The task of fiction writing is complicated. We make up people, places, and situations that are supposed to inspire readers to care and relate. We’re not trying to enchant anyone to the extent that they lose sight of the line between fiction and reality, but we are hoping to lift the veil of disbelief so that their imagination can run through the lush grass or the chipped pavement of worlds that don’t exist.
The methods for planning a novel are endless: character questionnaires, structure templates, prewriting, outlining. Some writers fall into the camp of plotters, where warm-up work is second nature and vital to racking up a word count. But how are those of us who approach the process by the seat of our pants supposed to write amazing stories?
A little over a year ago, I signed up for a theater class. Most of the lessons focused on the techniques actors use to learn about the roles they’re portraying, which involves much more than memorizing a script. Before ever setting foot on stage, each actor identifies the goal his or her character is trying to achieve in the upcoming scene. Whether it’s as simple as asking a friend for a favor or as dramatic as attacking an enemy, the character and actor both need motivation to move from Point A to Point B.
Over a period of one year, famous artist Claud Monet dedicated himself to painting a set of haystacks during various seasons, weather conditions, and times of day. Sounds monotonous, right? On the contrary, the results were stunning, because Monet discovered a technique that can revolutionize any scene—whether it’s typed in a word processor or splashed onto a canvas.
Offensive line coaches in football think strategically. While they may love a quick score, they don’t expect a touchdown without a fight. Instead, they develop a series of plays with a singular goal: to advance the ball up the field. Football is a game of inches, and if each part of the plan is executed correctly, the ball should cross into the end zone. When writers craft stories, they also must think strategically. From brief encounters to full-scale scenes, the characters need to act and react in a manner that pushes the plot toward a specific outcome.
Writers are liars. We spend hours trying to make imaginary people and places seem realistic enough that the line between fact and fiction blurs inside readers’ heads. We want the sensory details to be so tangible that they can see, hear, and feel everything the characters experience. But readers aren’t the only parties we need to convince. Our characters should be tangled up in the deception too.
After I finished the draft of my first full-length novel, I eagerly sent a copy to a friend for feedback. Much to my dismay, she flagged one of the most important scenes: an argument between two of the protagonists. She said it seemed out of character for both of them, and I had to agree. They lacked a reason to be emotionally invested. But how could I rectify the mistake without altering the story’s outcome?
Have you ever written a scene that you’re just not satisfied with, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with it? Perhaps the pacing inches along at the speed of a crippled snail, or the theme feels as shallow as a puddle beside the ocean. Chances are, the issue isn’t choppy prose, bland dialogue, or bad grammar (though those are all substantial problems). Scene troubles usually originate inside the heart of the moment, underneath the skin and bones of what’s going on.
The first time I set out to write a novel, I ground to a stop on the twenty-ninth page. A year later, I decided to toy with a different premise. That time, I reached sixty-two pages before I hit a blank I couldn’t push past. In both of these attempts, I wrestled with the same problem: I had a vision for the beginning and the ending, but I couldn’t figure out how to connect them. In fact, my plot refused to stretch beyond a few chapters.
A few summers ago, I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Every little detail—the buildings, layout, animatronics, costumes, food, and music—whispered authenticity. As I explored, I got swept up in the magic and thrill of discovery. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed that Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade actually existed, even if only on another plane that my muggle eyes couldn’t see. I wanted my surroundings to be real, so I embraced the playacting, which made the whole experience even more enjoyable.