Dont Forget to Let Your Characters Think

In youranziety to build your story in a straight line, with tight scene plotting, you may run the risk of plotting action so tightly that your characters never have time to catch a breath.

Are your stories like that? Did anyone ever frown and admit that your story confused them... just a little? If so, the chances are good that your story problem lies in your failure to provide time and structure for your characters to breathe... and think.

Most writers build components into their yarns to provide this kind of pacing time. Sometimes they may call such a part of their story a "valley. " But ultimately this name for breathing time in a story is not very helpful to the writer. Long ago, I heard literature professors talk about high points in fiction as "peaks", and the quieter points as "valleys. " And the terminology confused me for years until I finally figured out what they were trying to say.

When they spoke of "peaks", they were talking about scenes. For scenes, as discussed in Chapter Twenty-two, represent the high points of excitement, conflict and reader involvement.

When they spoke of "valleys", they were talking about quieter times in the story when conflict was not onstage in the story now-when the character had time to feel emotion, reflect on recent developments, and plan ahead.

We call the "valley" parts of your story the sequels.

Sequels, however, are more than just the quiet times in your story... more than little spots that provide breathing time for the character and the reader. They are those parts of your tale in which you show your character's reaction to the disaster that just took place... then planning what he is going to do next to try to get his quest back on track.

You must not forget to provide such sequels.

Think for a moment about times in your own life when something really bad -some disaster-befell you. What was the pattern of your response?

If it really was a disaster, the first thing you felt, perhaps only for an instant, perhaps for months, was emotion.

At some point, however, you stopped feeling blind emotion, and began the process of thought.

And at some point you told yourself, in effect, "I've got to get going again... I've got to make some decision.

This pattern, emotion-thought-decision, is the kernel of the structure of the sequel.

In planning your story's next development after a scene-ending disaster, you must put yourself in the mind and heart of your viewpoint character: imagine her feelings, in all their shadings and ramifications; then go through with her the painful transition into thought, the wondering "What shall I do next?"; finally, imagine with and for her what that new, goal-motivated decision ought to be.

Having done this, you will have planned her sequel.

Now, having planned - imagined - her sequel, you ordinarily will write it. How much emotion will you portray? How many pages will you devote to her feelings, before she progresses to thinking? That will depend on the nature of the disaster that just befell her, what kind of character she is, what kind of story you are writing. In a romance, your written delineation of her emotional response may take many pages; in an action story, you may have such plot pressure on her that she must respond in some new action almost at once, without the luxury of taking time for much feeling; with a sensitive heroine you may have to devote pages to her feelings, while with a gruff woman of the world, it may be more realistic if she shrugs off the hurt almost at once, and gets on with business.

The same is true in terms of how much page space you will give to the thinking portion of the sequel. A college professor may take many pages to think logically about what to do or where to go next; another kind of character may make an impetuous decision almost at once.

As you take your character through these parts of her sequel, you may often be inside her head, with no one else around. Or she may talk to a friend or confidante, and "talk out" most of her sequel. In either case, since this is the feeling-thinking part of the story, and not so exciting as the scenes, you are allowed to summarize. Thus your character may look back on earlier parts of the story, or of her life. You may have a sentence such as, "She worried about it for four days, and then on Thursday..." As you work through your character's reactions and planning almost anything goes in terms of timing.

At some point, however -perhaps sooner, perhaps later-your character must make some new decision in order to get the plot moving forward again. So you move your character to her next decision, her next goal.

And what is that new goal? It's the goal she carries into her next scene!

Scenes end in disasters, which require sequels. Sequels lead inevitably to new decisions based on new experience, and these new decisions involve a new goal. The moment the character acts on this new goal-and encounters new conflict-you are into the resulting next scene.

Thus the major structural components of fiction - scene and sequel - link like the strongest chain. In the scene you provide excitement and conflict, ending in disaster; in the sequel you provide feeling and logic, and the character's decision, which leads directly into the next scene.

In imagining your story, you probably ought to plan every sequel. In writing the final draft of the story, it may be that you will sometimes leave out a sequel in order to speed from one scene directly into the next. Such decisions are based on story type and tactics, and your "fingertip feeling" for how fast or slow the story should be at any given point. The key here is to remember that scenes move swiftly and read fast; sequels tend to move slowly, and read like story "valleys. " It follows, then, that if your story feels slow to you, you may need to expand your scenes and cut, or even eliminate, some of your sequels. While if your story seems to be going at an insane pace, with no characterization or logic, you may need to trim some of your scenes a bit, or expand your sequels to provide more breathing room.

If the idea of sequel is new to you, it may help you to study some stories by other writers. Work to pick out the sequels. Notice how the author is often inside the head of a character alone, feeling and thinking about the plot action or other story people. How is the emotion shown? How are the thoughts presented? How does a writer get from random feelings to increasingly linear thought to some firm - if desperate - final decision that will lead to new action?

Try to make every such analysis a learning experience. If it helps, make some notes in your journal, or elsewhere, about how sequels are handled. The analysis will help you enrich your own skills in handling these vital components of story.

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