Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.
I'm in a season of editing right now, which is a part of the novel-creating process that I love, even though it's also the part that I find most challenging.
No longer can I say, "I don't know what's supposed to happen here, so I'll just do my best and fix it later." Nor can I put off finding the answer to my most elusive research questions. No more slacking off!
This is also when I have to be brutally honest about individual scenes in the book. Is it working? Is it not working? Does it move the story forward? Am I starting in the right place? Did I end in a way that will make readers turn the page? On and on the questions go.
A few times now I've come across a scene that just isn't working like it should. Even though I had filled it with good character and plot stuff, something about it just felt ... off.
Finally, I had a breakthrough when I noticed a pattern about my character's expectations and decisions. (Or, rather, lack there of.)
Let's examine the two simple questions I've learned to use to help turn my Not Quite Right scenes into scenes that really matter: What does my character expect, and what decisions does my character make?
"What does my character expect to happen?"
This is the first question that I realized I wasn't asking, thanks to a post from K.M. Weiland about ... something. I scrolled back through her archives trying to figure out what lesson of hers prompted this discovery, and I can't find it. So the credit goes to Katie, but I can't link to it. Sorry, Katie!
Her point was that there should be a gap in what the character expects to happen and what actually happens. Most of the time I do this instinctively, and you probably do too. Your point of view character will think a conversation is going to go one way, and it won't. Or she will think it's an ordinary day, and the unexpected happens.
I realized on scenes that weren't landing like I wanted them to, often my character's expectations were met. She expected to have a tense conversation with her mother, and that's what happened. etc.
As I thought about this, I realized that this can work, and it certainly should sometimes. If your character's expectations are always wrong, we'll stop trusting them and their judgment pretty quickly.
So it isn't that your character needs to be wrong all the time. Instead, you can try applying the, "Yes, but" technique for creating an element of surprise.
Yes, her mom is upset, but it isn't for the reason she thought it would be.
Yes, her friend has been lying to her, but the betrayal is even worse than she initially expected.
So that can work if we want our character to be right about something. Frequently, however, our characters should be surprised:
Lightning McQueen expects to win the race, but instead it's a three-way tie. (Cars)
Elizabeth Bennett expects to have an enjoyable evening at the ball with Mr. Wickham, but Wickham doesn't show up. (Pride and Prejudice)
Katniss expects Peeta to be on her side, but he's teamed up with the Careers. (The Hunger Games)
In my scenes that didn't work as well as they ought, it was because:
- I hadn't given myself time to show my character's expectations, so when they shattered, the impact wasn't as strong.
- My character had no expectations.
- Things happened exactly as my character anticipated, so there was no element of surprise.
"What decision does my character make in this scene?"
Sometimes we choose to zoom in on little decisions our character's make. Like in the 2003 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Jane is delighted over her engagement to Mr. Bingley, and she expresses a longing for her sister to fid true love too. Lizzy makes a small, beautiful decision to keep the focus on Jane and her happiness. Instead of spilling about Mr. Darcy, she teases, "Maybe Mr. Collins has a cousin."
Purposefully making a small moment into something big can be very effective, but unless we're very intentionally choosing that, then our character needs to make a noteworthy decision within each scene. Even if it's just a renewed commitment to "stay the course."
And a lot of times—I'm going to be so bold as to say almost all the time—this noteworthy decision should be based on whatever shift happened in their expectations.
Using the same examples from before, let's take a look at the decisions that resulted:
In Cars, Lightning McQueen expected to win the race, but instead it's a three-way tie. And so he decides to get to California as fast as he can for the tie-breaking race so he can rub shoulders with VIPs.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy expected to have a nice evening at the ball with Mr. Wickham, but he doesn't show up. And so when Mr. Darcy asks her to dance, she says yes.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss expects Peeta to be an ally, but instead he teams up with the Careers. And so Katniss gives up on loyalty to him too.
That phrase,"And so," is the key to creating compelling character motivation. It's also how you keep your book from sounding like a list of scenes, the way you make it feel as though your character is writing their own story.
It's also the way you make sure each scene matters.
If you're writing a first draft, take a look at your next scene. What does your POV character expect to happen, and what will actually happen? What decision will your character make as a result?
If you're currently editing a manuscript, try pulling out a random scene later in the novel (those early chapters tend to get the bulk of our attention!) and ask the same questions.
Share in the comments section, if you'd like!