’t a simple answer, or even any single technique to apply. Most of the techniques we’ve discussed in this series would help, to tell you the truth.

But as I am apparently incapable of walking away from a half-answered question (I really do need to work developing that skill, if only so I can get a bit more sleep), here are a few other tricks o’ the trade for pepping up the reality-based — as well as narratives that aspire to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Fair warning, writers of the real: you’re probably not going to like #1.

(1) Give your protagonist a few more problems. Frankly, most novels and memoirs feature characters that are a little too straightforward — and so are their problems. In real life, most people are dealing with a whole rash of issues simultaneously. So why should a novel’s protagonist be luckier?

They don’t need to be big problems to be effective, either. You needn’t cut off her leg, for instance, but how would it complicate the plot to have her sprain her ankle at a crucial juncture? Would it give more scope for character development?

(2) Make solving those problems — and smaller problems along the way — more urgent for your protagonist. Or, to rephrase this in industry-speak, if the protagonist isn’t vitally interested in the outcome, why should the reader be?

A lack of urgency is an unbelievably common problem in slice-of-life submissions. Even if the conflict at hand is quite small, the protagonist’s (and other characters’) involvement in it can make it seem immensely important to the reader.

Again, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that alchemy occurs, not the reader’s job to remain interested in whatever happens to be going on.

(3) Make your protagonist a bit more off-beat. Often, self-described ordinary characters are relatively devoid of quirks — which, again, is not particularly realistic, as anyone who has lived in an ordinary small town can tell you. Almost everybody has at least one or two genuine character oddities; why not let ‘em out for some air?

A very tangible fringe benefit: quirky protagonists tend to be a bit more likeable than salt-of-the-earth nice ones. The former are less predictable. Which brings me to…

(4) Allow your protagonist to act out of character every once in a while. Most aspiring novelists think that keeping a character absolutely true to type 100% of the time is a mark of narrative sophistication — but to tell you the truth, consistency is overrated. (Except, of course, consistent plausibility.)

Why, you ask? If a character isn’t very complex to begin with (see tips 1 and 2), the result can be utter predictability. Especially in a piece that aspires to feel very true-to-life, too much character consistency can sap considerable tension from even a very exciting storyline.

In a flatter story arc, it can take it away entirely.

Think about it: if the reader already has a pretty good idea of how the protagonist is going to react to any given stimulus, and if the storyline self-consciously avoids major twists and turns, what precisely is going to keep that reader turning pages?

(5) Add occasional humor in a serious narrative — and serious moments to a comedy. One-note narration can render even an exciting series of events flatter, yet variation in tone is surprisingly often missing from slice-of-life stories and memoir. Since humor astonishingly seldom plays a major role in memoirs, it can be even more effective to enliven a slow scene.

(6) Allow the external environment to reflect the protagonist’s state of mind. This is an old literary fiction author’s trick: from time to time, instead of showing the protagonist’s mental state through the on-the-nose method of typing her thoughts, why not have a nearby dog growl when she’s angry? Or a sunny day seem made for her alone?

(7) Play to your narrative strengths. Normally, I’m reluctant to give this particular bit of advice, as most writers have particular phrases, sentence structures, types of images, etc., that they would just LOVE to add 400 more times to their current manuscripts. But for quiet books, it honestly is a good idea to figure out what makes the best scenes so good — and to try to replicate that magic in a couple of other instances throughout the book.

Just a couple, mind you. If any of you 400-times-per-manuscipt types claim down the road, “Well, Anne Mini said it was okay to play to my strengths,” I shall deny it vociferously.

(8) Accentuate contrasts. Even in the most prosaic storyline, there are ups and downs, right? Try heightening the joys and deepening the despair.

At first, this may seem as though you’ve made your protagonist bipolar, but a too-even keel tends to reduce a reader’s sense of the importance of that’s going on in a scene. Which leads me to..
(9) Raise the stakes of the conflict that’s already there. This need not mean making every conflict a matter of life or death — but if a conflict seems vitally important to the protagonist, it generally will to the reader as well.

It’s harder to make the day-to-day seem vitally important (see comment above about highs and lows), but that’s just another challenge for a talented writer, isn’t it?

Finally — and this is advice that it would do most aspiring writers good to embrace — try to avoid the temptation to blame the publishing industry’s market-oriented tastes for what is very often a narrative problem. Once a writer’s gone there, it’s just a short step to the slippery slopes that lead to deciding that it’s not worth querying (“Agents only want books with non-stop action.”) — or revising (“They’re not publishing books like mine anymore, so I might as well trash this manuscript and start on a potboiler.”).

A warning flare that one might be getting close to that slippery slope: catching yourself speaking about the process in superlative terms. Watch out for words such as neveralwaysonly, and impossible tumbling out of your mouth when you discuss your book’s prospects.

Or, like today’s commenter, thinking that maybe it would be easier just to throw out the current manuscript and start fresh with a new story. Admittedly, sometimes that actually is a good idea — but as writers are rather more likely to produce this sentiment at the beginning of the revision process, rather than at the middle or the end, I tend to regard it as a more reliable symptom of a lack of confidence than a lack of potential in the book.

And when the thought is attached to a manuscript that has yet to be submitted, it sounds as though the author is trying to talk himself out of sending it out at all. Yes, the current literary market is exceptionally tough, but the only book that will certainly never get published is the one upon which the writer has given up.

Or, to translate it so everyone on both sides of the industry can understand: no one really knows for sure whether a book is marketable until its author has tried to market it extensively. So there.

Sure, the obstacles to publication are lofty, but the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Like so many factors in the life of the successfully compelling protagonist, these facts may be annoying to struggle against, but you can’t deny that they make the writer’s life interesting. Keep up the good work!

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