Today’s column is an addition to previous columns about character development. We all tend to make assumptions—it is easy to think our readers know as much as we know about our characters.
Assume this is the critique: “I’d like to know more about that person. I really don’t have a clear image.” At first you ask yourself, “What do they mean? I know I was very clear.” It gets even worse if you’re writing a series in which each book is a stand-alone.
This became apparent at a critique group meeting this month. I read a few chapters of the first draft of the new Silver Sisters Mystery to the Mystery Writers Critique Group of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society. They hadn’t read the previous books in the series and therefore didn’t have clear images of the characters in the opening scene. It was something very easily fixed with a few choice words and phrases, but something my sister and I glided right past when we drafted the chapters. We know these characters as well as we know our own family and subconsciously assumed everyone else did. On the surface, we thought we introduced them adequately but obviously, we did not.
Not as simple as it sounds
Making the right assumptions sounds like it should be simple. Well, that’s not always the case. Let’s go with a character who just sits around and says little. Perhaps that’s okay for a minor character, but he’s critical to the events in the entire story. Ask yourself, “What is this fellow like as a person?” The challenge is to take him out of seeming like a child’s paper doll cutout and giving him characteristics that the reader will recognize and respond to. Then they will have some feeling for why he does things or reacts in a certain way. These assumptions can also help you plot red herrings, or misleading clues to the outcome.
Here is the hard part. As the writer, it’s important to make your own assumptions for the fiction to even get off the ground. It forces you to choose what is important and what isn’t. Therein lies the danger lies as you develop the plot and manuscript. If you make the right assumptions you’ll be able to determine which details are the right ones to work with. Alas, if you make the wrong assumptions, it could result in leaving out pertinent details, and that has potential for murder. It could kill the story.
Here is an example
A man and his girlfriend approach his car. He beeps the locks open and as she gets in, he walks around to the driver’s side. An unmarked white van screeches to a stop, the door slides open and a man the size of a gorilla grabs the boyfriend and pulls him into the van. The girl jumps out of the car and watches the van speed away. Scene ends.
Next scene. The girlfriend gives the cops her account of what happened, and blubbers that she was too upset to write down or remember the license plate. “It was just a plain white van, that’s all.” You, as the author, assume the reader will conclude that this might have been a planned kidnapping
However, if it is critical to the readers’ perception of the story, and you assume the reader will think the girlfriend was upset because it seemed to be a senseless snatch, that the cops had witnessed the abduction or been summoned by 911, and she didn’t get the number because she was bordering on hysteria, (but don’t explain these reactions) they might not share your line of thinking. Consider whether you need to put in any scenes to explain what you want them to assume. Why didn’t she get the license number? What triggered the arrival of the cops? Did she have any knowledge that her boyfriend might have been kidnapped for a reason?
The positive and negative effect
If the right number of expanded scenes provide information through narrative or dialogue in addition to action, while more fully developing the character, those scenes will most likely work just fine. However, if the only purpose is to liven up the action, the end result could be more like a movie with a weak plot, but scores of car chases and shootings that actually slow down the story. Without the visual impact of such scenes, the reader plods ahead to find out what happens, occasionally flipping past many pages of non-essential action.
Exploring other alternatives for the same storyline, perhaps the girlfriend gets out of the car, pulls a paper and pen from her purse and in complete command of herself writes down the number and description of the van, even noting a broken left tail light and patchy paint. Without blinking an eyelid, she calmly dials 911. Whoa. What is going on here? You are going to have to include something that accounts for this behavior, because it’s not what the reader instantly assumes she would do.
Let’s get even more questionable. What if she doesn’t call 911, the cops don’t show up, and she gets in the car and drives away. Now what?
What’s the point of all this?
The challenge is to provide enough background while writing tight and moving the story at a good pace.The point of assumptions is the ability to decide how many scenes and how many details to include in order to lead your reader to the assumptions you want them to make.
Here is a fun exercise. Come up with two or three sentences like the one above for a few basic storylines. Inclue action, reaction, result. Then think about a variety of assumptions and all of the alternate ways the basic story could play out.
My mind was racing in many directions as I wrote this column. Just by considering alternate scenarios that trigger assumptions, it results in many different possible plots for the same idea.
MORGAN ST. JAMES co-authors the popular Silver Sisters Mysteries series with her real life sister, writes novels and short stories on her own, columns, a newsletter and more. Silver Sisters Book 3, Vanishing Act in Vegas and the Writers’ Tricks of the Trade book were just released. Her talks and workshops have been praised by attendees at conferences, meetings and events. Morgan will be soon presenting a series of online workshops with Savvy Authors. Watch for information.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:Visit www.morganstjames-author.com, www.silversistersmysteries.com, http://writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com, and her personal blog http://morgan-stjames.blogspot.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter. Please pass this column on to your writer friends.
Writers’ Tricks of the Trade appears every Thursday in the Las Vegas edition and every Friday in the Los Angeles edition.