Tag Archives: story arc

My Character Hijacked My Story. Now What?

Imagine this: a writer prepares an outline for a new novel. The writer takes great care to develop the story. His main character is well-defined. There is a clear story arc. The writer has listed the key events. It’s all there: the premise, the theme, the entire piece. And then the writer sits down to write.

About one-third of the way through the story, the writer makes a shocking discovery. He didn’t see this coming. Something is very wrong here. What happened? One of his characters has hijacked the story. This wasn’t part of the outline. It wasn’t even in his head. Worse still, it’s not the main character who has stolen away with the story.

This scenario happened to me during the writing of my National Novel Writing Month novel. It’s still happening and guess what? I am making no attempt to stop it from happening. How did this happen? Let me share some background. My story centers on an aging, alcoholic lawyer, Frank O’Malley, who is dying of cancer. His last wish is to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Maura. When I wrote the outline, I had the idea that Frank was the main character. Maura would exist as a sort of spectral presence–a mysterious figure who walked out on her family ten years earlier and kept her whereabouts from her loved ones.

As I started to write the first scenes, I labored over every scene with Frank in it. There are only so many ways one can write the interior monologue of a dying man, wracked by regrets and grief over the disappearance of his daughter and the death of his wife. When I wrote the scenes about Maura–this ghostly presence–a strange and wonderful thing occurred. Maura came alive. I traced her journey from the day she discovered she was pregnant, to the argument with her father that resulted in her leaving home, to Maura moving in with her rock musician boyfriend. And then the dramatic moment came to me: her boyfriend abandoned her and she was evicted and forced out onto the streets of Boston during one of the worst snowstorms the city had ever endured. From there, the events and scenes flowed one after another.

When I reflected on the reason Maura emerged as the central character, it was obvious. Her story involved action, movement, adversity, obstacles and daunting struggles she had to overcome to reach her goal. Frank’s story was a downward arc; he was dying and would continue to die and then he would be dead.

How does a writer know when a character has hijacked her story? The scenes involving this character come easy. The writer can’t wait to finish one scene and get to the next one. Conversely, the scenes involving the original main character become a struggle. The writer stares at a blank screen, unable to come up with real scenes and authentic story lines.

Here are some tips for dealing with rogue characters:

  • Roll with it, at least until the story plays out. Even if the new main character completely changes the story arc, see where it leads.
  • Define what it is about the new main character that is so interesting. Does this character have deeper motivations and internal struggles? How can the writer best maximize those challenges?
  • Consider the possibility of more than one main character. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s classic novel, The Poisonwood Bible, I had a hard time sorting out who the main character was. I had a similar experience with The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It was clear Henry DeTamble was the main character, but Clare had an equally important and symbiotic role in the story.
  • Reassess your decision once you have completed the first draft and given yourself time to reflect. Did it work as well as you thought? Or was your original outline the right way to go?

Have you ever had a major character hijack your story? How did you deal with it?

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Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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That’s the Last Time I Write About Weather

Last Saturday, I wrote about which seasons are the best ones for writers and the impact of weather on productivity. At the time, I had no idea my state would get slammed with the worst October snow storm in history. There are trees and wires down everywhere. Many streets in my town are impassable. Gas is scarce and power outages are widespread. A record of nearly one million people lost power in Connecticut. It will be awhile before we dig out of this one. Believe it or not, the post about weather and seasons was planned long before I knew about this freakish storm.

We are adapting to the conditions. I did manage to read 50 pages of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible by natural light on Sunday. We spent the evening huddled by the fire to stay warm. We heated up Ravioli on the fire and water for hot chocolate. What an adventure!

Stay tuned for more on the storm aftermath. My posts will be shorter and more infrequent for now. I was gearing up to begin my first NaNoWriMo entry, beginning tomorrow. I’m still planning to write my novel, but it won’t be on a laptop., at least not in the near future  I bought a notebook today so I can start my NaNoWriMo entry in pen. It feels like olden times. I will have more to report and some unbelievable pictures of what the roads looked like soon. It was something out of a horror movie–a perfect setting for Halloween.

That’s what I get for writing about weather. I should have stuck to safe topics like story arc, characterization, and theme.

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The Arc of the Story

Read any popular novel and you are likely to find similarities in story structure. The classic story arc adheres to this structure:

  • The main character is introduced in her normal world. The author describes the character’s attributes, goals, needs and dreams.
  • The story takes shape through a disruptive event or inciting incident that stands in the way of the character achieving her dream or goal.
  • This leads to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character, growing more serious in nature. This is referred to as “rising action.”
  • Tension is a key element in moving a story along. The tension will rise and fall in intensity as the story progresses.
  • The main character faces a series of increasingly difficult choices as the tension builds.
  • The story’s climax is the point where the main character faces her most serious challenge.
  • The final elements are the denouement and resolution, where the main character meets her challenges, overcomes her fears and obstacles, and achieves her goal.

There are numerous variations on this arc. The thing to keep in mind is that, whatever structure you choose, the story must move the character forward. The character must emerge as a transformed or changed individual. She must discover some truths about herself and act on them. Otherwise, why bother?

Let’s look at the story arc of a classic novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is about to enter the first grade when the story begins. She is a true innocent who thirsts for knowledge. She will discover some hard truths during this story. At first the tension level is low. Scout teams with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, to engage in some harmless pranks. They make several futile attempts to draw out Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor, with comical results.

The story takes a serious turn when a judge assigns Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, to defend a black man who is accused of raping a young white woman in Alabama during the early years of the Great Depression. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and Scout unwittingly deters
an angry mob that descends upon Atticus Finch as he sits outside the cell where Tom Robinson is held. The children later slip into the courthouse to witness Tom Robinson’s trial and their father’s heroic, but unsuccessful, defense of him. The story culminates in a shocking incident resulting in the death of Bob Ewell and the end of the children’s innocence forever.

The arc of the story described above is popular because it is a reliable and logical way to structure a story. However, it’s not the only way to tell a story. Let’s take a look at Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan breaks all the rules of story structure. There is no main character. There is no central story. The novel progresses as a series of short stories with different characters, some of whom show up in later sections of the book. The glue that holds it together is the characters’ interest and involvement in rock and roll music. The novel explores the ideals of rock and roll music (and youth itself) and how the passage of time erodes the passion and dreams of youth. The novel divided critics, but it was such a brilliant piece of writing that it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

As Egan’s novel proves, there are no rules for story structure. What counts is to choose a structure that not only you as a writer can work with, but one that engages the reader.

What story structure works best for you?

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