Looks like it’s the end of the semester, though I have just enough time to include one more tip from the MFA pit. I know I haven’t been very timely about passing them on earlier, then two weeks apart you get two, but it’s been a very busy semester, and all of a sudden you look up and BOOM – it’s almost summer. Well, not quite, but close enough in college time. Anyway, this week’s tip look at two topics, the question of character growth over the course of a narrative, and how much info to disclose along the way. Get my side of the argument, then you decide…
Most writing instructors will tell you that a protagonist – or an antagonist – need to show growth over the course of a book. You’ve discovered a read can still be enjoyable and engaging without it. But even if there is no growth, there should be change, in the sense that we get to know their motivation, or perhaps they do, over time. They may not change or alter their behavior, but perhaps they alter someone else’s. Hannibal Lecter certainly wasn’t going to change in The Silence of the Lambs, but he sure as hell changed Clarice. And there’s no doubt that a good villain is just as enjoyable – sometimes more – than a hero. I suppose more than anything, there has to be movement, in one way or another, not only with the story unfolding, but also in the way the story evolves. And in how much is disclosed to the reader.
I’m a firm believe in only disclosing information on a need-to-know basis. Let on what is essential in telling your story while still keeping the reader guessing. Unless we’re writing in omniscient narration, we’ll shouldn’t ever see “Little did Alex know, but he was about to…” This is not Stranger Than Fiction (one of my all-time favorite movies). Drop those breadcrumbs, let the reader feel like they’re part of the process. One of the best books I ever read that did this was Burden of Proof by Scott Turow. When the murderer was finally revealed I literally gasped. I was surprised, but all those breadcrumbs tumbled into place. Each step toward the eventual conclusion, or the solving of the crime, has to also fall in line with the logic of the person acting it out. No “deus ex machina” or Dickensian surprises. The actions taken by the protagonists and antagonists have to make sense both to the characters’ personalities as well as make sense to the story. It’s okay to surprise your readers, but make sure their gasp is one of delight, not disbelief.
Until next semester — happy writing!