Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a query-reader or pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within the first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the description makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, Millicent will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to describe a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener or bleary-eyed Millicent will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean entire. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, even the most patient agent may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place.

Yes, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but publishing is a business, after all.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: perspective choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the querying/pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is. Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

An unusually fabulous contest, even by Author! Author! standards

WHISPER_cover

Update as of September 13, 2010: I am sorry to report that Phoebe Kitanidis decided not to follow through on the award portion of this contest. She did participate in the judging; however, her feedback on the winning entries was not up to Author! Author! standards, and her next book deadlines was, she said, too tight for her to participate in the video feedback we had planned instead. My profound apologies to those of you who entered Category II: YA, as her feedback was slated to be its primary prize, as well as to all of the winners in both categories, whose prize entries’ posts were substantially delayed by these negotiations.

Other than removing the parts below that were obviously rendered untrue by subsequent events, I have left this post as I ran it originally back in April, 2010.

I’m taking a break in the midst of our ongoing series on juggling multiple protagonists to announce some joyful news about a long-time Friend of Author! Author! blog: FAAB Phoebe Kitanidis’ first YA novel, WHISPER came out from HarperCollins this week! WHISPER is now available in bookstores, Amazon US, Amazon Canada, and Amazon UK, as well as directly from the publisher. For those of you who prefer to purchase from independent booksellers, here’s WHISPER’s Powell’s page.

Congratulations, Phoebe! To get a sense of why I’m so very excited about this urban fantasy YA novel, take a peek at the browsable version at HarperTeen.

phoebekitanidisgray(3)Phoebe’s precisely the kind of hard-working career writer I love to see break the fearsome first novel barrier, one who has taken the time not only to hone her craft, but also gives back to the writing community. In addition to being my cohort in the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace — a free forum in which aspiring writers could try out their conference pitches on already-agented writers in a safe environment and receive constructive feedback — Phoebe’s recent posts on her blog, subplot, make some pretty fascinating reading for anyone who ever contemplates having a novel of her own coming out.

I wish more authors did this — how are aspiring writers supposed to learn how the publication process works unless authors are generous enough to give a peek behind the glamorous curtain? In a publishing environment where first-time authors are increasingly expected to be the primary promoters of their own books, that’s vital information. I really, really appreciate the rare authors like Phoebe who are willing to share their experiences.

WHISPER is also a testament to the value of a writer’s getting to know her target audience extremely well: Phoebe knows her ‘tweens, and it shows in her tangibly realistic prose. A contributor for six years to Discovery Girls Magazine, she is also the author of Fab Girls’ Guide to Friendship Hardship.

But enough about her past achievements — I’m here today to celebrate her latest. Let’s take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

WHISPER_coverI’d love a cup of coffee. . . I wish she didn’t hide how pretty she is. . . I hope she didn’t find out what Ben said about her. . . I wish I knew how many calories were in a bite of muffin. . .

Joy is used to Hearing Whispers. She’s used to walking down the street and instantly knowing people’s deepest, darkest desires. She uses this talent for good—to make people happy and give them what they want. But for her older sister, Jessica, the family gift is a curse, and she uses it to make people’s lives—especially Joy’s—miserable. Still, when Joy Hears Jessica Whisper I want to kill my Hearing dead, and kill me too if that’s what it takes, she knows she has to save her sister, even if it means deserting her friends, stealing a car, and running away with a boy she barely knows—a boy who may have a dark secret of his own.

This is a fair summary of the premise, but frankly, I think it doesn’t really capture the fresh charm of WHISPER’s narrative voice. Remember my last post, when we were talking about how sometimes, describing the plot doesn’t necessarily convey the essence of the book? Especially in a well-drawn character-driven novel like this one, it’s the protagonist that really charms the reader.

“Whisper is a story about communication,” Phoebe says, “especially within families–and yes, there’s some adventure in the last 1/3, but mostly it’s a character story.”

I have to say I agree — and I think those authorial choices serve the story well. But you needn’t take my word for it; take a gander at this enviable sheaf of reviews:

“Whisper was an edge of the seat, nail-biter of a read.”
The Book Scout

“Whisper is an outstanding debut novel that I did not want to put down…This is an engaging and engrossing read that leaves the reader continuously guessing at what is going to happen next. The paranormal aspect blends flawlessly with the normal, everyday life making me wonder if it is possible for there to be families out there like Joy’s. The family interactions are part of what makes this novel so fabulous. It is realistic and heartwarming to read about these girls having to overcome so much just to be kinda like everyone else.
The Neverending Bookshelf

“Whisper was an addicting and fast paced debut novel chronicling one girl’s journey through a superhero type ability- hearing people’s wants and desires, otherwise known as whispers…a book that I’m sure will be flying of the shelves come its April release, and a read I highly suggest to fans of the paranormal genre, because, let me tell you, Ms. Kitanidis is a great new voice in the that genre!”
Lauren’s Crammed Bookshelf

In short, I’m pretty thrilled to be recommending this book to all and sundry — and sending copies of it to many creative-minded girls of my acquaintance. (Oh, you’re surprised to hear that I’m a one-woman literature-pushing machine?)

But I promised you a contest, didn’t I? And a fabulous one at that.

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest
Ever long to have a pro peruse the first page of your manuscript and give you feedback for free? Now’s your chance — enter your first page and win a full professional critique on a future Author! Author! blog.

That’s right: you’ve been begging for this for a long time, readers, and now a lucky few of you are going to get it.

It’s an especially great opportunity for YA writers: Phoebe Kitanidis, author of WHISPER, will critique winners’ first pages — either identified by name or anonymously, as you prefer — on this very forum. (Being me, I shall probably chime in, too.)

That’s not to say that those of you who write fiction for adults or memoir should feel left out, however. In Category II, I shall be critiquing winners’ novel or memoir first pages in a future blog. Knowing me, those critiques are likely to be quite specific.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you potential entrants asking, “what happens if you receive an entry that does not need any critique at all? What if mine, for instance, is completely marvelous?”

That fortuitous entry will receive the most coveted prize of all: the Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence: Great First Page. There is no finer query letter candy, is there?

Jumping up and down from excitement yet? I hope so. Here are the rules:

1. Polish the first page of your manuscript to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Submissions should consist of the actual first page of a manuscript as you would submit it to an agent or editor, not simply a page’s worth of writing. The judges want to see the opening of your book in precisely the same format as Millicent the agency screener is likely to read it. That way, our feedback can be useful for future submissions.

Only a single page will be accepted. Even if your first page ends mid-sentence, please do not include additional text. However, if you have been vacillating between two different openings, please feel free to enter each as separate entries.

No more than two entries per entrant, please, and previously published material. Contest winners will benefit most by submitting recently-written work.

2. Make sure that page is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard manuscript format. (If you don’t know what standard format is, or indeed that a professional standard exists, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category in the archive list at right.)

Please format your entry page precisely as you would the first page of a submission to an agency or publishing house, including slug line, skipped lines at the top of the page, and any necessary chapter designation. For an example of what a properly-formatted first page should look like, please see this post from my most recent series on standard format.

3. On a separate page of the Word document, write a BRIEF (
In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.)

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice.

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
The two possibilities Category I (YA) or Category II (Adult Fiction and Memoir).

Entrants may enter more than one category, but please, do not enter the same page as both YA and Adult Fiction. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail and send it to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by May 24, 2010 May 31, 2010.
Yes, I did just give you an extension out of the goodness of my heart — happy spring!

Please include FIRST PAGE ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. Contest entries must be date-stamped by midnight in your time zone. No exceptions.

That’s not too complicated, is it? Phoebe and I are really looking forward to seeing your first pages, and may the best openers win!

And as always, keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VI: but how do I TALK about my book without making it sound like it goes on endlessly?

radiator in Victoria

Before I begin today, a brief word to the silly people who keep posting parts of readers’ old comments as fresh comments, in an attempt to imbed links on this site: first, you’re assuming that I won’t remember the real comments from the first time they posted; I do. Second, if you’re trying to trick me into letting ‘em by, you might want to avoid using comments I posted myself.

Seriously, this has happened 50 times over the last couple of days. So if you see your own comment showing up twice, let me know that one got through my shielding.

But enough about stupid marketing tactics for today. Let’s talk about some smart ones. During our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, reader AM made a great suggestion:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

See, spam marketers? There is a polite way to get my attention. Now if I can make my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right to AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

What AM is talking about, of course, is not the entire query letter, but that pesky paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about. You know, the second paragraph of a standard query letter, or the third paragraph of this one:

mars query

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing that paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent the agency screener into asking to see the manuscript.

Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query letter or pitch, right? I said: right?

If you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Most queriers and pitchers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query or pitch is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal he hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor — and the assumption renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder, the sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this much more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:
an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. Or, to put it querying terms, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant in a dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, okay: so that’s a pretty jaded response. And the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. (I’m looking at YOU, prose-stealing spammers!) “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take, for example, what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed him and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to see it.) See how the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s beauty, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the protagonists and their initial conflicts. And I haven’t gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. Even starting 2/3rds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, it completely got rid of Lee and transformed Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a pity, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in Uncle John’s place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts. As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how he intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise — as is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query or pitch, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave Millicent curious to hear more.

But is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative. (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person? Or that you’ve chosen to tell the story from seven different perspectives.

In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. You’re not there to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a happy surprise at manuscript-reading time.

Yes, yes, I know: when you describe your novel to another writer, the first thing you say is, “Well, it’s got three protagonists…” but that’s going to sound like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince Millicent that this is a story she should read.

Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that. At the querying stage, how a writer chooses to tell a story is far less relevant than the story itself.

Before anyone steps up onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me show you why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms.

At the risk of repeating myself: tell Millicent a compelling story. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript — long after your query has been received and answered.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can see that I should plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, oh sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Well, that should give you quite a bit of food for thought between now and my next post…wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

Ponder all of this until next time, please, when I’ll be talking about how to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part IV: setting the world in motion

sunshine moving in trees2

No, the photo above isn’t a representation of what a stand of trees might look like through allergy-blurred eyes — although the lilac tree in my back yard has apparently decided that this is the year to make its shot at shattering all previous records for pollen production. It’s a shot of blinding sunlight coming through trees, taken while I was ineffectually exclaiming, “Wait! Slow down! That would be a beautiful shot!”

Sometimes, all you get is a momentary glimpse of what’s going on around you. Blink, and it’s gone.

That’s a darned hard experience to replicate on the page, isn’t it? Particularly in an action scene shown simultaneously from several different perspectives: as tempting as it may be to include blow-by-blow accounts from every relevant point of view, once the reader knows a punch was thrown, an instant replay from another perspective may strike him as redundant — or even confusing.

How often did Sluggo swing? Was the fist that just went by Protagonist #2’s cheekbone the same one that Protagonist #3 just mentioned sending in his general direction, or did it belong to Protagonist #4? And pardon my asking, but did it just take 3/4 of a page of text to show three punches?

Revisers sit in front of action scenes like this, grinding their teeth in frustration. “How on earth,” they cry as soon as they can force their molars apart, “can I clarify what’s going on here without slowing the scene down to a crawl? Perhaps neither Anne nor Millicent the agency screener would notice if I switched the scene to a bystander’s perspective, so I don’t need to deal with the fighters’ points of view until the battle has died down.”

Nice try, teeth-grinders, but trust me, Millicent knows all about that evasive maneuver. And I know you’re far too serious about craft to take the tawdry easy way out of a narrative conundrum.

And to those of you jumping up and down, screaming, “Wait — tell me about the easy way! I long to embrace the tawdry short cut!”, I’m not listening.

I can sympathize, however, with a certain amount of shock at being flung with barely a preamble straight into the heart of our knotty problem du jour. For the sake of those ground-down molars, I’ll back up and ease into it a trifle more gently.

Last time, we discussed means of allowing tight third-person narrative to reflect individual quirks in depicting a particular scene. Rather than the protagonist’s presence or participation alone casting her primary shadow across the scene, I suggested infusing the text with her worldview, unique powers of observation, and other characteristics. This works marvelously as a method of differentiating between multiple protagonists’ sections of a novel, whether it is written in the third or first person.

Actually, it’s kind of a nifty trick in a single-protagonist novel, too, and definitely in a biography or memoir. Whenever the world is being shown from a specific point of view, I think it’s interesting when the narrative reflects the unique observational style of the teller.

Differentiation can get tricky, though, in a book with scads of protagonists. With two or three, the variations in observation can be fairly subtle, but if you try it with twelve, the reader is likely to lose track of whether Penelope’s frequent sneezes are the result of a canary-in-a-coal-mine sensitivity to mold due to that summer she spent on an archeological dig in a swamp, or if that was Tim’s excuse, and Penelope was the one who abhorred grass ever since that terrible day on the football field.

Or maybe it’s just hay fever season. There’s a limit to how many subtleties the reader can reasonably be expected to remember — and we writers tend to forget that.

“What do you mean, Tina’s fatal wool allergy came out of left field in Chapter 26?” we exclaim indignantly when our manuscripts are critiqued. “She cleared her throat twice next to Eliot’s sweater in Chapter 3!”

I hate to admit it, but personal quirks and background dissimilarities can be overdone; a protagonist with 137 pet peeves is probably going to annoy a reader more than one with 13. But now that I’ve gotten you into the habit of looking at your various protagonists’ sections of the text with an eye to varying them, let’s talk about means of increasing individuality in a protagonist’s section of narrative without taxing the reader’s memory banks.

What if, for instance, the vocabulary were quite different in Protagonist A’s sections of the text and Protagonist B’s?

This is a characterization trick lifted from dialogue, of course: no one expects a character with a Ph.D. to speak in the same manner as a character who did not graduate from high school, right? If there are polysyllabic words to be uttered, they’re going to be spilling out of the professor’s mouth.

Indeed — as my fellow Ph.D.s complain amongst themselves early and often — professor characters are often depicted as emitting lecture-quality logic every waking second. Frankly, we real-life professors find this expectation exhausting to contemplate. Even Socrates took some time off from asking annoying questions from time to time.

And look where that got him.

Did you catch the narrative trick I just pulled? I underscored my narrative credibility as a professor by dropping in a philosophy joke. Not a bad investment of just a couple of lines of text, and certainly more interesting for most readers than if I had inserted a five-page essay on the Socratic method.

Or if I had simply started spouting a whole lot of technical terms specific to my former academic field, for that matter. While every profession has its jargon, it doesn’t necessarily render a narrator or speaker more credible to overuse it on the page. What over-reliance upon any field’s jargon is far more likely to produce is in readers is boredom.

Oh, you like it when a mushroom specialist corners you at a party and starts talking spores non-stop? Unless you share her passion for fungi, you’re probably going to be looking to change the subject pretty darned soon.

Because I have lecturing experience, I recognize that the forest of hands waving in the air means that at least some of you have questions about that last observation. (I’m a professional, though; the layperson shouldn’t attempt leaping to that sort of lofty conclusion at home.) Yes, hand-raisers?

“I would be reluctant to include a joke like the one you used above,” they point out, rubbing circulation back into their arms, “even if it conveys something significant about that narrator’s background. The build-up and joke assume that the reader is aware that Socrates went around asking his fellow 5th century BC Athenians probing philosophical questions, eventually irritating them enough that they condemned him to death. Not every reader would know that. But as you may see from the length of this very paragraph, devoting text to explaining the joke would not only slow down the scene already in progress — or even bring it to a screeching halt. So I ask you: is this really effective character development?”

In a word: yes. Moving on…

Just kidding. Actually, the answer depends upon the intended readership for the book: just as it’s safer to assume that 15-year-old readers will recognize current teenage jargon than 50-year-olds (and that the 15-year-olds will find it embarrassing when the 50-year-olds try to sound hip by using it), it’s more reasonable to expect literary fiction readers to catch more historical and literary references than, say, the target audience for terse Westerns. By the same token, a Western writer could get away with presuming that her target readership knew a heck of a lot more about horses than the average reader of literary fiction.

The same holds true for vocabulary choices, of course: since every book category has a pretty well-established reading level, sticking to the one an agent or editor would expect to see in your kind of book just makes good marketing sense. (If you’re not familiar with the expected reading level for your chosen book category, run, don’t walk to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and spend a couple of hours leafing through books like yours, to see what kind of vocabulary they use.) Within those parameters, though, a writer has quite a bit of wiggle room for showing well-read narrators sounding well-read on the page.

In other words: go ahead and let your various protagonists’ speech patterns color the narrative in sections written from their respective perspectives. Just don’t get so carried away with professional jargon that a reader from another field can’t understand what he’s saying — or gives up trying.

This logic is surprisingly infrequently extended to third-person narrative from multiple perspectives. (One sees it applied to first-person narratives more frequently, but then, many first-person narratives are crafted to resemble speech.) But think about it: why wouldn’t a well-read fifth grader’s fine vocabulary extend into her thoughts?

A couple of words of warning about applying this technique to multiple-perspective novel: first, try not to overdo it. If the differences are too extreme, you run the risk of the characters with the smaller vocabularies coming across as a tad dim-witted. Bear in mind that smart people aren’t necessarily well-educated or widely read, after all, and — dare I say it? — not all well-educated people are necessarily smart.

Trust me on this one. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in faculty meetings.

Second, it is very easy to overuse professional jargon. (Wait, where have I heard that before?) Sprinkle it about, by all means, but do be aware that doctors who use the Latin names for common body parts three times a paragraph, emergency room nurses who add, “STAT!” to half their sentences, and lawyers who pepper their conversations and thoughts with whereases and heretofores are a notorious agency screener’s pet peeve.

I just mention. Just because something happens in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in print — or in a submission. Treat the use of jargon associated with particular jobs like any other stereotype: there’s always more to an individual than the obvious.

My next suggestion for individualizing your protagonists’ perspectives is even more fundamental: what if the narrative changed rhythm when the perspective altered?

I’m not talking about anything radical, such as Protagonist A’s sections utilizing exclusively short, declaratory sentences while Protagonist B’s abound in run-ons. (Which I’ve seen in quite a few manuscripts, by the way.) But could the habitual coffee-drinker’s musings pass by the reader like a highly caffeinated freight train, while the obsessively orderly person’s flights of fancy always get cut off short of running amok?

Has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

The conceivable variations are practically endless — and again, are as useful for constructing dialogue as for narrative. An 80-year-old man with a lung condition would probably speak in shorter bursts than a 25-year-old jogger; differences in lung capacity alone would dictate that, right? Where the speech goes, the thought can surely follow: when the body’s having trouble breathing, wouldn’t you expect that to disrupt, say, lengthy stretches of otherwise uninterrupted thought?

Actually, I would urge you to give some thought into working bodily rhythms into your writing in general; in tight third-person narrative, it’s not done much. There are few novels out there that take situational variations in breathing and heart rate into account at all, even in dialogue during heavy action scenes.

People tend not to have a whole lot of extra breath to talk in the middle of hand-to-hand combat, something screenwriters would do well to remember. Similarly, we might expect a protagonist’s thoughts would tend to run shorter in a moment of imminent crisis than in a moment of calm.

Switching to short, choppy sentences convey a subtle impression of panting breath and elevated heart rate, incidentally, especially if such sentences appear in tandem only in such scenes. Trick o’ the trade.

Just as the best means of catching rhythmic patterns is to read text out loud, the best means of determining what is a realistic bodily response is to act a scene out. Within reason, of course: obviously, if you’re writing about a killer, I’m certainly not advising that you test-drive the mayhem. However, if your protagonist has been carrying a 50-pound suitcase without wheels for 20 pages, your sense of the probable effects upon his body will definitely be heightened if you carry around a heavy suitcase for 10 or 15 minutes.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to test the plausibility of everyday events in your books in general; unverified timing is frequently implausible on the page. You’d be amazed at how many books contain speeches that could not be said within a single breath, for instance, and what a high percentage of exchanges ostensibly between floors in elevators would require three consecutive trips to the top of the Empire State Building to complete.

Admittedly, a writer does occasionally risk astonishing bystanders by this kind of vigorous fact-checking. I once spent a humid Chicago afternoon frightening small children in a park trying to figure out the various body parts that might get bruised if one got jumped from behind while sitting on a park bench. It’s astonishing what one’s friends will do for free pizza, and the scene was better for it.

It’s possible to predict certain reactions without engaging in amateur dramatics, of course. If your protagonist has just chased a mugger for two and half city blocks, or dashed up a flight of stairs because she’s afraid of being late for her first day of work, or flung herself down a manhole to escape the marauding living dead who want to eat her brain, it’s reasonable to expect that her heart will be pounding and her breath drawing short.

No need to recruit the local zombies to ascertain that.

Oh, dear, there are all of those raised hands again. You want to raise a practical difficulty? “I’m open to incorporating any or all of these techniques, Anne, but while we’re talking about action scenes, I want to raise a different sort of practical difficulty. How does one depict an action scene between two people of the same sex without repeating each of their names constantly?”

Wow, that is practical. To make sure everyone knows what the hand-raisers are talking about, let’s take a gander at the combatants in this action-packed paragraph:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. Trevor ducked, avoiding the blow. Herb, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. Trevor leaped onto his back the instant Herb hit the ground, pounding Herb’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” Trevor howled, grinding Herb’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” Herb shouted, flinging Trevor off him.

That’s a whole lot of proper noun repetition, isn’t it? Yet the names could not plausibly be replaced with pronouns without causing abundant confusion:

He pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at him. He ducked, avoiding the blow. Having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, he lost his balance. He leaped onto his back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” he shouted, flinging him off him.

Faced with this difficulty, many revisers will leap to compensate. Descriptors could be used to take the place of some of the hims, naturally, but the result is still a bit cumbersome:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. The smaller man ducked, avoiding the blow. The mustachioed aggressor, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. The diminutive and swarthy one leaped onto his perplexed left-handed assailant’s back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his brother’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his lifelong best friend and canasta partner’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

Feels a touch over-explained, doesn’t it? Complex perspective can be very helpful reducing this sort of verbosity.

And you’d thought that I wasn’t going to tie it back to the earlier part of the blog, hadn’t you? Au contraire.

The more deeply the reader is embroiled Herb’s perspective, the more sense it makes to show action and reaction not as external to him, but as part of his rich and varied experience of life.

Okay, so maybe that was overstating it just a tad. But just look at how easily this method clears things up:

His truncheon seemed an extension of his frustration: carrying his entire substantial body weight behind it, it flashed toward Trevor’s face. The wily bastard ducked, avoiding the blow, just as he had dodged every responsibility in their collective lives.

Flailing for balance, Herb felt fists on his back before he hit the ground. What kind of brother pounds your head into wet pavement?

When you’re dealing in enriched perspective, an action scene is never just about the action in it. It becomes another opportunity for character development, for revealed observation, and — dare I say it? — clarifying perspective.

That’s my perspective on it, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part III: a few ways to make Millicent’s day, or, the living are nice, too.

Mother Goose's grave

Why open one of my normally quite friendly posts with such a grim image, you ask? A couple of reasons: first, according to several official-looking placards scattered about the Boston graveyard where I took this photo, this stone marks the final resting place of Mother Goose, of fairy tale fame. What writer wouldn’t be glad to have readers remember her name more than three hundred years after her last book came out?

Second, I begin today with a horror tale. A few years back — right around the last time I ran an entire series on constructing multiple-perspective narratives, if memory serves — I sat through a movie that seemed calculated specifically to appall the editors in the audience, a crowd-pleasing independent horror film called CRIME FICTION. Even presented within a film festival that positively gloried in depictions of violent death, the kind where protagonists shooting their girlfriends were the norm, this was a standout. (Okay, so one of the films killed the girlfriend off with an overdose of ecstasy, and she did get to come back as a zombie, but honestly, after the sixth dead paramour in a row, who is making fine distinctions?)

In CRIME FICTION, the protagonist killed his girlfriend (of course), but her gory death wasn’t what made me cover my eyes and scream. Nor did the premise — an unsuccessful writer of spy novels becomes jealous when his doomed-because-she’s-in-the-picture girlfriend’s beautifully-written memoir gets a great review from the NYT Review of Books — chill my blood too sharply. Naturally, violence was going to be in the offing, given the focus of the festival.

I didn’t freak out at these developments primarily because I had been queasy since one of the first scenes in the movie. In it, the protagonist sat down to write, and…oh, it’s almost too horrible to describe.

Okay, deep breath: I can convey this. He already has a published book out, but when the audience sees his freshly-written first page, IT’S NOT IN STANDARD FORMAT.

Oh, the humanity! I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. The 3/4-inch top margin! The uncentered chapter title! The too few skipped lines before the text began! And — avert your eyes, if you have a sensitive stomach — the paragraphs were not indented!

After that level of debauchery, frankly, I was barely surprised when he shoved his girlfriend out a window. Clearly, the man had no regard for the norms of civilized society. But then, later in the movie, another, more successful author’s first manuscript page fills the screen, and guess what? It isn’t in standard format, either!

I spent the rest of the film peeking through my fingers, hyperventilating. Would the paper-generated terror never end? Could the second writer’s killing spree be far behind?

Even after several years of seeing manuscript-free movies where positively no one’s girlfriend gets slaughtered, those two scenes of improperly-formatted pages still make me cringe; think of all the poor souls lead astray by such careless imagery choices! (If that last thought does not make you instantly picture Millicent the agency screener shouting, “Next!” I STRONGLY recommend that you review the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before sending off your next submission.)

What does any of this have to do with crafting a multiple-perspective narrative, you ask? Glad you brought it up.

Last time, we discussed structural means a savvy writer can use to help alert the reader to perspective shifts in multiple-protagonist manuscripts. Separating points of view by chapter, section breaks, or even paragraph breaks can go a long way toward preventing reader confusion.

Which should be a primary narrative goal in a multi-protagonist novel, right? Unfortunately, sometimes structural signals are not practicable, or even a good choice.

Take, for instance, a scene where two or more of protagonists interact. Often, as I mentioned a few days ago, it works beautifully to pick the more active character’s perspective and stick to it. But what about the case where the primary interest of the scene is the difference in Protagonist A and Protagonist B’s views on what is going on?

A thorny problem, you must admit. Let’s take a look at the same scene, told first from a single perspective, then in a narrative that shows both points of view.

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? I do seemed unlikely to be the universal solvent of thick-headedness.

She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish dessert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, right? It’s a tad tell-y (as opposed to show-y), but it demonstrates both perfectly good reasons for Delphine’s annoyance and Charles’ lack of response to it. So far, so good.

Yet if the reader has been following the latter’s perspective for half the book, it might make sense to add a counter-current to the scene by including his perspective as well. Take a gander:

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled automatically, remembering too late the blackberry seeds that must be embedded between his widely-spaced teeth. He hid his mouth behind his napkin, remembering the vicious look she had cast him at the state dinner with the Prince of Wales. The offender had been strawberry mousse that time. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish desert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

She was beautiful when she was worrying about core meltdown. “See you at dinner, my pet.”

Yes, I have brought a structural device into play here (alternating perspective by paragraph), but I have included a stylistic one as well: making the tones of the respective protagonists’ thoughts distinctive enough that the reader can easily tell who is thinking at any given point. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) still won’t like it, but at least it’s clear which perspective prevails when.

There are a number of ways to render perspectives distinct from one another. Content, as we have seen here, is the most obvious, but worldview and tone form a close second and third. One sees this type of differentiation in novels about families all the time. If Sister A is an introvert, Sister B is bound to be loud and bouncy; if Brother C is a bookworm, Brother D’s usually good at sports. Given these different orientations, all of these protagonists are likely to see the world around them in disparate ways, so the reader would simply understand by a few chapters into the book that the quiet observations are most likely Sister A’s and the rampant baseball analogies Brother D’s.

Pop quiz for those of you currently engaged in self-editing: does your manuscript reflect that expectation?

To put it another way, if you picked a narrative paragraph at random from your manuscript and it did not contain the protagonist’s name, would a reasonably careful reader of the book so far be able to guess whose perspective it contained? Or is the primary difference between Protagonist A’s chapter and Protagonist B’s that they are participating in different events?

Care to guess how often Millicent sees the latter? Uh-huh.

Do make sure, even if your protagonists’ perspectives are broken up by formal breaks — by chapter, section, scene, or even paragraphs — that their perspectives vary enough to be plausible as separate people’s perceptions. Trust me, Millicent has seen thousands of multiple-perspective novels where the thought patterns of Protagonist A and Protagonist B are so similar that they might as well be the same character.

“Why,” she wonders, sliding the latest into the reject pile, “did the writer bother to go to the significant trouble of establishing multiple perspectives if they were all going to have the same voice?”

You have a point there, Millie. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, of course: all of the characters in the book are the product of the same mind, and so even though the structure of the book may dictate that Chapter 3 should reflect a different mindset than Chapter 4, they’re frequently written in identical voices.

And that, dear friends, can lead to precisely the kind of point of view confusion that makes the POVNs feel justified in dismissing the entire multiple-protagonist ilk of novels. So here is your first homework assignment for the day:

1. Think about how your protagonists differ — especially any differences that could potentially affect not only recorded thought, but descriptive passages in their various chapters or paragraphs.

Do keep in mind as you ponder that the great pitfall of relying upon broadly-drawn characteristics to differentiate perspectives is the ease of falling into stereotypes — and I’m not just talking about genre tropes like dead girlfriend stories. What are the chances, for instance, that Brother D, the sports enthusiast, is going to be an insensitive boor, captain of both the school’s football team and the crowd who goes around shoving kids like Brother C into lockers? And what are the chances that the agency screener — who has, after all, read a hundred submissions in this genre already this week — will be able to guess that the jock is a jerk the instant he appears on the page?

To put it in terms the entire festival audience can understand, if Millicent were screening movies for film festivals, she would probably be exclaiming by two minutes into each, “Oh, terrific: another dead girlfriend. Next!”

The horror, the horror. But I’m not going to cover my eyes again: you’re not going to spring either a stereotype or a deviation from standard format on me, are you? Good; let’s move on.

2. Make a list of your protagonists and their major characteristics, likes, dislikes, areas of sensitivity, and so forth.

No, you may not skip this step or do it in your mind, but thanks for asking. Get it all down on paper, so you may refer back to it mid-edit.

3. Review the lists, circling any characteristic that might conceivably cause a particular character to misperceive or embellish upon what’s going on around him. Pay particular attention to any condition that might affect the workings of his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense of touch, sense of humor…well, you get the picture.

4. Read through your manuscript, searching for a place where perspective is not entirely clear. Whip out your list: would incorporating any of the circled characteristics in that section make plain whose perspective is dominating it?

5. Repeat Step 4 as often as needed to individualize every murky scene.

This is a terrific technique for keeping perspective shifts snappy, of course, but is also is a marvelous means of increasing character development for your various leading characters. The more protagonists you have, the more helpful this exercise is, potentially.

It’s a great way to get you brainstorming about ways that your protagonists’ respective sections of the narrative could reflect their different mindsets, worldviews, prejudices, charms — in short, subtle means of making it clear to the reader which chapter (or subsection, or paragraph) is focused upon which character. Rather than relying solely upon different events and brazen markers like names and job titles to signal the reader when perspective had changed, try a closer marriage between language and character.

Before anyone starts barking at me, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, if I’d wanted to write a multiple first-person narrative, I would have!” hear me out. There are quite a few excellent reasons to consider differentiating a tight third-person narrative by character being followed at any given moment.

First, and probably most important for character-driven novels, many protagonists equaling only superficial development for each is a classic downfall for multiple-protagonist novels in both the third and first persons. By incorporating worldview and personal quirks into the narrative itself — showing Natalie’s vision blurring as a result of her allergies to the roses Bevis insists upon bringing every time he visits, rather than just telling the reader that Natalie’s allergic to them — a writer can open up many more possibilities for interesting character development.

Second, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the marketing value of making your protagonists’ sections unique, if only for the sake of freshness. Narrative that never varies its tone, vocabulary, type of observation, etc. as it moves from perspective to perspective is actually the norm for multiple-protagonist novel submissions. Thoughtful variety, on the other hand, is so exceptional as to be practically unique.

And what have we learned about what usually happens to manuscripts that exhibit common weaknesses? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: they tend to get rejected rather more quickly than those that exhibit less ubiquitous failings, because the more an agent or editor sees a particular writing problem, the faster she can categorize it.

Think about it: which do you think is easier for the average doctor to diagnose, the flu that everyone in town has or the bubonic plague?

Uh-huh. Let’s talk about ways to stave off that flu that’s going around.

To do so, let’s revisit a rhetorical question from our earlier list: if you read a randomly-selected mid-book section aloud, is it apparent within a paragraph whose point of view it is? If so, how can you tell?

Because Harry is the subject of every sentence? (A popular choice.)

Because other characters keep saying, “Hi, Harry,” to him? (Reminiscent of the old Bob Newhart show; still quite common.)

Because the protagonist is going over the company books at 3 a.m., and Harry is a forensic accountant? (A close third.)

All valid — but let me suggest a more interesting possibility. What if Harry noticed things about ordinary situations that none of the other protagonists would — and those kinds of details only appeared in the parts of the narrative focused upon him?

I’m not talking about heavy-handed introduction of backstory, here, just little tweaks to descriptive passages. Obsessively detail-oriented accountants are kind of hackneyed, but what if Harry put himself through college and graduate school as a car mechanic? Wouldn’t he naturally observe passing traffic differently from, say, co-protagonist Maurice, who spent his teenage years tending his mad great-aunt’s collection of prize orchids? And wouldn’t Cecily’s abusive college boyfriend have left her with a sixth sense for when someone near her might be about to flip out?

Harry might, for instance, automatically diagnose a slipping fan belt from the sound of an anonymous car darting through an intersection as he is arguing with his boss. The squeaky belt would not be the primary focus of the scene, naturally, but it would lend a Harry-specific tone to the moment, wouldn’t it?

Maurice would never catch on to that — but then, he would probably be able to tell a co-worker almost without thinking about it which florist operating within the five blocks from the subway stop to the office habitually displayed the freshest flowers, or why the receptionist’s African violet produced only leaves, but no flowers. Harry wouldn’t have a clue, and Cecily might have developed a violent aversion to roses, because her hideous ex used to cover her dorm bed with them after he socked her.

The possibilities really are endless — and a fabulous way to increase the quotient of sensual details in a book’s descriptive passages, which in turn will make your writing stand out from the crowd. Remember, the vast majority of the descriptions our gal Millicent sees in a given week of screening are visual- or sound-based. Blame the fact that the average person now gets upwards of 85% of her information about the world around her visually (computers, anyone?), or snipe at my favorite bugbears, TV and movies, which can tell stories only through sight and sound, by definition.

However you explain it, Millie’s kind of starved for input from the other senses. She is, after all, typically trapped in a miniscule cubicle, reading under stultifying fluorescent light. A truly original description of a sea breeze might just make her day.

Too few submitting writers use this sad fact to their advantage. Harry’s nose would pick up a malfunctioning catalytic converter half a block away; Maurice would be far more likely to begin nibbling upon a dandelion in the park than someone who did not know that they were edible.

The more protagonists there are, the better this technique works, generally speaking. Protagonist Emily’s years of making gnocchi with her grandmother would certainly heighten her fingertips’ awareness of the texture of wallpaper as she leaned against it, crying because Harry has just been mean to her, and co-protagonist Cecily would be tasting some salt on her lips as she ran out onto the beach, to get away from that weird guy munching dandelions. Infusing the narrative in Harry’s section with his type of observations, and Cecily with hers, will lend both Millicent-tempting depths to the text and render their respective perspectives unique.

Not a bad payoff for the addition of a few details here and there, considering that their inclusion will also develop character in subtle ways, too. Particularly if you — hint, hint — start to regard how a character responds physically to the world around her as a means of revealing herself to the reader, rather than relying exclusively upon showing her thoughts, words and deeds.

A word to the wise about sensual detail: when the sense of smell does make a cameo appearance in a manuscript, the results are usually described only vaguely (The air in the cell stank.), or as if the aroma were invariable to the substance described (The room smelled like cheese).

What kind? Cheddar? Gouda? That nose-assailing goat cheese that nearly gets the protagonist thrown out of boarding school in HEIDI GROWS UP?

Most of the time, the reader is simply left to imagine; the protagonist simply wrinkles her nose and moves on. This is a real missed sensory opportunity, I think. Scents in manuscripts are almost always awful, terrible (as in garbage or a burning building), or intoxicating, gorgeous (as in flowers or perfume), with no further descriptors.

But why shouldn’t that awful garbage be redolent with the aromas of cast-off cheese, warm bananas, and bleach, and that terrible burning building reek of charcoal, soggy linens, and sharp chemicals? Why shouldn’t the flowers intoxicate with the bee-seducing odors of raspberry and honey, and the perfume bite the back of the protagonist’s throat with a whiff of pepper and magnolia essence?

Millicent would thank you if they did, I’m sure, if only as an alternative to the pervasive office odor of stale coffee and cast-off paper. Make her day with a few perspective-defining, character-developing details. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate

juggling statuejuggling statue2juggling statue3

Oh, what a long day it’s been, campers — actually, a long few days. There’s something in the air that’s making all of us just a trifle slow on the uptake. Or something in the water. I include myself as one of the victims of this invidious plague, you see. I must be — how else could I possibly explain the fact that I spent a full half an hour today explaining to an incredulous optician that as hard as he might find it to believe, I did indeed expect to be able to see though my new glasses?

Surely, were I on the top of my communicative game, I would have been able to communicate this admittedly radical and abstruse philosophical concept in half the time. I think my problem was that I waited until twenty minutes in to resort to mime.

“But the frames look so good on you,” he kept saying, as if I has simply misunderstood the primary function of eyewear.

Apparently, ambient blurriness is the appropriate price to pay for fashion. Or so I surmise from the fact that he was not at all amused when I mentioned that if he would prefer that I wore the frames without lenses, I would have to wear my contact lenses at the same time, more or less defeating the purpose of glasses.

That last quip was magical in mime, you’ll be happy to hear. Marcel Marceau would have wept openly, but the optician remained befuddled.

As you may well imagine, carrying on such an argument is quite a strain on both parties. At one point, I briefly considered switching to another language — French, perhaps, or Italian — to see if this native English speaker would understand me better. I’m fairly positive that at least once, I broke into interpretive dance to illustrate a point.

In a week or two, if I’m very good indeed, the capricious optometry gods may see fit to provide me with workable glasses. So I’m sitting here, peering through contact lenses I have worn far too long for one day.

Let’s get right to work, then, before my eyeballs turn from mauve to magenta.

Last time, I was waxing poetic on the many benefits of writing a novel inhabited by multiple protagonists. I could, of course, rhapsodize equally long and loudly about the joys of the first person, or omniscient narrator, or distant third person, etc. All of these are perfectly legitimate narrative choices.

No matter what the Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) like to claim. They would like you to write solely about single protagonists, please, in the tight third person or in the first person; all other choices, they say, are confusing, if not downright unprofessional. And omniscience is so 19th century.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now, there’s not much you can do if your multiple-protagonist project happens to fall upon the desk of a POVN screener or contest judge. The same generally holds true if you happen to hand your writing to POVN members of even a very good critique group or first reader — which is quite easy to do by accident, since POVNs seldom think to wear a t-shirt reading More than one perspective? Madness! to social gatherings. And don’t even get started arguing with a POVN in an online forum.

Just smile, nod — and get your work into some other reader’s hands as soon as humanly possible. No matter how much or how demonstrably your narrative benefits from incorporating multiple perspectives, you’re simply not going to win this argument. Move on to pastures new.

Must the retreat be that total, you cry in horror? Well, I would recommend it, to minimize the carnage: if you stick around, any further exchange can only end in tears, probably yours.

What distinguishes the POVN from other advocates of particular writing styles is vehemence, typically: once a critic has pronounced that no writing that differs from the two chosen (and not entirely coincidentally, the two of the most common) narrative voices is acceptable, what else is there to discuss?

You have one vision of your book, and your critic another. As the parable of the monomaniacal optician abundantly illustrated, in order to have a fruitful discussion, both parties must agree on at least a few underlying principles of reality.

Move on, I beg you — but before you do, see if you can learn anything from the POVN’s feedback. (Beyond his personal literary preferences, that is.) Because chances are, you can indeed learn something from his monomania.

Why am I so sure about that? There is one lesson that every multiple protagonist user can learn from any POVN: if the reader is ever confused about whose perspective is whose on the page, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to re-read, scratching his head, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make the perspective switches easy to follow.

From this, we can derive the first principle of utilizing multiple protagonists successfully: clarity, clarity, clarity. (Which wouldn’t make a bad first principle of optometry, either, in my humble opinion.)

What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, not switching perspectives without warning, for one thing — a surprisingly common lapse in multiple protagonist manuscripts. Once you have established a perspective, stick to it until it’s time for a well-marked perspective switch — or just take the full leap into omniscient narration for the entire book.

In other words: commit. (Commit, commit. Just to keep things symmetrical. Or maybe I’m just seeing double, as the optician suggested.) Otherwise, Millicent the agency screener and other professional readers are all too apt to mistake your genuinely intricate and well-justified perspective choices for mere head-hopping.

“Did the writer just forget that we’re seeing this from Janet’s perspective?” the Millicents of the world mutter over their scalding lattes. “Or is this scene also from Robert’s? And why on earth doesn’t he have any lenses in his glasses?”

Unfortunately for the self-editing writer, commitment slips are often very subtle. So much so that they generally appear to be unintentional to a non-professional reader, making it hard for most first readers to point them out. If your eye isn’t specifically looking for them, they’re even — brace yourself — easy to miss when you read a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Hey, if I don’t mention that tip every few posts, I’m likely to start having headaches. Or so my optician tells me.

You want to see for yourself just how hard perspective slips are to catch, don’t you? Take, for example, this paragraph from a book about the aforementioned Janet and Robert, where Janet has so far been the designated protagonist for the scene:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school. Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now.

Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

Did it jump out at you? Believe me, it would have made Millicent scream: the narrative was coming from inside Janet’s head all throughout the first paragraph — yet in paragraph 2, the reader is suddenly seeing something she could not possibly see without a mirror. Once again, Millicent is left to wonder, has the perspective suddenly switched to Robert’s, and the author just didn’t bother to tell us? Or is the narration now omniscient?

Trust me, these are not questions that Millie likes to answer for herself. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The first step to perspective clarity is to make it magnificently clear when perspective shifts occur — and it’s often easier than the average reviser assumes, or at least less word-consuming. No need for a lengthy explanation; just give the reader a simple heads-up when you’re taking them into another head.

That’s an easy enough axiom to remember, isn’t it? Heck, you can even embrace it as an opportunity to enrich the scene. Take another gander at J and R:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school.

Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

He gripped the arms of his leather chair, startled by her transformation. Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire.

Simple change, wasn’t it? Yet now it’s perfectly obvious that the reader is hearing about Janet’s external characteristics because Robert is observing them.

But you’re no longer thinking about Janet and Robert, I’m sensing. You’re so alert to the nuances of foreshadowing that you are already steeling yourself to receive your homework assignment.

It’s worth making a sweep through your manuscript to make sure that the protagonist of the moment can actually perceive anything you report her to perceive. People seldom see the backs of their own heads, for instance, without the aid of several cleverly-rigged mirrors. Similarly, their hearing from far away and sightlines around corners is often imperfect, as is their ability to reproduce entire conversations taking place in Moscow when they are in prison camps in Siberia.

I’m looking at you, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Also, not all that many people are psychic, at least not to the extent one encounters in manuscripts. Or perhaps these are instances of another common perspective lapse, when a tight third person narrative uses projection in order to get into another character’s head without officially switching perspectives.

Not entirely certain what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a lovely example. So far, the book has been mostly from Henry’s perspective:

Henry felt Blanche looking at him hard, passionately, as if she had never seen a man before and the sheer nearness of him had induced the onset of puberty on the spot. Odd behavior, in someone he’d just met. He must remind her of some hunk in one of those old movies that had always seemed to be playing at her grandmother’s house throughout her childhood, black-and-white images on a small black-and-white screen. Maybe she didn’t even know that they made films in color now. Maybe she didn’t even know what a man looked like naked, and was dying to find out.

Never mind that you want to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Tell me: what part of this is from Blanche’s perspective?

Offhand, I’d say none of it. Upon close examination, it’s clearly from Henry’s — but if so, how on earth does he know so much about her childhood? So is what the reader learning about Blanche here fact to be relied upon for the rest of the book, or merely a projection of Henry’s over-sexed imagination?

Oh, you wanted to add something, Millicent? Put down that latte and join the conversation, by all means. Give your eyes a rest.

“Does the she in the next-to-last sentence,” Millicent asks, and not without reason, “refer to Blanche or her grandmother? The last sentence implies that it’s Blanche, but like every other reader on the planet, I seldom read all the way to the end of a paragraph before forming a mental image of what occurred in the middle of it. Of course, it makes me grumpy to have to re-read so much as a single word, but when I don’t even know who is who, I just stop reading. Oh, great — now I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve been pulled out of the story. Next!”

Thanks for sharing that, Millicent: from the reader’s side of the page, clarity is indeed 100% the writer’s problem, not yours. Remember that when you are revising, my friends. It may seem a bit restrictive, but within the context of a particular protagonist’s section of text, edit like a POVN.

Yes, you read that correctly. The writer gets to set up the rules of narration, but once they are established, professional readers — even those who are not POVNs — will regard any deviation from those rules as accidental.

And if you thought Millicent came down hard on accidental typos and logic problems, wait ‘til you see her lay into an accidental perspective switch. Even if she is not a card-carrying POVN — which, as I mentioned last week, she is significantly less likely to be than her counterpart of a decade ago — she probably had an English professor who was. Or a boss at the agency. She’s not going to let a thing like this pass, nor is her cousin Maury, who is an editorial assistant at the big publishing house just around the corner.

The best way to avoid their ire is to edit for perspective consistency — and send a strong signal whenever the perspective switches, in order to illustrate that the change is not accidental. Before anyone tenses up at the potential enormity of that task, I hasten to add that there are many good strategies for achieving these laudable goals.

1. Formal breaks in the narrative. Structural means are the simplest signposts, and among the most popular. As we have discussed, you could switch chapters each time you want to change perspectives. Heck, you could even title the chapters with the protagonist-du-jour’s name, to avoid even the remotest possibility of confusion.

2. Just start a new scene. Usually, this involves inserting a section break, then starting a fresh section. This technique, like the chapter trick, works best if the first sentence or two contains a pretty broad indication of whose perspective is on deck now. (If you’re tempted even for a moment to assume Millicent will enjoy guessing, please go back six paragraphs and re-read her observation on Henry’s narrative skills.)

3. Hitting the RETURN key. In other words, try to limit yourself to a single perspective per paragraph.

The space bar can provide quite a bit of clarity, if you will let it help you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve written in margins, “I cut the paragraph here, to keep the two perspectives distinct.”

Why does this simple trick work so well? To skimming eyes, it’s just too easy to miss the indicators that might make clear that the perspective has changed within a single paragraph; he and she, for instance, don’t look all that different on the page.

I know; the implications of this are a bit depressing. Hey, if I ran the universe, every agency screener and editorial assistant would read every syllable of every writer’s submission with reverent care before pronouncing judgment. Opticians everywhere would strive to maximize their customers’ visual acuity, and friendly cows would roam the streets, giving chocolate milk to every hungry child in the world.

But I don’t — and they don’t, alas.

The primary drawback to all three strategies lies, as drawbacks so often do, in the first pages that you will be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest judge. If a book begins with one protagonist, then switches to another too quickly, one of three professionally unpleasant things may happen.

First, plenty of agents and editors feel cheated if they’ve come to accept one character as a protagonist, only to learn a few pages later that they didn’t need to care about this character much at all. (Yes, really.)

The way around this is — hold on to your hats, boys — clarity: the narrative can make it plain that both the initial protagonist and the next are in fact both critical to the story. A good way to do this: if you’re introducing your protagonists in separate chapters or sections, show each initially in a situation where the stakes are very high for him/her.

Which isn’t a bad way to establish sympathy for a character, either. I just mention.

Second, the initial protagonist may be introduced too briefly to make an emotional impression upon the reader, and so may not appear to the skimming eye to be a true protagonist at all. We’ve all seen enough movies where the identity of the guy shot in the opening scene isn’t clear until the very end of the story, right?

Well, think like Millicent for a moment, and picture that storyline on the page: she began reading that scene assuming, not unreasonably, that the entire book is going to be either about that guy or his assassin. So imagine her surprise (and umbrage) to see her pal weltering in a pool of his own blood by the bottom of page two.

I have a really, really cynical fix for this one, so brace yourself: for the submission version of your book (as distinct from the final, published form), make sure that the most attractive — in whatever sense you choose — protagonist is on stage for at least the first five pages. You can always switch it later, and five pages is plenty of time to make Millicent fall in love with Bill thoroughly enough to be sanguine about meeting co-protagonist Bob on page 6.

I told you it was cynical. I’m all for art, but I’m also all about getting art past the gatekeepers so the public will eventually be able to see it.

Danger #3 is the opposite of #2: the reader may like the first protagonist so much that she will become annoyed when the second emerges. “I was just getting into the story of that coal miner,” she will grumble. “Why am I suddenly reading about a debutante?”

This reaction is especially likely in novels where the connection between the protagonists is not apparent until very late in the story. We writers LOVE this kind of revelation, don’t we? I think we tend to overestimate its surprise value: after all, the reader is aware that all of these people are occupying the same book; the presumption, then, is that they are going to be connected somehow.

And a professional reader has an even greater advantage: if she becomes curious about who is who, all she has to do is flip to the back of the submission and take a gander at the synopsis.

This inherent expectation of connection a good thing to bear in mind while revising. Take a hard look at the first time each of your protagonists appears qua protagonist in the book — if it is not clear how protagonist #2, #3, and so on to the proverbial cast of thousands are connected to the story you are telling in the first protagonist’s first appearance, what specific benefit is the book deriving from maintaining the secret?

If you’re not positive what is being gained (other than the coolness of later revelation which, as I said, is probably not going to come as a jaw-dropping surprise to Millicent), consider letting the reader in on the connection a bit — at least for the submission draft.

Or at least in a subtle manner. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you added a hint or two about possible connections? What about if you had Protagonist #1 make a walk-on in this introductory scene — or if Protagonist #2 make a cameo in Protagonist #1’s chapter, so the reader would already know who he is?

It may not always be desirable — or even possible — to use this tactic in every story, of course. But do consider it: readers love to try to figure things out from subtle hints; it makes them feel smart. And no one loves to feel smart more than Millicent and Maury.

Call it a family failing. Try not to hold it against them.

Vision-correction conditions permitting, I shall take more next time about nifty strategies for keeping perspectives distinct. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

At long last, I keep my promise to talk about narratives with multiple protagonists

tile roof in Spain 3

You know how I keep mentioning that reality is a lousy storyteller, apt to toss in flatly unbelievable elements and time revelations poorly? Still more evidence: within the last week, two of my classmates from my genuinely small high school passed away, one from illness, one from self-inflicted violence. The first died in the hospital where he was born; the kind soul who broke the news to me had been born just down the hallway, within a few days of our late friend. Their mothers had chatted in the maternity ward. The second took his life in his parents basement, I’m told, found by his father, one of the town’s long-standing personal physicians.

And who was one of his patients? You guessed it: our late friend, the party of the first part.

No novelist in her right mind would run with a plot like that; it would be well-nigh impossible to render plausible. And that’s all I’m going to say about why I’ve been posting rather sporadically over the last week.

Back to the business at hand. In the course of our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) and how to protect your manuscripts and contest entries from their wrath, I have fleetingly but persistently brought up the plight of the novelist juggling more than one protagonist. Instead of following a single character closely, as the POVNs would prefer, these ambitious narratives trace the careers of several, through either several distinctive first-person voices, each giving her own perspective (in the manner of Pulitzer Prize finalist 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 to another.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator, generally speaking, 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.

Taken individually, a POVN would be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective. In theory, at least.

Why only in theory? All too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective barriers are maintained. In many manuscripts with multiple protagonists, 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 writer 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, 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) participation in all of the important scenes. When the story arc demands another point of view, the narration simply follows another protagonist. 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 an example of how great a difference opening up the perspective can make, please see this recent post.)

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages, even in a third-person narrative. 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.

The trick to making this work in a multiple first-person or multiple tight third-person narrative is to make it pellucidly clear from the very beginning of the scene whose perspective the reader will be following, and clinging to it consistently all the way through. As opposed to, say, an omniscient narrative, where the narrator can know what’s going on from every character’s perspective and hop between them at will. That way, a simple section break before the next scene is sufficient to alert readers to an imminent perspective change.

But if you use this trick, make sure you apply it consistently; remember, Millicent tends to regard violations of the rules a manuscript has set for itself as mistakes. If she (or her boss, the agent) is not a POVN, she may well accept be delighted to see a really well-done alternating perspective submission, but the more complex the pattern, the easier it is to see deviations from it.

As you may see from the photo above, come to think of it. So before you even consider submitting a manuscript or contest entry with alternating perspectives, do me (and yourself) a favor:

1. Flip through your manuscript, making a numbered list of each scene in the book. For each, briefly note what happens and who is the protagonist is.

A lot of work? Sure. But trust me on this one: that list is going to become your best friend at revision time. Which may come sooner than you think…

2. Wait a few days, then choose a scene at random from the list. Read through it carefully, asking yourself at the end of each paragraph: is this entirely from the scene’s protagonist’s point of view, or have I engaged in head-hopping here? If it’s the latter, is an alternating first-person or tight single third-person narrative really the best way to tell this story?

3. Repeat Step 2 until the narrative choices are consistent throughout the manuscript.

How may a writer decide which of his many protagonists should be the dominant in any given scene? Often, it’s a matter of 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 running order. A rigid adherence to pattern does not always pay off from a storytelling perspective, however: sometimes it makes more sense to mix the perspectives up more, as the storyline dictates.

So what other criterion might a writer use? Often, the best choice for protagonist in any given scene is the most active character, or at any rate, the one most central to the conflict. Interestingly, though, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as their primary criterion for perspective choice on the scene level.

Indeed, I have seen many a manuscript where the author has taken quite the opposite path, bestowing the protagonist’s mantle upon the guy in the scene who is just sitting around and watching the others emote up a storm. 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.

Just between us, that’s not a structuring tactic Millicent tends to favor: it more or less guarantees a passive protagonist, right? So here are a few self-editing tips for multiple protagonist buffs who favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, assuming they have already worked their way through Steps 1-3, above.

4. Go through your list, manuscript at your elbow, marking which scenes have passive protagonists or ones who are primarily observers.

5. Wait a few days, then pick a passive scene from your list. Read through it carefully and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view? If so, try reworking the scene from that character’s perspective.

6. Repeat Step 5 until you have worked through all of the scenes you marked with the dreaded passivity symbol.

Yes, yes, I fully realize that what I just asked you to do might well take hours, if not weeks, of your precious writing time. Your point?

“My point,” those of you who favor observer-narrated fiction, “is that I believe that scenes are better observed by those who are not the primary actor in them. They can notice more, because they are not distracted by being all caught up in that messy conflict. They’re the closest thing to an objective narrator a first-person or tight third-person narrative can get!”

Um, if you don’t mind my asking, oh espousers of passive protagonists, if you’re so fond of objective narration, why aren’t you writing your story from an omniscient or a distant third-person perspective?

That’s a serious question — objectivity may be a positive boon to journalistic accounts, but for a first-person story, it can be dreadfully flattening. Who wants to read a memoir, for instance, that could have been written by just anyone? The first person cries out for individual quirkiness.

As does the tight third person in a multiple-perspective narrative. If every character viewed every situation in the same manner, what would be the point of alternating perspectives? Defining different camera angles aimed at the same immovable object?

Isn’t it more interesting if individual perspectives are presented as, well, individual, incorporating differing worldviews? Even if your various protagonists are from nearly identical backgrounds (or actually identical, like the sisters in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), even a slight personal bias can present a scene quite differently.

Don’t believe me? Okay, consider these two photographs:

tile roof in Spain 3

tile roof in spain 5

The first is the photograph of a tile roof in Spain at the top of this post, right? So is the second; the picture’s merely been flipped around. Yet objectively, both are a shot of the same roof at the same time of day, and even with the same negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an objective perspective, inherently; it merely tends to be a tad distracting in an alternating-perspective narrative. All too often, writers of such stories will lapse at some point in the manuscript into objective narration, as if they’ve forgotten that one of the premises of the book was to show a multiplicity of individual perspectives.

“Who is this unnamed new narrator?” Millicent thinks, annoyed by what she perceives to be an internal rule violation. “God? Should I expect Him to play an active role in this story, or should I assume that the writer originally wrote this scene in an omniscient voice, then forgot to come back and revise it after she settled on an alternating perspective model. I’m going to throw this one back, to give her a chance to revise it before submitting it again. Next!”

I think the tendency to lapse into so-called objective narration is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, ostensibly undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form 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?

Have you already started reaching for your scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool.) A grand idea — let’s deepen our examination.

7. Go back to the list, revisiting the scenes you marked earlier as passive. (Yes, even the ones you’ve already revised to a more active perspective; think of it as a tune-up.)

8. Read through those scenes one by one, continually asking 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?

9. Repeat Step 9 until…oh, you know the drill by now, don’t you?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit less straightforward — 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 an extremely technical description, was it not? Anyone 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. Part of what you’re missing is 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.

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

As a truly gifted writer establishes the various mindsets, tastes, overreaction triggers, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind throughout the course of the story, the perspective switches will start to become obvious to the reader. 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, that’s pretty hard to pull off, and the more dueling perspectives you’ve got going, the harder it is to pull off consistently and decisively. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical. Back to our list we go:

10. Pick a protagonist, consult your list, and read all of the scenes grounded in that character’s perspective back to back. Do they all read as though they are from the same person’s perspective?

11. If not, is there a character trait you could emphasize to make them so, something that she and only she does, says, thinks, and/or feels? A particular turn of phrase used habitually (but not often enough to get boring), for instance? A certain cultural or personal bias? An allergy to bananas? A tendency to confuse the colors tangerine and melon?

12. Repeat Steps 10-11 for each protagonist.

Again, a time-consuming exercise. But you were the one who decided to attempt the high dive here; I’m merely coaching you on how to make your mid-air twists prettier.

Another distinct advantage of the multiple-perspective approach is the relative ease of broadening the sensual range of the piece. Before anyone starts giggling, I’m not talking about sex here — I’m talking about how the narrative utilizes the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

The more feelers, tasters, sniffers, seers, and hearers a novel features, the more different ways the fictional environment may be brought alive for the reader, right? Think about it: 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 one before it, 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 social interactions with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

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

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in love 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.

Having trouble opening up this particular Pandora’s box on behalf of all of your 17 protagonists? Don’t worry; I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations.

13. Return to your list. Pick one scene from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

14. Now return to the first scene and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene considerably, doesn’t it?

15. 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. If you’re going to attempt the high dive of juggling perspective, you owe it to your small army of protagonists to differentiate between them beautifully.

Keep those scene lists handy, campers — next time, we shall be pulling ‘em out again, rolling up our proverbial sleeves, and diving back into your manuscripts. In anticipation of that delightful prospect, keep up the good work!

Plot flares, or, what have you got in that bag, and why is it meowing?

candles at Lourdes

I meant to post yesterday; honestly, I did. Then I got sucked into a conversation that a lot of us affiliated with the publishing industry have found ourselves having over the last year and a half: a debate about the presumed imminent demise of traditional publishing with people who frankly wouldn’t be all that sorry to see it go.

Specifically, in this case, with people who did not grow up cherishing the hope that sometime, someday, if they worked really, really hard at their craft, they might actually get PAID for their writing. (Hey, my SO has friends, too.) To the gleeful consumers of e-books who invaded my living room last night, the question of how — or even whether — the author of the story they’re enjoying so much will be remunerated was simply not all that interesting. They were too busy licking their chops at a vision of a world where they would never have to pay $25.00 for a hardcover again.

How could I tell that they weren’t particularly sympathetic to the authors’ plight? Well, let me put it this way: if I had one piece of bread for every time one of my guests airily voiced some dismissive iteration of, “Oh, the really good books will make money for their authors” (presumably through some magical process overseen by the Tooth Fairy’s older and more organizationally-minded sister), I’d make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for every writer I know. And I go to a lot of writers’ conferences.

To those of us who’ve been listening to the blithe declaration, “Oh, good writing will always find a home at an agency or publishing house!” for any length of time, this argument is eerily familiar, isn’t it? Most people’s faith in the inevitable discovery of every single talented writer who has ever lived borders on the intensity of a five-year-old’s confidence that Santa Claus is coming down that chimney to deliver presents, not to filch goodies from under the tree.

The possibility of disappointment just doesn’t occur to them.

The inevitability argument always makes me cringe, because its flip side is so harmful to aspiring writers. It runs a little something like this: if every good manuscript will necessarily be snapped up by the publishing industry (or an admiring web-browsing public, in my guests’ worldview), then by logical extension, if a writer’s having trouble getting a book published or finding an agent, the book couldn’t possibly be good.

It’s just not true. But writers hear this theory so often from the lips of non-writers — and even from other writers — that they can come to believe that if they were really talented, they wouldn’t have to struggle at all. So why keep pressing forward, if the Tooth Fairy’s older sister has already passed judgment on their books and found them wanting?

But try explaining that to a roomful of non-writers. Suffice it to say that after an hour and a half, I thought it might not be the world’s best idea to inflict my mood upon all of you, dear readers.

I’m more chipper tonight, though. Let’s get back to work.

Last time, I suggested — and none too gently — that while a writer is reading through his manuscript (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD) with an eye toward making his protagonist more active, it might behoove him to consider revising scenes where secondary characters are either passive or mirror the protagonist’s reactions. Not to mention looking to vary those characters’ reactions, so they do not become too predictable.

I’m bringing it up again, because most writers’ instinct is to cultivate reaction repetition, not to minimize it. All too often, writers proceed on the assumption that consistency is the way to make a character believable. The result? Generally speaking, the less complex the character, the more predictable he will become over the course of a book, because the writer keeps showing the reader the same reactions over and over again.

Why is this so common? Authorial fear, mostly, I suspect: fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living see the first repetition of a trait or plot point and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT little tidbit is going to be crucial to the climax.”

I like to call those tidbits plot flares, significant repetitions and emphatic little asides that the writer inserts early in the story so that the eventual plot twists won’t come entirely out of the blue. In your English classes, the teacher probably called it foreshadowing.

Plot flares can be a huge problem in a submission or contest entry, far more than most eager foreshadowers suspect. Millicent the agency screener is a pretty savvy reader, after all; like her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, she’s trained to pick up on foreshadowing. And when someone whose hint-discovery skills have been honed on page after page of similarly-themed manuscripts for years on end — as is almost invariably the case for an experienced agency screener or contest judge, since both agents and contests tend to specialize in certain book categories — encounters a less-than-subtle hint of what’s to come, she’s likely to draw conclusions about the rest of the book.

Which is not necessarily a drawback, if those conclusions are favorable. But if those conclusions include a sense that she’s read a similar foreshadowed twist recently, or that now that she knows what’s to come, she’s less inclined to keep turning those pages, we all know what her next decision is likely to be, right? “Next!”

Now, I have nothing against a little light foreshadowing — far from it. As a reader, I find it very satisfying if the villain’s main henchman’s nervous breakdown in Chapter 11 was suggested by a bevy of neuroses introduced with ever-increasing intensity in Chapters 2, 7, and 10, or if the protagonist’s long-lost father, known to the reader as the proprietor of the local haberdashery, evinces the occasional slightly-too-intense burst of emotion when the protagonist purchases a hat. That’s just good story construction.

Foreshadowing can devolve into plot flares when the narrative repeats same reaction, character trait, or even factual statement so that the reader is more likely to notice it. Instead of providing a subtle build-up for what’s to come, plot flares blare it.

Like so many manuscript megaproblems, the over-use of plot flares is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies and television shows: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.

Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood, or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.

In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE from the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.

Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”

From the author’s perspective, these hints may seem quite subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t awfully subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.

And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page. If the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy about to be called to action, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.

Pathos, pathos. And at this point in storytelling history, predictability, predictability.

It’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy, either. These clichés transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more to hire to play the part than the other actors?) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Christopher Walken, and/or a well-known British character actor in a US-made action picture — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re supposed to think did it, so the twist can be that somebody else did.

Wait — the Alan Rickman character doesn’t have an evil, dark secret in his past? Who saw that coming?

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry can continue to produce scripts featuring plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a completely forgettable thriller where one of the actors had, unfortunately, shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the final plot twist.

When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a neon sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.’”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.

However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges are extremely unlikely to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

And that’s a problem, because, as I mentioned above, so many aspiring writers just love foreshadowing. They think it’s clever — so clever that they often fall prey to the temptation to repeat the clue. They wouldn’t want a skimming reader to miss it or anything.

If you feel you must foreshadow, keep it low-key. If you don’t trust the reader to remember the salient information later on, try introducing it in a different manner the second or third time.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, if it’s vital to the plot that the reader know before Chapter 15 that the protagonist’s best friend, a florist with a heart of gold, is prone to sudden violent bouts of allergy-induced twitching, you could show one — one! — incident early on in the book, say in Chapter 5. Or have a couple of different characters tease her about it in Chapter 8. Or have the protagonist reflect on an earlier allergic attack in Chapter 3, then have the florist rush into Marcie’s wedding late in Chapter 11, bright red from head to toe, muttering about her recent trip to the hospital after an inadvertent brush with a freesia.

What you should NOT do, that unless you’re writing fairly broad comedy, is having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”

Not only is this brick-through-a-window foreshadowing, but the presentation doesn’t render this statement particularly memorable — not exactly the goal of foreshadowing, no? And can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me shouldn’t regard that statement about Harry as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?

Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.

Once again, Harry’s creator doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. (Harry’s going to enter politics? Who saw that coming?) Instead, it’s usually more effective to allow the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp aloud.

If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance. If s/he keeps turning the pages long enough to find out.

To avoid engendering the dreaded oh, I saw that coming a MILE away reaction, try to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that you have no need to repeat them. If the initial scene is memorable, the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Tell me honestly: were you more or less surprised by that last sentence, given that I’d mentioned allergic reactions no fewer than five times earlier in this post?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my mid-back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh, or do I merely owe my chiropractor a visit? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the manuscript. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently. If your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault? Rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

Yes, that would require going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, now that you mention it — and an excellent idea that is. I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time.

Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well. Most of us become inured through years of, yes, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Richard – cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist with a summa cum laude from MIT, Evelyn, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we are all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be assuming that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially somebody like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. But it may not be the same Millicent who picks up your full a few months hence, and even if it is, she’s likely to begin at page 1. She may jump ahead if she remembers your earlier submission vividly, but don’t count on it; she reads so many manuscripts that she may just have a vague feeling that she’s read this story before.

Why might she feel that way, even if six months have passed between readings? Because people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Pop quiz for those of you who were with me throughout the GETTING A BOOK PUBLISHED BASICS series earlier this year: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the other manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day before getting to hers??

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of clichés entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim.

Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s lifting lines doesn’t mean that Millicent won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it inadvertently from time to time. The rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are. Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. It’s not only a great way to render your manuscript more original; it’s a fabulous means of minimizing plot flares. If you don’t allow yourself to repeat a character trait or relevant outright, you’re going to need to find another way to make sure the reader is aware of it before that crucial scene in Chapter 27, aren’t you?

However you decide to work that information in, keep those advance hints subtle. If there’s a cat in that bag, you’re going to generate far more suspense by keeping it there until it’s startling for it to pop out.

There’s no need to have it meowing constantly for a few hours first. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part IX: oh, and I forgot to tell you that I won’t be speaking to you for the next 34 pages

duck and geese

Yes, yes, I know: I thought we were done with this topic for the nonce, too. Yet just when I thought I’d said all I had to say on the all-too-seldom-discussed issue of passive protagonists, life once again intervened to provide me with a perfectly dandy example of how inactive and/or endlessly self-pitying characters can frustrate a reader.

Or in this case, viewer. For the past few months, my fiancé has developed a positive passion for toting home DVDs containing entire seasons of TV series and insisting that we watch them. This would be a trifle less odd if I habitually watched of my own accord anything except news, comedy news shows, and Project Runway (I admit it: I like a nice gown), but as anyone who has navigated a long-term relationship could probably tell you, compromise is the key to happy cohabitation. (That, and negotiating very, very clear rules about who does what housekeeping chore.) As day-to-day trade-offs go, my spending a few weekends locked up with whatever horde of mostly unsavory characters he might have happened to stumble upon at the video store while he brings snacks to my writing studio during the week isn’t bad at all.

I was very patient with the first season of the most recent show, I really was. Which says something for my general level of tolerance, given that Rick had decided he wanted to watch it based upon a recommendation from a friend of his who…well, let’s just say that at the Halloween party where I first met him, the friend stormed up to argue with me about what he considered the disturbing political implications of my costume.

In case you were wondering, I was dressed as a suffragette, wearing a banner that read VOTES FOR WOMEN. So I wasn’t precisely expecting very robust female characters in a show he strongly recommended, if you catch my drift.

Actually, since we were watching the first season during my passive protagonist series, I should have been grateful. Breaking Bad‘s protagonist, Walt, vacillates between feeling sorry for himself more or less constantly and trying to remedy his situation by making and selling drugs. Not that he isn’t entitled to a spot of self-pity: the show’s creators have loaded poor Walt with a plethora of problems that would have made Job turn pale: he is battling probably terminal cancer, his teenage son walks with crutches, and as the show opens, he and his wife are expecting an unplanned-for child.

Which is a strategy straight out of the make-your-protagonist-more-likable playbook, right? The more significant the barriers are to the protagonist’s achieving his goal, the more likely the reader is to root for him while he is pursuing it.

Normally, It’s also not a bad technique for rendering a protagonist more active — and to be fair, the vast majority of Walt’s plot-altering behavior in the first season did in fact come in direct response to his confluence of dreadful luck. However (and my apologies to both those of you who may love this series and those who are planning to view it anytime soon; the latter may wish to stop reading at this juncture), this potentially engaging premise also contains a plot conceit that virtually guarantees that most of the other characters in the piece will be primarily reactive: like a million other strong, silent men in a thousand other films and TV shows, Walt doesn’t like to share his problems with anyone he loves. Or anyone else, that matter.

Among the simply enormous problems he spends the first season not telling his wife or any members of his immediate family: his diagnosis and the fact that he’s started dealing drugs to make money to care for all of them after he’s gone (although his logic on this point remains a trifle fuzzy until well into season 2).

Sound familiar? It should: the Problem I Can’t Tell Anyone About (TPICTAA, for our purposes today) is an extremely common plot device. Essentially, it’s a means of increasing the difficulty of the barriers the protagonist must overcome; by definition, he cannot rely upon his ordinary support system, because then they’d know. Admittedly, it’s often a trifle mechanical in action, producing rather predictable plot twists — oh, if my parents find out that I’m secretly training for the Olympics before I win the gold medal, all will be lost…but wait, who is that in the reviewing stands, cheering me on? — but handled well, TPICTAA can be a very effective means of raising the stakes for the protagonist, creating additional sources of conflict, building suspense, increasing plot tension, etc.

The trouble is, at this point in dramatic and literary history, most audience members are already pretty familiar with the standard twists provided by this particular plot device; as a result, it’s awfully easy for a TPICTAA-wielding writer to tumble headlong into cliché territory. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw a protagonist’s belief that his loved ones wouldn’t understand his dilemma or what he felt he needed to do to solve it justified by a story’s denouement? How often does the wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog not shake her/his/its furry head ruefully upon learning the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, simultaneously holding back tears and chuckling, and demand, “Why didn’t you tell me? Don’t you know that I love you, honey/Mom/Dad/Grandpa/Muffin/Bud/woof?”

Okay, so the dog really knew all along. No real suspense there; Fido’s the forgiving type.

Unfortunately, because this plot device is in such wide use, particularly in movies and TV shows, it’s become significantly less effective as a suspense-building technique. Think about it: if the reader already knows that revelation and reconciliation is the inevitable conclusion of all of the protagonist’s frantic secret-keeping, it can be hard to maintain — or even enlist — the reader’s sympathy. Particularly, as often happens, if the 90% of the central problem of the book could be solved if the protagonist simply walked up to the person he most fears will discover his secret and blurts it out in Chapter 2.

Instead of making precisely the same revelation in Chapter 26 of a 27-chapter book.

This is why, in case you’d been wondering, strong, silent men (or women, for that matter) so often make passive protagonists: the vast majority of their energies are going toward keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET the reader’s heard about in Chapter Three, but figures the SSM isn’t going to reveal formally until the aforementioned Chapter 26. A popular variation on this plotline, especially those featuring Protagonists With a Past: the reader doesn’t find out the content of the secret until Chapter 26, either.

Is that glint in the noonday sun an indication that some of you SSM-lovers out there are quick on the draw? “But Anne, I’ve read/seen plenty of stories with SSM protagonists, and they’re positively stuffed to the gills with action. Why, SSMs are constantly shooting back at bad guys, rescuing damsels and children in distress, and combing nighttime cityscapes to clear their good names!”

You’re quite right, pardners — an active SSM or SSW protagonist does indeed frequently perform many of these feats. But again, the writing challenge is to show him or her continually being active in pursuit of all of that name-clearing in a way that will genuinely surprise the reader: can you honestly say that it’s a great big surprise, for instance, when the protagonist first confronts the villain who smeared his good name — and the villain just laughs? Or when the SSM and the guy who slaughtered the SSM’s family as far as it can be traced have a showdown at the end of the story — and the SSM wins?

Predictability is, after all, the universal solvent of suspense. And let’s face it, not all SSMs or SSWs spring into action the nanosecond their good names are besmirched.

In fact, the primarily passive SSM or SSW’s reaction is the more common in manuscript submissions: yes, SS+ (I got tired of typing all of the ors) will rumble into movement occasionally, but usually, someone else instigates it. The bad guy butchers the SS+’s loved ones, so the retired gunman comes out of hiding — reluctantly, always reluctantly. Or the SS+ knows that an angry mob with pitchforks is coming to get her and that adorable moppet of a 9-year-old she’s picked up along the way (dare we hope that the child’s winning ways have melted the SS+’s notoriously inflammable heart?), so she holes up in the cabin where EVERYONE CONCERNED KNOWS SHE LIVES, waiting with bated breath for the mob to arrive and set fire to it. Or, most popular of all, the SS+ has very good reason to believe that conflict is inevitable, but instead of heading out to meet it, has a really long talk about it with his/her best friend — or him/herself.

I see those six-shooters waving in my general direction again. “Okay, Anne, I can see how other characters might be moving the plot along more than the SS+ — but is that potentially problematic? As long as there is conflict on every page, or at any rate in every scene, why does it matter if my SS+ is primarily reactive between Chapters 3 and 26? I’ve read many great books where the protagonist was buffeted about by forces beyond his control.”

As have I, of course, but as we’ve discussed many, many times in this forum, what will work for readers who pick up a book in a bookstore or library will not necessarily fly in a manuscript submission. Why? Because Millicent the agency screener, like pretty much every professional reader, assesses manuscripts one line at a time, not based upon entire chapters or the whole book.

In other words, her assessment of whether a protagonist is passive or not is not going to be based on the plot as a whole, but rather upon how s/he acts — and reacts — on page 1. Then on page 2. Then in the second scene. And so forth.

Those of you writing about protagonists who start out meek and learn over the course of the story to assert themselves just went pale, didn’t you? I can’t say as I blame you: the meek may well inherit the earth, but they tend to annoy Millicent in the early pages of a manuscript.

To put it a bit more bluntly: if your protagonist’s first plot-altering action doesn’t occur until later in the story, it may not matter for submission purposes.

But as we discussed earlier in this series, this need not mean that the only acceptable protagonist is one who goes through life bullying people. A shy person who struggles desperately against her feelings in order to pursue her heart’s desire can be a very active protagonist indeed. So can a depressed character fighting to regain interest in the world around him, or a basically peaceful person who has tried everything in his power to resist that bad guy before forcing a showdown with him in Chapter 26.

Okay, I’ll be blunt again: is it really the best strategy to have that gunfight at high noon be the first time in the book the SSM stands up for himself? And if your answer to that was a resounding yes, could the protagonist be fighting other forces or problems throughout the 23 chapters where he’s working up his nerve for that showdown?

Yes, there should be conflict on every page, but it needn’t always be the same conflict, need it?

The same basic principle applies, naturally, to TPICTAA-driven plots. All too often, a passive protagonist’s primary (or even only) motivation for action is keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, well, secret. No matter how strong that impulse to prevent any possibility of the most emotionally important characters in the book from experiencing productive conflict on the subject prior to the terminal chapter (oh, dear — was I channeling Millicent again?) shield himself from rejection and/or other consequences may be, it’s awfully hard to keep coming up with new and fascinating evasive tactics for an entire book.

At least ones that don’t make the people from whom he’s trying to keep the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET come across as dim-witted. Like any single-problem plot, TPICTAAs often run the risk of becoming one-note.

Seriously, the parents saw their physically slight son disappear for weeks at a time, returning with a physique that would have made Hercules sob with envy, and they had no idea that he might be engaging in some sort of training? Really? The incident when he accidentally ripped the front door off its hinges didn’t give them an inkling?

So how can a writer add more potential for conflict to a TPICTAA storyline? Give that secret-hider a disparate array of problems. After all, it’s a rare real-life person who faces only one difficulty in life, and the more different kinds of barrier the protagonist must struggle against, the wider the range of possibilities for interesting conflict.

You can also give the characters trying to figure out the protagonist’s secret — they’re not just sitting around passively, waiting for her to reveal it, are they? — more clues. I’m not necessarily talking about merely the antagonists here; consider the dramatic possibilities of one of the protagonist’s allies launching an independent secret-ferreting mission. Try giving that character more incentive to figure out what’s really going on. Or just plain make her smarter.

Specialized knowledge is always a nice, complication-generating touch. Who would be more difficult for our Olympic hopeful to fool, parents who never tear their eyes away from their computer or TV screens, or a mother who took the bronze in the shot put in 1976 and a father who lost an eye in that ill-fated world fencing championship in 1979?

While you’re going though your secondary characters, trying to decide which to beef up — look at me, already blithely assuming that you’re going to take that VERY GOOD piece of revision advice — start with the ones who don’t have strong, well-defined personal goals independent of the protagonist’s. The protagonist’s love object or best friend, for instance, often is saddled with nebulous desires like wanting the best for our family, just trying to be a team player, or even the dreaded I only want to see you happy.

Not that these aren’t perfectly lovely and plausible explanations — they are. However, allies motivated solely by their concern for the protagonist (or anybody else, for that matter) tend to give the protagonist an easier time of it than characters who have their own agendas. Particularly if those agendas are somehow at odds with the protagonist’s, knowingly or not.

Hey, you try making life plans while your wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog is harboring a PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET from you. How are you to know that your dream of becoming the world’s first water-skiing lion tamer would throw obstacles in the way of your loved one’s hidden goal of moving to the middle of the Mojave desert to raise lop-eared bunnies?

The complication-generating part of your brain has already begun whirring, hasn’t it?

As tempting as it might be at this juncture simply to draw up a list of your book’s major characters, assign each a burning secret passion, and let the conflict flow, do bear in mind that any one-note character, protagonist or not, can start to get on Millicent’s nerves after a while. (What was that I mentioned earlier about predictability being the natural enemy of sustained suspense?) A few questions you might productively ask yourself about any character you’re looking to deepen — and all of these are equally fine questions to apply to a protagonist, by the way:

What does this person want most in the world?

What’s preventing her from getting it?

What’s she willing to do in order to get it?

What would she NEVER be willing to do in order to get it? Is there something close to that line that she could do in this story?

What or whom does this person love most?

What does this person fear most?

What’s this person’s good luck charm? What’s her pet superstition?

How does this person want others to view her?

How has this person settled for less than she could have achieved? Could she challenge herself more, and in a way that would make the story richer?

Don’t be afraid to give any character in your book mixed motivations or a lack of certainty about his desires. Real people are a welter of internal contradictions, after all — why not spice things up for your protagonist by having a secondary character act out of character every once in a while?

Oh, you wouldn’t have been surprised if your mild-mannered third-grade teacher had abruptly decided to engage in commando training? (A pursuit that might actually have softened my third-grade teacher’s personality, come to think of it. I still have nightmares about her classroom.)

I’m sensing a bit of restlessness out there, and unless I miss my guess, it’s not entirely the result of trying to picture one’s third-grade teacher leaping out of a helicopter, guns blazing. “Okay, Anne, I can easily see how this would be fantastic advice for a writer just starting a book, or even engaging in a first revision. But I’ve been over my manuscript over and over again; frankly, I’m trying to make it shorter. Won’t all of this complexity-mongering just, you know, add pages?”

Yes, probably, but think about it this way: for every unexpected, complex character-revealing interaction you add, you may well be able to cut a more expected one — or possibly more than one. How many times, for instance, does the reader need to see the protagonist kiss his wife good-bye as she leaves for work? Wouldn’t that nifty new scene where she comes out of their bedroom wearing a gas mask because she’s become obsessed with the idea of carbon monoxide poisoning make a dandy substitute?

Getting the picture? Most Millicents would be far happier reading even an extended scene about the difficulties of kissing someone wearing a gas mask than even a short exchange of predictable pleasantries of the Have a nice day, dear. You, too, honey variety.

Lest those of you writing about ordinary life begin to feel left out, I should hastily add that this sort of revision can be even more effective for your manuscripts than for ones that would happily support wackier plot twists. Real people are pretty interesting, on the whole, particularly once a writer makes a point of examining their hopes, dreams, and fears, rather than defining them primarily by their roles in the protagonist’s life.

Yes, yes, presenting a character AS his role is sometimes unavoidable and even desirable on the page, particularly for characters that are seen once and never turn up again. The ER doctor treating the protagonist’s daughter in Chapter 5, for instance, need not necessarily be fleshed out as a person, in addition to being a medical provider. But trust me, Millicent sees enough purely altruistic doctors, self-sacrificing mothers, emotionally distant fathers, bratty little sisters, sullen teenagers, men who never really grew up, and prim librarians in any given week to populate a small city.

I like to call it Cliché Falls. The fewer of its citizens you recruit to traipse past Millicent’s weary eyes, the happier she will be.

In the course of ramping up the complexity, do try to avoid giving more than one major character a similar problem — or a similar way of dealing with it. If every character in the book responds to imminent conflict by changing the subject, for instance, that’s going to become predictable pretty fast. Ditto if more than one character responds to the challenge of discovering the TPICTAA by getting upset with the protagonist for not spilling the beans.

I know: people do tend to respond this way in real life. But the goal here is not merely to hold the mirror up to nature, but to tell an entertaining story, right?

Let Millicent answer that one for you: “Great heavens, yes!”

Which brings me back to why I’ve summarily banned Breaking Bad from our household, even at the cost of foregoing warm baked goods, fruit, and tea appearing on my writing desk at gratifying intervals throughout my work day. A few episodes into the second season, I abruptly transformed into Millicent in the middle of a scene where the protagonist was actually being pretty active.

And let me tell you, donning the Millicent mask is seldom pretty. “I’m done with this series,” I snapped, shutting off the DVD player while the protagonist was in mid-sentence. “I could take the mostly passive protagonist, his purely reactive wife, and his completely inarticulate drug-making partner — who are, I should like to point out three of the six main characters in the series. I’ve made a monumental effort not to be annoyed by just how many of the protagonist’s problems would have been solved by a single line of dialogue spoken to the right character. I’ve even been tolerant of the show’s propensity to bolster his Strong, Silent Man credentials by offering him a perfectly plausible way out of his primary dilemma — an escape hatch that he refused because he’s unwilling to accept help from anyone. But in this particular episode, all three of the primary characters are using precisely the same coping mechanism. It’s predictable, it’s boring, and if I could walk into any of these scenes with a megaphone, I could stop 80% of the conflict by speaking less than ten consecutive words!”

I suppose I could have completed the Millicent impression by shouting, “Next!” but that seemed like overkill.

What had the show done to make me stop reading, essentially, in the middle of a line? See if you can detect the subtle repetitive pattern here: the partner gets evicted from his house; rather than telling anyone — like, say, the protagonist — why he needs a place to stay and/or money to pay for a place to stay, he keeps it to himself, only to end up surprised and frustrated when no one in his life takes his need seriously. The wife believes that her husband is lying to her, but rather than confront the protagonist about her suspicions, she just starts leaving the house for hours at a time. Even when he confronts her, she simply remains silent, only to end up surprised and frustrated when he doesn’t take her need to know (and her need for him to guess what she thinks she needs to know) seriously. The protagonist then takes his frustration out on the partner, who not unnaturally hits him up for a loan. Because neither party will actually divulge any of the relevant details that would enable the other to understand what each wants, both end up surprised and frustrated that the other does not take his need seriously.

Enough, already. Mutual emotional inarticulateness, desperately kept secrets that ten minutes of investigation would have revealed, and the silent treatment are all too common manuscript features for a professional reader to derive much enjoyment from them in yet another story. Yes, people do indeed engage in all of these behaviors in real life, but if I wanted to spy on real people, I’d invest in a pair of binoculars and read up on stalking law, wouldn’t I?

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t. But as devoted as I am to realism, I reserve the right not to be fascinated by a storyline so exclusively dependent upon not revealing TPICTAA that it’s evidently forced to strike its three main characters mute in order to prevent the most logical questions from being asked. As someone who sorts out complex plots for a living, I can’t help but believe that allowing at least one of these characters to be articulate and active would have resulted in a more interesting story arc.

So would giving any one of those characters even a single serious outside interest. Or a hobby.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad test of character development. If a protagonist — or any other major character — would be rendered significantly more complex by becoming even a fairly lackadaisical stamp collector, s/he could probably use some beefing up across the board. Or combining with another one-note character, to create a composite two-note character. Or even — dare I say it? — being cut entirely.

Does that mean that I think it’s impossible for two characters not speaking to each other, or not able to articulate their emotions, to provide the foundation of an effective, satisfyingly conflictual scene? Of course not; writers have performed miracles with wordless interactions, revealing astonishing and unexpected nuances of human relationships. But that kind of literary magic trick is awfully hard to pull off unless at least one of the characters is acting, speaking, or even thinking in a manner that will come as a surprise to the reader, isn’t it?

Like, say, restarting a blog series that we all thought was finished last week. Tune in next time for my return to multiple perspective-wrangling, and keep up the good work!