Over the past several weeks, we have discussed how to move the story along through transitional means of scenes and chapters. This week, we’re going start looking at what goes into each scene. We’ll assess each scene and build them to appear realistic and draw the reader into story.

Imagine the story is part of a scene of a play. You have well developed characters in the wings ready to act out the story lines that you have ready for them. However, the stage is still bare, and the props have not yet been gathered. The characters also do not have their scripts. By the end of this month, your characters will have all of these.

This week our focus will be on the setting so get out your paint brushes and get ready to develop your story’s backdrop.

Setting

Setting is the place of story and answers the questions where and when. Writers and readers expect a story to take place somewhere and at some time.  Setting includes locations (indoors and outdoors), cities or countries or planets, era or age, time of day, and cultural milieu.

Since you have written the first draft and have developed your book this far, you have, at least, a general idea of the details of your setting. Setting is a necessity, but it doesn’t affect readers the way plot and character do, and readers aren’t drawn into the novel because of the story’s setting. However, setting does effect mood and event possibilities and character temperament. Change the novel’s setting and you create a new story.

Setting influences character type, word choice, pace, tone, even genre. Setting enhances story by enfolding plot and character in a place where they fit, where their strengths can best be highlighted. Setting helps characters and events shine, it gives them a backdrop that allows them to show what best fits the story and hide what doesn’t belong.

Writers can use setting to bolster their weak areas—bring depth to a plot-first story by introducing a setting that heightens the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Setting can be used as a jumping off place for a dramatic action scene.

Scenes

Scenes in plays are similar to scenes in novels. If you write a short section in which something significant happens in a single setting, then it is a scene. The scene directly affects what happens later. “What happens later” is the sequel. Here is a good article on how to write perfect scenes.

Action launches tend to energize the reader’s physical senses. To create an action launch:

1. GET STRAIGHT TO THE ACTION. Don’t drag your feet here. “Jimmy jumped off the cliff” rather than “Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped.”

2. HOOK THE READER WITH BIG OR SURPRISING ACTIONS. An outburst, car crash, violent heart attack or public fight at the launch of a scene allows for more possibilities within it.

3. BE SURE THAT THE ACTION IS TRUE TO YOUR CHARACTER. Don’t have a shy character choose to become suddenly uninhibited at the launch of a scene. Do have a bossy character belittle another character in a way that creates conflict.

4. ACT FIRST, THINK LATER. If a character is going to think in your action opening, let the action come first, as in, “Elizabeth slapped the Prince. When his face turned pink, horror filled her. What have I done? she thought.”

5. SAVE TIME BY BEGINNING WITH SUMMARY. Sometimes actions will simply take up more time and space in the scene than you would like. A scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly and, on occasion, summary will get the reader there faster.

6. COMMUNICATE NECESSARY INFORMATION TO THE READER BEFORE THE ACTION KICKS IN. Sometimes information needs to be imparted simply in order to set action in motion later in the scene. Opening sentences such as, “My mother was dead before I arrived,” “The war had begun” and, “The storm left half of the city underwater,” could easily lead to action.

7. REVEAL A CHARACTER’S THOUGHTS OR INTENTIONS THAT CANNOT BE SHOWN THROUGH ACTION. Coma victims, elderly characters, small children and other characters sometimes cannot speak or act for physical, mental or emotional reasons; therefore the scene may need to launch with narration to let the reader know what they think and feel.

8. ENGAGE WITH SPECIFIC VISUAL DETAILS. If your character is deserted on an island, the reader needs to know the lay of the land. Any fruit trees in sight? What color sand? Are there rocks, shelter or wild, roaming beasts?

9. USE SCENERY TO SET THE TONE OF THE SCENE. Say your scene opens in a jungle where your character is going to face danger; you can describe the scenery in language that conveys darkness, fear and mystery.

10. REFLECT A CHARACTER’S FEELINGS THROUGH SETTING. Say you have a sad character walking through a residential neighborhood. The descriptions of the homes can reflect that sadness—houses can be in disrepair, with rotting wood and untended yards. You can use weather in the same way. A bright, powerfully sunny day can reflect a mood of great cheer in a character.

Scene launches happen so quickly and are so soon forgotten that it’s easy to rush through them, figuring it doesn’t really matter how you get it started. Don’t fall prey to that thinking. Take your time with each scene launch. Craft it as carefully and strategically as you would any other aspect of your scene. Remember that a scene launch is an invitation to the reader, beckoning him to come further along with you. Make your invitation as alluring as possible.

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If you have read this before, there’s a link at the bottom of the page with more researched information on a YouTube video. If you haven’t, it is an interesting read!

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skeleton in chains

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I have been doing some research in a book called the History of Erie County, Pennsylvania (written in 1884) one of the things that I found interesting was idea that before the Native Americans lived in the area, there had been another group of people who lived in North America.

The Erie County Connection

According to The History of Erie county, there had been many indications that proved conclusively that the county had once been peopled by these giants. When the railroad link of the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad from the Lake Shore road to the dock at Erie was being built, the workers dug into a great mass of bones at the crossing of the public road which ran by the rolling mill. From the way the bones were thrown together, the workers surmised that a terrible battle had taken…

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Time to Edit Your First Draft

What is a Transition?

Not every scene is like a basic scene or like a main scene some scenes are all introspection, some are all action without introspection. Some scenes are scenes that are specifically used to relocate a character in time or space. These are called transition scenes.

However, not all transitions are full scenes. A scene transition is usually not a scene in itself. It’s the narration between scenes. Too much narration turns a novel into a report. Transitions can be short like “The next morning”. They can be a couple of paragraphs. They could be entire scenes. (Like a train ride).

Scene transitions can be pure narrative, a recitation of who did what and when. Narration is often discouraged since it’s telling rather than showing, but narration is quite useful for transitions. It’s an efficient way to indicate a change in place or time and provide details without drawing out the information into a scene of its own.

Why Use Scene Transitions

To provide description

To break tension

To slow the pace

To skip unimportant events or time periods

To create or switch mood or tone

To advance the time

To change location

To change viewpoint character

While scene transitions can be used to change the tone, they could be used just as easily to maintain tone. That is, if your story is humorous, keep your transitions humorous too.

Scene to Scene

In fiction, a scene is a unit of drama. A sequel is what follows; an aftermath. Together, scene and sequel provide the building blocks of plot for short stories, novels, and other forms of fiction.

Scenes are indispensable when writing a novel. A novel is lengthy, about 80,000-130,000 words. Scenes are usually only 400-500 words long. You can easily edit a scene rather than editing the whole manuscript, which makes editing more manageable. During the editing process, you can check for structure, flow, characters, and plot holes. You can also break up one scene into two or more scenes if you want the editing process simplified.

A scene transition takes characters and readers to a new location, a new time, or a new point of view. Transitions can also be used to show a character’s change in heart or frame of mind.

So, we use scene transitions to skip periods of time or to change to a new location in the story, glossing over events that happen between the new and old times or locations.

Scene transitions need to identify place, time, and viewpoint character, especially if there’s been a change in any of the three. If the new scene has a change in mood or tone, that should also be established right away.

If the viewpoint character has changed, identify the new viewpoint character right off by naming him.

Time and place can be established in any number of ways. They can:

  • Name the new place
  • Describe the new place
  • Describe the event
  • Mention the time or day or date
  • Show a character doing something we already knew he’d be doing at a set time or in a particular place

Chapter Transitions

Scene transitions can be seamlessly inserted at the beginnings of chapters since readers expect a transition between chapters. In fact, you don’t need to write a detailed transition if you ended the previous chapter with a teaser of what’s to come.

What are Chapters?

A chapter is a main division in a novel. Each chapter can be either numbered or titled or both Each chapter is made up of two or more scene. However, some chapters may encompass only one scene. Chapters can be long or short. However, you don’t want them too short in that you end up with too many of them or too long that it becomes cumbersome to the reader. Chapter length may depend on the novel’s audience. For instance, chapters of children’s books will be a lot shorter than novels written for adults.

How do you effectively create chapters in a novel? It depends. In adventure and mystery novels, some people like to end chapters on cliffhangers. However, the bottom line is that you should end chapters whenever you feel a major shift in the story, whether it be a change in point of view or a new scene.

Chapter Breaks

Thoughtful chaptering is more important than ever. By starting and ending in the right places, your chapter breaks alone can serve the powerful function of building suspense and keeping your readers reading. Unlike sentences or paragraphs, which have rules, chapters are artistic decisions; there are no rules. Here are three simple, essential techniques that can help you make effective chapter pauses.

1. First Focus on Writing

To decide where to insert breaks, some writers make chapters part of their initial outline. However, others see this method as too restrictive and feel that the most effective chapter breaks come from writing first and then evaluating the structure. Instead they structure their outline by episodes and events, not chapters. When the draft is finished, they go back and look over the manuscript and decide where to make the best chapter breaks.

2. When your story needs a change

Changes of place, changes of time and changes of point of view (POV) are all excellent places for chapter breaks. Sometimes, our stories make them necessary like in changes of place, perspective, point of view, and plot direction. This transition tells the reader that its time for reorientation. Chapter breaks of this type lead to continuity and pacing which are necessary to increase suspense.

3. During an action scene

How can I end this part so that the sleepy reader is compelled to keep the light on, if only to see how some crisis turns out or how some crucial question is answered? For even more suspense, break the chapter in the heart of action.

Effective as it is, there are a couple of problems: First, you don’t want to end every chapter this way, or even most of them. It becomes predictable, which is something you never want anybody to say about your novel. After a while, this tactic loses its effectiveness. Suspension of disbelief can go just so far. For the technique to be most effective, it needs to be an integral part of the overall story, not a gratuitous invention inserted just to try to keep the reader turning pages.

Changing Scenes within Chapters

Not all scene changes occur between chapters. Sometimes you need a scene change within a chapter.

If point of view that’s changing, be sure to identify the new viewpoint character (POV) immediately. A change in point of view qualifies as a change in scene because the reader is in the head of a different character—different thoughts and emotions. There’s probably a different tone to this section as well, as you’d expect with a different character’s personality both coloring and filtering the reader’s perceptions. Never change POV within a paragraph.

POV changes without notice and within scenes cause two major problems. First, they confuses the reader. You never want your readers getting lost in your novel. You certainly don’t want any of them to have to reread because you failed to provide enough scene markers. Each time a reader stops reading because she must reread a passage, she is pulled out of the fiction you’ve crafted. You lose the reader’s trust when he is repeatedly yanked from the novel’s world.

And second, the reader loses the connection he had with the viewpoint character. You work to create connections for your reader, so he can step into the mind and heart and life of a character. If you’ve done it well, the reader will read as if he’s experiencing the events.

Chapter Endings

Chapter endings in fiction look both backward and forward. They are transitions between what has already happened and what is about to break loose. They are links and doorways and connection points.

The end of a chapter—the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence—brings closure to one chapter but at the same time needs to lead readers and characters to the next scene and chapter and story event.

A chapter ending that doesn’t satisfy the events of the chapter, at least some of them, hasn’t done its work. And the chapter ending that doesn’t pull readers deeper into the story, fill them with anticipation for what comes next, also hasn’t accomplished all that it should.

Except for the first and last chapters, most chapter endings have similar purposes.

Endings will address and resolve or address and deepen story problems introduced in that chapter or earlier chapters. Of course, not every problem is resolved, but there will be some closure. At the same time, some new event or twist will raise the tension level. Some answers will be provided, but those answers might be what drives character and reader into the next story event. And into the next chapter.

Successful endings will raise tension for readers and keep them involved in the story.

Not every chapter will have the same degree of closure as other chapters. Vary your chapter endings, but the endings should reflect what came before if only to mention an event or character or repeat a word or phrasing that tie story elements together.

  • Chapter endings will not put readers to sleep.
  • Chapter endings should introduce or raise tension and/or conflict
  • Chapter endings can introduce new problems.
  • Chapter endings can reveal something new about a character’s personality or his reasons for being involved in whatever story issue has a hold on him.
  • Chapter endings can introduce new characters, new aspects of old characters, new events, and secrets.
  • Chapters can end with dialogue or with action. They should contain something new or surprising.
  • Chapters should never end with a character yawning and going to bed. The reader will do the same and may never return.
  • Chapter endings (other than the one for the final chapter) will not resolve all story issues revealed up to that point. If they did, readers would have no reason to keep reading.
  • Use cliffhanger endings if that works for the genre and the style of story you want to tell.
  • Use anticipation and fear and any emotion that will keep readers turning pages.
  • Shake up your story and characters with the unexpected at a chapter’s end. Satisfy and tease at the same time.
  • Write captivating chapter endings and never allow your readers to become bored.

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

This is the first post in a series of blog posts about how to edit your novel. If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.

FREE COMPREHENSIVE NOVEL EDITING CHECKLIST



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Time to Edit Your First Draft

You’ve developed strong story ARCs. You’ve fleshed out and built strong character ARCs. You have determined point of view and which tense you’re going to use throughout the book. Your novel has a strong beginning and a strong ending.

Building a Scene

The basic building block of any story whether play or novel is the scene. Every scene is a step from the first scene to the last.

Look over the story ARCs that you’ve created and determine where each scene of the ARC will occur in the story. The first thing to do is to determine what the purpose or purposes each scene will have regarding moving the story forward.

Different types of scenes exist. These types fall under three broad categories. First is the action scene. The second is the introspection scene. Third is the transitional scene.

Determine what action needs to occur within this scene and what needs to be discussed by the characters during this scene. Work any good details from the first draft into this second draft and eliminate any empty dialogue and rambling internalization. Develop character voices and craft unique characters based on the information in your character bible.

The Anatomy of the Basic Scene

Just as the body is made up of cells, so the novel is made up of scenes. Each scene has a goal, something to be accomplished. Two, a set-up, three location, for characters at odds or in conflict (in the case of introspection, a character could be at odds with himself.) Action, emotion, and dialogue. Finally, each scene must have a conclusion either to jettison you into the next scene or toward the next conflict.

The most important aspect of the scene is the goal of what you want to accomplish with this scene. Scenes should never be part of a story just to fill space. The more you’ve defined the scene’s goal, the better it adds to the storyline.

The object of the setup is to get characters together or to get one character alone so that character can be involved in introspection.

Location involves knowing when and where the scene is occurring.

What conflict is at stake during this scene?

How is this conflict carried out in action, emotion and dialogue? What drama is involved?

What is the conclusion of this scene? How does it set up for the next scene?

The Main Scenes

A novel has ten main scenes with various other scenes between. The main plot will be the main event of each of these ten scenes. These scenes are:

#1 – First scenes Introduce protagonist in her world. Establish her core need. Set the stage, begin building the world, bring key characters on stage.

#2 – Turning Point #1 inciting incident.

#3 – Pinch Point #1 Give a glimpse of the opposition’s power, need, and goal as well as the stakes.

#4 – Twist #1: Something new happens: a new ally, a friend becomes a foe. New info reveals a serious complication to reaching the goal. Protagonist must adjust to change with this setback.

#5 – The midpoint No turning back. Important event that propels the story forward and solidifies the protagonist’s determination to reach her goal.

#6 – Pinch Point #2 The opposition comes full force. Time to buckle down and fight through it.

#7 – Twist 2: A surprise giving (false?) hope. The goal now looks within reach. A mentor gives encouragement, a secret weapon, an important clue.

#8 – Turning Point #4 Major setback. All is lost and hopeless. Time for final push.

#9 – Turning Point #5 The climax where the goal is either reached or not; the main questions are answered.

#10 – The Ending scene. the aftermath, the wrap-up and resolution. (more discussion about this in last week’s post).

Determine what occurs during these scenes and write the scenes according to the guidelines of a basic scene and you will have the main scenes of your main plot well established.

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

This is the first post in a series of blog posts about how to edit your novel. If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.

FREE COMPREHENSIVE NOVEL EDITING CHECKLIST



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Time to Edit Your First Draft

Once I understand my story lines and have an intimate relationship with my characters, it’s time to figure out how to begin the story.

How does a novelist determine exactly where to begin the novel? Many new authors are apt to start a story too early rather than too late.

To determine where to start, determine when your first dramatic event or your first major plot point occurs. Thought your beginning doesn’t need to start with action, something important does need to be occurring as it relates to the story line. The beginning of your novel needs to begin by hooking your audience into the story through either action, character, or setting.

The First Line

The story begins with the first line. Perfect first lines can be vivid or establish a unique story voice. It may contain a surprise, something that makes the audience laugh, a statement of truth. The first line can also be very clear and contain the entirety of the novel. The perfect line takes many forms and only you can determine the perfect first line of your story.

Be patient as you look for it. You may have to take several tries before you find the right one that hooks the reader into your story.

Try starting with an interesting detail of character, setting or something symbolic of your story’s largest themes.

Your Novel’s First Paragraph

Your great first line must then be followed by a great opening paragraph.

A great opening line must be followed by a great opening paragraph. It’s hard to do either if you don’t have a central story idea that inspires you and suggests ideas, but if you have done the work of determining your story line (and subplots) and have developed an intimate relationship with your characters, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Take some information about your protagonist and your setting and create a scene where your protagonist is just before the first plot point. This type of story opening can us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. We get roped more into the character’s life as we start to see glimpses of his past and the environment and upbringing that shaped him.

In addition, you may want to add a bit of mystery to your story. For instance, your character may do something in the opening paragraph that makes the reader wonder what is going on and why that character might be doing what he is doing.

If the story opens with a narrator, how does the narrator’s voice itself capture our interest? with humor? or distinct personality?

Every novel opening contains at least one of the following elements of great opening hooks. Do you have unanswered questions? Intriguing actions or events? A troubling or unusual or suspenseful scenario?

TENSE AND POINT OF VIEW

With your first paragraph, determine how you will handle tense and point of view throughout the whole story. Most novels are written in the past tense. It is important to maintain that tense throughout the entire book. If you choose to try to use some other tense (as an experiment), be sure to use that throughout the novel.

Though traditionally, tense has been past tense, you have always had options when it comes to how traditional novels approach point of view.

You might choose first person. I ran after the dog.

You might choose third person Jan ran after the dog.

You might choose omniscient. Jan ran after the dog while the class watched and wondered. Would she catch him?

A more modern approach is to switch between viewpoints and even use present tense instead of past tense. Before deciding on viewpoint and tense consider this. Studies have shown that older readers prefer past tense while younger ones prefer present tense. If your audience is older, use past tense. If younger, consider using present tense.

hatever you decide, use the same method throughout the book either present or past tense. You want to avoid confusing your readers with too many tense or point of view changes.

Not sure which POV to write in? Write your first scene first in first person, then third person limited and then omniscient. Which one feels right?

Look for A Natural Starting Point

Does writing your own starting point make you realize your choices are limitless, and this paralyzes you? Yet your novel must flow from the first scene you select. Where should you start? Start wherever you think it should start. You can always change it later. Perhaps even several times until you have the perfect beginning.

You can also start with your character sketches. Ask yourself what this character is doing when you first meet him and write about it.

Read over how you started your first draft. Did you start at a good place or do you think you should have written it later? Did you start too far before the action? If so, look for a better place later in the book. The truth is, you can start your story any number of ways. Come back to this first line, first paragraph and first page several times throughout the writing process until you believe that it is as good as it gets.

Present Strong Characters Immediately

Remember the old adage: Show Don’t Tell. Be sure to bring your protagonist into the first chapter and show him doing something. Establish your characters’ situations. What do they know at the beginning?

Don’t Overdo the Setting

Don’t give the opening scene in too much depth. You’ve got it all pictured in your head: the colors, sounds, flavors and feelings. You want everybody to be in the same place with the story you are. Instead, easy them into the view. An introduction is enough, for now. You’ll fill in the details later. Just give them the basic feel of the setting of whether you’re on star ship or a street in a British colony. Instead of giving the history of the place and how long the character has lived there and the weather, consider showing the character in the setting with a few details that show the scene in that moment. Perhaps even indicate how the character feels about the scene.

Later you can add more details telling about the house, the street, the neighbors and the household pet.

Carefully Choose Details to Create Immediacy

In chapter one, you’ll need to keep your details economical, but avoid vagueness. You want to include details that are necessary to the story and move it along. If the detail serves the story, you can’t have too much.

Make Chapter One a Story in Itself

It’s no accident that many great novels have first chapters that were excerpted in magazines, where they essentially stood as short stories. I remember being knocked to the floor by the gorgeous completeness of Ian McEwan’s first chapter of On Chesil Beach when it was excerpted in The New Yorker.

Every chapter should have its own plot, especially chapter one.

Focus on action. Make trouble. Put your characters in jeopardy early. Make trouble early and make it big or make it ominous.

Don’t let your characters be wishy-washy. Make them decisive. A good way to do that is to make a character take decisive action. End chapter one with some closure, but make that closure false.

Put your Best In Chapter One

Set your tone and flaunt it. Have confidence to own your book. Show the reader that you have generated a terrific idea for action and emotion whenever you want. Pull your reader into your story from the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph, and the first line. Hook your reader like a big game fisherman.

Don’t Make these Rooky Mistakes

Whether you’re thinking about self-publishing or going traditional, here are several ways that professional agents would not like if you use these following “techniques” when writing your first chapter.

False beginnings Make Readers Feel Cheated

1. Don’t kill off your main character at the end of Chapter One.

2. Don’t create opening scenes that you think are real, but then the protagonist wakes up.

Prologues

1. Readers prefer to find themselves in the midst of a moving plot from page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.

2. Make chapter one relevant and well-written

3. Prologues are a lazy way to bring back-story chunks to the reader. Backstorys can be handled better within the story. Forget Prologues.

Exposition and description

1. Don’t go beyond what is necessary to setting the scene. The reader wants to feel as though he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. Long descriptions in chapter one can make the story seem amateurish and contrived.

2. However, equally as bad is the lack of any exposition where the reader becomes disoriented when they learn five pages in that the location is not what the reader thought. Better to have a balance between exposition and mystery.

3. Avoid too many adjectives and adverbs.

4. Avoid long laundry lists of character descriptions. Work character descriptions into the story.

Starting too slowly

1. Though you might want to start with “status quo” at the beginning, don’t have the characters moving around doing little things like housework and thinking.

2. Don’t start with “in the beginning” or “once upon a time” beginnings where nothing happens.

Voice

1. Show don’t tell. Fill your readers’ heads with curiosity about your characters and questions that must be answered. Do this rather than fill them in on exactly where when, who and how.

2. Avoid filling scenes with flowery prose.

3. Avoid starting with a cheesy hook.

4. Avoid starting with My name is. . .

5. Make your main characters more interesting than your secondary ones.

Characters and backstory

1. Don’t make your characters too perfect. Heroes and heroines need obvious flaws.

2. Have a great plot started before you express too much about the character’s backstory. Good writers focus on plot and cut out the back story. You’ll be amazed at how much the backstory is part of the character’s DNA.

3. Start with action rather than reflection.

4. Don’t drop too much information into the first few pages. Getting to know characters is like getting to know people in real life.

In crime fiction

Don’t start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover.

In fantasy

Don’t start with the opening scene set with a battle or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs.

In Romance

No having a woman (or man) awakening to find herself with a strange man in her bedroom and automatically finding him attractive. If the average woman awoke to a strange man in her bedroom, she’d be reaching for a weapon, instead of lusting after him.

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.

FREE COMPREHENSIVE NOVEL EDITING CHECKLIST



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Time to Edit Your First Draft

Very few books are just about a protagonist and the antagonist. Most novels have characters that support the primary characters and help add to the drama of the story. Who are these supporting characters and what is their function?

The SideKick

What sleuth in a mystery doesn’t need a friend or relative with access to inside information? This character is often called the sidekick, and is probably the most important supporting character in many genres.

The Tormentor

We spoke of the antagonist last week, and the tormentor is similar, but this person is different in that he or she is someone whom the protagonist spars but in some way often admires.

Conflict is the spice that makes characters come alive, and an adversary can cause the protagonist all kinds of interesting problems and complicate your story by throwing up roadblocks to the investigation.

In developing an adversary, remember it should be a character who’s positioned to thwart, annoy and generally get in your sleuth’s way. With an adversary in the story, the protagonist gets lots of opportunity to argue, struggle and in general show his mettle and ingenuity.

Fleshing out The Supporting Cast

A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.

Supporting characters come with baggage too so pick yours carefully. Think about what all this means to the story line. If your sidekick is married, what’s his/her role in all this. Does he/she get jealous if there is a sexy suspect? If your protagonist has children, not only do you need information about these children, but also about their caregivers. Do they have a nanny or do they go to day care? A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. Remember, if the antagonist has a dog, the dog needs to be walked twice a day which means that your antagonist will have to walk him regularly or hire a dog-walker.

Supporting characters give your character a life, but each one should also play a special role in the story. Supporting characters might start out as stereotypes: a devoted wife, a nagging mother-in-law, a bumbling assistant, a macho cop or a slimy lawyer. It’s OK to typecast supporting characters during the planning phase. When you get into the writing, if you want them to play bigger roles, you’ll want to push past the stereotype and flesh them out, turning them into complex characters who do things that surprise you—and, in turn, the reader.

Like subplots and backstories, you don’t want supporting characters to hog the spotlight. You don’t want bland, uninteresting characters either.

Naming Characters

We’ve discussed many aspects of character sketches within a character bible as well as various types of characters including the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick and the tormentor. One thing we haven’t yet used is naming characters.

Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.

Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality or appearance. Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too. Avoid the dull and boring as well as the weirdly exotic.

It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.

Create a list of names that you consider “keepers,” and add to it whenever you find a new one you like.

Walk-on Characters

Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, but not a big splash. It doesn’t matter that the character is tall or short, fat or thin, bald or long-haired. What matters is what he or she does. He delivers three lines of dialogue and gives the protagonist an all-important sym-card that moves the plot along.

A minor role is no place for a complex character. Don’t imbue one with a lot of mystery that your reader will expect you to explain. A name, a few quirky details, and a bit of action or dialogue are more effective than a long, drawn-out description in minor characters.

Remember that the world of your novel will also be full of walk-on characters who provide texture and realism. Each one may also have some small role in facilitating the plot, but for the most part, walk-on characters are there to make scenes feel authentic. When crafting your more important minor characters, don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty. Choose details that can be a kind of shorthand commentary on the neighborhood or context.

Used in this way, walk-ons remain as much elements of setting as they are characters—and that setting will be a fitting backdrop to help both your protagonist and your more important supporting characters stand out.

To Do This Week

Use this information that you have created about your characters and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas in character development, and fix those problems.


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