Tag Archive: character change

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…

 

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The Hero’s Emotional Midpoint

This week I’m honing the middle of my WIP, so it’s time to dust off the Archives and refresh my knowledge on a story’s midpoint…

Emotional MidPoint

Originally posted on Aug. 4, 2014. Updated and reposted on Sept. 5, 2016.

Awhile ago I wrote about Mapping the Mushy Middle of a story. This is a plot-centric approach to figuring out one’s story. However, story is a two-sided coin made up of plot and character. For every plot point there’s a corresponding character arc moment. So I blogged 3 Steps to Creating Character Change where I discuss the hero’s flaw as it presents itself in Act I, causes trouble for the hero in Act II, and is eventually overcome in Act III.

Yet even after figuring all that out, I still have trouble wrapping up my stories with a satisfying character transformation. In a story’s finale, not only is the plot resolved and the character flaw overcome, the hero must be changed. And I’ve found that overcoming a flaw isn’t always enough to change the hero.

BookCover-NovelFromMiddleWhat to do?! In times like this, I seek out books on writing craft. Many of these simply reword stuff I already know and aren’t very helpful, but I managed to find one that took a different but blissfully simple spin on Character Transformation:

WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE by James Scott Bell.

It’s short and sweet, just 85 pages, and the premise is that once you know the Mirror Moment at the Midpoint, it will clarify what your story is about so you can figure out where the hero begins and how he changes by the end. I recommend reading the whole book (it’s only $3 for the e-book version), but I’ve summarized the gist of it here in 3 steps:

1) Figure out the hero’s death stakes.

No matter how strong the physical death stakes are (i.e. a murderer is literally trying to kill the hero), I think every story also needs psychological death stakes or emotional consequences. It’s easy to spot psychological death stakes in romance – if the lead doesn’t win the heart of his soul mate, he will be lonely and miserable for the rest of his life! His heart will metaphorically die! I find coming up with psychological stakes more difficult in thrillers (the physical death stakes are so high and exciting they can easily take over the whole story), but the ending will resonate much more if the hero has psychological stakes too. 

2) Create the hero’s Mirror Moment.

Bell explains two ways characters may reflect on their situation, one for plot-driven stories and one for character-driven stories. MIRROR 1: Hero looks in the mirror and considers the incredible odds against him (plot). MIRROR 2: Hero looks in mirror and muses on the person he is now and/or could become (character). (Note: Literal mirror not necessary.) But because I think all stories need plot and character, I say do both! After all, when considering the odds against, the best heroes would naturally lump their own shortcomings in with those odds.

This Mirror Moment complements the action that takes place at the Midpoint that I talked about in my Mushy Middle post. Basically, the Midpoint (be it a False Victory or a False Defeat) is powerless without your hero’s reaction to it.

3) Transform the hero.

The Mirror Moment hones in on who the hero thinks she is, and the Transformation is who she must become to win the Final Battle. Generally, these things are opposites.

After reading this book, I realize one of my problems is that I create heroes who are already prepared to win the Final Battle. Figuring out the psychological stakes and creating a Mirror Moment forces me to start with a hero who can’t possibly win and needs to change to do so.

What about you? Would a Midpoint Mirror Moment help you figure out your character’s journey? Deepen your story? Finish your book? I hope it helps me with mine!

 

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Character Need: Psychological + Moral

I’ve been reading writing craft books for almost two decades, and it’s gotten to the point where most of them don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. But recently I had a creative crisis that prompted me to look hard for new information, and after a couple misses I came across THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. I highly recommend you check it out. I’m not going to regurgitate the book’s content here; I’m simply going to highlight a small tidbit I found in Chapter 3 that has completely changed how I approach developing a protagonist’s journey…

Character Need-PsychologicalMoral

Early on in my career, I learned that the hero’s WANT and NEED are two separate things and integral to the Character Arc. Let’s refresh…

WANT = What the hero desires and believes will make them happy. WANT is the motivation behind the hero’s GOAL.

FLAW (personal characteristic) + LIE (personal belief) = What prevents the hero from achieving their GOAL.

NEED = What will actually make the hero happy. The NEED overcomes the hero’s FLAW and counters the LIE they’ve believed up until the Climax of the story. Recognizing this need is what prompts the hero to change; acting on this need is what allows the hero to triumph in the end (which may or may not involve achieving the original GOAL).

Note: The above applies to stories with a positive character arc rather than a negative character arc. Also, an arc period. Some people don’t think having the hero change is a necessary part of a story. I do simply because I prefer stories where the hero changes and am disappointed with stories where the hero doesn’t change. But I recognize that this is my opinion and not the law.

Now back to this Character Need thing…

Notice the use of the word “personal” in the definitions above. Most students of writing craft learn that the hero’s NEED is something deeply personal that affects the hero. Truby calls this a “psychological need.” However, he also identifies another type of need: moral.

“In average stories, the hero only has a psychological need [that] involves overcoming a serious flaw which is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral need in addition to the psychological need… [which is] hurting others.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, pg 41.

So, if there are two types of NEED, there are two types of character FLAWS: psychological and moral. Sometimes a psychological flaw (such as alcoholism) has an obvious moral flaw (hurting the ones you love) attached to it, but not always. Take a psychological flaw like low self-esteem. How does that flaw hurt others? It’s easy to brainstorm ways, but up until now, this is not something I’d ever made a point of doing. And I realize this was a missed opportunity to: 1) add more poignant conflict to the protagonist’s relationships; 2) create deeper stakes; and, most importantly, 3) perfectly intertwine Character Arc and Theme.

In my post The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme, I talk about how a story’s Theme always revolves around a human value, and when we test values we are debating morals. But before coming across this concept of a hero’s “moral need” I had developed Character Arc and Theme separately. I knew each was affected by the other, but my process was more like putting two things side-by-side and trying to make them complement each other. Now I approach Character Arc and Theme as puzzle pieces that fit together and develop them in tandem.

This was such a lightbulb moment for me, and made my WIP’s character revelation scene finally click into place. I’ve been playing with the character arc for months. It’s always been connected to the theme, and there was a moral flaw in there somewhere too, but before I clearly identified the moral need, I hadn’t been able to really focus my heroine’s character change into something powerful. Now I think I have.

In conclusion, the tiniest writing tips can be just what you need for a story breakthrough.

PS – Are you wondering why Dustin Hoffman from the movie Tootsie is in the title card? Well, because his character is a perfect example of psychological and moral need working together, as John Truby discusses in THE ANATOMY OF STORY.

 

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Character Development: The Reaction Chart

Creating characters to populate your novel or screenplay is a lot of fun. You get to devise different backgrounds and opinions and alliances and secrets and all kinds of interesting stuff that brings the cast to life. But you can have the most detailed character sketches and richly drawn cast ever, and your story could still fall flat. How? It all comes down to how your characters react.

Character Reaction Chart

A couple months ago I wrote a post about how characters interact with each other (Character Development: The Interaction Chart). Today I’m focusing on how characters react to story events. This is especially relevant with ensemble casts who are together as a pair or group for much of the plot, common in such genres as horror, buddy comedies and heists.

I’ve created two types of Reaction Charts: General Emotions and Plot Points.

The General Emotions Reaction Chart

This one is handy for the brainstorming stage and/or the pantser who doesn’t plot out their story. Put the general emotional situations your characters will likely encounter together in the top row, and the character names in the left column. That top row will differ depending on what genre you’re writing. You can have as many columns as you need. Here are a couple examples I came up with…

General Emotions Reaction Chart — Comedy Reaction Chart - ComedyGeneral Emotions Reaction Chart — Horror

Reaction Chart - Horror

The point of making this chart is to ensure the characters don’t react the same. I was reading a book a couple weeks ago, a creepy horror that started off pretty good, but as the story went along I became bored. Why? Because even though the characters had different POVs and personalities, every time they faced the monster, they all reacted exactly the same way! Why have three characters if they’re all going to do the same thing? In my opinion, the fun of an ensemble horror is seeing how each character reacts, who is going to screw up, who is going to fight the monster, who is going to run from the monster, etc. If everyone reacts the same, you might as well just have one person encountering the monster (or going on the road trip, or robbing the bank, etc), and that simply isn’t as interesting.

The Plot Points Reaction Chart

This chart is for the plotter who made an outline, or for the pantser who is done their first draft and wants to check their characters’ reactions to actual story events. Basically, this is a handy way to see how each character reacts to the major plot points of the story. (For a review of these plot points, check out this post: The Basic Story Beats.)

Reaction Chart - Plot Points

The point of making this chart, besides to diversify your characters’ specific reactions to the plot, is to track how the characters’ reactions change as the story progresses. For example, a character who reacted by rushing into danger at the beginning might learn to hold back and plan first before confronting the enemy. We all know our characters should grow and change, but sometimes it’s hard to see how that is happening within 300+ pages. That’s why I find this chart so useful.

What about you? Do you chart your characters’ reactions? Or do you have another way to keep track? Let me know in the Comments!

 

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C is for Character Change

BLAST_CIt’s appropriate that I got letter “C” since Character Change is something I frequently write about on this blog. That’s because it is so crucial! I think it might even be the most important part of a good story. So, with that in mind, let’s launch this baby!

3 Tips for Writing Character Change

  • Don’t make your protagonist too perfect or they won’t have a need to change.

  • Consider who your hero must be to win in Act III, and make sure they are the opposite of that in Act I.

  • Character Change can’t come out of nowhere! The hero has to be foiled by his imperfect self all through Act II, so that when he is faced with his failings at the Crisis moment, he’s motivated to change.

2 Examples of Great Character Arcs

Have you guys read RED RISING by Pierce Brown? It’s an awesome YA sci-fi novel that takes place on the planet Mars, and is an excellent example of a hero with a flaw that gets in his way, but the flaw is not obvious so neither the readers nor the hero recognize it’s a problem until the end – when he must overcome it to win!

Another great example is the film ALIEN. Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley’s flaw doesn’t necessarily seem like one at first – she is a stickler for protocol and trusts her superiors. But, of course, by the crisis moment both the audience and Ripley realize that this is exactly why she is in such a pickle, and it’s time Ripley breaks some rules and disobeys or she will die!

1 Resource for more help

Ha! Just one? I have like dozens! Okay, well, if I had to direct you to one it would be “Reading For Writers 101: Character Change Part 2”. Of course, there is also “Character Change Part 1” and this post about “Unforgettable Endings” of which the main component is Character Change. There’s also “How to Story Edit Using the ‘Save The Cat’ Beats,” which is basically a checklist to make sure your hero changes. And there’s even more suggestions in the “Posts You Might Like” section below.

Well, that should give you lots to read. A good thing since space missions are notoriously long – reading material is a must!

 

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Choosing the Right Character Arc

Choosing Character ArcTwo weeks ago I blogged about How to Create a Character Arc from Plot, followed my own advice, and came up with… multiple character arcs for my heroine. Yep. At least four or five, and I’m not sure which one is the right one for the story. What’s an I-have-too-many-ideas writer to do? Well, here are a few different approaches:

Pick one and roll with it. This is what my pantser friends would advise. Don’t waste time worrying about which option is the best, just write one! Roll the dice or play eenie-meenie-miney-mo or pull an idea out of a hat, whatever works, and start the story. The upside to this approach is it could turn out great and you didn’t waste any time deciding! The downside is it doesn’t and you waste time on a substandard novel. Choosing this option requires writers to have faith – in the story gods and/or their own abilities. But if you lack that faith and prefer a more scientific approach, the next couple options may suit you better.

Plot it out. Test your ideas by writing a beat sheet. I use the “Save The Cat” model. Once you map out the main plot points with each character arc, it’s easier to see every idea’s strengths and weaknesses, especially if you use this Story Beats Editing Checklist.

Pitch. Write a pitch or synopsis or practice query letter for each idea. This is the most helpful to me. I can usually make all my ideas work logically in beat sheet form (I am good at fitting puzzle pieces together), but when I have to pitch an idea, it forces me into the reader’s shoes, a place where I can more easily recognize the character arc with the most appeal.

But what if you still have a couple ideas, both of which are solid character arcs and equally intriguing? How do you choose?

Listen to your heart. Did I really just suggest something so corny? Yes I did, because sometimes the idea that is the easiest to pick or plot or pitch is not the one you, the writer, connects with the most. I have gone down the road of writing novels that work plot-wise and pitch great, only to realize partway through that I don’t care about my heroine’s journey. Often this is because her character arc counters my own beliefs. For example, the theme of “love conquers all” and accompanying character arc of “loveless heroine finds love” has wide audience appeal and pitches well, but goes against my conviction that love doesn’t conquer all and a heroine doesn’t need love to succeed. Someone else could write that romantic character arc splendidly, but it would ring false if I wrote it. 

Bottom line: the right character arc is a personal choice. Test it, review it, choose it, and start writing!

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How to Create a Character Arc from Plot

There are lots of things that make a story good. In fact, I’m constantly overwhelmed trying to keep track of them all. But what elevates most stories above the rest is a satisfying character arc. What is this? Well, at the most basic level it is a story where the character changes. If your character doesn’t change, you don’t have an arc. And you must have an arc! Not sure you buy that? Read this post where I explain how stories that lack character change fall flat because they don’t connect with readers.

Since character arc is so important, some might think that every writer would start a story with the hero’s change in mind. That would be smart. I wish I wrote that way. Alas, my ideas are born out of situation, not character. I always think of the plot first. This means I have to create a protagonist for the plot to change.

"So you've put me in this plot, now what?"

“So you’ve put me in this plot, now what?”

Let me reiterate: the plot changes the hero. The character arc is not some side street that runs parallel to the main road and never intersects. The character arc travels right on the main plot! The arc happens because of the plot, not despite it.

You can see how if a writer comes up with the character arc first they can create a plot that will push the hero’s buttons and poke at his flaws and force him to change. And, at least to me, that seems easier than moulding a character to a pre-existing plot idea. Maybe I’m wrong. Writers who write this way (character first), please chime in in the Comments! Since I write plot first, I’ve come up with some things to consider when creating that crucial character arc from plot…

  1. Skills. What skills are needed to resolve this plot? At the beginning, the hero doesn’t have these skills, or has the skills but hasn’t mastered them, and must develop them over the course of the story. Often skills arise from overcoming flaws.

  2. Flaws. What flaw does your hero need to complicate this plot? For instance, if your story is about an orphaned rich kid who spent all his inheritance and now has to get a job and a roommate, give him the flaw of being uncompromising. This flaw will make getting a job and roommate more difficult, and of course, in order to succeed by the end, he will have to change and learn to compromise (a skill he didn’t have at the beginning). Other flaws that would work for this plot: classism, laziness, naiveté.

  3. Fears. Why does this plot scare your hero? Fear is part of all stories, not just thrillers and horrors. In a romantic comedy, the fear is rejection. The presence of fear means there are stakes for the hero, and if there are stakes the hero will care enough to change, hence the character arc. In the bankrupt orphan story, his fear could be losing the family mansion, the only connection he has to his deceased parents. Without fear, the character won’t give a damn about changing and have no arc.

  4. Secrets. How does this plot threaten to expose your hero? Protecting secrets is a great way to add internal conflict and strengthen the character arc. Another approach is have the plot reveal information the hero didn’t even know! Either way, the plot should rattle all the skeletons in your hero’s closet.

  5. Morals. What morals does this plot test? Plots that upend the hero’s belief system make for strong character arcs. Perhaps the bankrupt orphan thinks he’s better than the working class. The plot of getting a job will certainly challenge that belief!

So those are a few things I ask myself whenever I come up with a story. Well, now I do. I floundered for much to long trying to create great character arcs, so I thought it was high time I figured out a better way! And I think this is it. Though if you have more suggestions, please share!

 

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One Simple Rule of Writing Horror

BookCover-RLStineI love scary stories! As a kid, I devoured every R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan on my small town library’s shelves. When the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school, I ordered more spine-tingling novels. I would read them under my covers with a flashlight, not for atmosphere but because I was supposed to be asleep and I’d be in trouble if my parents caught me reading past my bedtime. I would even stay up late writing scary stories and terrifying myself so much I couldn’t shut my eyes, though I knew in the end my protagonist would survive.

When I grew up I worked in kids television and wrote mainly action comedies. Nothing in the horror genre… until now. I didn’t set out to write a horror. I had this germ of an idea and just started developing it, spinning yarns that were creepy but nothing close to pants-wetting. I thought of the story more as a mystery, maybe a thriller, but horror… could I write that? It had been so long since I’d even tried. But the idea I was developing wasn’t clicking as a mystery, so I decided to see if it came together better as a scary movie.

Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.

Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.

Movie? Why that? Why not book? I’m not ruling out that this story may become a book, but I find when it comes to horror, thinking visually helps. After all, fear is what we can’t see (but suspect is there) and what we can see (and wish we couldn’t). 

But there’s a second reason to approach this as a film – it forces me to simplify things. My storylines tend to be complicated, full of big turning points, life-changing character revelations and interwoven subplots. But that doesn’t work when writing horror. I needed to follow the base rule of scary movies:

Keep it simple.

And here are 3 ways I applied that directive to my budding horror tale…

  1. Smaller Character Goals. Because I like proactive characters, I tend to give my heroines plans to do stuff. Big goals! Big dreams! But I found that when the Monster strikes and the bodies start dropping, those goals are quickly forgotten and replaced by one desire, “Don’t die!” This is why most horror movies start with the characters just wanting to have fun, or get settled into a new house, or go on a relaxing holiday. Simple, everyday plans because soon the only goal will be staying alive.

  2. Uncomplicated Plot. In the same way that comedy needs time for jokes, horror needs time for screams. If you bog down the script with multiple subplots or twists or revelations, there will be too much story to tell and not enough time left over for scaring the crap out of your audience.

  3. One-Step Character Change. Quest or a coming-of-age stories lead the heroine along various steps that slowly change her into the person she needs to become. But in horror the heroine changes for one reason – she gathered the strength to fight off the monster. Like Sydney in SCREAM: (minor spoiler alert) she wasn’t over her mom’s death and hadn’t come to terms with her mom’s reputation as the town tramp, but there are no heartfelt scenes where she talks to a friend/therapist/teacher, goes through the stages of grief and slowly comes to accept what happened. Nope, she just kills the monster. Now she’s strong and ready to move on.

Though “Keep It Simple” is the base rule of writing horror, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Far from it. I need to learn everything I can about this excellent but often abused genre, starting with devouring some scary writing craft books.

Next up from Heather… I’m reading “Writing the Horror Movie” and learning how to use the four basic tools of horror. What are they? I’ll tell you next Monday.

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How To Choose A Main Character

In a novel, the main character must go through a life-changing event that transforms them by end of the book. (For more read What Is Character Change and How to Create Character Change.) With that in mind, it should be easy to know who is my protagonist, right? Just build the novel around whoever has the biggest change to make! Except in my current WIP I’m not sure who that is. Who to Choose?Both potential heroines will change by the end, but who should lead the story?

This wouldn’t be such an issue if I wrote in the omniscient 3rd person. But I really want the story to be in 1st person, hence the need to make a choice.

Now you’re probably thinking I can just write it from both their perspectives. Problem solved! But multiple POVs should only be used for two reasons: 1) the characters have very different ways of seeing the same situation, and/or 2) the characters inhabit separate plotlines. A good example is Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka – three girls with contrasting views on their polygamous community. And each girl has her own story to tell, though they overlap a lot.

That’s not the case in my story. Sure, they see things differently because they are separate people, but not enough to warrant telling the story from both their POVs.

So I came up with some questions to try to figure out who would be the best Main Character, Taryn or Eve:

Q: Which character’s life is changed most by the story’s series of events? A: Taryn.

Q: Who wrestles the biggest demons? A: Taryn.

Q: Who has the ability to save the day? A: Both.

Q: Who is actually trying to save the day? A: Eve.

Q: Who propels the action of the story forward? A: Eve.

Q: Who will rise from the ashes at the end? A: Both. Or just one. Wow, this could go either way.

Q: Who has the goal that is easiest to root for? A: Eve.

Q: Which character is the best window into the story? A: Depends on the genre.

After the first questions, I was pretty sure Taryn was the main character because her demons are bigger and therefore her change should have a greater impact on the reader at The End. But the next few questions made it apparent that Eve leads the story and is easiest to root for. However, the last question was a revelation: different genres require different main characters.

If I was writing a coming-of-age story, the main character’s change would trump all. But I’m not. I’m writing a mystery thriller, and for that type of story the character who has less information makes the best “window” because the reader can experience her fear and frustration as she figures out the mystery.

Therefore, my main character has to be Eve because Taryn knows too much.

Laying it all out like that makes it seem obvious, and I’m embarrassed to say that took me months to figure out. Oh well, another thing learned in the seemingly endless quest to be a better writer!

Anyone else ever have trouble choosing your main character?

 

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Writing Unforgettable Endings

DeadEndSignThe thing about writing a novel or film is that it all comes down to the ending. A great ending is what makes a story memorable. All of the books on my bookshelf have unforgettable endings. The books that don’t make the cut may have had fascinating premises, entertaining characters, and intriguing plot twists, but the endings didn’t resonate. It’s like those books lead me to a dead end. I got there, shrugged and went, “Oh, that’s it?” I want a story that ends somewhere remarkable!

So how do you write that? I’ve been pondering this for some time, and believe it or not, I think it comes down to these two things: Character Change and Surprise.

Character Change

I’ve blogged about the importance of character change in numerous posts, but it bears repeating. A story must change the hero and his life, and the hero changes because he is affected by the events of the story. And if the hero is affected, most likely the reader will be affected deep down inside, and that makes the story unforgettable.

Think about your high school memories. What do you remember? I remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin – that changed my musical taste forever. I remember my first breakup – lost my childhood best friend in that one. I remember my second boyfriend letting me drive his car before I had my license – but I don’t remember that boy’s name. Why? Because he didn’t affect me (we only dated a few weeks), but learning to drive, that changed my life.

No one can remember every single thing that happens, but if your novel’s ending affects readers, has an impact on their hearts and/or minds, they’ll remember. So if you want your ending to be unforgettable, put your hero (and reader) through a life-altering change.

(For more on Character Change check out these posts: Why Character Change Makes a Story Worth Reading and Character Change Can’t Come Out of Nowhere!)

Surprise

Stories with an end twist are always memorable, but you don’t have to go all Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects to have a great ending. The key is to build suspense around your hero’s quest in the form of a “will he or won’t he” question. Will he or won’t he win the heart of the girl? Will he or won’t he betray the mob boss? Will he or won’t he solve the case before the murderer strikes again? Then get him into such a pickle that the reader has no idea how the story will resolve. At that point, anything you come up with will be a surprise!

And if you also have a mind-blowing twist, awesome!

You may think this advice sounds pretty basic, and it is, but the majority of novels I read lack these two things, so I thought it was worth mentioning. Sometimes when writing all the complicated plot stuff, we forget the basics. So take this as your reminder. Put your story to the test. By the end, does your character change in a big way that affects his or her life? And did you build up the suspense enough so that the ending surprises the reader? If this story wasn’t your baby, would the ending imprint itself on your brain? Or would you forget it in a few months?

It’s really hard to write unforgettable endings, even when you know this stuff and you’re trying to get it right. I’ve spent years writing countless stories with less-than-stellar resolutions, and I’m just now getting the hang of it. I’ve learned it helps to figure out the ending before I start writing – not every detail, just how the hero will change and what the surprise resolve will be. Armed with these two things, hopefully I’ll never again write a story with a lackluster ending!

What do you think makes an ending unforgettable? Let me know in the Comments!

For more on writing endings, check out 3 Steps to Make an Ending Right – i.e. don’t pull a fast one on the reader by plucking an ending out of thin air!

Next Up from Heather… How writing script treatments can help your story.

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