Follow your characters’ cues

It’s November! That magical month where thousands of writers decide to create a book—often their first book—at the same time! When I found NaNoWriMo in 2009, for the first time I could discuss writing and books and craft with a bunch of people obsessed with the same thing as me! It’s just lovely.

I’ve learned a lot since I pantsed my first NaNo novel, and one of the biggest lessons is that your characters are here to help you.

You might be thinking, “Um, no, they never do what I want!” or “They are so difficult!” I didn’t say they were willingly helping you (please let me know if you find out that secret!) but that doesn’t mean they are fighting you on every page.  What they are doing or discussing –or refusing to do or discuss—are character cues that you can use to make your scene or chapter or arc come out the way you want it to.

As you write you’ll probably find scenes or events that surprise you. You might also feel like even though your word count is climbing, you aren’t making the progress or hitting the beats you wanted to—even if you have an outline right next to you, telling you what needs to happen next!

Something that always helps me is to STOP and read through what I just wrote. I put STOP in all caps because many times we draft to a schedule—X words per X days of the week or you miss a DEADLINE (real or self-imposed) and that leads to STRESS and family members saying “Oh, you’re still doing that?” at the holidays.

STOP. READ WHAT YOU WROTE.

Explore your pages and find the threads of the issue.

Because what your characters are doing in this moment is going to tell you what isn’t working.

These are a few examples of what I see in my own work and in some of the books I read that I find less satisfying than they should be.

Is a character reacting badly to a piece of information? Your reader probably will too, because you didn’t set it up properly. I call this “author ex machina” – keeping readers in the dark by withholding information with no context clues. When a character learns what has been going on behind the scenes and is really pissed off because they had no idea (like they can’t move on because they keep arguing with the secret-keeping character), your reader probably feels cheated and pissed off, too. Go back and layer that in, make some connections, so that your character and your reader will be slapping their foreheads in realization, and not trying to slap the character doing the Big Reveal.

Are your characters wandering around (in a forest, commonly) or staying in the same place for too long, wondering what to do next? You need to restructure your clues or your emotional beats so that there is no hesitating! If the characters ever voice this question without getting a direct answer, an interruption, or an immediate call to action, you can bet the reader was already at this point 10 pages ago. Readers are smarter than characters because they have read stories before. A lull in action is for emotional arcs and interpersonal drama, not a chance for the characters (or the reader) to sit around flipping channels wondering what’s on in 30 minutes.

Are your characters wondering why another character made that choice or likes this other character? Pay attention—this may not be the reaction you’re going for! If your side characters are thinking your protagonist has stopped making sense, your reader might be thinking the same thing.

Imagine your characters on screen. What if nothing is happening at all? Films are stories too, and they don’t devote valuable minutes of screen time to relaxing or circular conversations, or walking uneventful miles through a forest.  So what is causing your characters to stall?

The characters might be afraid of what’s going to happen, or afraid of making the wrong choice. Wave to your subconscious, because it just showed up on the page.

Now assure it that you’re going to do something besides waffling or wringing your hands.

You may be afraid to write the next scene because it’s deeply personal for you, or something you are uncomfortable with, or something you’ve never written before.

You’re afraid you’ll pick the wrong thing—you may realize the characters should make a different choice once you write this. Or the scene may be right but the words aren’t. Or you have to tap into memories or feelings that are hard to control once they’re released.

The scenes that scare you are the ones that readers are going to connect with and remember.

This is your heart on the page—it may even be the reason you thought to write this story at all—don’t let anyone, even yourself, say that you’re doing it wrong. You’re drafting! You can fix it. You can feel it. But you can’t revise a blank page, and having the characters sitting around is just writing material to cut later. Sometimes it takes several attempts at a scene before it comes out the way you envisioned. Give yourself a chance (or ten) to get it right!

Good luck, and keep writing! ❤

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