Thursday, February 20, 2020

Editing: Establish motives or the character won't matter!

I've been stuck editing chapter 25 for weeks. Frustration has been mounting. I couldn't figure out why this is so hard considering I crushed 21-24 since the beginning of the year!

Well I finally figured it out, and maybe by sacrificing my own sweat and tears I can save you some. I know you love hoarding sweat and tears. Weirdo.


Scene 25 was destined to be the lowest point for a couple characters, including the scene's point of view character. But while I was trying to wring emotion out of her and the other sufferer, I kept not caring. I kept looking at her like, Quit your crying. No matter what combination of words I strung together to convey "She was sad," it just never convinced me. But why?! She's proactive, cunning, skilled. She's ambitious and does heinous things to succeed.

Obviously this is a problem. If I don't care, then the reader definitely won't. My inner troubleshooter went to work.

Reasons you might not care about a person over there crying
*They're an asshole
~this answer disqualifies itself. If they're an asshole, you DO care about their pain. You relish it. You want more of it.~

*Just general apathy
~the homeless guy you passed in your car. You pass, he's gone. You'd like to care but now you can't even remember a single detail about him. This isn't the case for this character. She's integral to the story and constant throughout.~

*You don't know them
~Wait so if I understood her better, I'd care more about her pain? Hmmm. Feels applicable to life. I think we've struck gold.~

Her personal stakes seemed obvious in the outline and so I expected them to shine through via her actions and reactions. I'd written her with that in mind, never actually "telling" the details of her grand scheme. I reasoned,
-I don't want to spoil things for the reader. 
-There are things happening that even she doesn't know about. Things very close to her. So I'll keep stuff vague. 
-The reader will be intrigued by not knowing what dark secret she's up to.

No. No. No.

-It's not a spoiler to reveal her plan. It's not hand-holding or a waste of words. It's not "telling" vs. "showing." Her plan does NOT work out as she intended. How disappointed would readers be to learn not only that her dark secret isn't coming to fruition, it's never even revealed!
-Keep stuff vague to her that is ACTUALLY vague to her. Of course she knows what she wants, or else she's ineffective and a bad character.
-Readers aren't intrigued by characters with misty motives. They're indifferent, as was I.

I wrote her scenes always just assuming her motive, never ironing out the details of it. At best I'd write a note - "Make sure you establish this aspect of her character in a previous scene". And so when payoff came, her grief did not matter.

I needed to establish in concise language her Conditions For Success. There are four. I wrote them out. Each is simple and straight forward. After that I went through her POV scenes in order (there were six previous scenes to touch), and mentioned each of those points in every scene, progressing them, regressing them, whatever, at the very least bringing them up.

When I made it back to scene 25, it wasn't just easy to fix but enjoyable. This scene isn't just the low point for her and another character. It is integral for several characters, for their arcs, and a crucial turning point for the story at large.

This has become one of my favorite scenes, and there's not a damn drop of blood in it. Always weird when that happens.


  1. One of the big drawbacks to Mystery Characters in comics (I was/am partial to one called Bloodwynd, who only frustrated or didn't interest...anyone else, and the eventual reveal was so confusing it's basically still misunderstood today) is exactly what you're pointing out, and what Lost kind of demonstrated, too, that you can't just assume fans will be hooked by the mystery. Eventually they will either come up with irreconcilably different conclusions or they will stop caring, even if you eventually give them answers. I personally think Lost nailed it. But fans actually came up with irreconcilably different conclusions and stopped caring.

    It's much better to, if you have the answers, to give the answers, as soon as possible. Glad you realized that.

    1. Thanks Tony.
      Agreed. I loved Lost and it kept my attention until the bitter, ambiguous end, but after a certain point I needed freaking answers!


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