We’re continuing with last week’s questions, so here they are again:

On February 29, 2012, Maddi wrote, I’m having some trouble getting “inspired.” I have my plot worked out, I’m just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I’m not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I’ve been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I’m a pretty good speller. Any ideas?

Then last week TsuneEmbers wrote, I’ve been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won’t come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn’t actually feel like it can work yet.

I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I’m currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that’s about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn’t give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared every time someone mentions it, because I’m really more of a character person, and I don’t get this plotting thing as well.

Let’s start with a prompt similar to one in Writing Magic. Let’s take two classics I hope you know well, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and switch heroines. If you haven’t read them, now may be the time. Then come back and try the prompt, which is to rewrite the scenes in each book where heroine and hero first encounter each other. In Jane Eyre this is when Rochester’s horse throws him, and in Pride and Prejudice it’s at a dance, but a scene at Bingley’s house when Jane is ill might be even better. If you like, after you finish the scene, keep going.

What you’ll find, I hope, is that plot changes when character changes. The two can’t be teased apart. If you continue with the prompt you’ll have an enormously changed story on your hands. Maddi and TsuneEmbers, your separate problems may be just as entwined.

Maddi, you have your plot, but you may not have figured out what sort of character will go in the direction of your story. Let’s imagine that a heroine, Iola, lives with her parents and her brother Osiah in the village of Ewark. She’s out gathering firewood, and when she returns, she finds her village destroyed by the savage Rindik clan. Her parents have been killed, but one of the few survivors tells her that her four-year-old brother has been taken. In the plot plan, Iola, after many trials, saves her brother and becomes leader of her clan. You (obviously this you isn’t you anymore, Maddi, just an anonymous writer trying to find her way) know what the trials are and how the triumph comes about, but Iola seems to be sleepwalking through it all. Characters come and go, saying their lines woodenly. You are having a harder and harder time sitting down to write.

What to do?

Well, there are lots of questions to ask yourself. Here are a few: What’s Iola like? Is she naturally brave? If not, how does she persuade herself to take on the task ahead? If she is brave, brave how? Is she foolhardy? Does she overestimate her abilities? Why was she fetching firewood at the fateful moment? (Maybe she stamped off after an argument with her father. Maybe she offered to get the firewood to avoid being stuck with watching her brother. Either of these could make her feel pretty guilty.)

Here’s another prompt: Write down at least five more questions about Iola. Notice that I’ve been choosing questions that may increase conflict, that may give her a harder time achieving her goals. But some questions (and answers) may help her.

Now consider a secondary character. Suppose Iola needs an ally. Let’s imagine that she has to win supporters to her cause, but, although she’s a sterling person, good to the core, she puts her foot in her mouth whenever she opens it. She needs honey-tongued Ennio to be her ambassador. Now you need to ask questions about him. Why is he willing to endanger himself? Why would he throw his lot in with Iola, of all the other leader possibilities? Why is he willing to be subordinate to her? (You may need to think more about Iola to answer some of these.) A third prompt: more questions about him.

And a fourth: Based on your questions and your answers, write the first scene in your story between Iola and Ennio.

And a fifth: If you’re Maddi or are having a problem like hers, return to your own story now and ask questions. Rewrite a scene, then come back to the blog.

Now that you’re back if you went away, another way to make a story less mechanical is to ensure the reader cares about the stakes, which in this case may involve making the reader love Iola and her little brother Osiah and possibly her parents. Which suggests more questions. What is Osiah like? What was his relationship with his big sister? Same for the parents.

Again, a prompt. Write this scene: Iola is making her way across rough terrain. She may be tracking the Rendik or hurrying to the nearest village, but she has time to contemplate. As she’s figuring out what to do next, include her feelings and a few thoughts that will illuminate her relationship with her family. You can go to a full-blown flashback, but you can also just drop in tidbits. For example, maybe she’s thinking about how her mother taught her outdoor survival techniques and her father used to joke about her mom’s methods and Osiah would laugh along without understanding the meaning of any of it.

This contemplation while traveling is just one example, but including thoughts and feelings regularly (almost constantly) helps bring a character to life and engages the reader too.

TsuneEmbers, you think you know your characters. But maybe you know them in a static way and you don’t know what they’ll do. You might review your main character’s profile and, based on it, list ten things that could happen to him that would give him trouble, funny trouble or serious misery. Let your mind go. See if one or more of your ideas begins to suggest a story. See if you can incorporate a few of the problems into the story. Ask yourself what your main wants and also what he definitely, absolutely under any circumstance does not want, which, naturally, you can give him.

Let’s take Iola again. Suppose she’s been sheltered, a little over-protected, by her family, which she’s resented since she turned twelve, but there’s been an effect. She’s not sure of herself, because she hasn’t been tested. Deep down she wonders if her parents protected her because they feared she wasn’t capable. Let’s say, along the lines I already suggested, she speaks her mind forthrightly and often offends. Then, when she offends someone and realization hits, she feels doubly bad, embarrassed about the way she expressed herself and awful for the person she criticized, whom she believes must be mortified. Let’s make her generous and stubborn and give her an impish sense of humor. And anything else you want to throw in. Or, of course, you can make her entirely different from what I’ve laid out.

Final prompt: Knowing what you’ve invented about Iola, write the scene when she returns to the village and discovers the massacre. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. From the website:

    Thanks for the post, Gail! I'm definitely going to try the Lizzy/Jane switch, though I'm sure Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are turning over in their graves 😉

    @Maddie, I can only second what Gail said. I'm a very character-driven writer and it's all about what the character will think. When you have your character defined, perhaps he/she will suggest a way to do something with the plot? It just happened to me – my MC doesn't like to be bossed around or afraid, so naturally she will rebel against the good guys, who she sees as bad guys. I had to find a way to let her do that and keep the plot running, which was hard, but worth it.
    @TsuneEmbers, I just vehemently second Gail's opinion.

    I've got another question: my MC's love interest is engaged, but even though MC wants to hate her, she can't, because the fiancée has been wonderful to her, and she's just an amazing person. How can I make readers conflicted about her? I mean, thy shouldn't want anything to happen to her, because she's so sweet and awesome, but they should want her to get out of the way for my MC. In addition, she really loves MC's love interest, and he loves her, though he's torn. A good example of this is in Downton Abbey (SPOILERS) when Matthew becomes engaged to Lavinia. You're rooting for Mary all the way, but Lavinia's so sweet, you can't hate her. (SPOILERS OVER.) How do I make this work? I don't want readers to hate her, or to root for her. I want them to be conflicted.

    One last question for everyone, just because I'm interested: do you write longhand or do you type and why? Personally, I do a bit of both.

  2. This is so awesome! I used to post a while back on here but I haven't in a while, and I almost forgot how useful all of this is. So I have a writing question now. There may have already been a post about this, I'm not sure. I just started writing a book of short stories yesterday. Most of these stories have been rolling around in my head for a while, so I'm excited to be writing them. But my problem is, I tend to start writing short stories and start making them into long stories. I'll start writing it, having a basic idea of what the story will be like, and then it all spins out of control and suddenly I've written 5,000 words and am starting a novel! But if I'm really careful about making it shorter, then it ends up boring, and the characters end up boring and flat, too. Does anybody have some advice on writing good short stories?

    • I don't know much about short stories, but just this morning I started "Past Perfect, Present Tense" by Richard Peck and he says "Novels tell of epiphanies acted upon. A short story tends to turn upon a single epiphany, sometimes in the last line. The change to come is to play out in the reader's mind." I love Richard Peck's writing; he is classified as young adult and I would say ages 14 and up.

    • When I write a short story, I try to make a small outline, about ten things or less, and then spend only so long on each part. When I rewrite, I take out what is really unnescesary, but leave everything else in. I also find it helps to write the short stories longhand before typing them, because my hand gts tired faster, so they ed up being shorter. For me a short story usually takes about one or two days. I spend most of those two days on it and by the end of the second day, the stary has pretty much ended itself.

  3. Mrs. Levine, I'm still doing the Kyle and June project but it's going slower and slower every week. I only can write in weekends. Anyway, still connecting with the project, my mind normally changes. Like, at first I think G is poor, then for quite a while I think he should be rich! It also slows the story-writing also. I think this project's story will be in the mystery, adventure and magic genre. Do you have any suggestions for writing a better story that doesn't change easily?

  4. The story I'm writing right now, I've found that it sours very quickly if I introduce a wrong character at the wrong time, or have an extra character that I don't really need. For example, there is the love interest that I hadn't meant to introduce early on, but on a whim decided to. It just didn't fit. My MC would smile at him. It would feel as if he leered back. He even suddenly looked different in my mind. And I didn't want to dislike him! So I changed his name and he became another character, and my story started flowing again.

    I guess my point is that maybe sometimes, when you plot something, it doesn't always work out. CHanging stuff around helps. 😀

    (Btw, as a reply to Anne: I write straight on the computer, usually, but the story I just mentioned is my first longhand. I'm liking it so far!)

  5. Hi,
    Gail I just wanted to say that I just re-read your post on the twelve dancing princesses and oddly enough, I know a picture book version which answers a lot of your questions. It's retold by Marianna Mayer very traditionally, not really changing any of the storyline.
    As a plus it has gorgeous illustrations!

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