Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading

Determine your most appropriate POV character

I’ve said that character is the most important element of fiction. Some editors disagree, and will say plot or point of view is more important. I’ve given my reasons for why I feel as I do about character. Here’s why I put viewpoint before plot on my list.

Viewpoint, or POV, is closely linked to character, regardless of which viewpoint style you choose. Viewpoint is the channel through which the reader experiences the story, so I understand why some editors put it first. But you can’t have viewpoint without character, even if the only “character” is a bodiless narrator. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: Concealing a character’s identity

question answer

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Q: I saw what you wrote about not hiding the POV character’s identity. Isn’t there some way I can hide the villain’s identity, so the reader won’t figure out who it is until late in the story, when the hero does? Like, if he’s an evil mastermind, can I just call him “the mastermind” in the scenes where he’s the point of view character, instead of using his name?

A: No.

No one thinks of himself in the third person that way. Unless he has some kind of dissociative disorder—yikes, that’s a whole other post. Continue reading

Is your infodump backstory, or is it research?

Last week we talked about the kind of infodump in which the character’s full history is dropped in one big block. Often this information—or pieces of it, anyway—does belong in the story. It just needs to be winnowed down to the minimum, and it needs to be woven organically into the story.

One of the best ways to incorporate this kind of history is through dialog. Notice how Joss Whedon slips the Hulk’s backstory into just a few lines in The Avengers: Continue reading

Your character needs backstory, but don’t dump it

I want to take some extra time to go into one point on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist in detail:

Personal histories are brought into the story organically

Backstory is usually a bad word among writers. But the truth is, it’s necessary—to you. Knowing your character’s history is good. What’s bad is dumping all that history in one big lump at the beginning of your novel.

This is a common new-writer error. Continue reading

Character development: continuity and story arcs

We’ve been looking at the points in the Character element of the checklist. Here are a couple more:

Continuity is maintained in characters’ appearance, habits, and vocabulary.

This is where your style sheet will come in handy. Some call it a character bible, but copyeditors usually call it a style sheet or style guide. For more on this, see How to prevent continuity errors in your book.

In addition to keeping track of physical traits, note where your characters are from and incorporate regional or intellectual differences. Continue reading