Plot & Structure

Fantasy Vs. Contemporary: How to Let Your Character Dictate the Story — No Matter the Genre

Fantasy vs contemporary novels

Back in 2009 (how could it have been that long ago!!!!) when I started writing Infinite Days, I was compelled by my main character, Lenah, and her voice. Infinite Days is a book about Lenah, a 592 year old vampire, who gets a second chance to be human. I was enthralled by this character who had seen so much darkness, reveled in it in fact,  and who had to relearn what it means to be human. She experiences love, compassion, envy, and more. When I first heard Lenah’s voice (I'm going to sound nuts) she came to my mind clearly. I could literally channel her and I understood how she would speak.

She's quite tortured, you see. That’s Lenah. That sentence you just read - that’s how she would talk. I would never say “quite tortured.” Anyway (I’ll move on before you call the looney bin), she had a clear conflict. At the time I had never read a single Twilight book and was unaware of the paranormal explosion in the YA fiction world. I wrote Infinite Days in eight months. From Lenah’s conflict came the story. Her emotional needs drove the conflict, not the other way around. I didn’t create the supernatural rules/lore for the world first, but with what the character needed. As a vampire, Lenah wanted to be human more than anything. So, to push her to want it even more, I took away any aspect that was remotely human from the vampire experience: the more she aged the less she would be able to experience the sense of touch, the only sense of taste was blood and flesh, and the ability to love waned over time. So much of our human experience is about being out in the world with other humans. As a vampire, Lenah couldn’t be out in the daylight. After a while, that kind of isolation drove her insane.

As I explain the process now, I think it probably seems like I was totally aware of all of this but I wasn’t. I’m a big believer in Robert Olen Butler’s “white hot of the subconscious.” Olen Butler says in his book From Where You Dream: “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. Does this make sense? Do you understand what I'm saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we're going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from.”

I love that.

When I started writing a contemporary story, Between Us & The Moon,  I was already writing and drafting from a character-driven place, yet the rules had to change. In Lenah’s stories, anything was possible, which made my choices huge. But again, I narrowed the scope of those choices to anything that would push my character out of her comfort zone and inhibit her from getting what she wanted. So the choices got more specific.

Genre should never dictate the character’s emotions. As I hinted at above, a contemporary world in some ways narrows the scope of the character’s problems even further because of the sheer limitations as to what that character can and can’t do. A way to narrow that scope even further is to think about what your character needs. One of the best ways I can say to bridge the world of writing fantasy and contemporary is in the arc of the character.  

Try out the following 3 questions:

  1. Who is your character at the end of the story who he/she was not at the beginning?
  2. How did he/she get there? They have to earn that change. Without change you have no story.
  3. What does he/she want? Well, if he/she is a supernatural creature, does the world in which the live making it harder for them to get what he/she wants? If your answer here is something abstract like: she wants happiness! That’s not specific. That’s abstract. What is something specific that your character can do in the story that represents “wanting happiness?”

Should You Wave Your Prologue Goodbye? (When Prologues Work and When They Don’t)

Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”

With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.

So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.

Good Prologues Oftentimes…

… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)

 … Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)

… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)

… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)

Bad Prologues Are Generally…

… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)

… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)

… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.

… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)

…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.

… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)

Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader

Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.

After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.

Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.

This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writerauthor Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.

Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.

Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)

As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.

A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”

While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.

Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.

We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.

Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”

This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.

Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.

So… Should I Keep My Prologue?

If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.

That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.


Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at Bustle.com and Romper.com. Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.

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Genres of interest: Narrative nonfiction, academic works, books of journalism, essay collections, memoir, health/wellness, book proposals, and other nonfiction book projects.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, query letter editing, and private writing coaching.

Layering Your Draft, Part Four: The Toothpick Test

If you’re just seeing this for the first time, you might want to start the blog series here! It’s all about how to build your novel like a layer cake, with lots of delicious flavors and character frosting.

Now that we’ve talked about what layering your draft means, and how to do it, I’m going to take on another important question. Why bother with layering? It can seem a little fussy, or unnecessary, or just like a lot of work. We’ve talked about how layering gives you the opportunity to tackle the story one thing at a time, so each aspect gets your full writerly attention and becomes much stronger than it could if you were trying to spread your attention out to too many places at once. (Ex: It’s much easier to draft with the arc of one character in mind than it is to draft with the trajectories of seven other characters, plus setting, plot, theme, and language.)

But there’s another sort of magic that layering brings to your finished draft. It gives it the depth and complexity of life. When I write an everythingallatonce draft, I might hit a few high points, but the truth is that the overall draft itself is going to feel flat when I compare it to real life–even on the most mundane day. That’s because when we walk through our days, we’re experiencing all of the layers at once, decoding them seamlessly and, for the most part, instantaneously. In a story, we have to build up a similar experience for our readers. We have to put in the time to construct the reality.

  Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

So, going back to our cake metaphors, what are we looking for in a finished product?

Texture: Does it have a light, springy feeling? Or is it dense and dark and delicious? I think of the story texture as a combination of the voice and the content. Is that texture what you want it to be? Have you given the manuscript to beta readers or tried reading out loud to make sure that it’s working?

Consistency of the bake: Is it the same all the way through? This might seem like an odd question, since of course the plot is going to progress and the characters will change and grow. But often, when a draft isn’t working, it’s because it’s changed or gotten away from us. Maybe a subplot or a character has dragged the story out of shape. Maybe the structure is off-kilter. Maybe the reader expectations that were set up in the beginning of the book have been abandoned. Maybe the themes haven’t come together yet. Make sure that you’re telling the same story from beginning to end.

Are the flavors coming through? This is an important one. Writers can talk all day about what they intended to write, or how they wanted it to come across, but in the end, the reader only has the manuscript. So if you take a look at the finished product, and an important element of the plot has gotten pushed to the side, or the characters’ emotions or motivations aren’t clear on the page, it’s time to go back and do another layer.


So with all of these layers to create, how do we know when we are done?

Writers use lots of different methods. Some go straight to beta readers. Others put the manuscript in a drawer and wait for a certain amount of time (a week, a month, or more) to give fresh perspective.

I recommend also trying The Toothpick Test. When we test a cake for doneness, we stick a toothpick right in the middle and see if it “comes out clean”–no uncooked goop, or sticky crumbs. When we apply the same idea to a manuscript draft, it’s a matter of opening the book to a random page (I do suggest the middle, since it’s where many manuscripts have the most undercooked bits,) and check to for doneness. When you read this page out of context, what impression do you get? Does the manuscript need a little more bake time, a few more layers, or are the flavors and texture exactly what you hoped for?

If it seems to be in good shape, stick a few more toothpicks into random places–just to be sure! (One toothpick is usually enough to be sure with a cake, but a novel requires a little more thoroughness.)

So, have you tried layering your drafts? How do you know when you are done? Sound off in the comments!

And happy novel baking!


Want to work with Amy Rose? She loves editing all kinds of fiction! Just click on the Contact tab and fill out the easy form to get started.

Make More of Beginnings: Falling in Love

As writers, we’re so often told that the beginning of our story is make or break. It’s what we show our critique groups, our workshops, and agents when we query. It’s the first thing that readers see; it’s the first chance that they have to fall in love.

I want to look at this idea of falling in love with a story literally. Structurally. Because if it’s true that we fall in love with stories, that can tell us a lot about how to make our beginnings work.

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The other night, I was watching the movie Music and Lyrics. As the two characters in this romcom got to know each other, they revealed little bits of their personalities and their pasts, leaving larger questions open. There were little mysteries, patterns, things that we knew would resurface. (Her current employment as a plant waterer had to have a backstory—right? He was definitely going to do the cute eighties dance move again—right?) These two wanted to know more about each other. They had to see each other again, to find out what happens next. Every time the characters talked to each other, they were building a relationship, and even within the neat timeline of a romcom, they couldn’t do it all at once. They were leading each other forward, step by step. That’s not just how we fall in love with each other. That’s how we fall into a fictional world.

At the beginning of a story, a writer can’t unload everything on the reader all at once. That results in dreaded info dumps. Instead of thinking of the beginning as the place where you have to makeeverythinghappenrightnow, try thinking of it as a first date. I think there are two elements of a successful first date that mirror the balance that we strive for in a story opening.

First—there’s what you put in to your beginning. That’s like the first date itself. The events (plot), the chemistry of the people involved (characters), the conversation, (voice), the physical attraction (maybe that’s about genre, or premise—I don’t know, but I could do this extended metaphor thing all day!)

How do we make the all-important decision of what to put in, though? This is where the individual story comes in, as well as writing style and taste. Often when we hear the “rules” of how you’re supposed to start a story, they feel flat, prescriptive. Imagine if you tried to follow the steps in a first date manual in order to find true love. The process has to be organic and personal—it’s about what you and your story bring to the table that no one else can. Focus on what makes your story unique. I’ve heard a hundred times never to start with a long description of setting in kidlit—and then there the opening of Tuck Everlasting. We’re often warned to get straight to the story, but there are so many great books that start with character-focused monologues. Anything can work—if it’s what makes your story special, what pulls the reader in and leaves them enchanted, delighted, a little bit in love.

And then there’s the second element of the date, which is a little more intangible. It’s what you’re leaving out. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we are sucked into stories by little mysteries. This is the not the mystery genre I’m talking about—I mean any question that the narrative plants in our minds. The same is true with people. After the first date, we might like what we know—but we have to want to know more!

Recently, I read an interview with the YA author Laini Taylor, author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. She admitted that when she started out writing about her main character, she knew that Karou had blue hair and hamsas on her hands, but she didn’t know why. She was writing to find out what happened next. The beginning was about what Taylor didn’t know—and now those same questions pull readers into her story in huge numbers. (And yes, get them to fall in love!)

Make Your Prose “Pacey”: How to Engage with Expectation, Silence, and Surprise

“The prose needs better pacing, better rhythm” How do you begin to solve that kind of intangible issue? If chunks of your prose feel dull or plodding, consider Ze Frank’s words about the “rhythmic trinity.” Ze Frank is not a writer, but he is an endlessly creative maker and humorist. His groundbreaking 2006 vlog “The Show” profoundly influenced current mega-hit vloggers like John and Hank Green. In Ze’s 3:23 video about “the rhythmic trinity of expectation, silence, and surprise,” he talks about how that trinity helped his music–and how it applies to humor in the classic joke’s setup, pause, and punchline:

“Watching younger comics, you can learn a lot by seeing what’s broken. They might be good at building expectation and delivering surprise, but they haven’t figured out silence yet, and they blast through their lines so fast you don’t have room to laugh. Or they’re all surprise and pauses without building any patterns for the audience to relax into. When it’s all surprise, it stops being a surprise. The craft of it is in the matter of all three: expectation, silence, surprise.” 

Writers use expectation, silence, and surprise to create rhythm on both the micro, sentence-to-sentence level and the macro, story level. I’ll save story for a later blog. Right now, I’ll talk about how the rhythmic trinity works on the ground, in your actual prose.

 

Expectation: Ze says that creating expectation means building patterns for the audience to relax into. So that might mean

  • A stretch of quick-paced dialogue popping along
  • A series of sentences of similar length, which can create a nice train-wheel rhythm
  • A series of short action paragraphs
  • A series of brief descriptive passages that take us (for example) from the exterior of the house to the interior
  • Any of these creates a certain expectation, one you can then have fun disrupting.

Silence:

  • Slow down prose with a lingering descriptive passage,
  • Give any moment more air and breath by using a longer sentence, especially one that follows a series of short, brisk sentences of roughly the same length.
  • Insert a sudden break into the dialogue, in which one person literally falls silent

Surprise: 

  • Sometimes breaking a short sentence out in its own own paragraph makes it more arresting
  • Zoom in on a tiny physical detail—or zoom out suddenly to a bird’s eye view of your scene
  • Insert a bit of new information that turns the scene on its head 

How It Might Work (A Brief, Highly Simplified, and Pedestrian Example)

He said, “I tried.”

I said, “Not hard enough.”

He said, “But I can’t try harder.”

I said, “Well, you you have to.”

He said, “You’re asking too much.”

I said, “I’m asking for what you promised.”

[So now we’ve set up the expectations.]

And then, without warning, as if something had just occurred to him, or as if he’d had a sudden and interesting idea, he frowned and glanced up at the ceiling.  for a moment, his eyes rolled up even higher, till I could see their whites. [that string of clauses functioned as a kind of silence or hesitation] 

Then he fell face down on the table, quite dead.

[there’s the surprise element, made more surprising by the new paragraph]

More on using the rhythmic trinity on big story issues in my next blog. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more ways you play with rhythm and pacing in your sentences.