Guest blogger Author and Workshop Presenter Shannon Curtis shares her writing tools, tips and techniques.
I am a plotter – I can’t help it. I love setting up a plot structure that really mucks with a character’s mind, and I find I do that best when I have all stages laid out, and I have a really good concept of who my character is, what makes him/her tick, and what would really frighten the bejeebus out of him – or her.
I know so many writers who are pantsers – who can write by the seat of their pants, and their story unfolds ‘organically’, like some magical evolution of ideas that just WORK. I envy those weird little beasts. I, on the other hand, have discovered there is one area in my life where perhaps I could be just a little OCD – not that you could tell by looking at me, my home, or my office… I like to plan and organise my story and time so that I know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it.
There are some tools I use regularly, and I’m happy to share them with you. One thing I’ve learned is that strong motivation can build strong characters, but also strong belief in your reader. In the motivation workshops I give I often use an example of the young woman creeping down the stairs to the darkened basement – generally because she heard a noise, and usually when there is already something hinky going on. Most of the time we’ll yell at that character – don’t go! What are you thinking? There’s a perfectly a) strong, handsome male in the vicinity to help you, b) geeky, sacrificial guy/gal you can send instead, or c) clumsy law enforcement official who must die in your place and leave you with no rescue hope, etc. Why, then, must a seemingly normal person sacrifice good common sense and step into the dangerous dark?
Simply put, it’s the motivation of your character. Why is she creeping down those stairs into the darkened basement whilst everyone but a numbskull can sense the threat? Is she just curious? This would put her in the TSTL category – Too Stupid To Live (I have received this comment in an editor’s notes, so I’m quite familiar with the concept).
Or does she have a good reason? Perhaps her infant son is crying down there? That would give her good, strong motivation to walk into the face of danger.
How can we make it matter MORE? Well, what if the reader knew our intrepid heroine had a reasonable fear of the dark? Or of being trapped? Or of being attacked? Or… any other scenario that would cause fear in your character (because it’s when they confront a fear that your character changes, grows and develops). What happened in her backstory to give her these fears?
How do we set up these high emotion, high tension, high stakes moments in our stories?
Personally, I play the Why Game.
Start off with a goal, internal and external for your character.
Heroine’s External Goal: to turn the rambling farmhouse she’s just inherited into a successful B&B.
Heroine’s Internal Goal: to create a secure, comfortable home for her and her family.
External Goal: because she needs a reliable income, and a mechanism where she can work as well as look after her young son.
Internal Goal: because growing up she and her single mother moved from place to place, and never really set down roots anywhere, and she’s determined to provide a different kind of life for her young son. She wants to give him a better life than she had, growing up.
So this raises more questions: Why is she doing this alone? Why isn’t her son’s father involved? Who left her the farm? What was so bad about her own childhood? What happened to her own father?
It’s within the answers to these and subsequent questions that you’ll build your character’s backstory and ultimately find the means to really screw with your character and build those high stakes moments.
For example: What was so bad about her own childhood? Perhaps her mother had to work long hours, and she had to look after herself. Perhaps one day she was playing in an old, abandoned house on the way home from school, and got trapped in the basement for two days before she was found. What if squatters used that house from time to time, and a crime was committed while she was trapped there?
There is so much scope for giving your character real, relatable fears, just by continually asking yourself – WHY? But then, why? And then, WHY???
When you have these answers, ask
What would your character never, EVER do?
What would she never, EVER say?
What would she never, EVER think?
What would she never, EVER feel?
Then find places in your plot to force your character to do, say, think and feel those things. The effect is that your character can no longer avoid a fear, they have to confront it, and perhaps even conquer it. Basically, you’re building turning points into your story that are so strongly connected to your character, that are so deeply believable, that it creates questions in your reader – what is going to happen next?
And that’s what makes readers turn the page – again, and again, and again.