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Monday, September 28, 2009

Get your story straight!

Writing is a bit like playing God.

No, I tell a lie. Writing is playing God for your universe. You set the rules, define the acceptable physics, create an destroy on a whim. You know the beginning from the end. And, as it would for any mortal, it messes you up.

I devoted part of my weekend to editing for some of my critique partners. Reading along, fixing commas, circling typos, and setting my hair on fire when I slammed into a story-arc inconsistency.

Scenario 1: FMC has spent 11 chapters running from the Big Bad, scared of everyone, and is in desperate need of help. Enter Strange But Handsome Male. Three pages into their relationship he puts FMC in a dicey situation and she tells him SHE TRUSTS HIM.


I flip back to the other 50-odd pages looking at FMC's well-developed trust issues. And then I call the author onto the proverbial carpet.

Me: What the blankity blank is this?
Author: *blink blink* What's wrong with that?
Me: Um, FMC has trust issues?
Author: Oh! It's okay. That's the Strong Handsome Hero. They fall in luuurvvvv.
Me: *reaching for matches* But they just met.
Author: So? They fall in luuurrrvvvv.
Me: Shouldn't you, y'know, show the relationship developing?
Author: *blink blink* What?

And so on.

My fabulous author/critique buddy knew the relationship that would eventually develop between the two characters and wrote the scene with the wrong step of the relationship in mind.

Don't do this.

Scenario 2: MMC meets stranger on the street and starts beating him for no apparent reason.

Liana raises an eyebrow and hunts down author.

Me: Why is your Great and Virtuous Hero beating a stranger senseless?
Author: 'cause he's the bad guy!
Me: Seriously? Since when? I thought Big Bad was the bad guy.
Author: Oh, no. Big Bad was framed. Random Stranger is really the bad guy.
Me: And the reader is going to know this how...?
Author: A twist ending.
Me: So your MMC is beating Random Stranger in chapter three because of why, again?
Author: *blink blink* He's the bad guy!!! The hero always beats up the bad guy.

Yes, but now before the hero KNOWS it's the bad guy.

Editing for Story Arc and Consistency

Step 1:
Know where the book is headed.
This is part of editing that you can't do until you have a full rough draft. If you don't know where the story will end up you can't start this process.

Step 2: Make a Bible
Write down character information for every single character mentioned. Who has blue eyes, who has green skin. What age is the MC? What is the starting emotional state for your characters? What is the ending state?

Step 3: Plot out a realistic arc.
Okay, some published authors skip this step. And that's why I have a nice stack of Pink books that will be used if I run out of firewood this winter. But, IMO, to make a story work you need the emotional and growth arc of a character to progress naturally.

This means that a character with intimacy issues will not hop in bed with the Hunky Hero within 50 words of the hero's arrival because -duh! - he's the hero. You need to show the relationship growing.

Likewise, if you have a very shy character who becomes the rebel hero or a great orator the switch should not happen in 50 words or less. Not unless the 50 words are something like, "And for the next seven years he worked hard, cured his stutter, and became a great statesman."

Step 4:
Let someone cold read the manuscript
Hand the edited MSS off to someone you haven't prepped and who doesn't know the ending like you do. If they start red flagging things, listen to them. Those are the same problems an agent, editor, or the reader in the bookstore will see. And those problems will keep your book from selling.

Step 5: Edit edit edit
And once you've made all the changes double check that you didn't accidentally call your MC by their first draft name of Thugd'Thug or HotChick. That could be very awkward to explain to an agent reading a full draft.


  1. Going to read this, print it out, and refer to it frequently. Thank you!

    Dinner (stuffed pepper with veg and cheese) is about to overcook so I must dash..

  2. Nice post, L. I like the idea of a storyworld bible--or rather, all the info in one place. I have bunches of docs spread out all over the place and... yeah, makes it hard to find things on occasion.