Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective.

(The Pixar “Rules,” by the way, are pieces of advice rather than rules, as is true with many of the things writers are told. For a deeper look at them, grab the free e-book Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story Analyzed by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj, another former Pixarian.)

Coincidence Dice

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Yes, coincidences happen in real life. But in story, unless they cause trouble, they are unsatisfying for readers. That’s because fictional coincidences are usually pretty obvious cases of authorial manipulation. What really makes for engaging stories is stuff that characters do intentionally. If random, implausible stuff just happens to your protagonists, it not only makes the story feel contrived, it makes the characters seem passive.

Make your characters proactive. Their choices and actions will make for more engaging story material than stuff that happens accidentally. Especially if the likelihood of the “random” happenstance the author has orchestrated is vanishingly small.

If your first draft relies on coincidences, consider whether they can be replaced by direct character action. If not, try to make them more plausible. Or more disastrous. Or both.

Use surprise in your story, but realistically

Last time, I noted that stories about characters who never fail can become boring. One of the ways to keep things interesting—in addition to giving your characters the occasional setback—is with unexpected plot turns. Hence this checklist item:

The plot contains elements of surprise.

On the one hand, readers, especially of mysteries, enjoy figuring out the story and predicting the ending. But few readers enjoy books in which they can predict everything. When a critique partner or editor calls your story “predictable,” that’s not a compliment. Continue reading

Escalate the stakes to engage the reader

We noted before that the stakes for the protagonist should be stated early.

In the best stories, though, the stakes will change as the story develops. The stakes get higher—at the outset, the heroine might have a promotion on the line, and by midway through her job, and by the end, her life. Yes, it is permissible to have the plot be life-threatening from the outset, but escalating stakes are a valid plot choice as well, and arguably better, because you get the effect of a roller coaster rather than a runaway train. Continue reading

Story tension doesn’t mean everyone fights

Last time, I noted that tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages. One mistake new writers make is confusing conflict with tension.

Conflict is opposition—it’s a fight. When the hero wants one thing, and the villain wants the opposite, that’s conflict.

Tension is strain—a stretching, possibly to one’s limit. If the hero is climbing a mountain, his muscles are under tension, and so is the reader if there’s a danger he might fall. But he’s not in conflict—unless someone is trying to stop him.

In other words, conflict involves at least two forces, but tension can involve only one.

Writers can get confused on this point: Continue reading

Plot: The other half of story

Early on in this journey, I said Character + Plot = Story. So we’ve talked about characters and as an adjunct to that, point of view, which is how the reader experiences the character. On to plot.

There are some genres of fiction, notably literary fiction, in which you can get away with meager plots as long as your characters are fascinating and your writing is lyrical.

But in most genres, you’ll need an engaging plot to showcase those fantastic characters. Ideally your protagonist—or someone close to your protagonist—goes through a transformative experience in the course of the story. One way to think of it is to consider that the plot is what forces the character to make this change. Many writing teachers call this The Crucible. Continue reading

Ensure clear point of view transitions

We’re down to the last two items in the POV section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

If using deep POV, the narrative and interior monologue reflect the personality of the POV character(s)

This goes back to avoiding generic narrator voice. The narrative in a deep POV novel should feel like you’re riding along in the character’s brain, so the narrative should feel as if he’s thinking it. Continue reading

Why second person doesn’t work in fiction

Last time we talked about first versus third person in light of this item on our checklist:

The chosen grammatical person is suitable to the story and the POV characters.

I glossed over second person, in which the reader is addressed as “you,” noting only that it is Not Recommended.

One type of fiction in which second person does work is children’s fiction, especially the “choose your own adventure” book. Back in the day, this type of book would have a scene that ended with something like this: “You reach a fork in the road. Which way will you choose? If right, turn to page 63. If left, turn to page 67.” New stories of this type are put in e-book form with hyperlinks, and can be very effective, especially when the book is carefully aimed at a market that’s eager to fill the shoes of the story’s protagonist.

Second person works less well in traditional novel-length narrative fiction. Continue reading