Today’s guest post is from Matt Bird, who runs the SecretsOfStory.com blog (formerly known as Cockeyed Caravan), and whose book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers hits bookshelves this November. In his book and on his website Matt offers general writing advice. He also does manuscript evaluations for books and screenplays where he gives specialized advice. Today he’s kindly sharing some of his smart writing advice here. Thanks Matt!
As you write, you have one overriding responsibility: to build identification between your hero and your audience. We need not sympathize with your hero, but we must empathize with her. If we identify with her, we’ll go anywhere with her, and remain rapt by her actions. If we don’t identify, then no matter sympathetic or “heroic” she might be, we’ll feel alienated and disinterested, if not repelled.
So what is the #1 identification killer in the manuscripts I’ve evaluated? When the reader has figured something out by page 30, but the hero doesn’t figure it out for another 200+ pages.
In an otherwise-great fantasy manuscript, the heroine was wrong to trust her mentor, and this was clear to the reader right away, but she didn’t figure it out until page 250. This makes it hard to identify with her. Every time the mentor speaks, the text says, “he snarled” or “he sneered”. It’s obvious to us that he’s the bad guy, so we get so frustrated with her that she can’t see it. If the heroine is going to be betrayed, we should be betrayed too. If the heroine gets fooled into trusting this guy, then you should fool us into trusting him as well, right up until you pull the rug out. As a writer, you have to get us to see the mentor in the same way the heroine sees him, so that we’ll fully identify with her.
In a sci-fi manuscript, the heroine was given the weapon she needed very early on, and it was clear that it could solve the whole plot, but she didn’t realize how useful it was until page 300. The book was well-written and exciting, but I spent the whole time yelling at the hero: Don’t you remember? You could win this thing at any time! Why should I root for you to solve this problem if you can’t see the easy solution that I can see?
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a good idea to shift us back and forth in our identification with the hero. Sometimes we should be one step behind, trying to figure out what our clever hero is doing, sometimes we should have the same amount of information as the hero, and then sometimes we should get one step ahead of the hero, aware of a danger or possibility that she isn’t aware of, and nervously anticipating her discovery of it.
But we should never get ten steps ahead. We should never watch our hero go on a mini-quest for 50 pages, knowing full well that this endeavor is for naught, because the hero hasn’t figured out something yet that we already know. How are we supposed to feel for those 50 pages?
I realize that it’s tricky, because you want to “play fair.” In the first example, you don’t want the betrayal to come out of nowhere. It should be a shock, but the sort of shock that leaves us kicking ourselves, lamenting that we should have seen it coming. In the second example, you don’t want to pull out a solution in the final chapter that feels like a deus ex machina. You do want to set it up earlier, but you have to outsmart your audience. Fake us out. Plant us the solution, but hide it well, and make us forget it. Misdirect us into thinking that there will be a different solution, and then yank that false solution away, leaving us totally sweating it out alongside the hero.
A hero cannot simply “be identifiable”. You need to carefully manipulate our feelings all along the way so that we are encouraged to identify with the hero at every step of the way. As often as possible, we need to feel the same thing the hero does at the same time she feels it. That’s full identification, and that’s the heart of great writing.
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