Novelists have numerous reasons for spreading out instead of digging down. For a start, it’s easier. More available territory lessens anxiety about lacking sufficient tension, or even lacking sufficient material. Perhaps novelists haven’t completed their homework—and everything they know about the character and plot is already on the page instead of supporting what appears there. But that world will be a shallow one—the opposite of what readers anticipate.
Instead, explore what you’ve already introduced rather than blissfully introducing more and more. And more.
Tip: Superficial plotting and characterization yield unoriginal plotting and characterization.
Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you. Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. — Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass emphasizes the need to reject the first two or four or even five twists and traits that come to mind. Why? Because they’re obvious; they stem from the surface rather than the depths. To counteract this, he offers a series of exercises geared to reveal the astonishing pleasure of the unexpected.
Alternatively, you can increase the probability of surprise by asking yourself what is possible without being improbable. Nor is that a one-time question. Have you pushed each moment, conversation, scene, and confrontation as far as you can? On every page, do you give readers at least one apt yet refreshingly new detail or occurrence?
Too often, life feels predictable. Motives and responses, choices and obstacles seem redundant, mundane. Not only is the real world familiar, it’s unfocused. People and obligations compete for our attention. Few days offer any focal point, and most of us face not only significant concerns but inconsequential ones like will the milk make it one more day.
Such is life. In fiction, though, the last thing anyone wants is tedium or blur. After all, we read fiction to leave that behind. And fiction won’t provide escape when muddled with slow pace, tenuous tension, or panorama so sweeping that readers forget what’s at stake and for whom.
Any time story issues don’t contribute to the true challenges and conflicts of the main character, you’re directing a story’s energy and passion away from that character and her story. — The Editor’s Blog
However implicitly, this observation dispenses some friendly warnings:
- Limit the number of characters.
- Imply (rather than state or ignore) the focus of each scene.
- Link subplots to issues that reflect or enhance the protagonist’s arc.
- Let readers follow the character they’ve invested in.
Give your story resonance and focus by developing its primary ideas and characters.
(**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****