the crucible of character change

Before I enrolled in my MFA, I recognized writing advice from the professional writer’s perspective failed the underpublished writer because the same pros that spent 40+ minutes discussing the importance of craft will dismiss the need to actually learn how to do any of it with “there are no rules” as a closing remark.

But that’s not the only problem. The average pro writer will discuss their craft as though discussing it with other professional writers and not the audience listening. I couldn’t find a better example of this than a writer I’ve heard speak several times. If he was only speaking to an audience of other professional writers, I wouldn’t be concerned with what he says.

He quoted Maass’ brilliant “tension on every page” in a recent post, but then stated it wasn’t “tension” that every page needed, it was “emotion.” And to other professional writers, that is a much better way of stating it. However, to the average underpublished writer, it doesn’t help.

There are three types of underpublished writers. Those who focus on the aesthetic nature of the prose wouldn’t know how to manipulate the story so that the character’s actions (or lack of action) cause an emotional response in the reader if it didn’t organically do so in the first draft. A structure-focused writer may be able to write a plot that can emotionally engage the reader, but their aesthetic choices and rough prose keep the reader focused on the trees and not the forest they’re walking through. The rare underpublished writers who can do both just need more butt-in-chair time.

But if any of the three believes “there are no rules” means “I don’t have to put my hours of deliberate practice in,” it won’t matter what any advice says to them. Writers who don’t believe they need to improve won’t be convinced by any advice that says deliberate improvement is a necessary part of learning any skillset.

Underpublished writers need to hear the part of the advice that professional writers assume other professional writers know. It’s not about putting “tension” or “emotion” on every page. That’s Wimbleton-level advice for top-ranked players. Maass says tension on every page is something only writers who have a traditionally published book need to learn how to do. The underpublished writer has to know how to control the ball each time, every time, before they learn how to win world-class championships.

Learning how to create enough conflict from enough sources so that the story creates moments of challenge that feel organic to the story every 250 words or so is extremely difficult to do. The writer has to be able to manipulate the plot, Point of View, escalating tension and conflict in relation to the character’s needs.

The vast majority of work I have read by talented, underpublished writers regardless of the genre of work focused almost exclusively on the exquisite detail of what the character sees, knows, and says. But those are all tools the author uses to tell the reader the story. All the skillsets tied up in showing the reader the world — a character’s goal, actions, motivations, concerns and the antagonistic forces acting against them are usually told to the reader in dialogue between the beautiful descriptions.

If creative writing instructors won’t teach the purpose of fiction is to test the metal of a character in circumstances outside of their comfort zone, then a “story” is only the way the author uses prose. Readers read for the crucible the story puts the character in to see what emerges. This can be “will they save their marriage” or “will they save the world.” The individual stakes of the story don’t matter. The ideal reader only cares about how the character reacts to something they are invested in.

But while the traditional genres of speculative fiction or mystery have the genre mechanics acting as an additional source of conflict, the literary genre only has the depth of humanity as a conflict source. It is starving for unconventional protagonists doing unconventional things with unconventional results.

But the lack of conventions does not an unconventional story make. A work without plot, conflict or tension has no appeal to the reader unless the meaningful lack of convention serves the story. Beautiful prose the author fails to shape into a beautiful story only impresses MFA instructors.

A far more valuable lesson from Maass that underpublished writers should focus on is knowing at the start of the story what that character in that moment in their life would never say, think or do. Then, the story focuses on creating the exact situations it would take for a character that would never blah to blah.

For example, if a character would never be disloyal to their leader, the story’s beginning sets up that loyalty so the reader knows the character would never betray who they follow. Most of the story must set up the events required for a turning point inside the character that makes their best course of action disloyal.

But whether they betray their leader when they need to is their crucible. The story is about who they became to even contemplate the need to do so.

hubris — the missing component of the unlikeable protagonist

this post contains up to season 5 Rick and Morty spoilers.

I was listening to a video about the Moscow murders in November 2022. It sounds like the cops quickly knew exactly who they were looking for. The super-genius Ph.D. student had been pulled over in August in his white Elantra and gave the cops his cellphone number. One of the first things investigators would have done was check the area for traffic or parking citations.

It was how they caught Son of Sam. The criminology doctorate student had forgotten criminology was a field of study.

I’ve dealt with intelligent people making the most ridiculous mistakes in a high concentration of late. The worst thing a person can assume is that they cannot be mistaken. Cognitive dissonance is a very well-documented effect but the physical sensations don’t come with a: hey, your brain can’t handle thinking about what was just said so we’re going to make you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut and throat at the same time, just because this person is challenging you.

It’s why Dr. Expert hung up the phone, upset that I had asked them for their working definition of their field of study. If we’d met waiting for an elevator, they could have stated it in a sentence or two. It wasn’t the request that made Dr. Expert so angry they could only sputter as they slammed the phone down. It was their brain realizing before Dr. Expert could that if they just rattled their definition off, it would prove my point.

It’s why Dr. House, ultimately, failed as a protagonist despite being a well-written empathetic/unlikeable character. Unlikeable characters don’t care if the average reader likes them. The reader has gotten to the end of the book based only on their empathy for the journey the character has travelled. If it is the character’s hubris that keeps the reader from wanting to like them, it has to spur a change in them in any direction.

To leave the character exactly as they were, unaffected by what they had just gone through means the journey itself had to be memorable when the series was ultimately a case-of-the-week show. A character experiencing change is the most significant moment in any creative writing work. The quality of the character’s path to the end of the story has to make up for its lack of catharsis.

A movie (not directed by James Cameron) runs 90-140 minutes. A character who gets to the end of their story and isn’t changed by it isn’t impossible with great storytelling.

An episode of a TV show has a run time of about 40 minutes. In any given timeslot, a character’s lack of change is meaningless. But the length of an entire television series can rival the reading time of a blockbuster fantasy series. Dr. House had remained almost unchanged over the series duration.

Readers invest several hours to decades to finish a book or a series. If the hubris of the unlikeable character fails to impact the character in any significant way, the reader is reading a book about an unlikeable character doing unlikeable things and those actions cost them nothing.

They can’t do anything about the assholes who get away with bullshit IRL, but they can stop reading about fictionalized versions of them. Donald Maass said it best when he said a wounded protagonist has to give the reader some glimpse in the first scene that they want to be whole even if they couldn’t start on that path yet. His example starts with the drinking-buddy calling for a ride to rehab. I think the beginning of their story begins the first night they considered picking up the phone.

But for hubristically-centred unlikeable protagonists who aren’t wounded by it, their story begins the moment their hubris starts to bring about their downfall. How they escape it or surrender to it is the story. It’s why Rick from Rick and Morty will never be Rick from Rick and Morty again. Rick is only Rick when he is an asshole to his diehard fans. But by season six, Rick knows he can’t be an asshole around the people he likes. And Jerry…most of the time. But to the vocal fanbase, if Rick can’t be Asshole!Rick all the time, he’s not Rick at all.

I trust Harmon’s storytelling skills. In an earlier season, Rick surrendering himself to the cost of being the most brilliant man in all the universes to keep his family safe was the most haunting scene of the show. The image of him sitting alone on the toilet at the end of season 5 was Rick coming to terms with the cost of his assholery outside his immediate family.

four types of characters in storytelling

A character’s likeablity is if the work’s ideal reader is supposed to root for the character’s success because they want to see the character succeed.

A character’s empathy depends on the ideal reader being able to understand where the character is coming from or why they act the way they do. An empathetic character will try to change their fate for the better depending on how they define the term. The desire to improve their lot in life will keep the ideal reader reading, even if the work makes liking the protagonist difficult.

A likeable character has an ideal reader who wants to see them succeed and can understand the reason why they act the way they do. While they are the “easiest” character to write of the four, setting a likeable character down a path where something in their life, personality or world needs to meaningfully change if they were to achieve their goal is not an easy story to write. It, too, is just easier to write because the reader will continue to read because they care about the character’s journey.

This is the character that is easiest to have them do something unforgivable within the story’s circumstances. A character who kills the person who killed their dog is understandable. If the protagonist waited a year to plot the death of the dog killer’s family, however, the ideal reader’s empathy for the character can snap.

An empathetic character does not need the reader to like them or hope for their success. But the ideal reader of this work will continue to read on despite not liking the character because the reader understands where they are coming from. The character’s struggle to improve their lot does a lot of the heavy lifting that liking the character enough to follow their story does.

But there is less room for this character to do something unforgivable. All the reader is reading for is at least understanding why the character is the way they are. If the unforgivable act breaks that, nothing keeps them reading to discover what happens. The empathy meter has to be dialled in so the character can act unforgivably but not in the way its ideal reader would give up on the character for it. It’s a tricky balancing act but when done correctly, it creates memorable work.

A sympathetic character is a character the reader is meant to like but makes no effort to change their fate. We feel _____ for them when they experience ______ things, but without a desire to change their fate, the reader has nothing to understand about them. Meaningful work with protagonists who are only what they are is the most difficult.

An unlikeable character isn’t meant to be liked by its ideal reader and doesn’t ask its reader to understand where the character is coming from. It is far easier to create a meaningful unlikeable character in a visual medium where the viewer isn’t asked to empathize with the train of thought that allowed them to make horrific choices and carry through with them.

If an unlikeable character attempts to change who they are, they are an empathetic protagonist even if they fail. An unlikeable character does not try to change who they are.

The problem with “there are no rules” is that it teaches characters have no need to change anything about their life, world, or personality. If a character doesn’t attempt to change anything, the work doesn’t ask the reader to judge those actions based on where the character was coming from.

breaking a rule vs. getting away with it

I used to watch this Youtuber who got white-collar criminals ready for their prison sentence. He’s honest about why he went to jail — the Feds could prove he didn’t not know about a person who was criming. And they knew he didn’t not know because in one email sent X years ago, he’d used the criming guy’s promised rate of return sarcastically.

The Feds had criming guy’s emails.

As long as Youtuber didn’t officially know what criming guy was doing, he had no legal jeopardy. But if he’d written down that he knew and the Feds could prove it, the Feds had him locked in as one of their 98% success rate. But Youtuber had sworn up and down to Feds he had no idea what was going on with criming guy. He had assumed he hadn’t made a single mistake. In doing so, he committed the crime of lying to the Feds.

Breaking the rule is easy. Justifying breaking the rule is even easier if they person doing the breaking gains something out of it. It’s the “attempt to get away with it without paying the consequences” that is the story.

I would never sit down to write a story without conflict. Even a character changing their mind requires the internal conflict of a character discarding what they had known — true or not — and replacing it with what was learned. It isn’t an easy process to get past the discomfort of realizing something once held as truth might not be the whole truth or even part of it.

“Conflict is important enough to learn how to manipulate deliberately” is not a rule I think I could break. Conflict does multiple things in a story. It creates the events necessary for a character to be tested when humans must be as eusocial as bees are for our species’ survival.

You could argue Tolkien’s Silmarillion or the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them are successful books without conflict or tension. But they are supplementary work for novels in existence and their audience is anyone who loved the books enough to seek out supplementary work.

I used to keep a copy of the Silmarillion beside my bedside table in high school. Nothing put me to sleep faster than opening the book and reading a random passage. The lack of conflict made my brain so bored that falling asleep was the more exciting option. But I know Tolkien fans IRL who can Colbert it.

Prisons are full of people who are survivors of intergenerational trauma. But it also has a population of people who thought they could get away with it and didn’t realize that multiple systems are designed to catch unethical behaviour. There are catches and traps most people would never think to look for even if they can’t see how they could get caught from their office view. Unethical conduct can be caught in a lack of ethical conduct in a controlled environment.

It’s how the Feds have a 98% success rate. There’s always evidence in the system of a crime being committed, those who crime must crime flawlessly, and lying about not committing crime is still crime.

Understanding how to use conflict to manipulate the tension of a piece is difficult enough. The writer has to understand — implicitly or explicitly — how the elements of the story work to create the meaning in the meaningful challenges on the character’s path. To do the same thing — to create meaning on the character’s path without the character being challenged is as tricky as criming flawlessly.

But this is the problem with the loss of assumed knowledge. Once upon a time, writers knew conflict was significant enough to learn how to manipulate meaningfully. That got shortened to conflict is important because the rest was assumed. Then along came “there are no rules” when “conflict is important” is assumed as a given.

And suddenly what is assumed in “conflict is important” becomes “but not enough to have to learn how to use deliberately.” And to assume otherwise becomes intolerable to imply. Because the first rule is that there are none.

The second rule is “given A, conflict is important is a rule.”

Writing a story with tension but no conflict requires a flawless first draft or endless rounds of editing until perfection is created. A character’s lack of change and their lack of need for change must both be meaningful. That is a character a writer either knows how to write or is willing to learn how to write on the fly.

And once that author figures out how to do that by themselves, all it would require is its prose polished.

So what is deliberately practicing writing?

Anders Erikson‘s co-theory of the ten-thousand-hour rule depends on those ten thousand hours being deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is only rocket science to rocket scientists. Writers must work on what they can already do well while pushing themselves out of their comfort zone with excellent tutelage over years. Without instruction, they can practice through deliberate trial and error, which takes even longer.

But that creates a problem when it comes to public critique. Angela Duckworth talks about the problem of associating making a mistake with fear, shame or embarrassment. I will always remember the growing heat of embarrassment that started at my core and radiated outward as I realized that if I wanted to learn a second language in another country, I had to be willing to make mistakes out loud. Even though I never had a bad experience trying to communicate, it still took months of constant positive responses for the fear of one to go away.

Contrast that with the act of public critique, where shame, embarrassment and fear is unavoidable when a table of your peers are carving up every mistake the draft has, publically. I don’t wonder why “there are no rules” as a complete thought took such hold in the community. It’s a safe thought in the harsh reality that writers must learn to use their craft before they can hone it.

The first requirement of a learner in an instruction-based approach is to hear what was said and not what was wanted to be heard. “The character must be meaningfully challenged” is the most important critique aesthetically-focused writers must hear. But writers who have practiced for years to take their aesthetic-based skillset to almost publishable levels must feel safe enough in their learning environment to share something still imperfect. It is not easy to learn to create a series of events that will push their protagonist from their startling point to their turning point to their point of meaningful change (or lack thereof.)

But between “there are no rules” and the desire to shoot the message through the messenger, underpublished writers don’t hear “this draft of this work requires meaningful conflict to drive the tension to create the need for character change.” What they hear is “this critiquer doesn’t understand I didn’t intend to do any of that.”

It is true that famous, internationally award-winning stories do not require a moment that sets the character on a new path to the point where they must continue, ready or not. The story’s events don’t need to drive the protagonist to change something about their world and/or their lives and/or themselves to succeed, fail miserably, or meaningfully come to a draw. But to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie, One vampire is always easier to kill than ten.

Writing a meaningful work in which a likeable character who wants something sets out to accomplish it and either wins, loses or draws isn’t easy. It is only easy compared to the effort required to write a meaningful work in which an unempathetic character wants nothing and doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It is difficult to tell a story from its beginning. It is even more difficult to start a story in a middle spot that requires backstory to catch the reader up with the events that have already passed. The reader will never know who the protagonist was before the dragons attacked. The character growth the reader will experience starts with the character already in their crucible with the furnace blasting.

Underpublished writers should try to shoot the moon and do more than that with less than that. But learning that way requires hearing constructive criticism for what it is worth *and* being able to structurally rewrite the work up to a second draft as an open-new-file rewrite.

To deliberately practice creative writing, it is necessary to practice what has not been perfected. In a peer review environment, the author has to be strong enough to be willing to take risks in their work that may not necessarily pay off to learn from them. But with “there are no rules” as a methodology, if the author’s peers and instructors can’t see a lack of story-building in the strong descriptions and discussions as a problem, it can’t even be considered one.

Anders Erickson specifically says deliberate practice must be uncomfortable. A provost of a major university told me specifically that their program was designed to be as gentle as possible to not cause the learner discomfort. If those two statements are incompatible, I’m guessing the one who was an engineer is wrong about pedagogical approaches.

If a learner decides that whisking in the cheese is as effective as folding it in, they may never understand why their sauce is silky and smooth occasionally, but most of the time it’s a grainy, oily mess. They are going through the same motions over and over again. Whether the method produces work that falls into place and engages the reader is outside of their control.

The author may meet the right person or hear the right piece of feedback that breaks through to them. Or they may enroll in the wrong program that assures them there is no difference between a broken sauce and an unbroken sauce if the author made it break themselves. Once that happens, they will never reach for a spatula instead of a whisk again. Once a confirmation bias has been confirmed with enough authority, the concrete errors they brought into the program become diamonds that nothing natural can cut through.

I remember how fast I ran into my wheelhouse after my first professional critique. I never wanted to leave it again. I was only ever going to do what I was good at for a story slated for public critique. After three years of only writing the safest way I knew how, I realized I’d turned my greatest passion into a chore I had to make myself do. Taking risks meant the possibility of bigger failures, but I had to accept that was as much a part of the learning process as forcing myself to speak in a second language in front of first-language speakers.

A change in pedagogy requires a change in ideology. For creative writing pedagogy to work, the learner has to be motivated to improve across all aspects of writing, be it structural writers focusing on the aesthetic nature of prose or aesthetic writers focusing on structure.

Or — as I tried to explain to the former engineer-provost — without the sensation of discomfort, there is no potential for growth.

vulnerabilities, not weaknesses

It’s been a while since the first time I heard a writer tell me that they did not want to give their character a weakness. But since then, it’s something I hear quite frequently.

The problem is that “weakness” is a terrible word for the vulnerability a character needs for there to be a story that exists beyond “competent character does thing competently.” No matter what kind of story is meant for which ideal reader, vulnerabilities maintain the tension necessary for the protagonist (and the reader) to be unsure of future success. In the story of the upper-middle-class protagonist trying to get into Julliard, the work only has uncertainty if something internal or external challenges the protagonist before their acceptance or rejection.

External conflicts can come from anywhere in the kid’s life. Their parents could get a divorce in their final year of high school. A friend or sibling could get sick, addicted, hurt, or fail in a way that could drag the protagonist down with them. Even if it “just” distracts them from the multiple hours of practice in addition to all the character’s other obligations, the vulnerability has a cost. Their mentor could even die if the author wanted to do a full hero’s journey.

But as long as what is holding the Julliard kid back is external to their mental state, the character can still succeed if they buckle down and work harder while dealing with the external conflict. It’s only when another dancer joins the dance school and the protagonist sees what a truly “gifted” (read: a person who developed the talents they were given even harder) dancer can do that they can struggle internally with their decision to dedicate their lives to get into a school with a 7% acceptance rate.

A character without weaknesses is a character that can be played by Vin Diesel or Jamie Lee Curtis. They are so strong going into the story that the plot revolves around a crucible that will test their metal. But those characters still have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the author (and the antagonistic force.)

To return to Samwise Gamgee, Sam didn’t need to change who he was or what he believed to help Frodo do his thing so they could go home. So while he didn’t change or needed to change, the world went from being infested with the armies of Mordor to not being infested with the armies of Mordor. He did have plenty of vulnerabilities.

For one, he was just a Hobbit in a world full of Balrogs and Nameless Things. He wasn’t trained to fight, but he loved his Mr. Frodo so much that letting him go off alone was inconceivable. The task Frodo accepted seemed impossible and against all odds. Failure at any point would lead to total war taking over the entire world. He and Frodo survived until the good guys won, but Frodo had changed so much by what happened that he could never go home again even after his mentor got ununalived.

Sam was such a strong character that he could weather the storm and be unchanged by it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have vulnerabilities that made doing so the hardest thing he’d ever done. The Julliard kid still has to learn that getting into that 7% acceptance rate is nothing compared to standing out in a class full of equally talented, equally skilled and equally driven classmates.

A character’s vulnerability doesn’t have to be something they are bad at that they have to get better at in order to accomplish their goals. It is what separates the illusion of false conflict from the obstacles the character has to overcome in any genre that could actually stop them from achieving their objectives. Conflict isn’t arguing or space blaster fights. It’s what keeps your character from what they want or need.

I’ve read so many stories over the last decade where the character’s greatest fear and hope are revealed through dialogue like the author is checking that off a list. I have never read a single scene where a character explains to someone else exactly what they are afraid of that was anywhere near as effective as a character showing the reader their vulnerabilities through their actions.

But as long as “there are no rules” is taught to mean “first drafts are structurally perfect” learners learn telling the reader something is as effective as showing them it on an emotional level.

the startling point

Writers don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants. They exist in a community that doesn’t have to be a giant yet to know what they have learned themselves. I have never heard a better definition of where the story begins than my friend, Leslie Carmichael.

Stories can start with the author shooting the moon. Great or very lucky writers can create a perfect moment to seamlessly braid enough worldbuilding into the actions of the now so that the reader is given exactly as much information as they need to contextualize the story’s stakes. They are near-instantly engaged with the unfolding events.

Most other writers just need to start with something that shakes the character out of their everyday life and into the part of their life the story exists to capture. Starting at the beginning of what started that landslide means having two and a half more chapters to do what the first beginning must do in a few paragraphs.

But there’s an added factor of difficulty with stories that start in the middle of the third chapter. It is always easier to start small and build than it is to start large and build larger. If the action created in a stunningly effective in media res opening is followed with chapters filled with world-building, the initial momentum slows the first chance it can.

Stories that open with big, emotional stakes must build bigger, more emotional stakes from that point. But stories that start with a moment of change can provide the most opportunity for character growth to the story. Starting after the character has already made difficult choices robs the reader of experiencing the cost of making them firsthand.

But more importantly, it robs the reader of witnessing the first decision the character ever makes in which any outcome still has a cost. They never see who the character was before they already decided their path. The character growth possible in a story that starts in the middle of the action is already less than what it could have been had their whole story unfurled.

Once the story starts, telling the reader who the character once was is only exposition told through backstory.

tension does not mean what a lot of writers think

It’s another post where I mention Donald Maass, but this time, it’s about the one thing I think he got less than perfectly accurate. I’ve been to two of his workshops. In the workshop regarding Writing the Breakout Novel there were two things you had to walk out of the session knowing.

The first is, there should be no backstory for the first thirty pages. I agree 98% with this. To paraphrase Maass loosely, he said that reader doesn’t have to know about the character’s then to care about the character’s now in the now of the piece.

Those thirty pages are your book’s entrance. By the end of the third chapter, the world, stakes, character, and the character’s problems should be firmly established. There is no room in doing all of that to waste the word count needed to inform the reader of the why the character yet. They are who they are. Tragic past reveals can wait until the character has established who they have become because of it.

But, the 2% that doesn’t agree thinks that the author can hide any bit of backstory as long as it is attached to a sense. What a character smells, hears, tastes or sees (if they must) can remind them **BRIEFLY** of the same memory elsewhere in their history. I can’t even remember where I heard that.

It was his other piece of advice that I agree with in principle but not how he says it. He says there should be tension on every page. And he’s right. There should be. His suggestion of printing off the book, scrambling them so that the pages are non-sequential and then reading for a moment that matters is a great one.

My issue with the statement is about the “on the page.” Tension does not exist on the page. It exists in the reader as they put pieces of the story together in their head and realize the consequences of choices independent of the character’s understanding. Sometimes the realization is parallel to the character’s. Sometimes it can race ahead of what the character can’t grok yet. It can also lag behind what a character understands but isn’t ready to acknowledge yet.

But the word “tension” has the same problem “conflict” has. They mean different things IRL than in creative writing. Conflict isn’t arguments, it’s what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goals. Even a story where the only thing stopping the nicest character in the world from doing what they want is how it will be perceived can have as much conflict and tension in it as a Vin Diesel action vehicle.

It’s just a different kind of conflict and a different kind of tension. The reader knows what the character ought to do but they can still invest in the journey of a character who has to overcome who they have become as a person and tries to assert boundaries that must be respected in a healthy relationship.

No spaceship needs to explode to be a gripping story. The conflict is internally motivated by the character’s conflicting desires. The tension of watching a character struggle with the consequences of their choices while trying to change their expected outcome — for better or for worse — is felt inside the reader without a single space station imploding.

I realize that “there should be a moment on every page that impacts the reader as they put together for themselves how what is happening matters to the story” is a larger mouthful to say than “tension on every page.”

But if most underpublished writers’ working definition of tension only means the summer blockbuster kind, then only a fool would agree that a planet needs to stop existing on every page. It’s why teaching from the summit is so dangerous to learners. Experienced writers may know that conflict is what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goal and tension is how the reader feels about it, but their colloquial meanings are being taught in the MFA classrooms that produce the next generation of writing instructors.

If tension only means “the pacing of Sixth Sense or better” to a writer, they are not going to even try to have moments in their work where what is happening means more to the reader than the character experiencing it.

If tension is one thing, it’s that.

The King/Sawyer method of thematic management

In On Writing, Stephen King’s method of thematic relevance is to write the first draft as is and then find an organic theme, and pick out the threads of it in the rewrite. The Robert J. Sawyer method is to write to the specific purpose of setting the protagonist against a pre-determined thematic question.

A lot of writers will benefit from combining the two methods. I do. While writing Kakotopia(prime), the first draft of the piece had a theme for one of the two protagonists and their POV unfolded better than I could have possibly hoped.

The other protagonist existed to serve the first character on their thematic journey alone. The first character had been the kind of character that appears in the first chapter and then starts running the show. The second character had no character arc at all in the first draft.

I had to read through the second character’s story to find a hint of thematic relevance to pick out. When I found one that worked for the character and the structure of the story, I realized the work was going to need a near-total rewrite for thematic tension.

Kakotopia(prime) wasn’t a well balanced piece. The organic character written to a theme had taken over and the non-organic character only had about 30% of the story. I had to create the story beats that would bring their stories on par with each other.

For the first 60,000 words, I was able to keep the existing structure mostly in place. But by the time I crossed over the halfway point, the second half of the first draft stopped working. I could either try to perform a line-by-line complicated surgery to make what existed fit with what had to change, or I could cut 40,000 words and rewrite the ending that brings both the character plots and themes to a second, more organic for both characters’ conclusion.

I’ve cut 40k from work before and agonized over the decision for months. This was an easy snip. In fact, I had cut 40k, wrote 12k, realized the scenes could be told over a 2k bridge and cut another 10k in the same week.

King’s method isn’t easier than Sawyer’s. Going back and picking out a theme means being willing to murder actual darlings if required for the structure of the piece.

But for most writers, including myself, using Sawyer’s method of writing to a theme is still not effective enough for me to produce the level of writing I want. I work best when I use Sawyer’s method for my first draft and King’s method for the second draft/thematic tension rewrite.

It was never easy to write in a 2k story beat in the second character’s POV where no beat had existed before. To know the scene had to progress the plot meaningfully one way or the other without making significant plot changes to the overall story was difficult. But I seemed to always find something I still needed to establish in the second draft that hadn’t been established yet to fill that void with.

But it was still hard work. I had so much empathy for all the people I’ve edited work for. It’s easy — as an editor — to point out a story’s pacing is off. It’s terribly difficult — as a writer — the recognize that problem with the pacing is so severe that if changes aren’t made to it, the final work will suffer for it.

But it’s even more difficult as a writer to know exactly what changes would be required at the story level to rebalance the work so that it doesn’t feel like the tale of a protagonist and another character that just follows them around on occasion.

There were times I wanted to just pretend I didn’t see the need for any change at all. A 2k scene was an entire day’s work. I wasn’t going to get any rewriting done and it was going to add to the amount of hot copy in the third draft that was going to need careful line editing.

But if I wanted Kakotopia(prime) to be the best story I could make it so thee change had to be made. Writers who do not know how to manipulate a work’s structure to build a better reader’s experience do not know how to reach their work’s fullest potential.

some of the worst writing advice #2 — multiple POVs

I’ve already talked about the worst writing advice I know. But I’d like to talk about a close second, and that is attempting to write a multiple POV story without learning how to tell a story from a single character’s perspective first.

This is one of those pieces of advice that instructors really have to be careful where their learners are on their mountain. The ability to write a story in which one character goes on a significant journey that comes to an emotional payoff for the reader is difficult. The ability to create an intertwining story between multiple POVs in which each POV character has their own significant journey as well that can deliver an equally emotional payoff to the reader is even more difficult.

During my MFA, telling a learner that what the author was attempting to do in their work was difficult was akin to me telling the author that it was either impossible, something they shouldn’t attempt to tell, or both. In reality, I was encouraging them to continue by laying out common pitfalls of trying to tell bend that particular foundational structure.

Take the unlikeable protagonist, for example. The unlikeable protagonist first chapter has one duty, and that is to get the reader to empathize with the character despite not liking them. Dr. Gregory House is an asshole, but he’s an asshole who cares even if he doesn’t want to be. The show was constantly building and stealing from just how much the viewer had empathy for House’s plight and most of the later seasons, they couldn’t keep it balanced correctly to keep the a lot of viewers even wanting to watch.

The reader must at some point be given some reason as to why they should continue reading about a thoroughly unpleasant character with no demonstrated redeeming qualities. Donald Maass says it best when he says the wounded protagonist has to want to get better, even if making those choices to become better seems impossible at the beginning.

Even Canadian Literature throws the reader an occasional bone. (If you’re not Ann Marie MacDonald, that is.)

Pointing out the need to build a connection to the reader beyond the character’s unlikeableness isn’t telling the author they shouldn’t even try to do it. But that’s the danger in teaching there are no rules. No writer ever agreed with me that the reader needs a reason to at least want to follow this character on their journey. The writer intended to write what they wrote and not a single level deeper. To point out that there might be need for a deeper level to an unlikeable character was treated as an offensive suggestion both in class and in private communications with my instructors.

It was *beyond* frustrating to hear learners agree they didn’t have to learn how to write characters readers have a chance to care about. And yet it’s treated like common knowledge in and out of MFAs.

I remember each story that wrote an unlikeable character empathetically. They were beautifully written pieces about characters so locked in their trauma that their lack of ability to attempt to save themselves was one of the most significant aspects of the work.

So when I say that it is difficult to write as single meaningful journey in which a protagonist character is impacted by their experiences, it is not saying that trying to do so from two POVs is impossible.

I’m saying it’s even harder to do. It used to be common knowledge that the POV of the scene should usually be the character with the most to lose. In a single POV work, that’s obviously the protagonist in most situations. In a multiple POV work, that’s fanagling the events of the story in such away that the character with the most to lose in any given situation is almost always the POV character.

There will be scenes where witnessing events affecting another character can be extremely effective. But to have any impact at all, those have to happen only when it matters most that it does. Otherwise, it’s holding the protagonist (and the reader) at arm’s length from the cost of the scene.

But again, that’s the danger of teaching there are no rules as a valid pedagogy. That some writers could pull off having protagonists and narrators be two separate characters and yet the narrator still has an emotional connection with the events is extremely difficult. They are by their very nature observers to their own story by not being the protagonist.

They can only react to the events as they happen. When they do impact the storyline, it should matter.

But multiple POVs means balancing at least two different journeys in which the protagonists’ actions all impact the story. Balancing the dramatic tension between what the reader knows and what the current POV character understands is a very difficult when the writer doesn’t know how to manipulate tension in general.

A single POV needs the control panel of Riley when she was a child in Inside Out. Multiple — even if that means just two — POVs requires the control panel of the teenager-Riley to be. Instead of doing one story well, the writer has to balance to two stories equally well and do it well at the same time.

I read a post a while back about writing multiple POVs for beginner writers and it had the assumption going in that the writer would know how to tell a meaningful story through a single character’s journey. Because how a writer would then write that across multiple POVs assumes the writer has that knowledge to begin with.

And most underpublished writers do, in the hypothetical. It’s when they sit down and transcribe how those events occur in their work that the problem occurs. Rather than show the events that matter, the events that matter are discussed in passing while the characters complete mundane tasks for a large portion of the word count.

But it’s the smaller portion of the story where the characters act on the events of the world meaningfully that shows the writer’s promise as an artist. They just need to commit to practicing their storybuilding skillset deliberately so that most of their story moves the character to act, or not act meaningfully.