So you’ve decided to adopt multiple protagonists — or, I am NOT a camera

I’ve been delighted by all the discussion both the passive protagonist and Point-of-View Nazi posts have generated. I had already planned to address the perils of juggling multiple protagonists in response to a question from reader a few weeks back (I hadn’t forgotten you, Cerredwyn!) and as a segue out of the passive/active protagonist tug-of-war, but it’s come up so much over the last week that I feel that we are already in it. Turns out that more of you are apparently working with multiple protagonists than I had anticipated.

For those of you new to the term, multiple protagonists is more or less what it says on the box: instead of following one character, the narrative follows several, through either several distinctive first person voices, each giving her own perspective (à la THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), or through tight third person narration that sticks to the perspective of a chosen character for a particular period of the book, then switches.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator is the focus of perspective upon a single character, rather than the masses. When the reader is seeing through Character A’s lenses, he is privy to only the sensations, thoughts, insights, etc. of Character A. This is true even if the following chapter is going to be entirely from the point of view of Character B — and Character B is in the Character A scene.

In other words, taken individually, a POVN would theoretically be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective.

I say theoretically, because all too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective rules are maintained. In many manuscripts, Character B’s perspective will bleed into Character A’s scene, or Character A into Character B’s, as though the author has temporarily lost track of whose turn it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, professional readers tend to have a very good eye for such perspective slips, rendering multiple protagonists a brave narrative choice: it’s genuinely difficult to pull off, especially in a present-tense narrative. Once the narrative rules are set in a manuscript, even non-POVN readers will expect the author to honor them.

We’ll talk a bit later about strategies for pulling off this delicate trick well, but for now, let’s stick to the conceptual lever: why attempt a dive from such a high board?

Well, as people have been pointing out in comments for the past few days, contrary to what the POVNs will tell you, there are plenty of stories that cannot be told plausibly from a single perspective. This is particularly true in first-person narratives, where a lone protagonist may not be physically present for (or emotionally open to) all of the important scenes. Following two or more characters can allow the reader to see all of the important action from a point of view that allows for close observation of the chosen character’s emotional and physical response.

For clarification of the difference it can make, please see yesterday’s excerpt from Aunt Jane.

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages. Switching worldview automatically gives a narrative more texture, if done well, and ideally, the ability to switch allows the reader to follow the most active character during any given scene.

Interestingly, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as the criterion for perspective choice on the scene level. Indeed, I have seen many manuscripts where the author has taken quite the opposite path, following the character who is just sitting around and watching the others emote.

The effect is rather like watching a wedding video where the camera was passed around from guest to guest: the cameraman of the moment may in fact be a fascinating person, but while he is holding that camera, what we see are the other guests’ antics; the cameraman’s perspective is evident primarily through where he chooses to focus the lens at any given moment.

What other criteria might be used, you ask? Often, simple rotation: once a Chapter 1, Character A/Chapter 2, Character B rhythm is established, many writers seem to be reluctant to mess with the rotation. But from a storytelling perspective, sometimes it makes more sense to mix the order up more.

So if you are a multiple protagonist buff, and favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, do me a favor: go back to that list where you noted the scenes in which your protagonist is currently passive. Read through each of those scenes and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view?

The more common criterion, though, appears to be a belief that scenes are better observed by those who are NOT the primary actor in them. I’ve met plenty of writers who argue that such scenes are inherently more objective.

Again, I think this is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form, I think, is its unparalleled ability to get inside characters’ heads: I can think of plotting or characterization reasons to forego that opportunity every once in a while, but as a general rule?

Are you trotting back to that scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool later on.) As you look through the scenes where the protagonist is passive, ask yourself: is he acting like a camera here, an observing machine? If so, what is the narrative gaining by his remaining somewhat aloof? What could be gained in terms of plot complexity, insight, and/or character development if the perspective moved closer to the action?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit subtler — and often under-exploited by writers. Having access to different characters’ minds allows individual variation in rhythm, thought pattern, and observation to mark the text distinctively, permitting more latitude of worldview and sensation than is possible with a single focus. On the page, this means that the different sections can read differently, in almost as extreme a way as if Character A and Character B were telling their stories in the first person.

My, that was a very technical description, wasn’t it? Mind if I translate that into practical terms?

Everyone has an individual way of observing the world, responding to it, and moving within it, right? A great actor playing identical twins would not play them identically, after all; that would be boring. (If you’ve never seen Jeremy Irons’ brilliant double turn in DEAD RINGERS, you’re missing out. You’re also missing out on quite a bit of gore, admittedly, but I think it’s one of the great performances on film.) So naturally, a chapter (or scene, or paragraph) told from Character A’s perspective would differ from one told from Character B’s, right?

(Yes, that’s a tall order. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about ways to make the perspectives that distinct. Humor me for the moment; here comes the cool part.)

Once a truly gifted writer has established the various mindsets, tastes, areas of overreaction, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind, the perspective switches become obvious. Viewing the world through the various character’s eyes (and minds, and bodies) starts to feel very familiar, natural, the way that you can predict that your mother’s probable reaction to receiving a big bunch of roses would be different than your sister’s.

Admittedly, it’s hard to do. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical.

From that peak of enthusiasm, let me leap to another: broadening the sensual range of the piece. Or, to put it another way, you wouldn’t expect a Brownie to perceive a particular scene in exactly the same way as a professional fire-eater would, would you? (Assuming, of course, that the Brownie in question ISN’T a professional fire-eater.)

This advantage is a corollary of the last, really — since different people experience the world so differently, broadening the focus of a novel onto the sensations of several people automatically allows for the introduction of distinct sets of sensations. If Character A is a prude, there would be a great deal of room to contrast his perceptions of sex with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

The mind positively reels with the possibilities, doesn’t it?

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in sex scenes. (Although that does just leap to mind as one of the human events inherently experienced differently by the various participants in the same act.) Some people have more acute hearing than others; some noses’ perceptual abilities put others to shame.

And so forth. Have some fun with it.

I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations: pick scenes from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

All done? Now pick up the first and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene, doesn’t it?

Move on to the next protagonist, but this time, make the protagonist color-blind. Or unable to distinguish sweet from sour. Or chronically cold, or seeing through filthy eyeglasses, or…

Well, you get my point. Multiple protagonists mean multiplied opportunities for wowing the reader with your ability to convey action, environment, and characterization.

See now why a multiple protagonist narrative is hard to do well? But well worth it. Tomorrow, I shall go into some more specific advice about how to do it beautifully.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular

Yesterday, I re-introduced the Point-of-View Nazi, that fine ilk of professional reader who positively insists that the ONLY way to conduct a third-person narrative is to focus upon a single protagonist for the entire duration of the book. Since — as insightful new reader Betsy commented on yesterday’s post — tight third-person is so very in at the moment, the POVN is always eager to tell aspiring writers that their work is going down in flames if they take the smallest step toward omniscience or multiple protagonists.

To sum up my feeling on the subject as expressed in my last post: piffle.

I’m eager to move through a few more craft topics before we move on to the Month of Marketing that will be June, but I can’t resist spending another day on the POVNs: they are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I want to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do. So if my long-time readers will forgive me, I’m going to take another look at what a difference taking their advice can make.

This may seem like an odd thing for a professional writing advice-giver to say, but I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea to take ANYONE else’s opinion on your book as gospel. Even mine; one of the reasons I go on at such length about the rationale behind industry norms and stylistic tips is so you have enough information to make up your own minds about your writing choices.

I was notorious for this attitude back when I was teaching at the university, incidentally. Professors would come fuming (or laughing) into the faculty lounge, exclaiming, “I’ve got another of your old students, Anne! She’s questioning EVERYTHING I say.”

“Good,” I would say. “You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?”

I gather that some would, the POVNs among them.

Philosophically, I find POVNs’ idea that there are only two ways to tell a story — the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist — troubling, and not especially conducive to the production of good art. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance.

Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work.

If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I shall happily eat my hat. Either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. Almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

But that’s just my opinion. Read a bunch of good novels and make up your own mind.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is typically someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.)

Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry… (Elizabeth’s POV)

…but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. (the POV of an external observer)

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her… (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.

Legitimately, that is all that she could keep, if she were going to please the POVNs completely. Comparatively terse, isn’t it?

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost, as well as some long-term plot clues. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections.

Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE. And since PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a quote from another novel (Fanny Burney’s excellent-but-dark 1782 novel CECILIA), I’m inclined to think that Aunt Jane would have disliked that result.

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while.

You may well find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

Now that our collective loins are girded for possible knee-jerk objections to multiple perspective narratives, I feel I can move on to the topic of juggling them with a clear conscience. Tune in tomorrow, and keep up the good work!

The Point-of-View Nazis return, bigger and badder than ever

I was thinking about all of you at a film festival earlier today, during a short film showcase. (Yes, it was kind of arty film fest where one sees experimental shorts. I like to keep up with a wide variety of artistic expression.) In a documentary called Absolute Zero, a man freezes to death in what he believes to be a refrigerated (it isn’t) railway car. Trapped, with no prospect of escape, he documented his sensations while yielding to apparently psychosomatic hypothermia by writing on the car’s walls at periodic intervals. After it finished, I leaned over to my date and whispered, “Now THAT’s an active protagonist!”

See? It can be done.

Actually, I’m posting significantly later tonight than usual, because I found I was too disturbed in the wake of one of the evening’s full-length films to be either funny or objective before the dead of night arrived. The culprit: quite the creepiest film about stalking EVER, a little flick called For Love and Stacie. Not my usual fare (or even my preferred narrative style), but cleverly done and very thought-provoking.

Let’s just say that the protagonist was very active indeed, and leave it at that.

I had planned to launch into the burning issue of juggling multiple protagonists today, but all of the control issues of that film must have seeped into my consciousness: I had written only a few paragraphs before I noticed that I had already used the term “Point-of-View Nazi” in passing twice. Rather than making those of you new to this site guess what this means, I thought I might go the wacky route of spending today’s post defining it, and THEN use it in later discussion.

Hey, if you’d seen these films, you would need a little distraction, too.

So who is the Point-of-View Nazi, and how can he harm those of you who favor, say, the use of multiple protagonists?

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — most often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her (usually his) thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

In other words, the POVN is the Millicent who automatically throws up her hands over multiple protagonist narration REGARDLESS OF HOW WELL IT IS DONE. And while this ilk of screener has been less prominent in recent years than formerly, those of you who play interesting experiments with narrative voice definitely need to know of her existence.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with tight third person narration focused upon a single character, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN positively mad with rage.

Okay, not I’m-gonna-cause-some-mayhem mad, but certainly I’m-gonna-reject-this-manuscript mad.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you how to write your book. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed, please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing.

It should be stamped out, he feels — by statute, if necessary. And definitely by rejection letter.

So much for most of the fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good professional reader who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems.

Think about it: if a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

No matter what perspective you have chosen for your book, it would behoove you to give it a once-over, checking for this species of slip; it drives those of us who read manuscripts for a living batty.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it.

They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22!

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a legitimate stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. My primary criteria for judging voice is whether a writer’s individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting a manuscript outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

Again, call me zany.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant.

(Fortunately, and probably not entirely coincidentally, she already had an agent when she wrote it, so she did not have to subject that stylistic choice to the vagaries of Millicent and her ilk.)

I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forefend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen. Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. (And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated thinkers rather than doers. The kind of people who might, say, have the time and resources to go through a low-residency MFA program. Astonishing coincidence, eh? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the POVN’s teachers were also the ones who kept barking, “Write what you know!” could it?)

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are EXACTLY as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization (if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context).

The result is a whole lot of submissions that just beg the question, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Tomorrow, I shall, I suspect, take issue with this, after the effects of that disturbing film (which was, I now realize, very much a single-perspective view) have won off a little. Be safe, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity IV: HELP! I’m tied to a train track!

I’ve been thrilled to see the response to this series on protagonist passivity, my friends: even if you are not a habitual reader of comments, you might want to check out the subsequent discussions on the passivity posts; they’ve been very interesting, prompting me to get more and more specific in my advice. For example, charming new reader Ashleigh wrote in over the weekend with some great follow-up questions, ones that really got me thinking. Quoth Ashleigh:

You encouraged us to go through our manuscripts and mark places where the protagonist is not the primary actor and where she is merely observing. What about those instances when a character is reacting to an external stimulus? Does that make her the secondary actor rather than the primary actor? Can a protagonist be passive because they are too reactive and not proactive enough?

Doesn’t that get right to the core of the matter? Before I realized it, I had written four pages (standard format) in response. Then I thought: hey, shouldn’t I be sharing this with the rest of the class? Shouldn’t I, in fact, extend it into an entire post?

So the topic for today is how active is active enough, when the perspective is focused upon a particular character?

In any story, the protagonist is going to be acted upon by external sources. Certain matters are beyond the control of even the most active protagonist. A tree falling upon her house, for instance, or a boss’ annoying whims. Her boyfriend’s being gay. Civil rioting. Not winning the quilting prize at the county fair. Death. That sort of thing.

In each of these cases, it would be unreasonable to expect the protagonist to be the generator (or generatrix, in this case) of the action of the scene. Gravity made that tree fall, after all, coupled perhaps with a little root rot.

Obviously, the protagonist is going to respond to these external stimuli. A passive protagonist will respond primarily, from the reader’s point of view, with descriptive information about the effects of the catastrophe du jour. (“My God! Why did that tree have to fall on Aunt Eugenia’s tea service!”) Often, this takes the form of self-recrimination (“Why oh why did I not listen to that handsome arborist?”) or resentment against the cause of the problem (“Daddy never got around to retrofitting the house. Mama always told him the roof would cave in someday!”)

As informative and entertaining as such responses frequently are, they don’t actually change the situation at hand, do they? And that should be your rule of thumb when deciding whether a protagonist’s response to external stimulus is too passive: is anything within the situation DIFFERENT as a result of the protagonist’s response?

For instance, if protagonist Angela is living through an earthquake, she is not what is making the ground shake: unless she possesses some godlike powers, she is being acted upon by the ground. But the writer can choose to have her just crouch under a table, riding it out (a good plan in real life) or show her doing something in response (saving a puppy from falling glass, perhaps.)

In neither instance is Angela the cause of the primary event of the scene, but the first case, she is passive; in the second, she is not.

That was an easy instance; it becomes more complicated when other, more action-generating people are involved. This time, let’s have Angela be acted-upon by another human being: she’s waiting in line at the bank when a robber walks in and threatens everybody.

Again, in real life, Angela would probably be best served by being passive — she might well choose to down on the floor as requested, waiting all a-tremble for the robber to get the money and go. On the other hand, she would be most active if she jumped up, wrestled the gunman to the floor, and once again snatched a puppy from the jaws of imminent harm.

But realistically, Angela could still be active in her response, even without heroics. She could, for instance, surreptitiously work her coat over that puppy while she is lying on the floor, ostensibly following the robber’s directions, or whisper encouragement to the hysterical old man lying next to her who might be shot if he keeps whimpering.

In both these cases, although an outside observer might consider Angela passive, the reader knows better: she is struggling against her fate in small, believable manners. And that makes her the primary actor in the scene, if the narrative perspective remains focused upon her.

Which is, I suppose, a long-winded way of saying that Ashleigh’s last question went right to the heart of the matter. The protagonist does not need to cause the action in a given scene to be an actor in it, for our passivity-analysis purposes — she merely has to ACT. Necessarily, she’s not always going to be the primary actor, but she can always do or say something, however tiny, in response to what is going on, to keep herself in the game.

I’m not saying it’s always going to be easy to discover how to demonstrate this on the page, particularly for shy characters. The greater the external stimulus, the more difficult it is to find that spark of autonomy: when people feel helpless, “How can I alter this situation in an indirect manner?” is not usually the first question that leaps to their minds.

But the attempt to change the situation — not necessarily the success of that attempt — honestly does make a great difference from the reader’s perspective. On the page, whether a murder victim scratches her attacker or freezes in fear — both completely understandable reactions, right? — can be the line between an active protagonist and a passive one.

Although I applaud any author brave enough to write from the perspective of someone on the bottom end of that extreme a power differential, victims in fiction are all too commonly, well, victims. Personally, I think it is far sadder when a vibrant, complex individual character’s life is destroyed than a passive one’s; I like to see characters living fully until they go phut.

Even if this means going away somewhere else in thought, because there is no other course of action available. Let’s say that Angela is now tied up on a railroad track, poor girl, à la The Perils of Pauline. Clearly, there’s not a lot of physical action she can take in this instance, or even verbal action: trains make a lot of noise, after all.

So whatever can she do? She could just lie there and scream, waiting for someone to rescue her, of course, while the villain twirls his moustache in glee: passive. Or she could, in the face of imminent death, project herself into a fantasy of ascending the peak of Mt. Everest, seeking cool while the locomotive’s hot breath is bearing down upon her: active.

Tell me, which would you rather read?

When your protagonist is acted-upon, concentrate upon finding that instant of autonomy, rather than trying to force the protagonist to take control of a scene that would realistically be beyond her control. Figure out where a miniscule change is possible, or where an attempt to fight back would be plausible.

Do I hear some snickering out there? “Right,” I hear some of you gigglers say. “Tell me, Anne, how is that protagonist going to find autonomy against the reality of that falling tree?”

A whole bunch of ways, O snickerers. She could get out of its way, for instance, or snatch that ubiquitous puppy away from its far-reaching branches just in the nick of time. She could drag everyone within dragging distance into the wine cellar, anticipating the end of the world. Or she could try to run into the house to save Aunt Eugenia’s tea service — even if she’s stopped by that handsome arborist or a concerned neighbor, her attempt to do SOMETHING to save the situation is going to give her power in the scene.

So there.

If you can find the time, a great exercise for developing a sense of active response is to write a scene where a protagonist is listening to a non-stop talker, a situation where it would require actual rudeness to get in a word edgewise. How can the protagonist control or alter the interaction, if only for a second at a time?

Okay, how can she do it without picturing herself on the peak of Mt. Everest?

There are no easy answers here, my friends, only meaty challenges to your creativity. I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity IV: HELP! I’m tied to a train track!

I’ve been thrilled to see the response to this series on protagonist passivity, my friends: even if you are not a habitual reader of comments, you might want to check out the subsequent discussions on the passivity posts; they’ve been very interesting, prompting me to get more and more specific in my advice. For example, charming new reader Ashleigh wrote in over the weekend with some great follow-up questions, ones that really got me thinking. Quoth Ashleigh:

You encouraged us to go through our manuscripts and mark places where the protagonist is not the primary actor and where she is merely observing. What about those instances when a character is reacting to an external stimulus? Does that make her the secondary actor rather than the primary actor? Can a protagonist be passive because they are too reactive and not proactive enough?

Doesn’t that get right to the core of the matter? Before I realized it, I had written four pages (standard format) in response. Then I thought: hey, shouldn’t I be sharing this with the rest of the class? Shouldn’t I, in fact, extend it into an entire post?

So the topic for today is how active is active enough, when the perspective is focused upon a particular character?

In any story, the protagonist is going to be acted upon by external sources. Certain matters are beyond the control of even the most active protagonist. A tree falling upon her house, for instance, or a boss’ annoying whims. Her boyfriend’s being gay. Civil rioting. Not winning the quilting prize at the county fair. Death. That sort of thing.

In each of these cases, it would be unreasonable to expect the protagonist to be the generator (or generatrix, in this case) of the action of the scene. Gravity made that tree fall, after all, coupled perhaps with a little root rot.

Obviously, the protagonist is going to respond to these external stimuli. A passive protagonist will respond primarily, from the reader’s point of view, with descriptive information about the effects of the catastrophe du jour. (“My God! Why did that tree have to fall on Aunt Eugenia’s tea service!”) Often, this takes the form of self-recrimination (“Why oh why did I not listen to that handsome arborist?”) or resentment against the cause of the problem (“Daddy never got around to retrofitting the house. Mama always told him the roof would cave in someday!”)

As informative and entertaining as such responses frequently are, they don’t actually change the situation at hand, do they? And that should be your rule of thumb when deciding whether a protagonist’s response to external stimulus is too passive: is anything within the situation DIFFERENT as a result of the protagonist’s response?

For instance, if protagonist Angela is living through an earthquake, she is not what is making the ground shake: unless she possesses some godlike powers, she is being acted upon by the ground. But the writer can choose to have her just crouch under a table, riding it out (a good plan in real life) or show her doing something in response (saving a puppy from falling glass, perhaps.)

In neither instance is Angela the cause of the primary event of the scene, but the first case, she is passive; in the second, she is not.

That was an easy instance; it becomes more complicated when other, more action-generating people are involved. This time, let’s have Angela be acted-upon by another human being: she’s waiting in line at the bank when a robber walks in and threatens everybody.

Again, in real life, Angela would probably be best served by being passive — she might well choose to down on the floor as requested, waiting all a-tremble for the robber to get the money and go. On the other hand, she would be most active if she jumped up, wrestled the gunman to the floor, and once again snatched a puppy from the jaws of imminent harm.

But realistically, Angela could still be active in her response, even without heroics. She could, for instance, surreptitiously work her coat over that puppy while she is lying on the floor, ostensibly following the robber’s directions, or whisper encouragement to the hysterical old man lying next to her who might be shot if he keeps whimpering.

In both these cases, although an outside observer might consider Angela passive, the reader knows better: she is struggling against her fate in small, believable manners. And that makes her the primary actor in the scene, if the narrative perspective remains focused upon her.

Which is, I suppose, a long-winded way of saying that Ashleigh’s last question went right to the heart of the matter. The protagonist does not need to cause the action in a given scene to be an actor in it, for our passivity-analysis purposes — she merely has to ACT. Necessarily, she’s not always going to be the primary actor, but she can always do or say something, however tiny, in response to what is going on, to keep herself in the game.

I’m not saying it’s always going to be easy to discover how to demonstrate this on the page, particularly for shy characters. The greater the external stimulus, the more difficult it is to find that spark of autonomy: when people feel helpless, “How can I alter this situation in an indirect manner?” is not usually the first question that leaps to their minds.

But the attempt to change the situation — not necessarily the success of that attempt — honestly does make a great difference from the reader’s perspective. On the page, whether a murder victim scratches her attacker or freezes in fear — both completely understandable reactions, right? — can be the line between an active protagonist and a passive one.

Although I applaud any author brave enough to write from the perspective of someone on the bottom end of that extreme a power differential, victims in fiction are all too commonly, well, victims. Personally, I think it is far sadder when a vibrant, complex individual character’s life is destroyed than a passive one’s; I like to see characters living fully until they go phut.

Even if this means going away somewhere else in thought, because there is no other course of action available. Let’s say that Angela is now tied up on a railroad track, poor girl, à la The Perils of Pauline. Clearly, there’s not a lot of physical action she can take in this instance, or even verbal action: trains make a lot of noise, after all.

So whatever can she do? She could just lie there and scream, waiting for someone to rescue her, of course, while the villain twirls his moustache in glee: passive. Or she could, in the face of imminent death, project herself into a fantasy of ascending the peak of Mt. Everest, seeking cool while the locomotive’s hot breath is bearing down upon her: active.

Tell me, which would you rather read?

When your protagonist is acted-upon, concentrate upon finding that instant of autonomy, rather than trying to force the protagonist to take control of a scene that would realistically be beyond her control. Figure out where a miniscule change is possible, or where an attempt to fight back would be plausible.

Do I hear some snickering out there? “Right,” I hear some of you gigglers say. “Tell me, Anne, how is that protagonist going to find autonomy against the reality of that falling tree?”

A whole bunch of ways, O snickerers. She could get out of its way, for instance, or snatch that ubiquitous puppy away from its far-reaching branches just in the nick of time. She could drag everyone within dragging distance into the wine cellar, anticipating the end of the world. Or she could try to run into the house to save Aunt Eugenia’s tea service — even if she’s stopped by that handsome arborist or a concerned neighbor, her attempt to do SOMETHING to save the situation is going to give her power in the scene.

So there.

If you can find the time, a great exercise for developing a sense of active response is to write a scene where a protagonist is listening to a non-stop talker, a situation where it would require actual rudeness to get in a word edgewise. How can the protagonist control or alter the interaction, if only for a second at a time?

Okay, how can she do it without picturing herself on the peak of Mt. Everest?

There are no easy answers here, my friends, only meaty challenges to your creativity. I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity III: oh, what am I to DO?

Toward the end of my last post, I snuck in an aside about how writers often use passivity as a means of increasing their protagonists’ perceived likeability. Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we are often told that our characters are not likeable enough.

Translation: according to New Yorkers, this chick might not play in Peoria.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

(Did I just hear some jaws hitting the floor? Yes, Virginia, it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions PRIOR to making an offer on a novel. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free. THAT’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed at such a request before a contract was signed.)

Much of the time, the author responds to such requests by making the character MORE passive — a bad move. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a common writerly mistake to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one.

It’s understandable, of course: Passive Paul’s a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be rather polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. He’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part — and astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this!

Our Paul most emphatically did not cause the central problems of the plot — far from it. He’s usually the guy who tries to get everyone to calm down. Passive Paul has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.” He just doesn’t want to get INVOLVED, you know?

Oh, he SAYS he does, and certainly THINKS he does, but deep down, he’s a voyeur. All he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away. As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV.

Yes, plenty of people feel that way in real life, especially Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken. We all have our moments of adolescent yearning when we long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around us, in order to get us what we want.

But as appealing and universal as that fantasy may be, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. What tends to end up on the page is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or the situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from one’s life.

What does this look like on the page, you ask? Paul encounters a thorny problem. (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So he dons his proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, he’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting. Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred. Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.

Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me?

Yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time. But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years? Written by first-time novelists?

Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists. They see beautiful writing about inert characters more than you might think.

(Especially if they represent literary fiction; unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the literary community who proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction SHOULDN’T be about anything in particular. But literary fiction refers to the writing style, not the plotline: Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary current hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/Fantasy reader, after all.)

Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity: life happens to them, and they react to it. Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

“But wait!” I hear some of you shouting. “Now I’m so paranoid about Passive Paul and his lethargic brethren and sistern that I’m terrified that my book will be rejected every time my protagonist pauses for breath! I’m no longer sure what’s being nice and what’s being passive!”

Never fear, my friends. When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.

(1) Is it clear why these events are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s ABOUT Paul!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)

(8) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to the eye of someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on.

Or, to translate this into the language of the industry: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, this assumption may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, a rude and pushy Paul can start to seem rather refreshing.

Yes, these are a lot of questions to ask yourself about every questionable scene in the book — but kindly notice that I have considerately dumped this truckload of queries upon you immediately prior to a long holiday weekend, at least in the U.S. And if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sleepless summer nights ahead.

It’s a great alternative to counting sheep, after all: Passive Paul would never consider using his pondering time to such useful effect.

Keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity II: thinking…thinking…

Last time, I begin talking about the passive protagonist problem: when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it. As I intimated yesterday, passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers.

While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, there are at any given moment thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks that feature protagonists who do just that. Often for pages and chapters at a time.

So perhaps it’s understandable that screeners’ reactions to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from hot surfaces, after all.

“But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” I hear some of you asking, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?”

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to translate accurately. “I didn’t identify with the character” is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome, as well as, “I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book” and “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

That, and the ever-popular, “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book,” of course. However, since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, it’s often difficult to translate it exactly: I have seen it mean everything from, “The first paragraph bored me” to “I hate books about brunettes.”

You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of “writing problem,” too.

I wish they would be direct about their feelings about lackadaisical characters, because frankly, it is not a reaction that every reader would have. In fact, I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists.

There’s good reason for it, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. So we tend to think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people.

The average agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion.

From a writer’ point of view, too, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character. In the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist.

And that’s fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book.

Do be aware that from a reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is NOT automatically dramatic — and even thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading. In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic? Because during it, all of the protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota.

Here’s how it generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

1. The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (if, indeed, she does do anything about it at all).

2. If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters.

3. When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses.

4. At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action (see parenthetical disclaimer in #1).

5. Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

6. When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke DIRECTLY to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. But an inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally LESS likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

Again, real-life situations do not necessarily translate well to the page. While pitting virtuous and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page. Sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

One of our collectively favorite means of showing resentment, angst, or just plain helplessness is to have the protagonist THINK pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to agents’ hearts), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

It’s well worth running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, or only in thought.

If it’s the latter, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand?

Also, keep your eye out for situations that might allow your protagonist to take a stand, even on matters not related to the central problems of the piece. Resistance is a form of control, after all, and even the most penned-in person can alter tiny things in her environment.

Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment, for instance? A roomful of menopausal co-workers responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes is inherently quite a bit more dramatic than our heroine and her cronies typing away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them, isn’t it?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. Please bear in mind that before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re editing, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends, but we can usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work.

The plague of passivity

Before I get started on today’s self-editing extravaganza, my friends, let’s all hear it for new reader Kerry, who very generously posted a comment over the weekend about how to deal with that pesky Autoformat feature in Word that insists upon changing all of our standard format-mandated doubled dashes into emdashes, those long, word-to-word lines that we writers know better than to include in our manuscripts. Quoth Kerry:

On the Mac, you go to Tools, then Autocorrect…, then AutoFormat As You Type. You can then uncheck the “Symbol characters…” under “Replace as you type.”

You can do it on the PC, too, but it’s not in exactly the same place. On the PC (I’m using Word 2002), here’s what you do: Go to Tools, AutoCorrect Options…, AutoFormat As You Type, and unclick “Hyphens (–) with dash (emdash).”

Doesn’t the very notion of NOT having to swear under your breath while watching your computer undo your hard work lighten your spirits and make your little toes begin to tap? It certainly does mine. Thanks, Kerry!

After the sentence-level self-editing tips of the last week or so, the kind that had your eyeballs glued to your manuscripts, I thought it might be something of a relief to sit back for some conceptual editing. Today, I want to talk about editing to make your characters more active, both to improve your manuscript’s pacing and to make your protagonist more likeable.

We’ve all read books starring the passive protagonist, right? He’s the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist as the plot put-puts along, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

Let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another manuscript. Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.

So tell me: how are they usually going to treat to a submission whose first chapter features a passive protagonist? Or whose first five pages does?

Starting to sense an overall pattern here? Folks in the biz see positive oceans of submissions with problems, so the more common a manuscript problem is, the more likely they are to have a knee-jerk response to it.

How knee-jerk, you ask? A very famous agent told me a few years ago that he automatically stops reading a submission the moment the protagonist sits down in a car or begins to drink coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage in the company of another character. At that point, he says, the action almost invariably is put on hold.

Translation: a protagonist does not need to be passive for very long to be diagnosed as such. (Or even particularly passive.)

Over and above notoriously low thresholds of agent boredom, this phenomenon presents a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative. It’s hard for a reader to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.

It’s no accident that early screenwriter Elinor Glyn advised those who would create screenplays never to allow their heroes to feel sorry for themselves for more than a minute on film.

She meant a literal minute, by the way, not a figurative one, but her advice easily translates into a page for our purposes here. If there’s an ongoing plot problem — and there should be more or less constantly throughout a story, to keep the pacing tight — audience members and readers alike prefer to see the protagonist DOING something about it. Even if that something is completely misguided.

Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it is completely misguided; poor life choices for a character are often great fun for the reader, right? One of the quickest ways to add complexity to a two-dimensional character is to have her act out of character at some point early in the book.

To be fair, the vast majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a static character). In most manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.

Unfortunately, they often do so during those interview scenes I was discussing a few weeks back. You know the ones: our guy Jerry is on the trail of a secret that could bring down City Hall while his brother, Arnold, is sitting on death row, accused of a murder he didn’t commit that was — mirabile dictu! — actually committed by someone at the bottom of THAT VERY SECRET. Jerry has been rushing all over town, dodging bullets, in order to seek out answers, yet anytime he bumps into someone who might be able to shed light on the matter, he just sits there while the source spills his proverbial guts.

Even, amazingly, when the source has just spent the last 50 years in excruciating emotional pain, keeping that particular portion of his guts inside. Go figure.

Frequently, Jerry doesn’t even have to ask a single question beyond, “What do you know about it, old timer?” to provoke this innard exposure. (Passive protagonists’ skin apparently secretes some sort of truth serum.)

As I mentioned before, TV and movies have inured most of us to this kind of spontaneous truth-telling; it has seeped into our collective consciousness to the point that it seems almost normal.

Why, just last night, I was tapping away on my computer while my SO Rick was watching the season finale of one of the five million LAW & ORDER franchises. By the time I had finished my post and sat down next to him, there were only ten minutes left. A harried-looking woman was on the witness stand, being grilled about a long-ago rape. Apparently, she’d kept the identity of her rapist a secret for the past 26 years.

I got up to fix myself a sandwich.

“How can you leave at such an exciting point?” Rick asked.

I yawned. “Because she’s about to blurt out that she was raped by her father. Are you hungry?”

THAT’s how common this kind of interview scene has become: the instant we in the audience learn that a character is hoarding a great big secret, we EXPECT the whole truth to pop out of her mouth within minutes.

So hard, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that.

You can see your assignment coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s not going to be as bad as you think.

Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it.

Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.

After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother?

Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?

Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing, whether this scene is actually essential to the book. If not, could you cut it?

I know, I know: some of my favorite scenes are quiet, too. But it’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development. And when a scene adds to neither, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the nitty-gritty of ferreting out protagonist passivity. In the meantime, enjoy shutting off that annoying Autoformat feature, and keep up the good work!

And? And?

Hey, great news, everybody: reader Jeff Jacobson has written in to say that he has landed an agent! A good one, too: Steve Laube of the Steve Laube Agency.

Congratulations, Jeff! May your writing career continue to prosper – and may I continue to have such wonderful news to report about my readers early and often.

So keep your chins up, everyone – it CAN be done.

Yesterday, I urged you to scan your submission pages (in particular, the first five) for over-use of the words and, but, and then; in fact, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

What was I thinking, you ask, to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Well, quick-reading agency screeners and contest judge are routinely ordered to subtract points for grammatical errors – and that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence, is always high on their penalty list. As is word repetition.

So take up your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the frequency of and.

If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed two major patterns of usage: in lists and in the HUGELY popular X happened and then Y happened structure. See if you can spot ‘em here:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

Although these types of repetition may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they come across as structurally redundant on the page. Let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic – they lull the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed. Why? Because the eye automatically jumps between repeated words on a page. The result: submission pages that are read far, far more quickly than any of us might wish.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure, but while you are editing, it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. As in:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons.

It’s a subtle problem, but did you spot it? To eyes trained to catch redundancy, even this minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge. Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, this kind of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars; unless one is looking for it, it’s easy to overlook.

Thus the highlighting pens.

The other common and structure, X happened and Y happened, is a very frequent stylistic choice for relatively new writers. It’s appealing, as I mentioned yesterday, because like beginning sentences with and, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow.

You’re already cringing, aren’t you, in anticipation for the conclusion that so often follows upon a declaration that a writing device is pervasive?

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third usage of this kind of sentence within half a page.

While you are self-editing, then, it’s a dandy idea to rework any sentence in which and appears more than once. Chances are high that it’s a run-on:

In avoiding the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect. If you choose to do this, strategically speaking, you should avoid using it ANYWHERE else in the text except in these arpeggios of evocative lists.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, which are technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a super-quick agency screener to tell the difference? Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies writing habit.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, the manuscript is going to get rejected, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of being ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best.

At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of –gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

As with the use of then, it pays to be extremely selective. Sometimes the repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events.

This is not always a fair assessment, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: do I really need to tell the reader this? Or is there a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? (X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics, I have noticed.)

Which leads me to the opposite possibility, and a more conceptual editing question: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly?

Is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK TO THIS LATER?

Almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry? When the point is just to get lines down on a page – or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a great strategy – as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

The results for the scene can be a bit grim when we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important. This leads to overloaded sentences where four or five genuinely exciting actions are all crammed together.

Which – you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not exactly the response you want from an agency screener, right?

When in doubt, revise. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole. Keep those highlighters handy — and keep up the good work!

And, but, then

I took the weekend off from posting, to try to catch up on all of those editing projects that I had to put on hold during my late bout of hospitality-induced influenza. If there’s one rule that governs freelance editing, it’s do not edit while feverish. It’s a good thing I did, as it reminded me that while I was lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts, I had yet to discuss those ever-popular inhabitants of Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

(Okay, so then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction; however, enough writers are now using it as it were – as in, Sophia kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children – that I feel justified including it here.)

Now, back in the bad old days, it was considered improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then. As my mad old Uncle Alec used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, by definition, a conjunction connects one part of a sentence to another. (There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors.) Toward the end of his life, he was even known to inform the TV screen of that salient fact when newscasters began their sentences with conjunctions.

But despite Uncle Alec’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time.

That mournful sound you just heard was Uncle Alec and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get me to cut it out, already.

Back to your celestial poker game, boys – it isn’t going to work. Conjunction-opened sentences frequently mirror actual speech better than other sentences, and conjunctions can be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph.

And, as anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences in this way gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

For this very reason, though, conjunctions can be problematic: aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck them in all over the place, apparently for flow.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents and editors tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the writing throughout the entire manuscript. Heck, many of them proceed on the assumption that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

This often-unwarranted assumption, in case you were interested, is how they justify dismissing submissions so very quickly: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, they reason, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

Strategically, it’s vital to realize that if you over-use a particular narrative tool in those early pages, they’re not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Yes, I know: it’s as unfair as unfair can be; many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. But as I believe I may have mentioned before, I run neither the industry nor the universe, and I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo, I’m going to talk about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

So whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

Print out your first 5 pages; if you want to be very thorough, print a random page from each subsequent chapter as well. Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and one for then, and start marking.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time they occur. Why? Well, these particular words tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or even per paragraph.

All finished marking? Good. Now go back and note every use of then in those open pages: could you revise those sentences to cut the word entirely?

Seems draconian, doesn’t it? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to this word that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text: in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described. For instance:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Is logically identical to:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Then, then, is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker, yet it is very widely used. To professional eyes, it’s redundant, if not a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events. In your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens.

Actually, a good self-editing rule of thumb is to omit temporal thens altogether UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. As in:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate – then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction! Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

Let’s turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. In each instance, is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words.

But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions. So much so that this device has become, you guessed it, a common editorial pet peeve.

Are you starting to get the impression that it doesn’t take much for a tendency to graduate to industry pet peeve? Actually, in real terms, it does take quite a bit of provocation: it just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

Admittedly, this IS a maddeningly nit-picky level of editing, but trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

While I would never urge you to swallow a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious words when simple words would do, varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew.

Don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: tomorrow, it’s on to the ands. In the meantime, keep up the good work!