Friday, June 20, 2008

Of Bridge Conflicts and Withdrawn Protagonists

Well, I lied about the tomorrow part. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy week. And hot! Yowa. 92 degrees in the shade. And anything over 78 melts my brain.


Sometimes it can seem impossible to build a strong enough emotional connection between the character and the reader AND start the book when the trouble starts. Of course, in an ideal world, you could do both, but since many of us are not perfect writers, we have to find other ways to accomplish this end. For me, my own personal philosophy is, when in doubt to err on the side of connecting with the reader emotionally. What I sometimes use to do this is called a bridge conflict. Which simply means that in the beginning of the story, the protagonist is in conflict with something, but that something happens not to be the main plot element.

For example, in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos*, the inciting incident for the main plot is when Mum brings the majorly cursed Heart of Egypt home with her. The problem I ran in to was, if I started the book there, I’d have to shoehorn in too much backstory in order to make the reader understand about what Theo’s “normal” life looked like, because it was very, very different than the average normal life, either then or now. Plus if the reader had a chance to understand how on her own Theo was, her emotional isolation as she dealt with this major problem would be more vividly understood. Or that was my thinking at the time. (I do find that writing theories evolve over time, so who knows what I’ll think in five years!)

So the book opens with Theo in conflict with a cursed artifact that her mother has sent home ahead of the rest. This does a couple of things. Shows Theo’s Ordinary World. Gives clear parameters of what the magical rules are in the story world. Establishes Theo’s emotional isolation, as well as her plucky resourcefulness at dealing with it all. And shows how she ends up taking care of the adults around her. All in all, a nice micro encapsulation of the themes Theo will be struggling with on a grander scale throughout the course of the book. I was also able to get one of the bad guys in there in that first scene, although deeply hidden.

So Theo’s conflict with the Bastet statue was a bridge to the main conflict, giving the reader enough time to settle into the complex world of the story AND bond with Theo, so when this big bad nightmare of a problem fell in her lap, they would see how it was testing her beyond her normal coping strategies.

I think one of the things that determines whether or not bridge conflicts works is whether or not the story has enough plot layers. Which is really the subject of another post, but essentially plot layers are all the different areas of the protagonist’s life that the main plot impacts. The bridge conflict can’t be about something that never comes up again in the book. It needs to tie into the overall cohesive elements that form the various plot elements or lays the foundation.

Creating an emotional connection with a withdrawn or reserved protagonist.

Well, this was the problem I was whining about that started this whole series of posts. In my most recent book NATHANIEL FLUDD, BEASTOLOGIST, The book opens with Nate sitting in a lawyers office, receiving the bad news that his parents have been lost at sea. The scene ends with the lawyer hustling him off to the train station, where poor Nate departs for parts unknown, specifically his last remaining relative.

The good news was, I had indeed started the story when the trouble starts: finding out your parents are dead and being shipped off to the unknown is Trouble.

The bad news, Nate was unbelievably passive. As a child in an adult situation, all he could do was sit and take in information. Kiss of death, interest wise. Clearly he would be easy to sympathize with, him. But my challenge was to show HIS emotional scars and wounds so that the reader would care about him specifically and not just, oh, ho hum another orphan in children’s literature…

The emotional set up for his character was that Nate had been emotionally and physically abandoned by his parents into the care of his governess/nanny. And while she appeared very loving and to have his best interests at heart, she also managed to quash him in many ways; curiosity, any desire for adventure, etc. But how to show that or allude to that in the first scene without just telling a lot of backstory?

What I finally ended up doing was having him sit there, instructed by Miss Lumpton to draw while she talked with the lawyer, essentially to be seen and not heard. Then he hears the lawyer mention his parents and he stops drawing to listen, and Miss Lumpton exhorts him to keep drawing. But suddenly he has a goal, even if a very tiny goal. To understand what’s happened to his parents and by extension what will happen to him. This is also a nice way to get some dramatic action in what was a very physically static scene. The action of Nate’s drawing or stopping or fiddling with his pencil gave me some nice vehicles for showing his emotional state rather than telling.

Plus it is just the sort of thing that stupid adults say to kids, as if they can sit there and turn off their ears!! And by that one command, I (hopefully) was able to convey how much Miss Lumpton squelched his curiosity, his intelligence, and his place in the world, until he became merely an extension of her desires. Okay, maybe it doesn’t convey all that, but that’s what I wanted to convey and if it touches on some of that, I’ll be happy.

Which is a long way of trying to illustrate that even the most withdrawn protagonists who are afraid to react in their world, if you dig deep enough and long enough you can usually find some way to establish unique, empathetic characteristics as well as tiny little goals.

And now I simply must go finish up my lesson plans for the SBWC then get ready for work. If you have questions or need further clarification or examples, say so in the comments and I’ll address them next week!

* I’m not trying to be all about me by using examples from my own books, they are just the ones I understand the best.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pulling the Reader In – Part Deux

One caveat before I continue talking about story beginnings. We all have different reading tastes and will have different opinions on what makes a good story. Therefore, take my ramblings with a grain of salt. If you are someone who reads for plot, you may (quite validly) disagree with me. If you are all about the subtle character studies, my suggestions may seem too heavy-handed for you. And that’s fine. For me, as a reader and writer, I find myself drawn to stories where the plot and character are intertwined, with the plot being the physical vehicle through which the character effects meaningful personal growth or change. Your mileage may vary.

In fact, a really good exercise is to pull 10 of your favorite books off the shelf and read the first scene. What about that scene grabs you? At what point did you feel you were in the hands of a skilled, competent storyteller and decide you wanted to go along for the ride? That can be a good guide as you try to construct your own first scenes. Now, onward...

In order to show the emotional scar or wound in the first scenes of a book, that means you, the writer have to know quite a few things in order to pull that off.

You have to have a fairly firm grasp of both the internal and external character/plot arcs in your novel. If you don’t understand what is emotionally driving your characters’ actions, then you can’t show it to the reader. See, the thing is, people don’t set off to join the cheerleading squad, be the star of the soccer team, find out what’s inside that spooky house at the end of the street, or become queen bee of 4th grade just because. While those are excellent external plots—lots of pro-active actions a protagonist can take towards those goals—there are usually internal reasons that propel a person to pursue those goals, and that’s what I think can be missing in so many books, and more specifically, in so many openings.

We need to know why THIS scenario is so meaningful for THIS kid, above and beyond other kids who have found themselves in similar situations. Without seeing a glimpse of the emotional impetus that drives them—or at least seeing evidence that something is driving them emotionally, then even the most physically suspenseful, action-packed opening can feel flat and lifeless.

Think of all those women out there who aren’t big sports fans, would never spend a minute watching any sporting event on TV, yet if you put THEIR kid on the field, their emotional involvement is suddenly way up and they are rabidly involved in the game. You want your readers to have that same emotional connection with the characters in your story so that they care deeply about what happens to them

So one of the most helpful tools in getting all these elements on the page is the ol’ goal, motivation, and conflict trio. You should know both the internal and external GMC for your main character, and find ways to make sure you get it on the pate. You don’t need to have all those elements in the first scene—in fact that would be TMI. You want to seduce the reader along, raising questions, creating empathy, and making them curious enough that they keep turning the page.

Then try to couple that with compelling situations, such as…
Have the character be in undeserved trouble
Have the character do something nice
Have them be funny
Put the character in physical or emotional jeopardy
Show them as skilled or intelligent or plucky
Show them in conflict with someone or their surroundings

Some examples:

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Her goal in that first scene is to keep her father safe from whatever curses might be on the Bastet statue. This is a solid encapsulation of her larger goal of keeping her family safe in general. Her external motivation is also made clear, that she is the only one who can see these curses, therefore she is the only one who can deal with them. It also, hopefully, hints at her emotional scar or wound—she is left having to take care of the adults around her in very dangerous circumstances because no one would be inclined to believe her should she dare to explain about the curses. The scene (hopefully) also hints at her emotional abandonment by illustrating just how much she’s left on her own both physically and in a coping sense. Also, she’s in conflict with both her surroundings (curses) the adults around her, she’s in undeserved trouble for trying to protect her father from the curses, and she’s plucky and intelligent.

In Harry Potter, his initial goal is just to endure the Dursleys. Instead of seeing the emotional scars, we actually witness the actions that cause these scars, which is equally, if not more effective, but it can be very hard to do in a way that doesn’t load the opening of the book with backstory. So Harry’s grim circumstance is the motivation for his first goal, to find out what is in that mysterious letter that shows up and opens a whole new world to Harry, one the Dursleys don’t want him to explore. This is also where conflict is introduced. Harry defies the Dursleys and tries to get at the letter to discover this mystery about himself. Harry is shown in lots of undeserved trouble, he’s plucky, he’s in conflict with everyone in his family, he tries to do something nice for the snake at the zoo (commiserate) and clearly he’s in emotional jeopardy by living with these horrible people.

In My Big Sister is so Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book, Effie is shown in a wildly unfair power balance with her sister. Like Rowling, Herhsey does a good job of showing us the actions that cause Effie’s scar tissue, right in that first scene with her sister (motivation for the subsequent events). Even if Effie can’t articulate her goal, the reader can sense she needs to get out from under her sister’s thumb and get some justice. In fact, that whole first scene nicely sets up her internal goal: Get out from under Maxey’s overbearing ways, Motivation: because she’s steamrolling over Effie all the time, Conflict: Maxey’s got such a strong personality, and Effie doesn’t have the personal strength or fortitude—yet—to get her to back off. But Effie is funny, she’s in undeserved trouble with both her mother and her big sister, she’s waaaay plucky, plus there’s that big secret/lie thing she mentions, right up front.

Tomorrow – what to do if you can’t get the main external plot elements to start in that first scene, and how to make a quiet, mousy, withdrawn protagonist likeable, or at least empathetic.

Friday, June 13, 2008

By Request: Letting the Reader In

In the comments, Agent E said: I seem to encounter themes with writers now and then--lots of people struggling with similar issues--and right now it's a question of "how do you let the reader in without getting into too much navel-gazing?"

So I’m going to talk about that. Plus, since I’m gearing up for my teaching stint at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, I can use it there, too. Two birds, one stone, etc.

The short answer to Agent E’s question: In the very first scene, you show a glimpse (and just a glimpse, mind you) of the emotional hole the main character is trying to fill.

But you show it in such an off-hand way that it’s clear the character themselves are unaware of that emotional lack and how it affects them or drives their behavior. (And really, aren’t most of us unaware of the scars that drive us? That burgeoning awareness of our own behavior is part of the journey.)

Basically, you show the emotional scar tissue without explaining the wound.

What this does is three things:

  1. It creates empathy with the protagonist. Even an unsavory protagonist can be compelling if we get a hint of what emotional wounds are driving him.
  2. It raises our curiosity as to how those scars got there.
  3. It assures us that we are about to embark on an internal journey as well as an external journey; that this journey will have some emotional depth to it.

For example, think of the first Harry potter book. Would we care as much about Harry if we met him for the first time at Hogwarts? Probably not. It was his unrelentingly grim home life that first bonded us to Harry, not his magical skills. We felt emotionally for that kid who was stuck living under the stairs and made to be a slave to the highly distasteful Dursleys. And yet the plot of that book, the philospher’s stone, isn’t really introduced until Hagrid takes the mysterious packet out of the vault at Gringotts. But our emotional connection to Harry and compelling dramatic questions occur much earlier than that and capture our interest.

In the Black Book of Secrets, E. F. Higgens creates enormous empathy for a rather unsympathetic character—a pickpocket. Yet when we see his own parents trying to capture him so they can have his teeth pulled to pay for their gin, we suddenly understand him a little better, and have immediate empathy. Again, his subsequent journey wouldn’t be as meaningful if we didn’t see what sort of wretched beginnings he’d come from.

My Big Sister is So Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book by Mary Hershey uses humor and a grossly unfair power balance between Effie and her big sister to bond us immediately to Effie. She also shows us a dash of Effie's deeply buried yet still alive rebellious nature, so we don't have to worry that she's a total wet noodle. There's still some fight left in her.

Winn Dixie has heroine doing something nice—bringing home the dog. But it is also emotionally risky—her dad’s not much of one for reaching out or connecting emotionally, so we also see the big hole in her life left by both her father’s distance and her mother’s absence. It is instantly far more than just a stray dog that is at stake here.

Then the second thing you need to do is use the situation in which you introduce the character to raise dramatic questions about the plot or the world the character inhabits. The above openings do double duty and also raise dramatic questions.

Winn Dixie does it through dropping hints about the backstory; What did happen to India’s mother? Why is her dad like a turtle?

My Big Sister does this by making us wonder what lies were told and also by putting Effie in a hugely unfair situation with her big sister. Hershey also does a fabulous job of hinting at Effie’s true nature by showing she’s got ways of her own of fighting back.

Rowling, of course, does this with the world she creates. There are so many amazing things going on, letters insisting on being delivered, huge giants showing up on deserted islands, Diagon alley, all those tells us we have just entered a world of untold surprises and delights. That combined with our emotional connection with Harry fully suck us into the story.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But how do we do all that? In the first few pages, no less?

Tomorrow (hopefuly) I’ll talk more about the actual tools and techniques we can use for doing just that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bumps in the Path

Okay, so now that I warned you all that I'd be disappearing, I've become all chatty. How contrarian of me!

I wanted to talk about a couple of problems I ran into with my recent project, BEASTOLOGIST. For one, it was a chapter book, which is shorter than standard middle grade, coming in at around 15,000 words rather than the 25,000 to 45,000 of standard middle grade (not to mention the whopping 80,000 words the Theo books weigh in at.)

Writing short is hard ::she whined:: I think that’s one of the reasons the scope of chapter book stories tends to be smaller: a contest, a rivalry, a small conflict within the family. But I wanted to write a fantasy-adventure involving a complicated backstory. Not to mention needing to accomplish the basics; dimensional characters, plot layers, etc. Phew. Every word had to carry triple duty. If you think about it, not a bad exercise in seeing just how much you can cut down to the story bones and still have a (hopefully!) compelling tale.

Another issue I bumped into was that of The Withdrawn Protagonist, which is actually something I bump up against fairly often. I am attracted to quiet, reserved, sometimes even withdrawn protagonists. I like to explore the series of conditions and situations that force them out of their shell; that give them the courage to step out of their voluntary shelter and engage with life and begin recognizing their own personal power.

But in order to show this journey, I have to introduce the character while they are still withdrawn and somewhat timid and cautious.

Which also bumps into one of the endless craft questions: how much do we need to know and understand of the character before the main plot really takes off. Some people (with whom I argue much) say the physical action of the main plot needs to start immediately. As in that very first scene. However as a reader, I have found that I like to bond with a character first, to better understand their flaws and strengths and problems in their lives before bounding off on this big adventure.

If I’ve had a chance to bond with the character, I care more about what happens to him (or her.) Otherwise it’s extraordinarily easy for me to put the book down, even with a rollicking plot, because I simply don’t care enough or can’t feel the depth I need for a satisfying story.

As a writer, to overcome this, I find myself using bridge conflicts a lot. Which I’ll have to talk about in my next post because I have to go make dinner...

Monday, June 09, 2008


You know that saying, that when someone shivers it's because somebody just walked over their grave? Well, here's a new take on that old favorite.

Today, I got a Google Alert (all authors know about these, right?) for R. L. LaFevers on FIND A GRAVE! Yowza. Talk about shivers! So of course I had to go check it out. It's the grave of a young RL who lived from 1883-1885, poor little tyke. But still. Kind of creepy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Promised News

From Publishers Marketplace....

Author of THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS R.L. LaFevers's first two titles in a new illustrated chapter book series, NATHANIEL FLUDD: BEASTOLOGIST, in which Nathaniel loses his parents, is shipped off to a distant cousin, adopts a gremlin, and begins his travels as a Junior Beastologist tending to the world's mythological creatures, again to Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

I'm so excited to be working with Houghton Mifflin on this new project! Not to mention what a blast writing it has been. Too too fun.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Akhet – the Season of Inundation

First of all, I have to show off the amazing cover for Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. Yoko Tanaka has truly outdone herself. I am so lucky!!

Now a warning: Major Update ahead.

So, I had a great excuse for my absence this time. Honest. Two weeks ago, my iMac went up in smoke. Literally. A little plastic smelling puff of smoke. I took it to the local Mac shop, which is brilliant but s-l-o-w and one week later found out the power pack and the logic board were kaput. It would cost the same to repair as it would to purchase a new one. So I am typing this blog entry from a brand new shiny iMac. Now, I haven’t been very impressed with Macs to tell the truth. I know there are many who are absolutely fanatical about their superiority to other pcs, but I haven’t seen it. And certainly not mechanically. This is the 2nd power pack to go on my machine. However, I am quite fond of their sleek, compact all-in-one design, so will give them one more try. But that’s it. Also, I bought a three year Apple Care package, just in case.

But it did take a whole ‘nother week for me to get into the Mac shop and pick one up. I had work, and went to BEA which was faboo! I got to meet so many of the wonderful people at Houghton Mifflin, as well as booksellers and readers and other authors. Major heaven. Also major crowds. Boy. Talk about sensory overload.

I will have some exciting news to share here in a few days, I’m hoping. But I also need to give you a heads up. The season of inundation is upon me. I have a firm due date for Theo 3 now, and its sooner rather than later, so I must get cracking. Plus, the boys will be home in a couple of weeks for summer, which will greatly impact my free time. I haven’t juggled writing on deadline, the boys, AND a part time job in a long, long time. If ever. So it will be a challenge.

Which is, in it’s own way, a bit of a head’s up that I may to pare down to the essentials for the next few months. I’m not sure yet. I’ll definitely post news or appearance stuff when I have it, but my already sporadic postings may become even more so. Consider yourself warned.