Everyone loves a story that races forward. There’s a reason we love books that are “page-turners.” But does a fast-paced story full of thrills and excitement mean you can’t also make room for character? Hell no. Here are 11 ways to create a story about characters and emotion that’s also a seat-of-your-pants ride.
One of the first thing I ever wrote for io9 was about short-story writing, and I attacked the myth that there are “character-based stories” and “plot-based stories,” and these two kinds of writing are mutually exclusive, or fundamentally different in some way. Every story has a plot and characters—even just a story about someone making a pot of tea—and if everything’s working right, they go together.
I’ve struggled with balancing emotional depth and fast-paced plot development forever, and this is never going to be something that’s easy for me. And especially in my novel All the Birds in the Sky, which comes out a week from today, I really struggled with making room for my main characters to have complicated emotional lives—while also giving them a thrilling adventure. I have no idea if I pulled it off; you’ll have to judge that for yourself! But here’s what I learned while writing it.But a really awesome plot, in which everything is blowing up in all directions and your heroes have to stop a giant robot from stepping on everyone, can get so heavy on plot mechanics that you lose sight of what the characters are feeling. And if you spend so much time on diving deep into the ocean of your characters’ psyches and how they feel about their childhoods, you may find yourself putting all of the crucial bomb-defusing, base-jumping action on hold.
As we already discussed in the article about creating memorable characters, people are defined by what they do. Someone’s favorite flavor of marmalade isn’t nearly as interesting as what he or she will do in a tough situation. (Even though the correct answer is “whiskey.” That is the best flavor of marmalade.)
We learn about characters by the choices they make and by the things they do—so a really great plot twist, that is driven by the characters and their emotions, is worth 100 scenes where someone thinks about their love of Irish country dancing. Which brings me to a larger point: a great story is often one where the characters make defining choices that move the plot forward. A plot point that happens because someone we care about has decided something is usually superior to one where a random thing drops out of the sky.
This was the wall I kept running up against when rewriting All the Birds in the Sky. There were times when Patricia and Laurence just felt like they were swept along by the events of the story—and I had to tear that all up and find the moment where they actually make a choice that causes everything else in the story, instead. This involved a lot of late-night cursing and large doses of whiskey-flavored marmalade.
This is sort of the flipside of “character is action.” Whether a character caused a plot point to happen through their own actions, or whether they were just hit by a bus that some other character was driving, we have to feel how it affects them.
This is true if you’re writing an explosion-a-minute action-adventure story, or a slow comedy of manners. If someone’s friend dies, or they suffer a major setback, or if they win a huge victory—we need to feel the weight of it and how it changes their character. You can do this in a few brushstrokes, and it does not need to be a long slow gaze, but action that doesn’t have an effect on the characters isn’t really action. I have always sucked at this, because I’m usually impatient to get to the next fun set piece or interesting moment—but I’ve had to learn the hard way to make time for people to feel the effects of what they’ve experienced. Or if someone is deliberately not dealing with it, let us see that they’re not dealing with it, so we know that this is an issue we’re going to get to later.
There’s a reason why Jane Austen’s novels are such page-turners. A great moment of understanding something about a character that we didn’t understand before can feel like a huge bombshell, if it’s handled well. This is partly a matter of scale—allowing the characters to feel big enough, and their emotional landscape to be wide enough, that every new discovery seems massive. But also, it’s a matter of all the same things that make an evil mastermind’s plan to blow up the Statue of Liberty feel exciting and full of twisty surprises. It’s all setting up expectations, building up your anticipation, toying with your emotions and then pulling out the rug—Jane Austen is a master of suspense.
Really good character development is often about how people deal with obstacles and unexpected problems. And “OMG a million cyborg soldiers just jumped out of a spaceship in low orbit and they’re shooting antimatter cannons on our front lawn” is one hell of an obstacle to your characters dealing with their personal stuff, whatever that might be. A character might really want to talk through his relationship with his best friend, but fighting off these cyborg assassins kind of takes priority. The delayed emotional payoff only gains intensity from the fact that we’re having to fight off monsters. And vice versa—the fight against these lethal cybernetic killers only feels more exciting and scary because we’re dying for these two characters to survive and be reunited, or whatever. And the reverse is also true...
This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is 100 percent true. When you know that something bad is going to happen, but you don’t know exactly how or when, then watching characters deal with their personal emotional baggage can be excrutiating.
Building suspense is incredibly hard, without resorting to a lot of clumsy “and little did she know that even as she was enjoying her lunch, a grue was climbing up the drainpipe”-type stuff. There’s a reason why so many movie directors have resorted to the tight focus on a character, while barely letting us view the ominous shadows in the background—and you can do the exact same damn thing in your writing. A character who is deeply focused on his or her own emotional issues isn’t focused on the horrible thing that you know is coming up right behind her at any moment. But also, in a more global sense, introspection makes you worry about a character—you are finding out so much about them, you’re now doubly braced for something terrible to happen to them. And also, the journey to the final battle can take as long as you need it to, for people to have One Last Conversation about their emotions before they all get splatted.
And here’s the other part of that. If the plot really is driven by your main characters sticking a fork in an electric socket, while the reader shouts, “NO DON’T DO THAT,” then every minute we spend exploring the gnarliest crevices of their psyches is just helping to set the reader up for the incredibly ill-advised decision they’re going to be making soon. This doesn’t have to be explicit or all spelled out—in fact, the more surprising the decision is when it arrives, the better. It’s just that subconsciously, the reader can tell that something pretty terrible is on the horizon from the way that characters are chewing over some old grievances and obsessions.
We often think of world-building as “describing lunch.” But it’s just as much, “Here are all the things that can kill you.” And really good world-building is character-building, too. Decent world-building shows you where all of the trapdoors and poisonous foodstuffs and potentially life-ending mistakes are, and some of those trapdoors and possible disasters could be things that the characters have some personal connection to. World-building should never feel Zork-y or like an itemized list of what you see in a room, really, and the more personal all of these details are for your characters, the more hazardous some of them can be. Just whatever you do, don’t go into the Forest of Landmines—it’s full of poisonous mushrooms. (We called it “the Forest of Landmines” because that sounded cooler.)
It’s true that there are no rules when it comes to writing, but I’m kind of tempted to say this one is an actual rule.
This is the deadliest sin that so many movies, as well as a ton of novels, commit. Having someone crack a joke that is totally not something that character would say—but it’s such a good joke, you don’t care. Having someone do something really, absurdly out of character, because it sets up a really badass moment. Making smart characters suddenly act like idiots to enable a killer scene. Etc. etc. etc. Action that comes at the expense of your characters’ integrity is cruddy action.
Honestly, this one cuts close to the bone for me, because I’ll throw out the baby, the bathwater and the bathtub for a really funny joke sometimes. Even in the almost-final version of All the Birds in the Sky, there were moments where I was cheapening my characters because of a funny line or scene that I couldn’t bear to get rid of. I had to really go on a slash-and-burn expedition in that final revision, to get rid of all the bits where the characters were getting shortchanged for the sake of one of my darlings. It was super-painful, especially since I’d somehow convinced myself the novel was already done. But it led to another big realization:
When I finally rooted out all the parts of my novel that were cheating the characters for the sake of a funny bit, I was left with some gaps. And those gaps made me realize something—I had been skipping over some of the moments that would help set up the big turning points in my novel.
There were places where I was just throwing in a random set piece instead of showing how the characters got from A to B, and that meant that some big moments felt un-earned. I got obsessed with the idea of “connective tissue,” meaning the small moments that you hardly notice, that help you see how the characters are progressing on their way to the next big stand-out moment. In general—even if you’re writing a spy action book where every other page is another explosion—big moments have to feel earned. To stay with the spy-novel thing, the bomb that the spy is defusing has to feel like a real bomb, that could really go off.
And when it comes to making a character-focused novel feel action-packed, I really think that any moment that helps you to earn the big blockbuster scenes in the novel is going to feel exciting in its own right. Really, the antithesis of “action-packed” is “uneventful,” and anything that builds up momentum—however subtly—for a big turn is actually an event.
A million predictable events don’t feel as exciting as one insane event that comes out of nowhere. Boring characters and boring action are both just... boring. A character who deals with some baggage from her childhood and comes up with a surprising new understanding of herself as a result can be exciting, if the surprise is actually something the reader didn’t know was coming down the conveyer belt ages ago. The dichotomy between “character development” and “action” is silly anyway, but in any case the more meaningful distinction is between “predictable” and “whoa, I did not see that coming.”
This was the biggest decision I made in revising All the Birds in the Sky. I had a whole cool plot reveal in the third act, which paid off a whole bunch of threads from earlier in the story, and made sense of a lot of stuff I had hinted at earlier.
But there was no way to give that reveal the space it needed and allow my witch, Patricia, and my mad scientist, Laurence, to deal with their relationship. The reveal was so huge, it wound up sucking the oxygen out of all of the big character moments in the final chapters. And I realized the book was stronger without it. All of the stuff that needed to be explained still got explained, all of the plot threads still paid off in a huge way, but the ending is now 100 percent about Laurence and Patricia making major, life-changing decisions. Throwing that big plot twist out the window was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make—and maybe someday I’ll post the whole thing online somewhere. But it was absolutely the right thing, even from the standpoint of making the novel feel action-packed. Because instead of processing a huge new piece of information at the eleventh hour, my characters were doing things. Sometimes plot twists can actually bring the action to a halt, and characters can drive the action forward. That was probably the hardest lesson to learn, and it’s one that I’m sure I’m going to learn again and again.
All images via Leo Boudreau.