I’m working on a newish project. I’ve got characters, most of a plot, and a few dozen thousand words down. It’s enough to hang onto and wrestle with, and oh God is it better than the blankness of waiting for a new idea.
But it’s not fully there. I want to fall in love with this book, and I haven’t yet, not the way I loved my last project. This one has been sticky, lumpy, and gray.
This month I’ve sorted out a lot of that. I could be wildly wrong (I’ve been wrong about this before), but I think I’ve found tweaks to make this a book I’m excited about.
In case you too are facing porridge where you hoped for transcendence, I will list some things helping me find the spark.
Characters I Love
Here’s what makes a character pop: A desire and a goal. Unacknowledged needs at odds with that goal. A default strategy for dealing with the world. A lesson and an arc. Vulnerabilities. And at least one pretty impressive skill.
I’d been missing the skill and I knew it, but I’ve finally (hopefully) pinned it down. That and a haziness of goal (isn’t it always a haziness of goal?) were making my protagonist lumpish.
A Vision of Plot
I found this list of novel plots online, and, guys, oh my gosh. Lists of plots are almost never as inspiring as I want them to be, but this was amazing. Picking my story off that list reminded me where I needed to focus my conflict. It reminded me why I’m writing the damned thing.
Stakes and Scale
As a writer and reader, I like intimate stakes and close relationships. I’m drawn to situations that arise when characters know each other well.
That’s a wonderful element in a story. It is not a whole story.
Think of it this way. You know the musical Hamilton? It has a really great love triangle. Really great. Sympathetic, nuanced, interesting, with a deft use of I-understand-you moments I haven’t seen elsewhere.
If you kept the Hamilton love triangle but removed the politics, the music, the cultural context, the commentary on race, the American Revolution, the building a new government, the deaths, the rivalry, and the duel, you would get the mushy porridge I keep ending up with.
You don’t literally need a war. But you need a wider world, even if it’s background. You need institutional forces, social upheavals, cataclysmic events, or just the eternal uncertainty of huge things shifting beyond our control. Otherwise, your stakes will be things like “if Jane doesn’t get what she wants, Jane will be unhappy.”
Villainy and Power
I’ve got this thing about evil villains. I find them desperately boring.
Just like with the stakes stuff, this causes trouble. I keep writing conflicts between equals who are basically nice people. Nothing escalates.
So this month, I re-read Harry Potter. (Bonus unporridging advice: read books that do well at things you do poorly.) I find Voldemort fine, if a little generic, but the terror he sows opens up room for a huge cast of more interesting characters to scramble to survive. Everything great about those books happens in the drama-charged space Voldemort creates.
Here’s my theory: I suspect the essence of a good villain isn’t evil, it’s power.
Remember: power is what turns a doddering, racist, raging, incompetent old man from somebody’s obnoxious uncle into an object of terror for (I suspect) most people currently reading this. Even with a villain a lot (a lot) more sympathetic than our forty-fifth president, a goal contrary to your protagonist’s needs combined with the power to hurt your protagonist will make them terrifying. Suddenly the world has structure, and the conflict has stakes.
Implementing solutions is always way harder than brainstorming them, and I may come back next month still with a book full of porridge. Hopefully not. I’m hoping some of these revelations help me, and maybe help you too.
Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com.porridge