Monday, May 9, 2011

A tale of two journeys

Ignoring the fact that I have been hiding out in a cave with Robin Hood for months now...I have an actual post today!

Sometimes I hate it when my critique partners are right. And by "hate" I mean "I can't believe I have to go back and think about this." In my pre-writerly days, storytelling just seemed so natural. Like events and characters and plots all just flowed together into one nice big river, and I was just flowing along with the current. The stories would magically unfurl in my head and flow out onto the page with the ease and grace of a ballerina. Surely if I just sat down and gave myself enough time, the story would tell itself, right?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

So when I met up with my fellow critters last week, the first thing one of them said about my latest chapter submission hit home with a dooming certainty. It was a simple question, really, but one with a great amount of import behind it. I'm finding that to be the case with most simple questions in adulthood.

What is the emotional journey of your character in this chapter?

There are two journeys that every story takes: the plot journey, and the emotional journey. These two journeys often intersect and affect each other, but they need to be considered separately to make sure you're moving both forward at all times. For me, sometimes the plot journey takes over my brain and I forget that my characters need to grow. They should be reacting to the action taking place, and making choices that define their character at every turn. Janet Fitch (who wrote the emotionally wrenching White Oleander) wrote a fantastic post about 10 rules that any writer can benefit from employing. Number nine on the list gets to the heart of the two journeys - write in scenes. As in, something needs to happen in a scene, both to advance the plot and advance the character. Each scene in your story must ratchet up the tension, or reveal a new piece of vital information. And emotionally, each scene should lead your character to a place from which they can't turn back. A tall order, for sure, but it makes for the best writing any of us can aspire to.

So for every chapter/scene you write, ask yourself these questions:
1) What new information have I learned from this scene?
2) How does this new information drive the story forward?
3) What has my character learned?
4) How does my character feel about this information?
5) How does this information change my character emotionally?

That's not to say that every scene you write needs to have some big soap opera reveal, or that your character is suddenly changed forever by each scene. That would be too unbelievable. But you should make sure that every scene you write, every piece of dialog, every description, is driving the story and the characters along the journey. It can be a little hop or a big leap, but you've got to keep the reader moving toward the (no doubt gripping) conclusion.


Laurel Garver said...

Your five questions are gold! I'll have to print those babies out for regular reference.

I think for me the emotional journey is often very much in flux during the drafting phase, and where I'm likely to have to go back and tinker with earlier scenes in order to keep the story moving forward. One overreaction or underreaction can create so many ripples!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Yes, I often think the story is about the "situation" when it's really about the "person." I actually have a blog going up about that later this week.

And it sounds as if you have some really good critique partners. The best ones out there challenge us to think and grow -- rather than just pat us on the back. (Of course, a really good critique partner will also pat us on the back when it's deserved!)

Solvang Sherrie said...

Brilliant post! What were you inhaling in that cave? Thanks for the list. It's going beside my keyboard :)