If I haven’t said it before, one of my all-time favorite blogs to follow is Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating. She covers the world of writers with in-depth author, agent and publisher interviews. Her interviews with artists actually feature step-by-step examples of the book illustration process. If you write for children or teens, the blog is a must. If you write for adults, or design covers for books, you might be surprised how transferable the advice is!
In her post today, Kathy interviewed agent Alex Slater with Trident Media Group. Slater repeated the most important advice a writer can hear: in order to write a compelling story, you MUST create tension. Alex offered several ways to do that, including my favorite–
Allow characters to face consequences
Well-developed, fully human characters often choose badly. They take a knife to a gunfight, they pick keeping a secret over being honest, they go alone and without backup into danger, they gamble one serving of Death by Chocolate won’t really affect their diet. Stupid, right?
Perhaps your instinct as a writer is to avoid having your protagonist do stupid things. You want your main character to be a hero all the time, save the day and the damsel in distress, work miracles by day and still be sexy at night, kill vampires while never breaking a nail or mussing a hairdo, finish the quest with a a battalion of baddies flat on the ground and nary a scratch of their own. BORING.
Readers (any age, from toddler to adult) can’t relate to that kind of protagonist. In this, the fictional world must mirror the real world: mistakes happen because no one is perfect.
Such mistakes give us a clearer picture of our characters, their weaknesses and their often mistaken priorities. All good things. But mistakes are useful for another purpose.
Mistakes and consequences increase tension
The need to survive consequences while at the same time pursuing the story goal can ratchet up the level of tension by several orders of magnitude. That is, it will if you let your characters make the kind of mistakes that raise story stakes, imperil themselves and those they love, or make the story goal appear to be unreachable.
Recovering from a broken fingernail isn’t high stakes. Making a wrong turn isn’t high stakes either, unless it means your protagonist can’t make it to the antagonist’s lair in time to defuse the bomb and save humanity. And in this case, having the wrong turn suddenly be revealed as the right turn after all isn’t facing consequences. It’s cheating. Nobody likes a cheater.
If the mistake is big and the consequences even bigger, then as writers we have to be prepared to come up with hard solutions. Ask a good mystery writer how many times she’s backed her characters into a corner with bad choices and consequences, then had to pull every bit of creativity and ingenuity she’s got into making the story solution both believable and a twisty surprise. But then, that’s why she gets the big bucks.
Kathy Temean is a former Regional Advisor in New Jersey for the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She also runs hugely successful Temean Consulting, a Web Design and Marketing company for the creative individual or business.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Donna Maloy‘s five-star, award-winning middle grade fantasy, Celia and the Wolf, in ebook and print from most online booksellers. Fourteen-year-old shapeshifter Celia Ashleigh only thinks she’s invincible. When she acts on that belief, the consequences for her and her mission are horrible.