Pub Rants

Category: Writing Craft

Rhetorical Story Development

This month, let’s tackle a narrative device that lots of fiction writers use, one I’m calling “rhetorical story development.” It’s when writers have characters ask themselves rhetorical questions as a means to deliver character or scene information to the reader. Here’s how to recognize this device, understand why it tends to lack depth, decide when to use it (and when not to), and approach revision.

A rhetorical question is one that’s asked merely for effect with no answer expected. Here’s an example of how fiction writers use it as a narrative device:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. How could Rob accuse Anna of such terrible things? Didn’t Rob know that Anna was the love of his life? Didn’t he care that after this they could never be friends again? “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Here’s another:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods. I shivered. Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows? What choice did I have? This was the first clue I’d found in months. Was there any other way to find out what really happened to my sister? I squared my shoulders and marched toward the treeline.

­Writers who use this device are giving us a glimpse of what’s going on inside the POV character’s head in moments of confusion or indecision. Nothing wrong with that, per se. In fact, fiction writers should give us that glimpse; otherwise, if they’re only writing what can be seen and heard, they’re probably writing scripts in prose form rather than fully developed fiction. (Which is why “show don’t tell” can result in bad scene work, but that’s a topic for another day.)

However, here’s a caution. When the rhetorical-question device is used too often, a piece of fiction can begin to sound like a choose-your-own-adventure story narrated by someone outside the scene rather than in it, living it, being acted upon by it. When you look at the device more closely, you can see that it fails to give meaningful insights into how a character thinks—that is, what makes that character unique and interesting. In other words, if they’re asking themselves the same questions anyone would ask themselves in the scene’s particular situation, they risk becoming everyman or template characters.

In the immortal words of Jo Bennett to Dwight Schrute on The Office, “Stop asking yourself easy questions so you can look like a genius.”

OK, a little comic relief there. I get that characters aren’t pulling a Dwight and trying to look like geniuses—they’re often just trying to figure out what to do. But easy questions make for weak narrative. One way to do get your characters to stop asking themselves easy questions is to simply turn those questions into statements. Complete thoughts. Instead of showing us your character’s confusion or indecision, show us their belief or their resolve. Then show us how they’re applying that resolve to their decision about what to do or say next. If you do, then right away, you’ll be opening the door to more meaningful character development.

Let’s take a stab at revising our examples:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. No way would he let Rob get away with accusing Anna of such terrible things. Sure, he and Rob had been best friends since kindergarten, but Anna was the love of his life. No one—especially not Rob, who always got every girl he ever wanted—got to talk about Anna that way. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Notice how James comes across as much more resolved in this revision. He skips over the questions and gets straight to the heart of what he’s really thinking in that moment. But what if James is the type of character who really is always questioning himself? Then try:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. He had two options. One, back down the way he always did, walk away and let Rob’s lies about Anna hang in the air between them. Or two, stand up for himself and the love of his life once and for all, thirty years of so-called friendship be damned. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

There are myriad ways to develop or stay true to a character in a moment of analysis and decision without using the rhetorical-questions device.

Let’s revise the second example:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods, where shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches. I shivered. Everything in me wanted to turn and run, but this was the first clue I’d found in months. Someone in those woods knew what happened to my sister. Soon, I would know too. I squared my shoulders and marched toward the trees.

In this case, questions like “Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows?” can just be cut. They waste space that otherwise can be used to paint atmosphere (“shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches”), clearly express internal conflict (“Everything in me wanted to turn and run”), or develop tension (“Someone in those woods knew”).

None of this is meant to say that you can never use this device or have your characters ask themselves rhetorical questions. It’s just to point out that overuse of any device is a good thing for writers to be aware of and, hopefully, add another tool to your self-editing toolbox.

(Header Photo by Olya Kobruseva)

Making It Up with Carter Wilson

This month, the NLA team wanted to share with you our latest, greatest writers-in-the-know online find: Making It Up. This web series, launched in March 2021 by USA Today bestselling thriller author Carter Wilson, has already racked up nearly 50 episodes. In these candid conversations with writers of all genres and backgrounds, Carter gets his guests talking about influences, creativity, luck and loss, tools of the craft, and the highs and lows of publishing.

Our favorite part of each episode comes at the end, when Carter and his guest pick a random sentence from a random book on Carter’s shelves and use it to create an impromptu back-and-forth short story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll leave the lights on. Nothing like a little on-the-spot creativity to wake up the muse!

Check out this impressive episode list (especially episode 44, which features NLA client Katrina Monroe), and then head on over to the Making It Up YouTube channel and hit subscribe. And, hey, pick up one of Carter’s tense-as-heck thrillers while you’re at it.

Ep 1: Alex Marwood
Ep 2: Julie Clark
Ep 3: Joe Clifford
Ep 4: David Bell
Ep 5: Sean Eads
Ep 6: K.J. Howe
Ep 7: Lynne Constantine
Ep 8: Mark Stevens
Ep 9: Steven James
Ep 10: Julia Heaberlin
Ep 11: Graham Hurley
Ep 12: Emily Bleeker
Ep 13: Erika Englehaupt
Ep 14: Mark Sullivan
Ep 15: Sabrina Jeffries
Ep 16: Clare Whitfield
Ep 17: Xio Axelrod
Ep 18: Brad Parks
Ep 19: Barb Webb
Ep 20: Adrian Goldsworthy
Ep 21: Stuart Turton
Ep 22: S.A. Cosby
Ep 23: Daniel Handler
Ep 24: Maureen Johnson
Ep 25: Sarah Fine
Ep 26: Matthew Fitzsimmons
Ep 27: Robert Dugoni
Ep 28: Farrah Rochon
Ep 29: Alverne Ball
Ep 30: Drew Magary
Ep 31: Dr. Ian Smith
Ep 32: Yasmin Angoe
Ep 33: Gabrielle St George
Ep 34: Amanda Kabak
Ep 35: Lynne Reeves Griffin
Ep 36: Allen Eskens
Ep 37: Daniel Jude Miller
Ep 38: Alex Finlay
Ep 39: Aaron Philip Clark
Ep 40: Lara Elena Donnelly
Ep 41: J.T. Ellison
Ep 42: Erica Ferencik
Ep 43: Katie Lattari
Ep 44: Katrina Monroe
Ep 45: Ananda Lima
Ep 46: D.P. Lyle
Ep 47: Jess Montgomery
Ep 48: Elle Marr

Are you a writer with a favorite go-to website or writerly online resource? Drop a comment below and share it with us!

This will probably be the shortest article ever because, in short, if it were possible to sit down and write a bestselling novel, wouldn’t every author do just that? According to Google, a writer simply needs to (1) have a big idea (simple—they grow on trees), (2) write with an audience in mind (always handy), (3) package the book to sell (definitely helps), and, my favorite, (4) use a female lead character, as there is a higher number of bestselling titles with female leads (okey-dokey). Interesting, Google. So can a writer set out to write a bestselling novel? That’s probably the wrong question. Here’s a better one. 

Since I’ve represented (at this point) 53 New York Times bestselling novels, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about them. But honestly, it’s a wonderful surprise every time a client of mine hits the NYT list. (The latest was Shelby Van Pelt’s debut Remarkably Bright Creatures in May.) When talking bestsellers, James Patterson is probably the best person to interview. He has cracked the code for sure, given the number of works he has on the NYT list at any given time. But my answer to this question is no, a writer can’t really set out to write a bestselling novel. Over the years, I have observed a few things about bestsellers.

Observation 1: None of my clients set out to write one. They all began with a story that felt personal to them and that they were passionate about writing. My NYT-bestselling clients also said they started with the voice of the story. It was unique, clear, and, once found, natural to write. 

Observation 2: Not unlike what Google helpfully suggested, all NYT titles start with an original concept, so although there are no new stories under the sun, these works felt fresh and original to the readers who discovered the novels and then raved about them to other readers. Some examples: 

  • A 50-year old man searches for the woman he loved during WWII before his love was sent away to an internment camp. (Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)
  • A giant Pacific octopus helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the aquarium cleaning lady’s son thirty years ago. (Remarkably Bright Creatures)
  • A teen who attends a school for spies funnels her skills into spying on her first crush while also navigating the world of espionage. (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • A soulless woman nullifies the power of supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves with her touch and has to uncover why supernaturals are disappearing. (Soulless)
  • A Chinese American teen secretly living below a newspaper company moonlights as the anonymous but wildly popular society columnist Dear Miss Sweetie, whose articles shake up the town. (The Downstairs Girl)

Observation 3: Although publishers try to create bestsellers, for a debut novel to hit the list, there is an intersection of what readers are wanting to read and market timing. Plenty of titles can have the right ingredients, full in-house support, and marketing dollars, yet they still won’t land on the list. In the end, the reading public decides (as well as the algorithm used by the New York Times, but that is a whole other article).

For me, a better and more interesting question is this: What would a bestselling story look like for you personally as a writer? Where is your intersection of concept, passion, voice, and unique characters? Is it possible to analyze bestsellers to see what makes them tick? Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do just that in The Bestseller Code. As reviewers point out, this book won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, but it will reveal some interesting stats concerning bestsellers and what they all seem to have in common. Would that info give you a fresh perspective on your own story or take you one step closer to writing a bestseller? 

Only you the writer hold the answer to that question. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Stories should start on page one. This we know, yet every seasoned fiction editor will tell you that most stories don’t. Most stories start on page five or ten. Or thirty. Or fifty. Hooray for critique partners, beta readers, and editors who can spot when our stories truly begin—and double hooray for writers who revise accordingly! But here’s a similar, more puzzling phenomenon I’ve been running into lately: when stories don’t start in the first book.

This is when I get to the end of a full-length manuscript and realize that I have more questions than answers. That the author left more threads untied than tied. That the entire manuscript read like a prologue to something bigger.

When I call this out to the authors, the response I often get is something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to answer all that in book two.”

Yikes. There are three red flags here.

First, we have to sell book one before book two.

From a publishing-industry standpoint, the likelihood that we’ll sell book one if, on its own, it doesn’t tell a satisfying story from beginning to middle to end is pretty low.

The Fix

Treat every book you write as if it will be the only book you write. Make it as self-contained, complete, and satisfying as you can, even if—especially if—it’s part of a planned series.

Second, we worry you got lost in the weeds or are resisting revision.

A “prologue novel” tends to read as though the author found themselves approaching 100,000 words and realized they’d better wrap things up (for better or worse), yeet some query letters into the world, and cross their fingers. Maybe they really do intend to resolve all the unanswered story questions in a sequel, and maybe they know exactly how. But again, without delivering close-the-book satisfaction with book one, we can’t reasonably expect publishers or readers to plunk down more money for another tale that might also feel unfinished.

The Fix

Getting lost in the weeds or overwriting can mean that a writer struggles with one or more of the following:

  • Prose (word economy)
  • Pacing (scene economy)
  • Plot (structure; beginnings, middles, and ends)
  • Revision (a skill far different from drafting)

Start by knowing which is your greatest opportunity for improvement. Then get thee to a critique group. In a lot of critique groups, you’ll find The Prose Person, The Pacing Person, The Plot Person, etc. Cozy up to the person who is really good at your area of opportunity and offer to trade beta reads.

If the whole idea of revision intimidates you (or, worse, if you’re laboring under the hope or belief that first drafts are divinely inspired and shouldn’t be messed with), then please pick up a copy of James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

Third, the writer might not know how their story ends.

By promising a second book in which All Will Be Revealed, the author might be kicking the literary can down the road, buying time to figure out the answers for themselves—and hoping for a second contract and another advance in the process.

The Fix

As advised above, find a mentor or critique partner who is good at endings. Ask them to help you figure out a satisfying ending for this book—not for your planned series of books—and then work backward to make sure your pacing and scene work lead toward that ending in a tight, satisfying way, in a genre-appropriate number of words.

What about series?

Of course, novels in a series do leave questions unanswered—hooks that entice the reader to continue reading. So, yes, you can do that as well. Here are two strategies:

  1. The Episodic Approach: Wrap up each book, making sure all the story questions are answered, and then at the very end—like, seriously, the last page or two—tease a new story question for the next book.
  2. The Series-Arc Approach: Think in terms of building both story arcs and series arcs. Each book has its own story arc complete with a beginning, middle, and end, but the series also has its own arc—an open-ended story question that will not be answered until the last pages of the last book in the series. This approach requires more forethought, but the potential for a satisfying payoff is greater. A good example is the TV show Monk. Every episode sets up a crime that Monk solves by the end of the hour, but there is one crime Monk has never been able to solve: the murder of his wife. That thread, that question, that arc, is pulled tight across eight seasons until at last it is solved in the two-part series finale.

Photo credit: Matt Deavenport, Flickr

Any fiction writer who deals in speculative elements must eventually decide: How much of this story requires a realistic, grounded explanation at the end, and how much can I leave unexplained because, hey, it’s magic, supernatural, paranormal, metaphysical, or miraculous? Can’t I just get to the end and say it was all unexplainable and leave it at that?

My short answer is no. In broad strokes, stories ask questions and then answer them. The human brain has some hardwired, logic-based pathways where story is concerned. Part one: Set up the pins. Part two: Knock them down. Sounds simple, but let’s be honest. It’s not.

The first half of any manuscript is easier to write than the second—which is why millions of would-be authors never finish anything. It’s fun to set up lots of evocative, compelling, mysterious, hooky questions at the beginning of a story. Then you get to the halfway point, and you must come up with answers. And not just any answers, but satisfying answers. Meaningful answers. Twisty answers. Worthwhile answers. Delightfully shocking or surprising answers.

That’s hard.

I attended a panel of speculative-fiction writers at AWP many years ago. One panelist admitted that he, years prior, wrote 150 pages about a guy who lived in a house with a door to an upstairs room that couldn’t be opened. Every now and then, a light would come on in that room and shine through the cracks in the door frame. Although the author was having fun writing about this guy and his creepy house, he eventually abandoned the novel—he himself couldn’t figure out what or who was behind the door. He had some ideas, but he knew that after 150 pages of setup, readers would be expecting a big payoff, and he just didn’t have it.

Stephen King tried three times over several decades to write what eventually became Under the Dome. He knew he wanted to write about a town suddenly and mysteriously trapped under a massive, impenetrable bubble…but he didn’t know where the dome came from. He knew he couldn’t write the story without that key piece of information. His understanding that readers wouldn’t accept “the dome just was”—and his unwillingness to accept it himself—is part of what makes King a master storyteller.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is based on a stellar, high-concept premise: An aging rock star who collects occult objects buys a haunted suit on the internet. It’s not enough to ask readers to just accept that the suit is haunted and be satisfied. Readers are literally reading the book to find out the answers to who is haunting the suit, and why, and what the suit wants from the protagonist, and how the protagonist is going to defeat it. Why is the antagonism between them viscerally personal and not merely incidental? Couldn’t anyone have bought the suit on the internet? Turns out, no. And that is part of the mystery that makes Heart-Shaped Box such a satisfying read.

The fun thing about being a speculative-fiction writer is that your explanations can be spectral. They can defy the laws of our natural world. They can presuppose technologies that don’t exist, discoveries that have not been made. But that’s also what makes writing spec-fic more challenging. Since spec-fic writers can leave some things unexplained, they must search for their story’s best ratio of explainable to unexplainable.

For instance, in Heart-Shaped Box, we suspend our disbelief only so far as is necessary to accept that a vengeful ghost inhabits the suit. That’s all. For everything else, readers’ logical story brains require rational second- and third-act explanations. How did the ghost end up in the suit? How did the suit end up on the internet? How did our protagonist, who was the intended buyer all along, happen to be browsing the internet at just the right time and click “buy” before anyone else did? If Hill had said, “It just worked out that way because it’s supernatural,” the book never would have been published.

Leading readers down a path that ends with “it was all supernatural” is too easy—and whatever is too easy for writers is often not satisfying for readers. Think about the relationship between real life and fiction. In real life, people get obsessed with some dark mystery or true-crime drama, like the Amityville Horror house. We search the internet and watch all the documentaries and movies and TV shows and interviews about Amityville. We feed our imaginations with information. The question of what really happened there is just too compelling to let lie! We consider rational explanations (it was just a crazy kid killing his family with a shotgun) as well as supernatural ones (the evil entity that resides in the house made the kid do it) as we try to arrive at our own conclusions. All the while, we are driven almost mad by the reality that we can never actually know the truth.

That is exactly why fiction is so satisfying! Because the author takes us where reality cannot. The author gives us conclusions and explanations that in real life we will never have. The author answers all the hard questions in ways that our logical story brains accept—at least for as long as we are inside that story world, and sometimes longer. Sometimes, with the very best fiction, forever.

After all this, I wish I could give you some magic ratio of explainable to unexplainable that will make every story you write satisfying. I can’t. Every story is different. Every speculative subgenre shoulders its own set of reader and fan expectations.

What I will offer is this: Readers won’t suspend their disbelief if you’ve given them nothing to suspend it from. The more suspension of disbelief you’re asking of readers, the stronger your story’s logical, rational, realistic framework has to be. Build plausible conditions in which your speculative conditions can thrive, and tie up all your loose ends. If you want happy readers, that’s a good place to start.

For twenty years, I’ve worked with extremely talented writer clients. Having done so, I’ve learned that talent and mastery of craft cannot fix a story if it’s not the right story the writer should be telling. Here’s why. 

All writers need to learn this one simple lesson: Give yourself permission to “fail.” In doing so, you might actually discover the story you should be writing. Here are two real-world examples of the power of letting go. 

Scenario 1: When Marie Lu first conceptualized and wrote the opening chapters of The Young Elites, the story concept just wasn’t coming together. After the two of us had multiple brainstorm sessions and Marie tackled several revisions, she finally realized that the story was being told from the wrong POV. The minute she figured out that it was Adelina Amouteru’s story (who was only a minor side character in the initial concept), everything clicked into place. The rest is history for this New York Times bestselling book, the first in a very successful trilogy. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: Marie is incredibly talented, but numerous attempts at revision were not going to fix the fact that she initially had the wrong POV character. All her writing mastery wasn’t going to transform those opening chapters into the right story. If a project isn’t coming together, try a radical shift in POV, first person to third, change up the narrative timeframe. Established authors do this all the time. If the right story emerges, you’ll know by how readers respond to it. But also know that the magic doesn’t happen every time, which leads me to the second scenario. 

Scenario 2: My wonderfully talented author Rhiannon Thomas (A Wicked Thing, Long May She Reign) had a fantastic concept for a young adult fantasy. She wrote a brilliant first 75 pages, but from there, she simply could not wrangle the story into shape despite a number of attempts. Subsequent chapters didn’t showcase her writing talent. After multiple revisions, she bravely set this story aside to tackle something new. Her current work-in-progress makes it is absolutely clear this is the story she is meant to write—her voice shines on every page. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: It’s okay to “fail” because in doing so, the real story you are meant to write might emerge. If you’re in the query trenches and not getting requests for full manuscripts, or if the requests are coming in but are then followed by passes, be brave. Set it aside and write something new. Too often I see queries in my inbox from writers who have revised a manuscript I declined to read years ago. What if they’re spending year after year working on revising a story that isn’t allowing their writing talent to shine? That means the right story might never get written. For me, that is the real tragedy.

I remind aspiring writers that, for many of the clients I represent, I rejected the first work they sent to me. It wasn’t the right story. They didn’t give up. They “failed” and then found the story that actually needed to be written. Then a career was born. 

You have the power to let go and do the same. 

Photo by Pixabay

Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

Such encounters might kick off a nasty bout of cognitive dissonance. If our ubiquitous structures aren’t adhered to, then these stories shouldn’t work. So why do they? The answer is simple: Because different types of stories and different ways of telling them have, over centuries, evolved all over the globe. Learning, using, teaching, or critiquing others’ work based on only one of several similar structures is painfully limiting to both storytellers and their audiences.

Let’s look at an example of an ancient, non-Western structure.

Kishōtenketsu is a four-act plot that can be traced back through the centuries to several countries of East Asia. Though the word is Japanese, the structure itself originated in China. (We’ll circle back to China in a minute.) Author Kim Yoon Mi explains that, in Japanese, Kishōtenketsu describes the four acts as follows:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

In contrast, Western structures centralize tension and conflict. American writers are clubbed constantly with the following rules:

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must develop both internal and external conflicts and resolve them at the end.
  • If you have no conflict, you have no story.

But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

How did this come about? To answer, Kim Yoon Mi cites episode 6-04 of Wes Cecil’s Human Arts podcast, “Chinese: Languages and Literature” (2015). In summary, China endured centuries of brutal famine and war, and as such, conflict was never a good thing; therefore, Chinese stories decentralized conflict. So while stories that followed the Chinese qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé structure (the precursor to Kishōtenketsu) certainly included conflict, conflict often took a definitive back seat to characters’ personal development.

Here’s another difference. In our familiar Western structures, writers are expected to wrap everything up at the end, to leave no questions unanswered (unless they’re setting up a sequel, in which the expectation is still that cliffhanger questions must eventually be answered). But of Kishōtenketsu, Kim Yoon Mi says, “the conclusion isn’t always a resolute solution to everything….It’s more like a wrap up for that particular issue, while indicating the story still goes on beyond that…often with notes about the occasional backslide.”

Will Western audiences understand a Kishōtenketsu story? That’s a good question, one Kate Krake of Three Pillar Authors tackled on their blog back in 2016. Krake writes:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four-act, no-conflict structure may risk not engaging with Western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Kishōtenketsu is only one among many non-Western structures. (Please visit Kim Yoon Mi’s excellent article “Worldwide Story Structures” to explore myriad others and see examples.) I would argue that American agents, editors, publishers, and slush readers, if they are truly committed to making space at the table for diverse voices, have a duty to educate ourselves on the vast alternatives to our comfortable old “acceptable” story structures.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

Photo by Aaditya Arora from Pexels

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

You’ve heard it a million times: Your character needs a goal. Something to want. Something to strive for. Something they can’t have until the end of the story, if at all. Something readers can relate to or get invested in. But here’s the thing: There are two types of goals that drive a character forward, and one type is far more compelling than the other.

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

A character with a reactive goal is reacting to forces outside her control, while a character with a proactive goal makes a plan and carries it out. Reactive goals are flight, while proactive goals are fight. Characters with only reactive goals are more passive; their stories happen to them. But characters with proactive goals happen to their stories.

Here’s an example. On one hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to hide from my stalker.” That’s a reactive goal because the character acts only once acted upon. On the other hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to learn hand-to-hand combat and, if necessary, fight my stalker to the death.” That’s a proactive goal.

Proactive goals are more compelling than reactive goals; however, reactive goals still have their place in fiction—typically somewhere in the first half of the manuscript. Keeping with our example, in the movie ENOUGH (based on the novel BLACK AND BLUE by Anna Quindlen), Jennifer Lopez’s character, Slim, must survive her obsessive, murderous ex-husband. She spends the first half of the story in reactive, survival mode and the second half in proactive, fight-back mode. What causes the switch? Somewhere around the story’s midpoint, Slim realizes no one on the right side of the law will help her. She’s on her own, and sooner or later it’s going to come down to her and her ex, and only one will survive. She decides it’s going to be her.

The Midpoint Reversal

The term “midpoint reversal” refers to an event that occurs around the 50% mark that sends the story off in an unexpected direction. It’s a twist. A surprise. An earth-shaking revelation. The gain or loss of knowledge, skills, or resources.

James Scott Bell, in Write Your Novel From the Middle, calls the midpoint a “mirror moment”—the moment the protagonist is forced to take a long, hard look at herself and realize she must change or die. (“Change” can be a change of plan, heart, attitude, effort, or direction, and “die” can be a literal, physical death or a figurative death—often a spiritual, emotional, or situational fate worse than death.)

Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, explores the four-act structure. At the midpoint, between quadrants two and three, the hero shifts from “wanderer” to “warrior.” They are no longer drifting, confused, trying to figure out what’s going on and who’s on their side. At the halfway mark, they are ready to go on the offensive. The endgame/motivation might stay the same (in our example, to survive), but the goal changes from “run away and hide” to “train for the inevitable confrontation.”

Whatever event happens at the midpoint of your story, it’s a great place (though not the only place) to have something happen that forces your character to switch from a reactive goal to a proactive one.

Where To Establish the Proactive Goal

Despite a relatively limited number of narrative structures the human brain recognizes as “story” (see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for more info on story and brain science), every story itself is unique and requires its own telling. So you’ve got options.

  • On page one. Lots of stories establish the main character’s proactive goal right away. Think of stories about endeavor: athletes who want to win the race, dancers who want to make the company, musicians who want to get the solo, academics who want to earn the scholarship. The audience knows right away what the goal is, and the protagonist is driven to achieve that goal from the get-go. Often the thing that drives these stories is the conflict that keeps getting piled on. Therefore, the question becomes, “How much more proactive can these characters remain in the face of such obstacles?” The athlete is injured. The dancer can’t master that one skill. The musician can’t afford the necessary lessons. The academic is up against twenty others for only one scholarship. They try and they try and they try, until they hit the dark night of the soul, the all-is-lost moment. Which they then overcome, digging deep one last time to win the day.
  • At the inciting incident. A good inciting incident is a lightning-bolt moment. A big “things will never be the same” moment. In typical structures, this usually happens no later than 10% of the way into the story, though tons of agents and editors will tell you 10% is too late—the earlier the better. Generally, the protagonist is given some time after the inciting incident to fall back, think, assess, analyze. In three-act terms, this is known as the debate. That fall-back-and-think moment is as good a time as any for your protagonist to get clear about what they want and to resolve that nothing will stand in their way.
  • At Plot Point I. After the setup (or ordinary world), the inciting incident, and the resulting debate, the protagonist decides how to proceed (internal)…and then they proceed (external). This first active step into the unknown is usually Plot Point I, or the transition from Act I to Act II, and it’s a great place to give us an active moment that reveals the hero’s agenda and shows us what sort of gumption they’re working with. If yours is a story in which your hero must work up to their gumption, then the midpoint (see above) might be where your character first establishes a proactive goal.

A Caution About Reactive Goals

I wouldn’t recommend that you delay establishing your hero’s proactive goal much beyond the midpoint. The problem we see in the slush pile isn’t that characters have reactive goals. It’s that they have reactive goals for too long.

In many cases, this is an issue of too much setup—too many opening chapters with too much backstory and ordinary-world exposition. Look at that first 10-25% of your total page count and be ruthless in trimming and tightening.

A character who wanders too far into a manuscript before taking the story’s reins waits too long to command readers’ attention and investment. If you wait until the third act to give us a character who proactively enacts her agenda, you risk reader attrition. Remember that this is your hero’s story. As such, don’t let too much of the story happen to your hero—give us a hero who happens to his story. He is the prime mover, and watching him take matters into his own hands is exactly the sort of thing readers sign up to experience.

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Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King

In the writing world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on genre. After all, knowing what you write, who it’s for, and how to reach your market are critical elements of many a successful career, and so much of that boils down to understanding genre. There’s also a low, constant buzz about concept. What does high concept mean, is it necessary, and how does it play into an author’s potential to achieve bestseller status or sell into Hollywood? This month, I present a new way to think and talk about fiction—one that argues genre isn’t everything and concept isn’t always king.

Conceptual appeal gets a lot of positive press, and high-concept stories do tend to rise to the top of any given slush pile. Why? Because they feel new and fresh and pitchable and buzzworthy. If you’ve ever received a rejection that says your manuscript is “too quiet,” what the person doing the rejecting is most likely commenting on is your concept. Or lack of concept. They want an idea that feels bigger, something that’s going to stand out on its genre’s shelf rather than conform to it.

But is high concept really the only way to get your book published? Absolutely not. In fact, concept is just one of four ways that stories appeal to readers. In addition to conceptual appeal, there is also emotional appeal, experiential appeal, and literary appeal.

Conceptual Appeal

A story with conceptual (or high-concept) appeal is built on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise.

That’s a definition you’ll find floating all over the Internet, but it’s about zero-percent helpful to writers trying to wrap their creative brains around the idea of conceptual appeal. That’s because the pitch for a high-concept story must be much more than clear and brief. (In other words, you can deliver a clear, one-sentence pitch for a story that doesn’t carry a single hot ounce of conceptual appeal.) So what’s the missing ingredient that will make a highly pitchable story truly conceptually appealing?

Stories with conceptual appeal deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up. If your pitch gets strangers (not friends and family) saying…

  • That’s a million-dollar idea!
  • How in the world did you come up with that?
  • I can’t imagine how your story is going to resolve that problem!
  • I wish I’d come up with that idea!

…then congratulations! You have a story with conceptual appeal.

Here’s another key feature of stories with conceptual appeal: They will only be new and unique once. After they explode onto the scene, they get broken down into tropes that get reimagined by writers writing to the market, hoping to capture the vast readership you’ve amassed. (Ask any agent who was in the biz in the wake of Harry Potter how many query letters they received for middle-grades featuring magic boarding schools. Ask how many they’re still receiving.)

This is not a judgement statement by the way; it’s merely a description of how high-concept books cause genres to shift as readers develop appetites for new types of stories they never knew they were missing.

Emotional Appeal

The emotion-driven story engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls. It promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading. Whether that something is joy, sorrow, or terror, authors whose stories are foremost an appeal to emotion do their best work when they’re tapping into the human condition. These stories often dive deep into the following:

  • Connection (family, friendship, love, reconciliation, redemption)
  • Endeavor (conflict, struggle, indomitable spirit, triumph against insurmountable odds)
  • Separation (failure, pain, loss, death)

Experiential Appeal

Stories with experiential appeal must be experienced to be felt or understood. They are difficult to describe (and even more difficult to pitch), and any attempts to do so often end with, “You just have to read it to get it.” In the movie world, there are plenty of great examples of experiential appeal: Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and The Matrix*, to name a few. Experiential fiction often intersects with the speculative genres—especially science fiction, magical realism, and horror—but it doesn’t have to. You can write a story in any genre that unfolds in a “you just have to read it to get it” sort of way.

*Before we move on, let’s chat about The Matrix, which many might argue is high concept. I disagree. Remember that stories with conceptual appeal are based on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise. Can you write a clear, one-sentence pitch for The Matrix? Can anyone? Sure, you can briefly encapsulate the core premise: “What if all humans were living comfortable but virtual lives, and the cost of waking up to the truth meant living in a dystopian hell?” But this concept as pitched doesn’t even come close to the experience of the movie itself. So although the writers landed on conceptual appeal, it was their choice to let the story unfold in an experiential way that truly blew moviegoers’ minds. Therefore, the conceptual appeal of The Matrix is secondary to its experiential appeal.

Literary Appeal

Writers who aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence put the writing itself first. The artistry of the style, voice, rhythm, meter, lyricism, phrasing, use of poetic devices, and so on, are as important (if not more) than plot, action, or a snappy pace. In other words, these are stories readers find worth reading for how they are told.

A term adjacent to “literary” is “upmarket,” which you might see on agents’ and editors’ wish lists. Upmarket refers to works that employ familiar features, tropes, or structures of genre or commercial fiction but that are told in a more literary writing style. So if you’re a writer striving to appeal to readers who appreciate the artistry of language, but you also want to play in the sandbox of a favorite genre, then you are an upmarket writer. Hooray!

The Genre-Appeal Grid

Now that you know the four ways fiction can appeal to readers, what’s next? Check out the grid below, which features the four appeals across the top and a few (but definitely not all) genres down the side. Where does your current work-in-progress fit? Keep in mind:

  • Knowing your story’s genre as well as its primary appeal can help you figure out how you want to approach the telling of that story.
  • A story can appeal to readers in more than one way. Maybe, like The Matrix, your book has a primary appeal and a secondary appeal.
  • More isn’t better. Trying to write a story that appeals to readers in all four ways is like trying to write a story that crosses too many genres: you’ll end up with a muddy mess that in its manic attempt to be for everyone will actually be for no one.
  • Whichever square on the grid feels most like home to you can help you define your niche and author brand. You’re the one who writes experiential historicals! You’re the one who writes literary westerns! And you! You’re the one who writes high-concept romance!
  • Or every book you write can belong to a different square. You decide!
  • Every square on the grid is valid. None is better than any other. Your success lies in how you execute the story you want to tell, for the readers you want to write for because they value the same things about story that you do.

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A few years ago, I presented at the monthly meeting of a writing organization that wanted to know more about what agents are (and aren’t) looking for when they read submissions. I ended up talking about how premise, plot, and prose make a three-legged stool, and how when one leg is missing, the stool falls over—and the submission is likely to get a rejection. I’ve always wanted to expand on that idea for a more general fiction-writing audience. So this month, that’s what I decided to do.

+Premise +Plot -Prose

A manuscript that falls into this category promises a cool, unique premise, hook, or concept, and it’s well structured, moving along at a good, genre-appropriate clip…or at least it appears to be at first. Agents aren’t going to make it very far into this manuscript because the prose itself is a problem.

When I say prose here, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about craft: spelling, grammar, semantics, syntax, mechanics, punctuation, etc. I’m also talking about art: voice, style, rhythm, imagery, symbolism, use of poetic devices, and so on.

A writer’s mastery of craft is relatively easy to assess. There are rules and standards about such things, after all, and a writer’s ability to demonstrate functional knowledge of those rules and standards should be requisite for professional-level publication. However, judging a writer’s mastery of art is far more subjective. One human’s Elmore Leonard is another’s Cormac McCarthy. Furthermore, the relative artistry of a writer’s prose is examined differently through the various lenses of genre and intended audience.

Style aside, what agents are looking for when they’re reading sample pages is the feeling that they’re in good hands. They want the sense that the writer knows what they’re doing, that they’ve both mastered craft and delivered artistry that will satisfy the expectations of a particular market.

Improve Your Prose

+Premise -Plot +Prose

This manuscript is built on a mind-blowing, never-been-seen-before idea, and the prose is gorgeous, but there’s no plot. No sequence of events leading one into the other in a logical, plausible way that builds suspense, raises stakes, and keeps readers turning pages. No cliffhangers, turning points, or reversals. No artfully planted clues that give the reader a fair shake. No satisfying sense of wholeness or completeness. No connections between the first half of the manuscript and the second.

This manuscript can often be summarized “characters doing stuff, having conversations, and thinking thoughts.” It rambles. It indulges the author’s whims. It feels like an early draft.

Plotting a novel is not the same thing as writing down a list of things that will happen in your story or summarizing scenes on stacks of notecards. No, plotting a novel is like trying to solve a puzzle. It’s a painstaking back-and-forth between working on the whole and working on its parts. It’s about making connections and ensuring that every character, scene, description, internalization, line of dialogue, etc., has a job to do and earns its real estate on the page. Even pantsing (writing by the seat of one’s pants) is a method of plotting—pantsers, too, must eventually arrive at a structure that the human brain recognizes as “story.” It’s just that a pantser’s process is to get there by writing multiple drafts.

Agents will read further into this type of manuscript than they will the previous type. If you’ve hooked them with a great premise and masterful prose, then they’re more likely to stick with your story to see if the plot is sound—if the story hangs together and if you nailed the landing. But if you haven’t, you’re likely to receive a pass.

Improve Your Plot

-Premise +Plot +Prose

This manuscript is well written with an airtight plot, but it feels bland. Derivative. Predictable. A little too tropey. Like it rolled off the assembly line into a bin marked “Stories We’ve All Seen Before.”

Of all three types of manuscripts in this article, this one is most likely to get represented and published. It’s a “good” book, a “competent” book. That makes it a safe bet for a lot of agents and editors. But will it be a standout or become a bestseller? Will it earn out its advance (if an advance was offered)? Will its sales bring you subsequent contracts with improved terms? Without a twisty, unique premise, probably not.

Note that for the sake of this article, I’m using “premise” as a synonym for “concept,” which brings the idea of “high concept” into play. There’s lots of info online about high concept (what it is and why it rises to the top of slush piles), but I’m not going into that here. What I do want to say here is that if you’ve mastered prose and plot, don’t stop there. Do the work—and it is work!—of developing one-of-a-kind ideas, premises, hooks, or concepts. As Larry Brooks writes in the book I’m recommending below, “At the professional level to which you aspire, you really cannot, with great confidence, sit down and write just any old thing that appeals to you.”

Improve Your Premise

This month, take some time to assess where you are with all this. Rank premise, plot, and prose in order of your greatest strength to your greatest opportunity. Pick up one of the recommended books and commit to exploring how you can give your next manuscript the best possible chance at becoming a bestseller!

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