5 Pickles to Write Yourself Into

As we all know, there are more ways to make a mess of your manuscript than angels on the head of a pin. So I’m not going to try to hit them all here, just some of the main ones I see crop up repeatedly in the work of fresh, innocent, hopeful aspiring writers.

  1. Too many protagonists

  2. Omniscient narrator: everyone wants to do it. Nobody knows how. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald made a hash if it.

    So the innocent aspiring writer tells themself, ‘I just go into the point-of-view of whomever I’m interested in at that part of the story.’

    And the next thing you know, the reader is asking themself, ‘What ever happened to the guy with the headache on page one? Why have we never heard again from the woman with the mowhawk? Since when does the PARROT get a say in all of this?’

    Boing-boing-boing. It’s everybody’s story, which means it’s nobody’s story, which means the reader has no one to identify with, and the call of stale cookie dough in the freezer echoes louder in their head than the call of your increasing series of conflicts.

    Pick a protagonist.

    If you’re designing two entirely distinct and separate subplots to weave in and out of each other, pick two. If you’re designing three or four distinct subplots, you can pick three or four protagonists (as Carson McCullers did in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and William Gibson did in Mona Lisa Overdrive), but you’d better be darn sure you need all those subplots, and with that many protagonists you’ll have to pick a primary one.

    Then stick to them like glue. You don’t have to live inside their head with them. But make sure they’re the only one who gets a narrative perspective if you do zoom in for a close-up. Everyone else must SHUT THEIR YAP.

  3. Sympathetic villain

  4. This is a by-product of too many protagonists: the villain becomes the reader’s favorite.

    How does this happen? And why?

    Easy! Readers are fascinated by characters with powerful internal conflict. That’s why they read.

    ‘What if someone just like me—amped to the nu-nu’s on conflicting needs and desires without adequate resources to achieve any of them—were to land in the hottest of hot water?’

    They don’t want to live through it. They want some imaginary character to live through it on their behalf. Vicarious triumph! It’s all the rage in fiction and has been for four hundred years.

    So you give them a protagonist with only goodness inside, struggling courageously in defense of the brave and the free.

    And you give them an antagonist, a seething bundle of angst and outrage and despair, determined to bring down the brave and the free because, goddammit, they deserve it!

    And the next thing you know you’ve written Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and your reader identifies with the guy underground.

    Pick your protagonist, and then pile them sky-high with all the good and bad traits, the empathy and the greed, the sorrow and the malice, the heroism and the self-sabotage you have at your disposal. Make them fight themself. Make them lose. Make them rise from the ashes like a phoenix, and always give your reader the fleeting, contradictory, anguished hope that this time it’s going to be for real.

  5. Book report instead of fictional dream

  6. This is a simple one to fix, but it’s a ton of work, which is why it turns up in so many early-draft manuscripts.

    Exposition: it’s not a novel, it’s a synopsis.

    A novel is set almost entirely in scenes: action, dialog, description—characters moving and speaking and suffering and transcending in realtime. A synopsis tells the reader in exposition what’s supposed to go into those scenes.

    Your work as a writer is to give your reader an experience of life. They don’t get an experience of life from reading a book report. If it’s a really, really great book report, it just makes them want to read that book.

    Write that book.

  7. Endless, boring climax

  8. You have so much to say.

    There’s so much that needs to go into this climax in order for the reader to get the full, shattering impact of your vision. There’s so much more that didn’t fit into the rest of the novel. You’re scrambling to pack it all in. It goes on and on and on. . .but you don’t notice because, you know, you love this stuff!

    A climax by definition is the most powerful point in your novel, and power by definition hits hardest when it hits the smallest surface—which in fiction means the smallest number of words.

    The craft of fiction is the craft of deftly dropping addictive hits of power into your manuscript at regular intervals to keep your reader hooked and salivating, building their addiction, until they’re so needy for your climax it takes barely a handful of words to blow them sky-high out of the water.

    Henry James could do it with ONE word. Strive toward Jamesism.

  9. Garbled resolution

  10. And hot on the heels of the climax that never ends comes this one: the resolution that makes no sense.

    The reader has stuck with you through 70,000+ words, hundreds of pages, soaking up those addictive hits of power until their pump is primed like nobody’s business.

    And you give them. . .what? a limp noodle?

    This happens most often because the writer has tried to plan out the resolution from the beginning. You’re not writing about your characters’ worst nightmares, you’re writing about your fantasies.

    But readers have their own fantasies. Truly, they’re not all that interested in ours.

    Write toward your climax. Keep your sights on the greatest possible challenge to your protagonist’s needs. Force them to face their biggest demons, squeeze blood from their stone.

    How that all shakes down in the end is so important and profound you can’t possible predict what it will be until you’ve seen how your characters cope with this nightmare. You’re writing your novel to learn for yourself what happens to someone who’s had blood squeezed from their internal stone.

    And you can’t teach your reader something you haven’t learned yet.

Remember: you also can’t write if you haven’t yet discovered those 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.

29 thoughts on “5 Pickles to Write Yourself Into

  1. Hi there, Victoria. 🙂 I love this post. I have done several of these things in a number of my early works. I have since learned to narrow down the POVs. This is a great post that every writer should read.

    1. Victoria says:

      Thanks, Victoria. Yeah, the POV thing is always hard—when you know these characters as well as you do, and you love working with them enough to do it for a whole novel, it’s hard not to get seduced into wanting the reader to share all that knowledge of their insides with you.

      But remember Hemingway’s injunction: it’s the 80% underwater that gives an iceberg its dignity.

  2. Michael says:

    A fantastic article. I loved it.

    1. Victoria says:

      Thanks, Michael!

  3. Chris says:

    Good post, Victoria. All points for me to continue working on, though I think I’m moving in the right direction, at least.

    I have a question about #5. Is a garbled resolution the same as an ambiguous resolution- one where there’s no ‘happily-ever-after’ ending? Meaning an ending where there’s no clear winner or loser, perhaps reflecting the shades of gray found in real life?

    I feel my ending does make sense, but might not be satisfying for a reader who wants the good guy to be 100% triumphant in the end.

    Thanks for your feedback.

    1. Victoria says:

      Excellent question, Chris. No, I don’t mean an ending that’s not happy-ever-after. I mean an ending the reader can’t get anything out of.

      Let me answer this one on the advice column where others can see it, okay? I have a feeling you’re not the only person wondering about this.

  4. Great advice especially 1. I recall a Hemingway short story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ where he goes into the mind of a wounded and hunted lion for a paragraph and it works beautifully, although that boy Hemingway could write rather well. Interesting that he was a contempory of Fitzgerald and wrote about him in ‘A Moveable Feast’ his autobio about his time in Paris. Sorry, Hemingway appreciation society meeting over. I like the look of your blog, it’s very classy and you have some great posts which as an aspiring author I need to read. If I could be so bold, I’m not overly keen on the font you use in your posts. It’s a serif font which doesn’t work well on screen, it looks as if bits of the lettering has faded, or maybe I’m just getting old. Sorry about that but I’m not known for my tact. Great blog keep it up. 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      Hemingway and Fitzgerald knew each other extremely well and were very instrumental in each others’ careers. I’ve read most of Hemingway’s fiction, some pieces of which work better than others, but the book I really do love is A Moveable Feast. I use it as an example of brilliant exposition on my magazine. Exposition is excruciatingly difficult to do well, and by the end of his life Hemingway had become a master.

      You can change the font on your own computer if you like. My husband uses a sans serif, so my blog shows up that way on his. Helvetica, I think. Or Oracle.

  5. Thanks for another great article!
    I’ve been writing on my first real novel for a few months now and I realise, from this post, that I have got too many P’s OV (that was tricky).
    I have two main characters who are traveling the story together and I switch between them quite often. Think I’m going to have to re-write and use one character only, better start now then wait until I’ve finished the book.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, with more than one POV (as with everything) you need to know exactly why you’re doing what you do. Switching between the POV’s of two protagonists can be very effective if you’re using the technique of switching for a specific reason. Otherwise, yeah, it’s easier for the reader to identify with just one character. The closer they identify, the deeper they sink into your fictional dream.

  6. Carol Riggs says:

    Great post! I have to run my novel through this sieve of helpful info. Especially the climax issue, as being the most powerful part of the novel…lots to think about, thanks much!

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, yes, Carol. I talk about this all the time. Write toward your climax. But not toward your resolution! This is why pansters say when they plot they lose the excitement—they’re plotting the wrong part.

      Climax is catastrophe. Ready, set, GO.

  7. All so true. But resolution perhaps remains the most difficult – after we’ve hammered the rest into shape. The problem is that by the time we have got to that point in the novel there is so much bubbling under that there is FAR TOO MUCH to say! I just rewrote the resolution of my novel about ten times, trying to give each thread its space and its proper closing shot, and making sure I ended on a strong but lingering note. Darnit, writers have to spend a lot of time rewriting!

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, I know, Roz. Resolution is the most difficult because it’s the ART inside the craft. We’re writers because writing is how we learn the meaning of life—it’s just how we do it. Other people do it other ways.

      So you write a whole novel to learn one aspect of the meaning of life through these particular characters in this particular dilemma. But you haven’t learned what you came to learn before you’ve written the whole thing, so there’s no point trying to predict.

      It’s the way all those threads come together and alter each other’s reality that makes the words on the page EXPLODE. That’s the epiphany you’re aiming at.

  8. jo bourne says:

    This is lovely. Succinct. Accurate. Insightful.
    Thank you.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, thank you, Jo. Lovely, succinct, accurate, and insightful are all wonderful adjectives to apply to someone’s work!

  9. GregLucM says:

    Hi Victoria, first time reader and commentator.

    The article firmly fits into the camp of obvious-but-necessary to point out due the nature of the easy pitfalls, so I am very grateful for that. In particular, the point on multiple POVs is one I’ve wrangled with, in, and down for myself, and continue to work on.

    I was wondering, though, if I could get you to expand on the third point. Is there ever a time for exposition?

    Thanks, will keep reading!

    1. Victoria says:

      Greg, I’ve talked about exposition a lot on the advice column and magazine/laboratory, more than I have on this blog.

      I don’t encourage aspiring writers to use exposition. It does appear in many canonical works because it is a tool in the fiction writer’s toolbox. However, it is so much harder to use in a way that truly earns its keep, it really is best for writers to spend many years concentrating first and foremost on becoming adept with scene.

      Only when you feel you have really polished your skills with scenes should you tamper with exposition in any kind of big way.

      I went into this at more depth in Judging When to Use or Not to Use Exposition.

      1. GregLucM says:

        Thank you!

        1. Victoria says:

          You bet. 🙂

  10. K M Lockwood says:

    Thank you for this post, Victoria. It amused me: I am from the other side of the pond and “amped to the nu-nu’s” made me chortle. It also confirmed what I have been learning in my excellent MA with Greg Mosse.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, we get amped to the nu-nu’s here. Probably why we need so much space to run around.

  11. Delorfinde says:

    I love this post! Thanks, I’m going to share it with my writer friends 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, good! Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference.

  12. JP says:

    I had a question about multiple POVs. What if the story is focused on an event or an occurrence or just a day in the life and how it affects multiple people from different walks of life? The movie Crash, for example, could be said to have no real protagonist because it jumps back and forth and the characters therein interact with each other. Could such an approach work in a novel, in your opinion?

    1. Victoria says:

      Lawrence Durrell did it with his Alexandria Quartet, four novels written about the same event from four different points-of-view.

      Yeah, you can do all kinds of lovely things with POV, so long as you have a focus and a pattern established.

      Just be careful about trying to base ideas for fiction on movies—they are different media, and although you can learn a lot from screenplay structure they do use very different techniques to accomplish different goals. You have to know the differences in techniques and reasons for them when you make the transition in your mind from one medium to the other.

  13. JP says:

    Please disregard that “Commissions Open” thing. I had no idea that woud get linked here.

    1. Victoria says:

      No problem.

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