Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nothing But Trouble

A popular post from September 2009

By Julie Wright

I read a book several years ago where the characters did a great job of avoiding trouble. They skirted around it in all sorts of creative ways, but never actually confronted trouble head on. I never finished the book. I gave it a good shot--way more than it deserved and read 200 pages before frustration took over and I gave up.

Nothing was happening. YAWN.

Your characters have to get into trouble because that's what creates conflict. Conflict is interesting. Trouble is interesting. Trouble can also be . . . well . . . trouble.

I don't know about you, but sometimes my characters are great at getting into major trouble, but not so great at getting out again. They can wind up in all sorts of huge calamities, the entire world can be falling to piece around them and I agonize over how to piece that world back together again.

Over time I've learned that if my characters can get into a fine mess, they'd better just get themselves out.

Convenience is a writer's enemy. It's tempting to help your characters out and throw them the olive branch of convenience, but you aren't doing them (or yourself) any favors. Convenience looks just like it is--too convenient. You lose your reader's trust when you start making your characters do things that don't make sense to the character you've developed. You can't betray the persona's you've created simply because you NEED the character to get up in the middle of the night and go downstairs for leftover cheesecake so they can overhear a conversation that will lead them to the murderer when your character is a deep sleeper and they're allergic to cheesecake.

Stay away from convenience.

And your character got into their own trouble . . . make them smart enough and resourceful enough to get out of it. We like characters who can think on their feet. The damsel in distress who always needs to be taken care of by the hunky hero is really not compelling. A butt-kickin' chick who can break out of her own prisons? She's someone we want to read about, even if it is her own fault she landed herself in prison.

Also stay away from false conflicts.

The kind where the character thinks they are in all kinds of life threatening peril but in reality the character's best friend is in control the whole time. It's the difference between the tummy tickle of a roller coaster while you're strapped into the train car and the tummy tickle you get when jumping out of an airplane dependant only on a parachute that you packed yourself. Did you pack it right? Do you know how soon to pull the cord? That is the parachute on your back, right? You didn't grab your backpack by mistake?

That real peril--way more interesting.

At least in books. I don't personally make habits out of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. I don't care who packed the chute.


Melanie J said...

I agree with you that conflict drives a plot forward. However, I think it's a fine line when a character gets him or herself into trouble. The fastest way to turn a book into a wallbanger for me is to have the character either a) learn so little from their mistakes that they keep making the same ones over and over, even if it's for comedic effect or b) do something completely out of character because the author is trying to ratchet up the dramatic tension. I seriously hate that. For example, why is that choir teacher on Glee married to his wife? It makes no sense that his character would end up with someone like her except that the writers can now use that to tell funny stories. But it DOESN'T FIT HIS CHARACTER. Even if those characters are inteded to be broad comedic stereotypes.

Ahem. Rant over.

Kimberly said...

I think the key here is "real peril." And not just that the peril itself feel real, but that it feels natural to the story, that the character's reaction to it feels real, and so on and so forth.

Loved this post, Julie. You've really got me thinking.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

Great post. Moral of the story: don't use plot conventions or gimmicks. And make the story interesting.

L.T. Elliot said...

The best thing I've done for myself recently is allow myself the right of saying, "I've had enough." I hate when books have false conflict or no conflict. I hate when plot lines don't connect (or make any sense) and I really hate character disloyalty or faulty motivations. Thank heavens someone else had the guts to say it.

Curtis said...

Julie, you're such a whimp. It's no kind of life if you can't get yourself into the same kind of trouble as your characters. :)

And I see the Sox are finally winning. They're looking like Wild Card champs to me. Braves have won 6 straight. Too bad they had to lose 5 straight first. They played themselves right out of contention.

Terresa said...

Good advice here. Avoiding convenience and false conflicts...that gives me something to chew on regarding my own WIP. And real peril -- yes, I think it is way more interesting.