Sunday, 28 July 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 2: Get the Characters’ Motivation Right

Welcome back! I had a creative consultancy assess my novel in progress, psychological thriller,  Unspeakable Things, and here I continue sharing the top tips that I found most useful. Editing and revising are hard, but vital, and we all need all the help we can get.

In my assessment, the consultant brought up the tricky issue of motivation. She wrote:
There is some dodgy or non-existent motivation. Sometimes the characters appear to do things because you need them to, rather than because they need to. The effect to aim at is the other way round: the characters are the emotional heart of the book and the plot grows out of their longings, virtues and shortcomings. Writing a plot and forcing the characters through it produces characters who aren’t psychologically coherent or believable. If the characters don’t feel believable, the reader can’t make emotional connection with them, and although Gothic has elements of stylised fantasy, it also runs on emotion.’

I wonder if your work in progress might suffer from this problem? The consultant went on to say, ‘You’ve written in a state of creative excitement, a stage common to many writers, where ends are not always joined up... some of the non-sequiturs haven’t yet become visible to you, despite rewriting. This is where another person’s beady eye on a work can really help’.

She then detailed some of the points in my novel where motivation wasn’t convincingly explained, which I won’t bore you with here. The problem was partly related to Tip 1 from my previous post: the characters were not adequately fleshed out and developed, so their motivation was left unclear or taken for granted. Other problems were more related to the plot, which needed adjusting to become more believable.
The consultant’s central point was crucial: if the characters and their motivation are not believable, the reader will not engage with the plot. In a way, the more outlandish the plot, the more we need to be led through it by well developed, consistent characters. In a thriller full of secrets, shocks, surprises and elements of Gothic horror, it is all the more necessary for us to experience the journey through the eyes of characters we believe in and relate to.

Reading this, I was reminded of one of my favourite films, The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M Night Shyamalan. The film has a plot that could leave the sceptical filmgoer scoffing and unconvinced: the boy in the film sees dead people, all around him, all the time. They don’t know they’re dead. A psychiatrist is trying to help him, but meanwhile the boy is constantly visited by terrifying and dangerous ghosts. Despite this potentially unconvincing premise, the film so convinced me that after I saw it I was unable to go to the toilet in the night, despite having drunk a bucket–sized drink in the cinema. My disbelief was so thoroughly suspended that I believed with all my heart that my hallway was thronging with dead people.

What I love about this film is the writing. It is thoroughly consistent and believable, because the characters are fully developed and their motivation is clear. At the beginning of the novel we see that the mother and son have been having a hard time. The mother is newly single and grieving for her own mother. Although she is loving and caring, the message she give her son is that she needs him to be doing well. She can’t cope with strange happenings or his reaction to them. She just needs him to be OK. The boy has taken this on board. Although he suffers appalling terrors, he knows he needs to appear to be OK in front of his mother. If this were not developed so well in the writing of the two characters, the filmgoer would just say, ‘But why doesn’t he just tell his Mum?’ The motivation would be unclear; the characters would not be believable, and the suspension of disbelief needed to go along with a horror plot like this would come crashing to the ground, and the movie with it.

M Night Shyamalan has said the film is about communication. Towards the end, the boy has received enough help and encouragement from the psychiatrist and even from some of the apparitions that he feels strong enough to tell his mother the truth. ‘I’m ready to communicate with you now,’ he says, sitting in the car with her, stopped in traffic by an accident. It seems an oddly stilted statement for a young boy to make to his mother; but this is no ordinary young boy. The character’s unusual sensitivity, maturity and level of empathy have been carefully established throughout the film, so that the phrase rings true. So does the fact that the boy has recognised a perfect opportunity to tell his mother his secret in a situation in which she will believe him. He tells her that the victim of the accident, a cyclist, has died, but the boy can see her; she is standing by their car window. With this truth out in the open, the boy is able to give his mother a message from her own mother that could only come from her.

I’m ready to communicate with you now. My message is this: get the characters’ motivation right, and your readers will believe almost anything you tell them. Good luck with your rewrite!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Top Tips for Revising your Novel No. 1: Flesh out your characters

I have spent the past year working on revising my novel in progress, Unspeakable Things, having had it assessed by a Creative Consultancy attached to Annette Green Author’s Agency. I paid for this service with a certain amount of trepidation since, if someone is making money out of you, you always have that niggling suspicion that they may be serving their interests rather than yours.
I now feel that going to a consultant was the best thing I could have done. What returned was a detailed, 18-page assessment that was like a mini-course in creative writing, but focused entirely on my novel. It was honest, impartial, clear, no-holds-barred and yet sensitively worded and always encouraging. When I sent the work out, it was like calling out from my writer’s closet, with very little idea as to whether my writing was going well or not. In the year since then, I have pored over every word of those 18 pages and worked to correct every flaw. I have come out of my closet to write this blog, which I even tell people about. In public!  Thanks to the assessment and the work of revision it has inspired, I have a new confidence in my novel. I can see that it is working better, and I know why.
Since I trawl other writer’s blogs in the hope of finding helpful tips on writing, I thought I would share the best tips I received. Although the assessment was directed specifically at my novel, the basic pointers in it are universal, and will be helpful to anyone embarking on a full-on revision. Let’s face it, at that vital stage of writing, we need all the help we can get!
Tip 1 Flesh out your characters. The consultant went through each character in turn, but beginning with my heroine, Sarah, commented, ‘As a character she needs more depth, more fleshing out... To some extent this is true of all the characters. They read as if you have given them just enough inner life to make the plot work, whereas memorable, fascinating characters give the impression of having a life outside the page.’
 I had converted the story of Unspeakable Things into a novel, having first written it as a screenplay, and had very much enjoyed writing what I thought of as the ‘interiors’ of the characters, which in a screenplay can only be suggested through dialogue or stage directions. Now I saw that I had not created these interior lives fully enough. I needed to think through every aspect of my characters’ pasts, motivation and relationships so that their responses to the events of the story would make perfect, believable sense. The reader needed to feel, when a character behaved in a certain way, that yes, that is exactly how they would respond, for many valid and credible reasons.
I began a dossier on each character and worked on each of their backstories. I developed their working lives, gave them relevant and telling childhood memories, quirks of speech to differentiate them from other characters, preoccupations going round in their heads as they woke up in the mornings or went about everyday tasks. The dossiers began as a mass of notes made from brainstorming sessions, but were sifted, developed, honed down and refined into useful documents defining each character, which could be consulted as he or she appeared in each stage of the plot.
My consultant pointed out that screenwriters are advised to ‘always know what your characters are doing when they’re not onscreen.’ As I worked on the fleshing out of my characters, I began to have this sense of a relationship with them, of an imagined life for them beyond the confines of the text, so that I could work out at any given point in the story how they would react. The characters took on life. Forgive my upstart cheek in including a picture here of Dickens with his characters...

 I now enjoy their company. I worry that I will miss them when the novel is finished. (Ha! Like that’s ever going to happen.) Working out their every influence and reaction, their thought life and the legacy of their past, has made me feel that I know them the way I know real people. I know that Sarah has always fussed over how her cutlery drawer is organised; that David would scoff at his sister’s relaxation tapes and make jokes about ‘whale noise’; that Deb longs to be with people who knew her before she had a child; that Kim grows her own herbs and watches rubbish on TV when she is tired; that Mary is profoundly affected by having her hair done; that Jim bristles at the suggestion that he might put up a satellite dish; that John Briers touches his receptionist’s palm as she hands him the post and is gratified by her disquiet, but wants to slap away her look of revulsion.
Knowing all this, and more, I could work out how each character would react when under intense stress, or during a calamitous crisis. I could imagine Deb furious, Sarah fighting for her life, John having sickening nightmares, Mary losing the will to live, Kim trying to assess her own brain injury; David crashing out of the house in outrage; Joe sweating through his pyjamas in terror.

Beware, being too thorough in your character development, however. Fleshing out your characters can make them so real to you that it affects your decisions over their fate in the story. When I had finished developing one character , I liked her so much that I was no longer sure I could bear to have her come to the end I had originally intended. She was meant to die horribly, but I didn’t want to kill her, in fact, I wanted to meet her for coffee. Did I stick to my guns? You’ll have to wait and see...