Plot dilemmas and a villain

On December 13, 2013, this came into the website from Alyssa: I reached a point in my book where I needed an explanation for something, but I couldn’t think of one, so I just put something down so I could keep going. I don’t really like the explanation, but it was the best thing I could come up with. Do you have any advice for moments like that?

Also, I feel like there are large parts of my book where I am just making things up as I go along. Is this normal for you, or do you have a general idea of how your story is going to end when you finish your book?

My third question was, when you create a villain, how much cruelty do you consider enough to convince your reader that the character is no good? Because in my story, the main character’s mother is the main villain in my main character Lara’s life, so I want to convince the reader that the mom is awful and cruel, but Lara still loves her mom, I just don’t know how to show that. I want her to seem evil, but Lara sticks around for about 18 years, so I can’t make her that bad. Do you have any advice for this kind of problem?

Eliza responded with these ideas: I’ve heard lots of writers describe themselves as pantsers, meaning they go off the seat of their pants and just make stuff up. Almost as if they’re reading it instead of writing. For me, I need to have at least a general idea of how it will end. “Villain gets killed. Heroine is reunited with her boyfriend. Character breaks out of prison.” But I don’t know who will kill the villain or how the character escapes. It helps if I know the next five events. By the time I’ve written those I’ve come up with something else. If you feel lost you may need an outline. But if you’re comfortable making stuff up? Go ahead.

On villainy: It’s remarkable-and more than a little sad-how people stay loyal to real life villains. Lara’s grown up with her mother. She’s seen her good side too. But show her doing something awful and cruel and readers will recognize her as a villain. I wrote a story where my character’s parents were mean, though not the main villains. It helped to have her brother call out the parents for being cruel when she’s too afraid to stand up to them.

And Elisa weighed in with, On the out-of-the-blue-temporarily-staying-like-this-fix-later thing: Write something that makes sense, sort of, then leave it like that, then come back and elaborate on it. Change some things earlier on and later on to fit with this scene, (Such as Q: How does the MC escape prison? A: He has a file and a parachute. Now you figure out WHY he has a file and a parachute. Add them into the parts of the story you’ve already written.)

A lot of my writing comes from my subconscious. I toss things into my stories without any idea of where they emerged from. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, I made Addie skillful at embroidery, probably because I wanted her to be good at something, and embroidery seemed like a hobby that a shy person might take up. Basically, I was just rounding out her character. I didn’t know what I’d do with this accomplishment, but I kept it in mind, and it came in mighty handy when she was captured by the dragon Vollys.

So that would be my suggestion. We come up with an explanation, the best we can think of, and soldier on, remembering the explanation as we go and looking for spots where it will support our plot. Maybe it will create tension, make our MC unhappy, or get her out of a jam.

I also like Elisa’s idea and her example. When we throw in that parachute and file, we create interest and stimulate our ingenuity. We can also make the reader worry. She knows about the parachute and the file. What if a guard finds them? What if another prisoner steals them for his escape?

In Two Princesses, the embroidery might not have turned out to be useful. Addie may have needed something else. As my plot revealed itself, I could have gone back and exchanged embroidery for pottery, or I could have revised her into a supremely strong swimmer. I may have wasted pages and time with the embroidery, but lost time and words for me are just the price of being a writer. And, often, I have fun writing the parts I wind up not needing.

Generally, before I introduce anything into a story, I make a list of possibilities, and the element I bring in isn’t the first one I thought of. So there’s another suggestion. We can make a list of explanations, five at least, and then choose the one we like best. If that one doesn’t work out in the end, we can go back to our list and add to it or see if one of the rejects really fits the bill.

Like Eliza, I, too, usually know in a general way where my story is going. If a plot seems to be meandering or lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s time to stop to consider what the main problem is. To figure that out, we can ask ourselves some questions: What’s most important to our MC? What problem resonates with her personality? Which challenges those aspects of her character that most need to grow?

When we know the main problem, we can list ways to resolve it. We don’t have to work out the resolution in detail, and our decision can be tentative; we’ll know better if the ending is right as we approach it. Once we have an inkling of the ending, we can craft our crises to jibe with it. We can make achievement of our MC’s goal harder even while giving her the tools that will eventually enable her to get there.

Now for the villainous mother. I have just one suggestion: Be subtle. Mrs. McMeanie doesn’t have to beat her daughter. The havoc she wreaks can be psychological, and the reader will still recognize the misery she’s inflicting. She can make her daughter feel inferior with constant put-downs. She can persuade her child to fear the world outside her family. Going the other way she can even cripple her daughter by giving her the idea that she’s better than everyone else. Or she can burden her daughter with impossible expectations. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I once knew a man whose mother persuaded him that he was unlucky, and he played that belief out in his adult life. That mother, probably unintentionally, became the villain in her son’s story.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC sets off on a new endeavor, which could be a new school, a battle, camp, a job as unicorn trainer in a zoo. Before she leaves, her mother gives her a few words of advice, which make everything harder. Write the advice and the scene that follows. If you like, continue and write the story.

• A good friend of mine believes that moms have gotten a bad rap in literature for children. In this scene, your MC is spending the day alone with her father. She’s thrilled because he rarely has time to dedicate to her. Make it all go wrong and reveal the dad as less than a great guy.

• Along the same lines, retell “Hansel and Gretel,” and make the father the major baddie instead of the mother–or the witch!

• Our MC, who’s been captured by the enemy, is held in a stone fortress. She has a candle and a lady’s fan. Have her escape using one or both of these.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. From Writer At Heart on the website on Elisa's question last week about siblings:

    Sorry Mrs. Levine if I bugging you to do this but here is my thoughts on Elisa's question about siblings.

    I myself have many siblings. I am the second child of eight children and what mostly I think about siblings is this; My younger sibling and I have a odd relationship, sometimes we fight over the (don't know if this is a word, but) stupidest things, such as who is to make the food or who has to help our older sister or mother. But at other times she and I have a great time imagining other worlds and people, or brave knight who come galloping across the fjord to save to evil queen who is actually quite nice.
    My older sister, who is four years older than me, and I have a quite different relationship. She goes out and "hangs" with her friends while I am at home, lost in a different world. Although we don't talk to each other much, we still love each other a lot. I go to her for fashion advice and for her to get advice on my stories.
    I don't want to take much of you time so this is the last one. My little brother are each different. And that is one reason I love them all so much. They may be very noisy and annoying but we still love each other. So… to wrap up, siblings do love each other, just in their own little way.
    Again.. I sorry if I bothered you or this did not help what-so-ever.

    • Thanks Writer At Heart! Actually, it's kinda interesting. I'm the oldest, so I have no idea how it's like to be a younger sibling. You gave me a bit of insight here.

  2. Do the books you wrote and published years ago still echo in your mind, or do you only think about them when something reminds you, like seeing them in a library or talking to a reader?

    • Yes, I guess they echo. Of course I remember them when someone asks a question, but sometimes something in my life brings one of my stories to mind. THE PRINCESS TALES seem to hang around the most for some reason.

  3. So um, do any of ya'll like ever write anything and it's really good, but you HATED writing it? I mean, not an essay or anything and not just even a scene but a whole book? I haven't gotten that far, but I do have a really good handful of scenes I want to use….

    On a related note, have you ever noticed that your writing gets really sloppy when you DO write something that you enjoy writing about? A couple of trends I've noticed in my stuff is that there is little to no minor character interaction. All the characters you see are the Heroine, the Hero, a Villain or two, and random family members/villain cronies. I mean, you can always edit them in… but I HATE editing my own stuff.

    Dang, this is really long but one last thing. Have you ever read one of those fairytales where the prince is enchanted and marries the princess while under enchantment and then she messes things up? I'm thinking of doing a retelling on one of those but with a couple differences. What do ya'll think?

    • I am so glad I'm not the only one who feels like this! My biggest problem is the character-interaction thing. I have usually three main characters: the hero, the heroine, and a "third wheel" comic relief character. And usually (but not always) a villain. I've been trying to "branch out" (for lack of a better word) and mix up my characters, but I haven't been very successful. I tend to gravitate towards certain character relationships, but it tends to make my stories all a bit too similar.

      I think the idea of retelling the "enchanted prince" story sounds really interesting!! I know it's something I would definitely read! It's more unique than most fairytale plots, since the prince and princess are already married at the beginning of the story instead of the end. What fairytales have that plot? I couldn't think of any off the top of my head. I think it's a great idea!!!

    • Haha, I can't either but I SWEAR I've read them. I think one is the 'Black Bear of Norroway' Which is the one I'm basing it off of. But I think that she is not really going to be a princess, because then I have to mess with all of that 'I didn't want to get married to the beast in the first place, but now he's cute so I'm fine with it!!" So they are going to have a nice, "WHAT THE HECK YOU'RE A HUMAN?!?! I THOUGHT YOU WERE JUST A BEAR CRASHING IN MY CAVE!!!! relationship. So they might not get married to the end, we'll see. But imagine going out to the town, when you've lived in the woods you're whole life (Anya, the girl) to tell the preacher that you want to get married to a BEAR!!! Unless they go at night when he's human….

      I love the comments part on this blog, it helps me with my stuff soooo much!!!!!

    • If you're looking for more enchanted prince stories, you may want to look at the Aarne Thompson system. It's this way of organizing fairytales by number-so for example, Beauty and the Beast is a type 425 tale. Enchanted Husband stories are type 425-449.

  4. I've got a quick question…I have a book with two main characters, and the chapters alternate between their points of view. I am still trying to figure out if first person or third person sounds better, but I've recently run into another problem: I have a third character who interacts with both main characters a lot. She is there for almost all of the story, and in a later book she marries one of the main characters. Is it weird if I don't ever have the story narrated from her point of view, even though she's almost always present as an important character? I'm afraid that if I decided to have her narrate at some point that I'll have too many points of view and the story will get confusing–especially because I'm leaning towards writing it in first-person, and having multiple first-person narrators has always been confusing for me to read. I'm worried I might get my audience lost, or that they just won't care enough about the third character to want anything from her point of view. Any thoughts? 🙂

    • Does she do something important that the other characters can't do? In one of my stories, I started out with one main character but realized I needed another one. I wanted to have his girlfriend tell part of the story, but all her important scenes have him in them, and writing the same thing twice is redundant. So I used the girlfriend's best friend instead, since she goes places and talks to people the other characters couldn't.

    • I think that it could work either way. It doesn't seem weird to me to have a character who doesn't have her own chapters but it is still important to the story, and if it is difficult for to have that many POVs, then don't. But if you really want to add her, then add her chapters in. It is your book. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Eliza and Bug!! This really helped me–I do need her to narrate several scenes, so I think I'll use her occasionally. Thanks so much!!!! You guys are all amazing 🙂

    • I have zero experience with speech writing, but here are some ideas I've noticed form speeches I've enjoyed.

      One, tell interesting stories that relate to your topic
      Two, use relevant stats
      Three, use other resources that back up your claim or whatever. That way, they know you aren't just making it up.
      Four, repetition equals emphasis. They more you repeat something, the more likely that you audience is going to remember it.

      That's all I have, but check out the National Forensics League website, they might have better ideas.

    • If it interests YOU, it will likely interest your audience. Focus on those aspects of your topic that fascinate you. And be sure to speak loud enough for everyone to hear you without straining. Good luck!

  5. From the website:

    How do you know which book to write?
    I read your posts on your blog labeled 'Ideas' and that helped immensely– but now my problem is which book am I going to write. They all are very similar. They all are fairy tales. The farthest I've gone is five chapters (twelve pages). What am I to do?
    P:S: I'm sorry for bugging you yet another time. And also, I know this is too much to ask for but may you thank writeforfun for me. She helped a lot. Thank you.
    Writer At Heart

    • I don't write when an idea comes into my head. I write when an idea comes into my head and will. Not. Leave. If you tell your story, "Go sit in a corner while I work on this other fairy tale", but it keeps shouting from that corner while you try to focus, then it needs attention.
      Whenever I get an idea I like, I write everything I know about it in my notebook. If I keep thinking about it and it seriously has potential to be a story, I put the title and a one line description in this file called Story Garden under Seedlings. Some of them whither and die. Some grow enough that I can move them to Sproutlings (stories with +10,000 words), Shrubs (completed short stories), or even Trees (books). I have 63 Seedlings right now and 3 Trees. For some reason this helps me keep it organized.
      Also, see if you can combine any of your ideas. Sometimes I go through three or four stories before I find the one I was trying to tell all along.

    • Writer at Heart – I'm very glad I could help!

      Eliza – what a creative way of doing it! I just have a document called "Story Ideas" that I put all of my ideas on until they become real stories. It's not nearly as organized (or cute!) as your idea!

  6. Hey y'all, I have an author that I would like to recommend: P.G. Wodehouse. HE IS HILARIOUS!!!! If you go to (that's the website that writeforfun recommended) and look up P. G. Wodehouse, you will find some of his stories. All of his stories are SOOOOOOOOO funny! If you can;t decide which to listen to, here are a few of my favorites: "Love Among The Chickens", "My Man Jeeves", "The Clicking of Cuthbert", (That is TOTALLY my favorite. It's about golf, but even if you don't understand about golf [which I absolutely don't] it's still so funny that you don't have to!) Another of my favorites is his short story "In Defense of Astigmatism", which is in the book "A Wodehouse Miscellany: Articles and Stories". I hope some of you check him out. You will not regret it.

  7. This from Mckennah on the website:

    I've been reading your blog and it's been helping me a lot, it's nice to know from your blog that I'm not the only one with these kinds of problems when it comes to writing. I read the responses to my question before when I wondered when it was time to stop writing the story. I've gotten rid of things that are fun but don't help the story at all, and it has made the story better.
    One thing I've been struggling with a lot lately is that "Negative commentary in my head." I've found that I've been comparing myself to other young writers a lot lately. I'm getting better about not doing that but there's always that voice in my head getting me down about my writing to the point where I'm in tears. I've been trying to be more positive, but sometimes I just don't feel like writing any thing until I feel better. I don't want to give up on writing because I love doing it, but how am I supposed to be confident in my writing when it's hard to be confident in myself? I know this is a really hard question and I don't expect an answer, just if you have any advice that might help.

  8. When I'm down on myself I'll sometimes write something really short (like under 500 words) just for the feeling of accomplishment. It reminds me that I Am A Writer, no matter what anybody else does or doesn't do.

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