Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Four Pillars Linking Character to Plot

By Jeff Seymour, @realjeffseymour

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: First chapters carry an extra challenge for writers--they need to make someone want to read the rest of the book. Please help me welcome Jeff Seymour to the lecture hall today, who's here to share some thoughts on first chapters and help us create stronger openings.

Jeff Seymour writes hopeful, heartfelt fantasy that blends modern characters with timeless plots and offers something new and fantastic on every page. His debut middle-grade novel, Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue, was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons on May 15, 2018. In his day job as a freelance editor, Jeff helps shape and clean up stories for a talented roster of bestselling sci-fi and fantasy authors as well as newcomers to the business. In his free time, he serves as support team to a wife with an incredible career of her own, pretends he knows anything about raising children, and gathers ideas for stories everywhere he goes.

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Take it away Jeff...

It takes a lot to make the opening to a novel fly. When it works, it’s a well-orchestrated symphony: the setting swells in the background, the first strains of plot and theme emerge, the voice sets the tempo and the cadence. But it’s character that ties that whole thing together, character that hooks the reader, character that provides the melody—that instantly recognizable refrain that everything else exists in relation to, and that cascades through the whole book and remains in the reader’s mind long after they’re finished.

There are many ways to approach character in the opening of a novel, but when I look at great openings, I find they always introduce at least one main character and offer four types of information about them. I think of them as the four pillars of character, and they help link character and plot to make a book enchanting, compelling, terrifying, or all three.

1. What does the main character value?

As I see it, the key to a character’s identity—and to sympathizing with them—lies in what they value. Values tell us as readers what sorts of things a character is going to do, how they’ll react, and most importantly, whether we want to follow them and what we want to follow them for. Are they a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between? Do we sympathize with their values or not? Do we want to spend hours reading about them? Look at any great character introduction and I suspect you’ll discover what they value almost immediately: Luke Skywalker values heroism. Elizabeth Bennet values intelligence and honesty. Dr. Watson values freedom and peace. Sherlock Holmes values the pursuit of knowledge. Knowing that helps us sympathize with them and decide we’re interested in reading about them.

2. What does the main character want?

Once we know what the main character values and we’re interested in them, we usually want to know what the main character is up to. What are they trying to achieve? What are their short-term and long-term goals, and how are they connected? Luke Skywalker wants to help his aunt and uncle in the short term, which will let him transfer to the academy where can pursue his long-term goal: becoming a pilot and fighting the Empire. Dr. Watson is looking for a room in the short-term, where he can pursue his long-term goal of recovering after the war in Afghanistan. Elizabeth Bennet is looking forward to a ball in the short term, and searching for a happy marriage for herself and her sisters in the long term.

Knowing these things helps move our interest from the character to the plot. Having established that we sympathize with someone in general, we discover that we also sympathize with what they want, which makes us interested in whether they’re going to achieve it. (An important aside: In some books, long-term goals aren’t clear to the main character at the onset of the story—deluded protagonists make a very interesting type—but they’re almost always made clear to the reader.)

3. What’s in the main character’s way?

The third pillar, what’s in the way of the main character achieving their goals, tightens the weave between the reader’s interest in character and their interest in plot. The short-term answer may not be particularly compelling (Dr. Watson, for instance, is just beginning to run short of money). But the long-term answer is what sucks the reader into the book. Luke Skywalker is trapped on a backwater planet with no clear way off it. Dr. Watson has no friends, no purpose, and is sick. Elizabeth Bennet’s family severely limits her choice of potential partners. Any one of those three sentences could be the first part of the marketing copy on the back of a book. That’s how compelling those obstacles are, and how important this pillar is. How in the world can these people, whose goals we’ve now decided we sympathize with, overcome these things? We must know! So we read on to find out.

4. What is the main character doing about it?

The final pillar is what the main character is doing about the obstacles in their way. It’s very rare for a character who attempts no solution to their dilemma to hook a reader. Luke tries to get his uncle to let him leave home. Dr. Watson goes to London, then takes up with Sherlock Holmes. Elizabeth Bennet courts men she thinks would be good partners, and tries to help her sister Jane do the same. Critically, each of these things involves the character in whatever larger forces(the rebellion, the courtship season, a murder) drive the plot.

This final pillar lends purpose to the plot—who cares about Luke arguing with his uncle if we don’t know what it means to him? Who cares about Elizabeth Bennet at a ball if we don’t understand the stakes for her? Who cares about Watson and Sherlock’s early days if we don’t know why Watson took up with Holmes in the first place? If you ever get feedback that your opening is boring, or a reader couldn’t connect with a character, or they weren’t sure what was going on, it may help to return to this sequence and make sure you’ve hit each of these pillars in order. Chances are something’s gone wrong, and that’s why you’ve lost your reader.
The art is in the execution

One final note:
to some writers, this approach looks unbearably formulaic. If that’s you, I encourage you to try it anyway. I suspect you’ll find that the art, and the challenge, is in the execution. The joy comes not in trying to write a symphony without melody, but in writing a melody that’s unforgettable, and that synchronizes so well with the rest of the piece (in a novel: the setting, the theme, the style, the voice, the plot, the other characters) that it leaves a lasting smile on the face of those who encounter it.

About Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue

From debut author Jeff Seymour and bestselling illustrator Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) comes this breathtaking fantasy adventure, starring an extraordinary new heroine and set in an unforgettable world where ships can fly.

It takes a very special crew to keep the cloudship Orion running, and no one knows that better than Nadya Skylung, who tends the cloud garden that keeps the ship afloat. When the unthinkable happens and pirates attack, Nadya and the other children aboard--all orphans taken in by the kindhearted Captain Nic--narrowly escape, but the rest of the crew is captured. Alone and far from help, only Nadya and her four brave and loyal friends can take back the Orion and rescue the crew. And she'll risk life and limb to save the only family she's ever known. But . . . this attack was no accident. What exactly are the pirates looking for? Could it be Nadya they've been after all along?

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