Donald Maass’s advice on characterization in the first scene of the story is still some of the best writing advice I’d ever heard. He says the heroic character has to do something ordinary, the everyman character has to do something heroic and the wounded protagonist has to want to be better, even if they couldn’t if they tried at the start of the story.
But it wasn’t until I read a story that our On Spec’s intern wrote that I realized it’s not about what the character does, it’s about the reader’s expectation. A character doesn’t have to do anything specific but they should act in a way that is unexpected, given the situation they’re in.
Unexpected moments rap the reader’s attention and hold it long enough to find out why that unexpected thing happened. And if they’re turning the page so find out, you have them as long as the momentum continues.
Moving your character out of their comfort zone as soon as possible, to me, makes better sense than Maass’ descriptive advice. When the character isn’t comfortable, POV tightens, suspicions grow and the emotion negatively influences not only what the character notices but how they perceive it. When they are comfortable, the reader is too.
I had a thousand-word gap I needed to fill to meet the structure the story established. I knew what had to happen, but I couldn’t see how it happened for the life of me. I spent two days trying to put shapes in the spot to fill it up, and none of them worked. It wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth at the end of the second day that I could see what scenes needed to play out to make what needs to be learned fit the story.
Divergent thinking is so important for writers to practice as much as any other story or world-building skill. Coming up with ideas that suit the story, tone and existing story is something I probably spend three hours doing for every hour I spend writing. On the days I’m writing, there’s a 50% chance anything I say is going to plot related. My wife knows the characters of the work I’m writing as though they were co-workers of mine and I’m discussing their trials and foibles behind their backs.
Outside of the slushpile, it is rare to find a story that has the ability to subvert the reader’s expectations and those stories are a rare find in a slushpile. My MFA took all the time in the world to help writers learn how to polish the prose they’d already written but they didn’t spend a moment trying to help it be what it could be.
I’ve always found the initial story to come to me in two parts. One part is the general concept. The second is how I can make that general concept unique. I’ve carried part ones of story ideas around for years before I found that second part that from the first page, moves the story in a different direction. Once I know that, stories tend to write themselves when I’m not staring at the wall trying to form ideas out of nothing.
Divergent thinking is a skill that needs to be practiced as much as polish and prose. It’s why I think originality is learned as much as any skill involved in writing and why writing boards are filled with newbie questions of how to write a sympathetic antagonist without ever having written a non-sympathetic antagonist. It’s asking how does a child run once they figure out this crawling business. There’s a whole other step to be learned.
But that’s writing. Writers who have yet to learn to crawl want to run. As the story-building skills increase, what they can capture inside of it grows as well. It does not matter how fifty people would have written a sympathetic antagonist. It only matters how the individual author will write theirs. The learning in skill acquisition is in the doing of the skill, not in the asking questions stage.
One lesson my MFA taught was that readers never need their expectations played with. If what happens is predictable or if nothing happens at all, it’s fine. It’s a death knell for stories in markets where the supply of great stories exceeds the demand.