Some of the most important work we do as writers is editing or book doctoring. Our manuscript might not exactly be ‘ailing’—then again it might be—but maybe it doesn’t quite belong in the healthy category yet. Before we send off our story we’ll need to fix mistakes and weaknesses in craft. But first we have to spot them. They’re likely to pop up in three areas: characterization, story and plot.
Problem #1: Underdeveloped characters that produce insufficient depth, dimension, believability or interest.
The Fix: Here are some areas to check out and revise—The character must have a clear yearning, a traumatic past, a heroic strength and a weakness, many unique personality traits, habits, likes, dislikes, talents, hobbies, attitudes, quirks, strong emotions, motives, fears and secrets, and one or more contradictions. These are all the things you put into character sheets.
Problem #2: Passive characters who are watchers, not actors, who are on the defensive, or who are not effected by the conflicts—that is, they could walk away from the situation without batting an eyelash. I’m talking about characters that are acted upon.
The Fix: The protagonist should be striving to meet an external story goal, resolving the problem and relieving the inner suffering. Our beloved characters are suffering, aren’t they? Remember, we need to torture them no matter how loving we are in real life. We don’t want to bore our readers to death by treating our characters with sugarcoated kindness. We want to keep our readers and boring them isn’t the way to do it. It’s hard for some of us to be mean to the people we love, but we must at least until the end of the story.
It’s okay if some of your characters are in defensive positions, but your protagonist should be on the offensive—strong and active. Formulate your story so the protagonist’s goals are most important, not the antagonist’s goals. Sometimes a plot can be set up incorrectly and that puts the protagonist on the defensive. Not good.
Problem #3: Insufficient relationship chemistry, contrast or conflict between the characters.
The Fix: Increase and strengthen the relationship between the characters and heighten the emotions and the potential for conflict. Make your characters essential to each other, and make their goals at cross-purposes. To avoid a lack of chemistry develop the characters and think in terms of opposites and differences. If they’re too compatible you won’t have much of a story and your reader will yawn. A bored reader will not buy your next book. A very important point.
Problem #4: Awkward shifts from one POV to another POV.
The Fix: Use only one POV per scene so you won’t confuse your reader. For smooth transitions between scenes start with the new character’s name or use a key word or phrase such as “Later that afternoon.” Don’t head hop because it’s confusing and we don’t know whom the scene is about or who to root for.
Problem #1: Too much dialogue for too long; i.e. ‘talking heads.’
The Fix: Very simple to correct dialogue. No speeches or sermons, please. Just break it up with a response from another character so that it becomes a conversation. Don’t overload dialogue with too much information. You can fix your ‘talking heads’ by adding setting, sensory experience or some other characterization.
Problem #2: The speakers all sound alike and are flat.
The Fix: You can use slang, regional figures of speech, words that reflect the character’s ethnicity, race, religion, personality etc. Develop a word list of favorite phrases that fit the character. (I’ve never done this, but I’m going to. Anything to stay organized.)
Problem #3: Dialogue lacks tension, fails to move the plot.
The Fix: Revise based on your character’s scene goal or emotional need. Through dialogue show your POV character striving to reach their goal and running into obstacles. You must have some sort of opposition. If you don’t have this then you could add an antagonist who challenges the POV character through dialogue.
Problem #4: Attributions—who is speaking—take characters out of the story.
The Fix: Don’t use words such as snarled, chided, chortled etc. Replace them with he said/she said. Or replace he said/she said with an action sentence that makes clear who is speaking.
Problem #5: Avoid over-the-top writing of dialect, slang, jargon, clichés, or foreign terms.
The Fix: A few dropped ‘g’s’ such as ‘walkin’ will do the trick. Avoid trying to phonetically spell dialects. Readers might throw your book across the room out of frustration and you wouldn’t want that.
Oops, the bell just rang. Next time I post I’ll finish up with Story and Plot. (This information came from an article written by Elizabeth Lyon.)
I’ll be giving away a copy of James Scott Bell’s wonderful craft book, The Art of War for Writers. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.