Humans are complex creatures who, while generally consistent, have days where emotions swing more in one direction or another. This goes both for the characters – even if they are elf, alien, etc – and for their writers. Most things in life are not black and white, and that means there’s lots of ways to react to any number of situations. One day, it might seem perfect for ABC to happen, and then, when you are rereading or going back for edits, it seems more likely that XYZ would be what really happened.
Why the difference? And which path is the right one?
If you know that it’s perfectly possible for a character to have a range of responses to a situation, then you, as the writer, need to take a moment and decide – as critically as you are able – which response makes the most sense for the story.
Think of those moments as chances to ratchet up the tension, or to prep the readers in anticipation of something going wrong such as an event / decision that will come back to bite the characters in the ass later in the story. Yes, there are some decisions and actions that the characters genuinely wouldn’t do, and you want to stay far away from the line of them being inconsistent. But gray areas are fun to play with, and definitely should be played with.
You don’t need to do this while you are crafting your first draft – although if you catch yourself writing a scene where it’s possible to have variations, definitely take the time to pause and evaluate what makes the most sense for the narrative of the story. These sorts of revisions can be added in while you’re editing, too – just keep in mind that you’ll have to check for ripple effects of any changes you make if you amend things during revisions (which is no different than any other kind of editing, after all).
There might be a little or a lot of rewriting work involved, but if you capitalize on those moments where things don’t need to be black and white, you’ll have many more instances that tie the emotional arc directly back to the narrative arc. And in the end it will pay off. Having the emotional arc and narrative arc of the story entertwined is the subtle kind of writing that sneaks up and surprises a reader in a good way, and will definitely prime them for wanting more of your books.
Consequently, it should also help with your story pacing, and will help you identify scenes that are superfluous to the plot. It will also help you decide what scenes to keep in, because they have other things going on than what appears on the surface. Using opportunities for the gray areas will naturally give your scenes a deeper complexity, and every reader resonates with a story better when there are layers to things.
Knowing where to start can be difficult, but there’s nothing wrong with beginning small. It doesn’t even have to be directly about the characters’ decisions, but could be things around them.
- What if it were raining instead of sunny?
- Maybe they love the rain so it adds another example of them being the kind of character that finds a way to see the bright side even of what is usually a negative
- Maybe they forgot an umbrella and they get soaked and are grumpy and the bad fight they have with their significant other is all the more heartbreaking because the reader knows that, yes, there’s been some things they’ve been avoiding with each other but it’s understandable it comes out all at once because they’re having a bad day.
- What if their favorite color is green instead of blue?
- If it’s green, maybe they get more enjoyment being near the woods rather than the ocean, and so going camping is something they think they’ll like doing even if they’ve never done it before. This can lend itself to the reader looking at the character as adventurous and resilient, and easily adaptable to situations that require new experiences.
- If it’s not blue, maybe being near the ocean is neither a positive or a negative, so that the trip becomes more about the other characters and how they all relate to one another, instead of being primed to feel one way or another because of the location.
- Maybe their friends are trying to decide if they want to go camping or to the beach, and either the character stays quiet and we see them go with the group decision regardless of what they might prefer, or maybe they step up and participate in the decision making in either a positive or negative way.
There are lots of things you can tweak and change without altering the base foundation of the story. Pick one or two in one of your finished projects or your current WIP, and have some fun thinking about the ripple effects that it could create, or the underlying message a reader might interpret. A word of caution that it is easy to stray toward cliche, although this can be handled creatively – it’s possible to understate a character’s color preference by having them carry around a green satchel and / or wearing a green bracelet everywhere they go rather than having them announce it out loud.
Also realize that sometimes, the rain is just the rain and a color is just a color. Some readers will react to certain things while others won’t give it a second thought. Getting lost in the land of ‘what if’ can also make it more difficult to finish your stories, whereas the intention should always be to add depth and complexity and realism, not to be crippled by all the possibilities in a way that makes it impossible to continue forward in the draft.
Have you ever stalled out in your writing because you didn’t know what a character should do next? Do you think having the narrative and emotional story arcs in mind would help you make a decision that would help you push forward? Does the idea of multiple options worry you as to picking the ‘wrong’ one, and that a reader could be critical in which direction you chose to go? Have you ever had a character be stubborn, and refuse to do certain things? What work arounds, if any, have you found to work the best? The comments are always open.