Stepping It Up

This is going to be an unusual post. On March 28, 2018, Carley Anne wrote, There’s a part of my manuscript that’s been bothering me: much of the drive for my story (though not all), is that there’s a supposed legend which gives a date for when certain things will be ‘ended.’ Some characters believe in the legend, others do not; we don’t know the truth until the end of the story–but whether the legend is real or no, my antagonist believes it, so therefore, everyone has no choice but to act. How do I make a legend believable? Without smoke and mirrors (and some old, wise, stereotypical cloaked guy rasping the legend’s words through the darkness, if you know what I mean). There are supernatural beings in my fictional world, and they are the first to hear of said legend, but I’ve been looking for ways to reveal bits and pieces to the readers, so that it’s believable, and straightforward. As far as legends go.

You responded so well and thoroughly that I have little to add, so I’m going to reprise the responses, put in a few thoughts of my own, and move on the a second question.

Angie: Maybe you could show signs that the legend could be true by having certain aspects of it line up with real-life events? Events that could be explained away, but also seem to carry the weight of prophecy to those who believe, i.e. a storm or an eclipse bringing darkness, or a kingdom whose rulers and heirs cannot survive past a certain age (perhaps due to a hereditary disease, OR, due to a curse/legend that seems to be coming to pass) or something to that effect. Something like this could make a legend seem real enough to sway many people into believing it.

Raina: Ditto what Angie said about having certain aspects match up with real events. If people think “look the prophecy is right about x and y, it’s probably going to be right about z too,” they’ll probably believe it. In addition, you could also make the terms either general enough or metaphorical enough that anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it. For example, if a prophecy says something like “a dragon shall sit on the throne,” it could mean a literal dragon (like in Terry Pratchett’s book GUARDS! GUARDS!), a monarch whose house sigil is a dragon (like the Targaryans in Game of Thrones), somebody with a draconian personality, or just somebody named “Dragon”. I think any of these explanations would seem logical, especially if people are thinking about it after it occurs. There’s something in psychology called Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias) in which people tend to see past events as predictable, despite no evidence. I think that effect would be especially strong in the context of a prophecy, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make people go “yep, the prophecy definitely predicted that.”

Also, does your antagonist have any particular reason for believing the prophecy? If they believe it because they want it to be true, they might also be affected by confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and perceive every little thing as a sign of the prophecy. I think as long as your characters truly believe in the prophecy and act accordingly, your reader will too. You could reveal bits of the prophecy to the reader by having some characters mention bits and pieces of the prophecy (like: “oh, hey, a red sun rises, just like it said in the legend) and maybe even discussing/arguing about it.

Bethany: The legend could give some precursor proof (you know, things the legend says will happen before the rest of it starts), such as a lightning storm taking out a major building or the royal baby dying, that could all be happening. That would give the readers that little sneaking fear of ‘is this actually going to happen?’ Or a few of the smaller things the legend says will end could actually get ended. Then the legend would seem to be starting to come true, if any of this makes sense to you.

My turn: We might add weight to the legend through corroborating evidence, as often happens when scientific ideas become confirmed, as in physics, when particles are observed to behave in a way that bears out a new theory. In our story, a scroll might be discovered that revels the credible origins of the legend. Or an ancient civilization might be excavated. Their urns are decorated with scenes from the legend.

Or the belief of a respected character can give weight to the legend. If Gandalf, for example, believes it, this reader (me) would be sure it must be true.

Of course, we have to keep our eye on the truth that only we know: the factual or fictitious nature of the legend. We want to be sure that we have the balance right between belief and doubt in the minds of our characters and our readers, because we want the eventual reveal to work.

On to the next question. If anyone responded to this one, I missed it, and I apologize.

On April 12, 2018, Enchanted wrote: I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy (eek!) and I’m a little stumped. The story is based on “Snow White,” except it involves vampires. Basically, Snow White starts off as a pampered princess (her father spoils her) and she has a best friend, this young prince from the neighboring kingdom who has slowly become…more than a friend. He visits her during the summer but lives in his own country most of the time, so they mostly communicate by letter. Snow White’s father brings home his new wife; aforementioned evil stepmother murders him, and Snow White gets framed for it. She escapes prison, but the evil queen shuts down all the roads out of the country, so the only way to get out is through a forest full of vampires. The vampires catch her, but they’re really running this resistance movement against the queen, so they want to help Snow White. One of the vampires is really young and handsome, and Snow White starts falling in love with him (by the end of the trilogy, she has to choose either her best friend or the hot vampire–no spoilers!). Eventually, the evil queen figures out she’s hiding in the forest and sends some bad guys to kill Snow White. One of the men stabs her, but the vampires bite her back to life and then she becomes one of them. Then they set off for the castle where her best friend lives, because they need his army to overthrow the queen. That’s the end of Book 1.

My problem is with the pacing; the middle of the story slouches for me (I think Gail calls this the “sagging middle”). Because for several chapters, they’re holed up in a cottage in the woods. Of course there’s all this romance going on with Snow White and the handsome vampire, but I feel like there’s not enough meat to the middle of the story and not enough motivation for them to just sit around in this cottage when there’s an urgent need to get to the other country. And I need time to pass somehow, because there has to be enough time for them to fall in love and also some crazy stuff needs to happen in the capital with the evil queen while they’re gone.

Any suggestions would be appreciated! (I know, it’s a tricky one!)

I’ve been thinking about this in my own WIP, my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. You’d think it would be all action and danger, but I’m including some of the lead-up to the expulsion, which historically took at least a hundred years, though I’m covering only the final nine. For most of that time, my MC, Cima, is safe. Terrible things are happening, but she’s protected by her prominent, wealthy Jewish family. I often found myself struggling to stay awake. To wake myself up, I listed whatever I could think of that makes trouble for Cima. You can do the same. Here’s what I mean:

∙ I’ve introduced family conflict in the form of a hysterical mother and an evil brother. Cima hates discord, and she suffers. That livens things up! Discord is an item on my list. Applying this to Enchanted’s story, is all sweetness and light among the vampires in the cottage? If not, how do their problems affect Snow White? Can she be in actual danger? Even when they leave the cottage the negative emotions can bubble up when the plot has to slow down.

∙ Cima loves children and, from the beginning of the book when she’s seven, what she wants most is to be a mother someday. This is another item on my list. I keep threatening Cima’s most cherished desire. For example, the evil brother reveals what her horoscope said when she was born, and the signs were not auspicious for motherhood. I’m not sure what Snow White wants (she can want more than one thing), but whatever it is might be can be brought to the fore and made unlikely.

∙ Jews during this period were sometimes baptized by force, though Church policy didn’t approve. Once baptized, even forcibly, people weren’t allowed to go back to the old religion. Cima fears baptism, and I bring this fear in sometimes when my story slows. So what does Snow White fear, and what does she want? Can that fear and that desire be awakened in the cottage?

∙ Cima is her grandfather’s favorite, which also causes conflict. Other family members are jealous, and he’s demanding. For Enchanted, can the romance create stress in the cottage? Might the romance itself get bumpy sometimes?

The overarching strategy is to look around at our plot and our characters to find threads we can exploit when the going gets tedious. We can give our MC personality buttons that go off when pushed. Ditto for other characters. We can give her desires that can be frustrated during quiet times as well as during big action scenes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your characters are trapped in a mine. This can be a reality-based mine or a fantasy one, possibly created by dwarves. For the moment, they’re safe, and you want them to stay that way for long enough to introduce them all, and you want the reader to stay awake. Using the strategies above, or any others that you think of, write this stuck part of the story. If you like, keep going and write the whole thing.

∙ Your MC is on the road in a rock band. Keep things tense on the trip from New York City to Miami. Write the journey.

∙ Snow White (without vampires) is new to living with the dwarves. The evil queen hasn’t discovered where she is yet. Make the interval until she does tense, even though the dwarves mean her well.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Your responses to the second question were super helpful! I tend to struggle with the ‘sagging middle’ myself. I’ll have to remember all that for future reference.

    • Enchanted, I can’t wait for your book to be published!!!!!!!! It sounds like a awesome twist!!!! TELL US WHEN IT COMES OUT!!!!!

  2. People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

    • Song4myKing says:

      About pain. I think readers will care more about a character who’s suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character who’s trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer cord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

      Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way– if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

      But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

      About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can easier imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

      But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your buff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made up world, you are the creater, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

      And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

  3. Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears– to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

    Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

    In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really that unique–but he reminded me a lot of myself.

  4. So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like 10 people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

    • It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character.) I will be very sad.

    • I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least).

      Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

    • Song4myKing says:

      They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

  5. Wow. This gives me hope. Thanks so much! Really, thanks. It is a luxury to be able to ask fellow writers questions, because I am very inexperienced when it comes to writing actual books, very different from research papers!🙂

    • Song4myKing says:

      No kidding! I laugh when I look back at research paper writing – for me one glaring difference is how I think of word count. I used think it was so hard to write 2,000 words. Now I find myself looking for ways to cut that many at a time.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I’m adding this question to my list. The question about suffering has been covered wonderfully well, but the one about writing what you know less so. I’ll mostly stick to that.

    • This is my first time trying to write a book and this blog keeps me from giving up. Right at the moment I’m trying to develop my villain’s personalty (when I started he didn’t even have a movitive) this blog and my younger siblings have been very helpful.

  6. I added my own question on the same subject as Samantha, so thank you as well. Um, I was wondering, do you think that it’s ok if my book takes years to write? I’m still in school, so I can’t dedicate as much time to writing as others. So is it ok if my book will take a VERY long time to write?

    • I don’t think that’s a problem at all! ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, took ten years to write, and GO SET A WATCHMAN was published more than fifty years after TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The only concern you might have in the future is that if you get a multi-book deal with a publisher, you’ll typically be under contract to write a book a year (because most sequels release more or less one year after each other), but even that’s negotiable. It’s been seven years since book five of George R R Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series came out, and book six is still being written.

  7. Does anyone else have the problem where a simple, relatively-lighthearted story gets so bogged down by serious/heavy themes that it becomes a different story altogether, and not necessary one you want to tell? My WIP started out as a relatively simple adventure about Snow White being resurrected with dark magic, but then it got complicated and went into some pretty deep issues about power, human nature, and society. And even though those are interesting themes that would be great to explore in a book, it’s not what I want to do right now. Is there any way to dial back the “seriousness” of a work without losing the general story?

    • Oh, and I should clarify: When I say “serious”, I don’t just mean dark/gritty in tone. I mean that certain aspects of the book can be interpreted as trying to make a statement about certain social/political issues in modern society, which I am NOT trying to do. The parallels are purely unintentional (and sometimes I even go out of my way to try to avoid them), but the way the story is set up can make it easily misinterpreted by those who want to find a message in the book. (Don’t get me wrong; I definitely admire the people who use their writing to get people thinking about issues and inspire change, but that’s just not what I’m trying to do right now, in this book.)

  8. Raina:

    Good question, I’ve been wondering about that myself lately. One idea which I’ve been using in my WIP fairy story is make sure there is plenty of humor. My MC Lio and his friends are being trained to rescue fairies from dangerous situations where they could end up killed. But, Lio is a coward, which can add a lot of comedy to the situation and still have a message to send. I also have a character who isn’t totally comic relief, but still has a lot of smart answers for every situation.
    You could also NOT kill off beloved characters that play a big part in the story (although you can absolutely kill villains and unimportant characters can die). In my WIP, fairies can (and do) get injured, but no one dies. You can have consequences, but not have them get dark, such as having a character struggle with Survivors Guilt the whole novel.
    Hope these sggestions were able to help, and if others have advice, feel free to chime in! : )

  9. Question for all: how do you come up with characters names? Specifically foreign sounding ones. My MC is a spy working in a fantasy take of an Arabian/Egypt world. A lot of desert, a little water, and a super important mission. I can’t come up with a name that seems to fit her personality. She is calm, observant, stubborn, and sometimes lets her feelings get in the way of the mission. If you have watched DreamWork’s Voltron, you could say that she’s a lot like Keith, the red paladin.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      In my Mesopotamian fantasy, EVER, I looked online for Mesopotamian names, which turned out to be very long, like a line of type for a single name, if i remember right. Then i examined the long name and found a piece of it that worked. Mesopotamia is the ancient Middle East, so the same strategy may help you.

    • I like to use nameberry.com and dmnes.org (which probably won’t be relevant for this particular book because all of those names are from medieval Europe, but it’s still a great resource to keep in mind for the future.) The advanced search feature on nameberry lets you search names by origin as well as sound and meaning, so that’s always a good place to start. They also have user-created lists of names with a bunch of different themes, such as mythology names, names from ancient cultures, etc. Fantasynamegenerator.com also generates names in tons of categories (both real and fictional), so if you’re not looking for anything specific you could go there for some randomized inspiration.

      • I’ve been using Behind the Name for awhile. It started when I made up the name Malak for my half-demon, half “angel” character who gets in touch with his angelic side. I thought I’d better make sure it wasn’t a dirty word in another language or something, so I looked it up and found this:

        MALAK
        GENDER: Feminine & Masculine
        USAGE: Arabic
        OTHER SCRIPTS: ملك (Arabic)
        PRONOUNCED: ma-LAK [details]
        Meaning & History
        Means “angel” in Arabic.

        I laughed myself silly (although I put the stress on the first syllable), and then had fun naming the rest of the characters with fitting meanings from the Biblical section. It’s getting tricky in Book 2, because I’m down to either familiar names (which I’ve only been using for humans) or names with modern connotations that don’t fit, like Uzzi. (I renamed Orpah and Barack for that reason.)

          • Wow. Behind the Name worked so well, now I have a long list that I have to pick from and I’ll definitely go there for names in other books. Thank you!

  10. Hello! Thank you for touching on my “legend” question…excellent advice, readers and writers, brava!

    As a side-note, I’ve recently written a post about your writing, Mrs. Levine, I hope you don’t mind!

  11. Can I ask for a plot suggestion? My MC is going to break into a government facility, and the story is set in the future so it is a bad government. If she is caught, she may be killed, and she knows this. What do you think would motivate a character so drastically, that they would take such a dangerous risk? Any suggestions will be welcome. (Is it cheating to ask for help on here? Please tell me if it is.)

    • People are constantly looking and asking for inspiration. I do not personally think this is cheating in the least.
      Hmm sounds interesting. Perhaps she is trying to change the government system for the better? Or the leaders of this system have captured someone she cares about and are holding him/her hostage? Or perhaps she is trying to get a piece of information. Maybe someone did something against the law and is going to be punished and she has to save them with this info.

  12. Song4myKing says:

    Make a Mighty List! See this post: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2016/03/16/pride-and-prejudice-and-lists/

    Here’s a few ideas for starters:
    She wants something in the building. A person held hostage, information, an important object…
    She’s been dared to break in. She must take the dare very seriously, for some reason.
    She’s a spy, hired by enemies or acting zealously for a rebel cause
    She’s a hired thief
    She wants to prove her abilities to a potential employer who needs a skilled thief, spy, escape artist…
    She wants to figure out exactly what is going on in there
    She wants to leave something inside – bomb, letter, enemy flag, recording devise …

  13. Are there others here who like to listen to music while writing? I personally find it useful. It keeps the background noise mostly out of my thoughts and often inspires me. If you do, what sort of music do you like to listen to? I can’t listen to music with lyrics while writing. I mostly listen to Adrian von Ziegler, and The Piano Guys. In general I like compelling music that is inspiring. What about you? Any writing music suggestions?

    • The Piano Guys are great! I also listen to Simply Three, 2Cellos, Peter Hollens, Taylor Davis, William Joseph, and of course the classical artists Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Vivaldi.

    • My novels tend to end up with soundtracks, usually instrumental or songs that I’ve heard so often that the words aren’t distracting. Usually lots of instrumental and Disney soundtracks.

      Some frequent repeats (Which tells about the kind of thing I tend to write):

      God Help The Outcasts, from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame
      Son of Man, D’s Tarzan
      The Battle from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
      Song of Freedom and All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Doctor Who
      Flying, Peter Pan (live-action version)

    • I’ve never actually tried it, but now I might, sounds interesting. (But turned down low; I get distracted😉)

  14. I listen to music when I write as well! But what kind of music depends on the emotion of the scene and the overall tone of the story. For my Jelsa story I listen to symphonic film scores, but for my fairy story I listen to The Piano Guys, Simply Three, Eklipse, and a few unconventional film soundtracks such as Fantastic Mr. Fox.
    I used to listen to music with lyrics, but I found that it helped my focus to listen to music without lyrics.

  15. Oh wow. I just found the very first actual writing attempt for my novel I am writing! It’s horrible. Really bad. But, Mrs. Levine, I followed your advice, and didn’t crumble it up and throw it in the trash. And now I can look back at my start! Thank you…

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