Sunday, August 10, 2014

How Much Do People Want to Change?

Not much. Every New Year’s brings promises of writing more and eating less, of visiting the gym, giving or tossing items you never use, and finishing the draft. If any of those happen, it’s usually because—something happened.

Tip: Inertia is powerful. Events drive characters, people, and novels.

What about the people writing the novels? All have the best intentions. They plan to write daily, revise based on critique, research agents early on, take the necessary steps to make the dream come true. Yet somehow, potentially wonderful novels linger unfinished, unrevised, and unagented. Sometimes reality interferes. But more often, inertia does.

What gets a novelist moving? An event. Your best friend gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. Alternatively, your worst enemy gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. You’re ready to act, so don’t drift back to getting it done whenever you do. Because without another event, who knows?

Events control people—and characters—in a way that good intentions rarely can. Of events, the inciting incident is among the most provocative, seductive, and inflammatory. Whether the protagonist answers the call or vows to resist it, the world is forever changed. As Hamlet said, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Like most protagonists, Hamlet knows that he’s been called to act.

That’s what the inciting incident is. Too often, though, writers assume that the inciting incident is for the reader—a hook to explode the plot with a giant bang. That, too, of course, but the inciting incident is mainly for the protagonist. Without an impetus like his father’s ghost appearing to Hamlet, the protagonist simply rails against injustice. And stays stuck.

How can a novelist combat inertia?

~ Choose your inciting incident carefully.
It needs sufficient oomph to carry your entire novel.
~ Substitute event for syndrome.
People and characters will tolerate a fair amount of dissatisfaction without taking action. But guess what? Readers won’t.
~ Clarify in your own mind (not on the page!) how you want your protagonist to change.
Is it from selfish to generous, snobbish to compassionate, or passive to proactive?
~ Eliminate inert brooding, worrying, planning, and fantasizing.
None of those remove the protagonist’s difficulties or fulfill the protagonist’s dreams. Plus it’s no fun to read.
~ Be the protagonist of your writing life.
Look for events that motivate you. Do postponed deadlines have consequences? Hmmm. If not, should they?

Ideas are glorious. But action gets things done—both inside and outside of fiction.

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