by Sandy Vaile
Have you ever wondered why pulling all the pieces of a novel together feels like such hard work? Me too.
Each author has a different process, but if you love feeling immersed in the lives and emotional dramas of fictional characters, then shifting your focus from external plot to internal state, could be the perfect way to allow your plot to be revealed organically.
While writing my third novel I had a revelation that changed my approach to scene planning forever.
Harnessing motivated characters helped me connect internal and external plot threads.
For a long time, I wondered why story structure was so difficult. I felt like I’d learnt the various storytelling techniques, but pulling them all together on the changing landscape of plot and character development was a different matter.
I started to doubt myself.
Was I the only one struggling to overlay their ideas onto beats and turning points? Everything I’d learnt about three acts, hero’s journeys and beats was still relevant, but there was some sort of disconnect when it came to pulling all the threads of a story into a cohesive and compelling plot.
Then it struck me!
If I shifted my approach from what external events needed to happen, to why the main character was there, suddenly all the pieces of the plot clicked together like DNA nucleotides, forming the unique genetic sequence for this story.
Don’t panic, it’s not as tricky as it sounds and you don’t have to be a geneticist to apply it to your own stories. All you have to do is tie each scene in the book to the character arc of one of the main characters.
To achieve this perspective shift you need to:
The struggles of characters are what leave a lasting impression on our hearts and souls after reading a book. So, we need to connect readers to them at every opportunity. Make the most of their psychological conflicts and show them struggling between what they want and need, or what they know they should do and what they are driven to do.
I can hear some of you saying, “That’s all well and good if you’re writing a character-driven story, but what about plot-driven stories?”
Even plot -driven stories have driven characters at their core. Take “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien for instance. Although Frodo is one of many main characters and the same world events would play out whether he was there or not, he still goes through personal struggles. We grow to love him and are eager to follow his journey and root for his success.
When a character is suitably motivated, it makes their desire to reach their goal more desperate, which in turn pushes them right to the edge of their capabilities and principles.
In short, character motivations create story momentum.
So, how do you shift your focus from external information to the character’s emotional state?
Go from WHAT to WHY.
When we focus on what happens next (external events) the choices around how that scene plays out are often random. Sure, there might be limiting factors to where the information is located, but it can usually happen in a variety of locations, e.g. a clue could be found in a house, the street or a library, and a fight could happen in a shadowy alley or deserted carpark.
Whereas, when we approach a scene thinking about where the character is on their emotional journey (their emotional state at that point in the story), it conjures specific locations, situations and other characters in our minds. Places, circumstances and people who are going to cause the character to struggle with why they want their goals, e.g.:
Now, imagine putting your character in a situation that will force them to confront all of these things.
Scenes are the building blocks of fictional stories and each one needs to pull its weight in raising the reader’s curiosity, sustaining tension, advancing the external plot and character arcs, creating an appropriate atmosphere and leading readers to the next scene.
Lets take a look at an example of how a character’s emotional state can translate to actions and a compelling scene.
Example – Emotional state to a compelling scene
In “Inheriting Fear” by Sandy Vaile, early on in the story I needed to show that the most important person in the main character, Mya’s, life was her mother. My thought process went like this …
Mya’s whole life has been structured to enable her to provide the best quality of life for her mother. So, I need to show what this close relationship and how it came to be.
But her mother is confined to a nursing home, so that is the natural location for the scene. From there I can picture what her room would look like, the gardens, the types of people who would be there. Now I have a vivid image of the setting in my mind.
When Mya vists her mother, it would be natural for her to worry about the cost of keeping her mother and how their roles have been reversed, being her mother’s guardian. That thought naturally leads to the tragic events that put her mother into care.
See how starting with Mya’s emotional state at that point in the story, leads to a specific situation and raises questions that reveal her backstory, motivations and inner fears?
This makes for an emotive scene that tugs at reader’s heart strings, all the while exposing the deeper motivations and desires of the character.
Internal and external events are inextricably linked. Our inner desires, beliefs and emotions drive us to take external actions. Even when external events are out of our control — meaning we didn’t choose to do something but it happened to us — our reactions are driven by our emotional state.
How does this look when planning a scene?
Rather than trying to figure out how to get characters from one external crisis to another, use the character arc to drive their reactions and decisions.
Note: This is just the way I do things; you should do what suits your process.
When planning to write a scene, I will have already:
The way they react to that external event is based on their inner desires, beliefs and motivations, determining their reactions and decisions about how to proceed.
Example – Internal reaction leads to the next external action
The emotional turmoil from the above example from “Inheriting Fear” is all happening at the same time as the external plot is progressing. Mya needed to know her mother was okay, which leads her to think about her past and future. She discovers missing jewellery (external event), which triggers an emotional and physical reaction. She’s upset and wants to find who took the jewellery.
In turn, her emotional state informs her decision about how to proceed (the next external actions).
For easier scene planning, try shifting your focus from how to deliver the information readers needed to know, to how to show the emotional drama the character was experiencing. Let the situation they’re in grow organically from their emotional state, connecting their inner desires to external information/events and resulting in compelling reading that draws readers into the story.
They key is to put characters into action and give them good reasons to keep moving by ensuring they have desperate desires, strong motivations and tangible stakes.
You deserve to plan a cohesive novel you’re confident to finish.
How do you handle planning your scenes and does any part of it gives you trouble?
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If you’re ready to develop complex characters, grab a copy of my free Character Profile template, which goes beyond appearance and personality, delving into backstory and questions that help you dig deep and figure out what is driving the character and how they would react in certain situations.
Sandy’s flexible outlining method suits plotters and pantsers.
If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering the first 5 WITS readers a massive 20% discount on my 3-month Novel Navigation Program (use the code WITS-NOVEL-PLANNING-20 at the checkout).
Sandy Vaile is a traditionally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, with more than a decade of experience in the industry, who empowers authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.
Sandy is also a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. Living in the McLaren Vale wine region means lots of prosseco and cheese platters in her down time.
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