Oh No, She Didn’t! Oh, Yes She Did!

Writers must always be mindful of why and how characters handle certain situations. Otherwise, characters’ actions come off as forced, contrite, inaccurate, or artificial. In other words, a wonky response is the kiss of writerly death.

So, a writer must follow the rules of logic. If X, then Y. If Johnny loses his father’s favorite watch down the drain pipe, then Johnny has to go after it. Makes sense, right? We, the reader, can go along with it. We can follow Johnny into the sewer…erm, well maybe not, but we can certainly cheer him on or at least wish him luck!

But what happens when, “If X, then Y,” gets boring? For example, Sally is angry at Alice, so Sally tells Alice she’s angry. It’s straight forward. Expected, Predictable. Bor-ing!

Writers, then, have the job of adding, “The Twist.” (AKA Tension.) HOW???

Let’s use the Sally example. She’s mad at Alice. Maybe she’s mad because Alice stained the shirt she borrowed. Maybe Alice forgot to meet her at the movies. Maybe Alice asked the boy Sally likes to the spring fling! (Oh no, she didn’t! Oh, yes she did!)

But that’s not enough!!!!

To really maximize the tension, what if Sally has a hard time sticking up for herself? What if her mom taught her not to express anger or disappointment in others (and nobody, I mean nobody, can diss Miss Manners!)? How about Sally turns into a fire-spewing dragon whenever she loses control of her fury? (Had to throw in something for us paranormal/fantasy types.)

How might this play out? Well, it could be as simple as:

Sally is mad at Alice for asking the cute boy to the dance, so she thinks about how often her best-friend-in-the-entire-world-always-gets-what-she-wants-and-never-thinks-about-Sally’s-feelings. This thought triggers a physical reaction (her fists clench, her jaw tightens, her ears burn, her head pounds, her stomach twists). But something stops her from speaking. Her throat tightens. Her voice squeaks. She says, “Oh, you’re a great couple! I can’t wait to see your dress!”

End result: Sally’s seething and Alice has no idea.

Suppressed. Anger. THAT’S tension!

Anybody bored? I didn’t think so. 😉

A fine example of this set-up (where a character has a particular thought/physical reaction, but says something entirely different) occurs throughout Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger.

What other examples have y’all come across? Have you used this technique in your writing?

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Be sure to check out Sarah’s debut post with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog where she shares her writerly goals for 2011!

Goals–Love ’em or hate ’em?

Some writerly pals and I shared our writing goals for 2011. After going through the exercise, I realized that I’ve had these goals in mind all along, I just never committed them to paper.

Why not? 

I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment if I failed. (I have enough things to feel bad about already, you know what I’m sayin’?) So, by not writing down mygoals, I had the mental flexibility to tell myself it was okay, I changed my mind, or it was okay to change that deadline I arbitrarily made because, well, I didn’t set it in stone in the first place.

But hold on a minute.

If I’m not a goal-oriented person, then how did I get through high school, undergrad, med school, residency, etc? Why am I looking to purchase a house? What makes me save up some money to buy a super cool Mac gadget? (Well, that would be the sexy Apple Advertising, but hey, y’all get the point.)

Even more than that, how in the world would I spend hours, days, weeks, and months–hell, years at this point–drafting seven novel length manuscripts if I didn’t have a goal in mind?

Which brings me to my point.

I realized that it’s worth writing down goals because then I can see where I’m at and where I’m heading. Sure, things will come up to block me (or advance me) along the way. That’s the marvelous thing about life. And writing down goals by no means makes them permanent and unchangeable. Think about it. How many times do we cut scenes and delete chapters to replace them with better versions? All the time! Why can’t we do that with goals too? I say we can. But, like we need rough drafts in order to carry out revisions, we need a starting point for goals in order to make modifications.

What about you? Do you have concrete, tangible writing goals for this coming year? Do you write them down or do you “wing it?” What happens if you don’t meet a goal?

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Be sure to stay tuned for next week’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog–we’ll be addressing a NEW topic!