A very late Twin Thursday with Rachel from Undivinelight! As always be sure to check hers out!
This week–well, last week, really–we’re talking about five pieces of writing advice that have stuck with us in some way or changed the way we approach our stories in some way.
- Mind the spine. One of my mentors in grad school asked me this after I’d spent almost a year working on my current manuscript (one semester with another mentor and a few months with him). He’d read the first two chapters, and I was working on the next few to send along. I didn’t really get what he was trying to say. I had characters. I had a series of events. I had a setting and a loose premise. Ergo, I reasoned, I had a story.
Not so, said he. The spine of the story is the main conflict that everything else is built around. And my story didn’t have one. I ended up rehashing the whole plot and starting the story over from scratch with just two months left in the semester. To this day, that was still probably one of the hardest, most gut-wrenching, and best decisions I ever made with a story.
It also completely changed the way I think about plot structure. I learned to tighten my focus, to make my stories lean and quick, and to make sure that everything, all the muscle and the nerves and even the pretty decorative bits, attach back to the spine somehow.
- Find your catalyst. This one wasn’t said to me directly inasmuch as it was the focus of a digital workshop that I attended with superstar agent Kristin Nelson. As I talked about a little bit in the query/pitch workshop, the catalyst is the thing that happened that starts the story rolling. It can be anything, really, but it does have to be an event; a death, a birth, an announcement, a chance encounter.
I have–or had before I found this trick–a bad habit of starting the story too far back from the catalyst. I would spend two or three chapters just setting up the thing that I really actually wanted to get to. Now that I know what I’m looking for, I can get my story right to the chase and off to a running start.
- Prune back the excesses. This was a hard one to hear. But it’s important. As a writer, I don’t always notice when my characters are going through emotional whiplash, jumping back and forth between extremes depending on my own mood as I wrote it. Or when I start a trauma-conga. Or when a character’s backstory or skillset gets to be a little too over the top. Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you to scale it back.
- Cut your favorite part. Another hard one. I have a habit of getting an idea, an image of a scene in my head, and the scene just has to go exactly the way I envisioned it. Usually because I’ve decided that this one thing is pithy or witty or vitally important and it must be there. And, usually, that one thing that I’ve committed to 110% is the thing that’s ruining the scene in question.
Case it point. I had decided, for my main WIP, that the mother character was very much like Mother Gothel from Disney’s Tangled. So much so that I had a significant portion of the soundtrack on my writing playlist to set the mood. I even dedicated an entire scene to the moment when my main character refused to play along anymore. But it didn’t fit. Not with the characters, their histories, the way the rest of the story played out, and trying to bend the story to fit that one moment was pulling everything else out of place. So it had to go.
- Write no scene in which everyone agrees. Another bit of advice from grad school–the same mentor, actually–that stuck with me. It’s easy in a scene to let your characters fall into a self-feeding wheel of yesses. The characters all agree, and the tension in the scene fizzles out. Picture the Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings if all the assembled peoples of Middle Earth gathered, looked at the Ring, and said, yep, evil. Let’s go drop it in a volcano.
Pretty boring, right? But now put them at cross-motives with each other. These two don’t trust each other. This one wants to use the Ring for good to defend his country. This one doesn’t care what happens to it as long as he doesn’t have to touch it. And so on. Now you can let the characters do the hard work of creating tension. Suddenly, you have a dynamic, memorable scene.