Give Characters Agency to Drive a Story

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Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. It’s not a term that’s common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dy  namic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to product a particular result.

5 Ways: Making a Scene. Making It Count.

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I advise the writers in the Workshop to always write toward a scene. It’s like the gas stations along a long highway as you drive a max-size SUV: you have to visit them often to get home.

2012FordExcursionBut while you’re writing those scenes, you should consider if they all must be used. How do you do that? One writer in the Workshop offered pages from meeting to meeting that were completely rooted in scene. I struggled to engage with those scenes because I was always wondering, “But why would that character do that?” Making up those answers took me out of the dream state that we wish to induce in our readers.

Sequel and prequel provide that context for explanations. You need room in your writing for scenes, as well as the sequel and prequel material that explains and introduces the action. So eliminating scenes is an essential skill to make room.

You eliminate these wonderful but wandering bits of drama by asking these five questions.

  1. What’s the intention and purpose of this scene?
  2. How is it related to the scene immediately beforehand, and how does it connect with the scene afterward?
  3. What is the conflict inside this scene?
  4. What’s at stake for my protagonist, my hero, in the scene?
  5. How does this scene develop my plot further?

When you know the answers for each of your scenes, you might discover one that has no clear intention, or is missing conflict, or does not put anything at stake for your protagonist. These scenes either need to follow a purpose, show conflict, or reveal compelling stakes.

Or you can remove them. Revision can be ruthless at times. It’s a great practice to know these five things about any scene you’re about to write. In that way, you save yourself the pain of cutting out something you created with love — but lacking a clear mission.

Essentials for a Compelling Memoir

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Memoir is a story told with the author as the hero. But also told as the goat, buffoon and dupe. You see, a memoir needs to balance its heroism and sacrifice — easy enough to write in the first person — with the mistakes and flaws we observe about ourselves. Or have noted about ourselves by friends, lovers, and rivals.

I try to remind writers of memoirs they should be asking hard questions of themselves while choosing their material. (After all, it’s a memoir, so it’s selective. An autobiography makes sure that all the ground is covered over a lifetime.) The questions are

1. What are my flaws that are revealed in this story?
2. How am I being fearless in the writing of this story?
3. How am I being vulnerable in this section?
4. How can I be more fierce in drawing conclusions or showing the lessons?

Memoirs also unreel stories that a narrator is compelled to relate. But that’s not the most entertaining way to tell the story, in some instances. That can be the scene. One basic definition of a scene is a short period of time where people grapple with a task or a goal to be accomplished, a striving that includes conflict or struggle. And at the end of a scene something is resolved, and something is not. The unresolved yearning pushes our heroine — yes, the writer — into the next event or choice.

These scenes provide the open glens which are the complement to the dense forests of narration. The showing versus telling give-and-take in any story can gain the essence of showing, even during narration. Include specific detail, the more unique the better, in any stretch of narration. As they say in journalism to reporters, if a dog bites a man, get the name of the dog.

Hunt for fearlessness, fierceness, and flaws in your memoir writing. Telling has more than one definition. When an action is telling, it means it’s representative of a larger truth. Using this ideal, even your showing can be telling.

3 Steps to Calculate Showing and Telling

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scene-structure bickhamA writing student of mine has asked more than once in class, “I am looking for a guideline on scene, to sequel, to narrative for my writing.” Whether it’s creative non-fiction (like a memoir), or a short story or even a novel, there are no magic formulas as in screenwriting. Writing movies can be as rigid as you’d like to follow, with expected major plot points coming at 30 pages, and again at 60. The whole thing needs to be written between 90 and 120 pages.

But if you’re working outside the realm of writing movies — and screenplays can be a powerful experience to teach story structure — you’ve got to decide for yourself what’s effective for these ratios. You have a key reader look at your mix for a chapter, or a workshop group. You read it aloud to yourself.

The mix? You can single-space it printed, then color-code with a highlighter. Blue for narrative — the telling or prelude or exposition. Yellow for dialogue and scene — where two or more people try to solve a problem, or a person struggles to accomplish a goal.

Then green for what Jack Bickham calls sequel. In his fine textbook Scene & Structure, Bickham describes sequel as the writing

…that begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struck by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a period of sheer emotion, followed sooner or later by a period of thought — which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal just selected.

Emotion to thought, then onward to new action. Bickham goes on to point out that once you have the action selected, you add a character or a force to oppose it. You get conflict. We crave conflict as readers. And so you’re now into the next scene. (It’s Chapter 7, Linking Your Scenes, in Bickham’s essential book.) More

Opening bids need 10 elements

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At the Writer’s Digest Web site, the article Opening Scenes: An Overview details a double-handful of building blocks for a novel or short story.

It’s a great list, full of wisdom, humor, specifics and examples.

6. The Opening Line
Spend an awful lot of time on this sentence. In fact, more effort should be expended on your story’s first sentence than on any other line in your entire story. No kidding.

The Web article is an excerpt from Wes Edgerton’s book Hooked! Another title that you will find in the Workshop’s library. We’ve got more than 100 craft books on hand.

Honest advice about agents

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For the writer who wants to market finished work, the Web offers a great blog on the world of literary agents. Writer’s Digest Books produces the Guide to Literary Agents, which has a free corresponding blog:

There’s good writing advice on the blog, too. The latest article is by an writer who gives advice about the ratio of scene to sequel in your book (if it’s fiction). Remember, scene is action and dialogue between characters, while sequel is the writing that follows or precedes, where the characters consider and deal with what has just happened, then make a choice on how to continue the pursuit of what they want.

The advice on ratio is from Candy Davis, who’s got an article in the 2008 edition, soon to hit bookshelves and Amazon:

” … Your book’s unique proportion of scenes and sequels should produce a characteristic rhythm an agent can easily recognize as the perfect pulse for the work: staccato for quick-paced action genre, more legato for a genre that focuses on internal process. Running too many scenes together allows no space for the character to evaluate his progress.

Each scene should begin and end with a hook, and should capture a complete and meaningful ‘story event.’ Keep scene length appropriate to your genre, and never longer than necessary to cover the episode. Cut mundane interactions, placeholder dialogue and extraneous background information. A sequel generally follows a major plot point, steps up the stakes and turns the story in a new direction. Allow the character a moment to evaluate past mistakes, realize a previously overlooked or rejected option, and take the first step toward a new and more desperate plan.

The blog also has an article near the top (as of today, July 9) that gives a few suggestions on how to locate the agent who sold a book you admire or just finished.

I’ve had something to say about scene and sequel myself on this blog, last year.