“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sink or Swim?
In a fresh chapter of a Dog Leader Mystery, the swimming is easy. But the underwater part still feels scary.
Writing fiction can morph into a dictation flow
The discipline of keeping a pen moving sounds simple, right? The story must move forward, which does not look difficult. That requires a strong mental focus not to be drawn into side stories. Because as I wrote my first novel, I learned the pitfalls of too much information, which in the end did not belong in my book, I created an outline major plot points. I also took an online class with Jordan Rosenfeld and learned how to build a Story Matrix. This matrix is a chart with columns for plot points, character arcs, and settings. These tools of plot outline and story matrix plus a monthly story calendar became essential to my sanity in the years of writing my first cozy mystery.
But before I wrote a novel, I needed to know the answer to one question.
What type of story was I telling?
I chose to write the traditional or cozy mystery because I wanted to tell uplifting stories set in a small northern California town. My main character grew from sketching details on her age, desires, family, friends, and mentors. My heroine, Nevada, loves animals and especially gifted with dogs. Her supporting characters developed to provide a young protagonist with credible adults some in the local police department, fire department, and local shops. The story world grew one character at a time.
As writers, our challenge is to learn what our characters want.
In the course of writing character-driven fiction, characters change. Change what they want and what they thought they wanted. I tracked not only my main characters’ actions, thoughts, and feelings but also to her fears. This lead to changes in my Story Matrix, plot outline, and events calendar.
My first book grew as I fleshed out the character of my protagonist. She had to have a reason for jumping in front of trucks and other such scenarios. Then I tested her resolve and bravery.
What if, her friends say no to her plans?
Will she go after what she wants anyway?
What counts with her when everything goes wrong?
Does she ever quit?
Who does she admire?
What does she fear?
What does she avoid?
What irritated or incensed her?
Action and dynamic reaction make readers turn pages
My characters surprising actions added more twists to the subplots. Why people do what they do can be frustrating or enthralling depending on how a storyteller reveals each puzzling act. I enjoyed the challenge of capturing all of human conflicting thoughts and actions in scenes and chapters. At times, I imagined I heard characters speak, gasp, or whisper. Dialogue reveals volumes about a character’s frame of mind, personal history, and his preferences.
I leaned in when a story character muttered.
My main character displayed her hopes and worries through posture, micro-movements of eyes, forehead, lips, and chin. Her exploits, often risky, piled on conflict and reactions. In spinning a story, I wrestled with a number puzzles. Bumped into my characters’ secrets. These unplanned plot twists became part of the story. I am an intuitive person and enjoy adventure, so this process raised my curiosity. The kind I feel reading a novel. I wanted to go deeper into the story.
Like watching an original movie play in my mind.
My critique partner said, “It’s such a movie in the mind.” So, when I heard that I felt grateful my story chapters rolled out an exciting experience for my reader. An adage goes, “No surprises for the writer. No surprises for the reader.” This rings true to my process.
As scenes and dialogue came easy or slowly depending on the day, I persisted. Revision brought fresh problems to solve. By becoming fascinated by each shift, the social dynamics began to work. Each one replied to another’s statements, questions, demands or silence. Each reaction defined their attitudes, secrets, and habits. Writing fiction can morph into a dictation like a process. Of course, I’ll never include all I know about my characters, Hemingway stated only a small percentage of his story ended up in his published work, the final version rolls out more precise and more complicated.
Action & dynamic reaction make readers turn pages
For every action, there must be a reaction. Which keeps dialogue and character movements from becoming a one-sided monologue. Boring. A talking head tends to be boring. Also when characters speak, we look for a reply or at least a silent tensing from the other figure in the scene. Even a held silence speaks volumes at the right moment. If we talk, we want an answer or affirmation of our idea, feeling, plan, etc. So I rarely leave a character speechless. Unless that’s what the character stays silent for a reason. How do I know? Characters have a tendency of growing and changing. In fact, a few of my characters have shown me they won’t bend to my original plan for them.
As a reader, I love finding complex “round characters.” I like learning what is at stake for them. When the characters change, when they are willing to fight for what they need or want, I am enthralled. Many a time, I felt alarmed at how quickly a story jumps into a struggle to turn the tables on an enemy or antagonistic force.
Looking back at this process it looks simple, yet the options can be dizzying. Writing a tightly plotted novel is a discipline, and I always knew what my final chapters had to deliver. Even if I had to revise my outline as my character grew.
Dog Leader Mysteries first novel to launch soon!
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