When you think about fast-paced stories, what comes to mind? Cliffhangers that keep you awake late at night, turning pages so quickly that you get paper cuts? Or anemic character arcs and half-hearted themes. Sometimes films and books sacrifice character development for the sake of fight scenes and car chases. But if a character’s experiences don’t change him at all, what’s the point?
All writers and readers have an opinion on literary tropes—which ones they like, dislike, and think are overdone, as well as those that reserve the author (or consumer) a spot in the third circle of hell. If you’re new to the party, tropes are common literary devices or clichés. They can be phrases, situations, or images, and they’re born from familiar patterns of storytelling that audiences find compelling.
Several months ago, a new character I’d created went rogue and escaped the world I’d placed him in. Leaping between realms, his ghostly spirit crashed into a peaceful wood where a fisherman dipped his net into portals and God sat in his favorite spot, thinking. I was stunned. How could this have happened?
When you’re in the thick of writing, you’re pressured to perfectly structure your plots, ace your pacing, and polish your prose. Amid that chaos, character arcs can easily get lost. You want readers to be touched by hope when the hero perseveres, joy when he discards his selfish goals, or determination when he confronts the villain. But despite the effort you’ve poured in, you worry that readers won’t be able to follow the protagonist’s arc.
Plot holes are as dangerous to writers as the Joker is to Batman, Sauron is to Frodo, and Thanos is to the Avengers. Inconsistencies and improbabilities sneak into our manuscripts like nefarious villains, demanding substantial rewrites. We try to be vigilant, but what if a reader stumbles upon a crack we overlooked during editing?
When I began writing on a regular basis, it was more of an exploration than a process for me. I’d sit down with a vivid scene idea and let my characters lead moment by moment, without considering how events should form a chain. My imagination had no limits.
As writers, we love exploring the internal struggles that shape our characters. During formative moments, emotional turmoil may need to take center stage, as with Thomas in Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes. Usually this scene happens near the story’s middle, when everything—including the protagonist—seems to be falling apart. Turning points deserve emphasis; otherwise the deep change in the character’s arc will seem artificial or glossed over.
You’re sailing along in your work-in-progress, excited by the story you’re telling and the characters you’re creating. You’ve written tens of thousands of words, and your fingers itch to type “The End.” Then inspiration flutters away. Your tempo changes from allegretto to largo. You struggle to finish a paragraph and can’t get anywhere near your minimum daily quota of five pages, which you used to easily surpass.
We’ve all had heart-pounding experiences alongside fictional characters. We held our breath when Ethan Hunt made a last-ditch attempt to stop an explosion in Mission Impossible, pored over Pride and Prejudice for hours to discover one family’s future, and perched on the edges of our seats when Thanos, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man faced off in Avengers: Endgame. But why do these scenes capture us, and how can we replicate the effect in our own stories?
Have you ever set down a book, startled that the author turned your outlook upside down with tiny black marks on paper? Do you want to write stories that have the same effect on others?