Thursday, January 16, 2014

If it’s Coincidence, it’s Not Story ... by Kathryn Craft

The first thing we learn about novel writing is that story requires conflict. That’s a great place to start! If your storytelling education stops there, though, you may have a problem. Heaping one bad thing after another upon a character does not allow her to emerge as the protagonist of her story—it turns her into a perpetual victim.

By relying too much on such happenstance in your manuscript, you’ll fail to make use of the most powerful ways in which story works.

A story is more than a string of events—it’s an ordered world where coincidence means the author has fallen down on the job. Even if you believe real life to be full of random events and chaos, the reason we love story so much is that things happen for a reason. If the reader perceives a coincidence, a second look should reveal how very cleverly you-as-author had set it all up.

In the opening of my newly published debut, The Art of Falling, dancer Penelope Sparrow wakes up in a hospital room, unable to move, after landing on a car parked fourteen stories below her penthouse. Struck by the miracle of her survival, the baker on whose car she landed, her hospital roommate, and her doctors all want to know what happened out on that balcony—but survival incites Penelope to set a different story goal.

She can’t remember what happened, and right now she doesn’t even care to face it. Her primary goal is to figure out how she can create meaning in a life that doesn’t include the movement she so loved. These two questions—what set her out on that balcony, and how she embraces this extraordinary second chance—launch the intertwined story lines that will converge at the end of the novel.

Question: What if Penelope was so distraught she never created a goal, and things just kept happening to her?

Answer: She would come across as weak, and the reader would lose sympathy for her for not fighting back.

Give your character a story goal

To be relatable, your characters must engage in goal-oriented activities. A novel should be like one big light-sword battle, where the light represents each character’s true desire. The story events happen where those beams of light intersect—where conflicting desires push against one another.

These pressures will complicate your protagonist’s goal and force her to change. Knowing what she wants will give the reader a way to assess how the story is progressing. “Yes, a victory!” or “Oh no, it’s not looking good for Penelope!”—such reactions bond the reader to the protagonist.

But let’s go back and take a look at my opening set-up. My character lands on a car parked half on the sidewalk below her balcony, in the wee hours of the morning? Yeah, right! That’s too much of a coincidence!

Except that the baker comes to the hospital and waits while Penelope is having surgery. Speaks to her when she wakes up. Brings her things. Counsels her; befriends her. Clearly, he does not think this is such an accident. And later, we find out what he’d been doing on his trip across town that resulted in him parking just so…

But you’ll have to read the book to find that out. For now, suffice to say that many events and trajectories were in play that night—a metaphoric light-sword battle was already in place—and the only thing that “happens” to Penelope is that she survives what should have been a deadly event, requiring that she chart a new course.

At only one time in your story is happenstance not only welcomed, but embraced—and that’s at your inciting incident. Make sure to carefully construct the other events in your story so that your character’s goals are what lead her to The End

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Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she speaks often about writing, and blogs at the Blood-Red Pencil and Writers in the Storm. You can connect with her at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

19 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Conflicting ideas push against each other - I'll remember that!

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Kathryn.

Kathryn - There really is a big difference between a set of events and a story. In the story, the protagonist acts on the events. In a series of events, it's the other way round.

Dean K Miller said...

Kathryn: Love the light swords crossing example. Makes me think my characters are dancing around with theirs instead of finding them crossed.

As usual Pat, you've brought in another top-notch guest.

Thanks to both of you ladies.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks for your comments, Alex and Dean. While many readers still love a story with clear delineation—as between between the white hats and bad hats—you don't n red people coming at one another like that to create great conflict.

Another way to think of it: if two people are made of the same stuff and have the same goal, their "lights" will travel forth in parallel lines forever, and never intersect. No story!

But take a hero and his sidekick. They might both be fighting the same foe, but for different reasons. There is a reason the sidekick doesn't need to star in the show, right? He needs something by being identified with the hero, and the hero needs something different from the sidekick. These differences will eventually put them into conflict.

Kathryn Craft said...

Margot: Yes, a great way of looking at it!

DonnaGalanti said...

Kathryn, great post! And got me thinking...I love the idea of taking a coincidence scene and making it not a coincidence. I think your post here could be used as a great tool to use when stuck on your plot and to brainstorm coincidences (those what-if's that seem ridiculous) and then kill them and make them planned (what-if's with reason that sing oh-yeah).

I think this also speaks to the first few ideas that can come to our mind when writing that are the average, and then digging deeper to find something unique that shines.

Kathryn Craft said...

You know, you're right Donna—no one need ever know how, or in what order, your story came together! I'm reminded of stories which rely on a natural disaster of some sort to bring characters together. The only reason that worked in Twister is because the hero and heroine were hunting down twisters to begin with! Which idea come first—the tornado, or the hunting? Who knows, and it doesn't matter. All that matters is the writer created a good reason to put these two characters into the path of a storm, which made it believable.

Lorelei said...

Great post, Kathryn. Agree totally on this. I've seen too many first time writers thinking that is exactly how to write an exciting book. It tends to paint them into the corner, I think.

Kathryn Craft said...

Yes Lorelei. When it isn't clear how proceed, because you failed to implement basic story structures and a well-orchestrated character set, all you can do to create conflict is to let things keep happening to your protagonist.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Kathryn, I really appreciate you being here today. And just so you know, your post will remain at the top of the blog through tomorrow. I'll post again to Facebook and Twitter in the morning. Thanks!!

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks so much for having me, Pat! Nice to work together again. The comments are ringing through to my email so will continue chatting with anyone else who stops by!

Elle Carter Neal said...

Excellent analogy, Kathryn. I usually find all my apparent co-incidences coming together towards the end of my book in ways I hadn't expected, and am often heard exclaiming, "Oh, so that's why XYZ happened in Chapter 2!"

Fun stuff :-)

Gingermoran@comcast.net said...

Great description of this important aspect of novel-writing, Kathryn! I'm going to suggest this blog post to my fiction students. So well said.

Kathryn Craft said...

Elle, if you are lucky enough to have natural storytelling talent, your subconscious may just lay the groundwork for you—and that is really fun! Then, with your conscious mind and craft box in hand, you can go back and find those small gifts and capitalize on them by adding motivation and relevant backstory so all, in the end, will have felt inevitable.

Kathryn Craft said...

Hi Ginger, thanks for stopping in! As a developmental editor yourself I'm sure you also see plots loosely tacked together by coincidence. Much better that they are driven by an engine well-fueled with desire.

KK Brees said...

Linking the idea of goals for writers and goals for characters got me thinking deeply about the folks populating my next book. Thanks for a thoughtful helpful post and best wishes for success.

Kathryn Craft said...

Ooh, KK, thanks for sharing this! You're story will really start to cook now and your scenes will take on more power—I'm so excited for you!

Julie Luek said...

I just read a book that was full of battle scenes and constant strife. Bam! Pow! Kaboom! I couldn't figure out, at the end, why it felt so pointless and your post just nailed it for me. Thanks for filling in the blank!

Kathryn Craft said...

Interesting point Julie, that even action at a high level can feel like a lack of story movement if that action is failing to either advance or complicate (in an escalating fashion) the protagonist's goals.