November 3, 2019

WRITING ADVICE – Lisa Cron #12: Always Something At Stake Forcing Your Character to DO Something, ANYTHING!

In 2008, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. To learn more – and to satisfy my natural tendency to “teach stuff”, I started a series of essays taking the wisdom of published writers and then applying each “nugget of wisdom” to my own writing. During the six years that followed, I used the advice of a number of published writers (with their permission) and then applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda to an analysis of my own writing. Together these people write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Today I add to that list, Lisa Cron who has worked as a literary agent, TV producer, and story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and others. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. Again, with permission, I am using her article, “A Reader’s Manifesto: 15 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story” (2/16/18

Point number twelve from the article linked above, is that “the reader expects that there will be something crucial at stake in every scene, continually forcing the protagonist’s hand.”

“…everything that happens…challenge[s]…the pursuit of her goal…every single scene – including subplots — [is] part of the plot problem’s cause-and-effect trajectory…in every scene…something integral to the protagonist’s quest [has] to be at stake…forcing her to make a hard choice…[in order to] change…how she sees things…forc[ing]…[her]…to struggle internally…cost her emotionally…learn[ing] as a result…chang[ing] her…[and] alter[ing] her plan[s].”

Yep, that’s a summary of the step, but I’m going to use it as a tool, so I had to make it and “active” tool because I’m going to use it on a story that I love but have been unable to sell.

In the story, “Weather Witch and Mole Man”, Larry Vyett, the Weather Witch of Palmer Station, and to begin with, his “goal” is to run away from the town and his job. I know, it’s an old, old story, probably with roots in Twain’s first historical novel, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER; though likely even older than that. The question here as I wrote the story, is that it was never clear.

When Larry Vyett and Sami Skipper finally get down to the important question, I’m SEVENTEEN pages into a twenty-nine page story:

“You’re happy with what you do here?”

Ouch. Not fair, but I said, “I’m not happy, but Mom made a commitment to stay and I kept her promise as long as I could.”

“Your mom is dead. She wouldn’t know if you left or if you stayed,” she said. When I turned to snarl at her, both her hands were up. “My dad is dead, too. It’s my choice to carry on his job.”

I shook my head, “This isn’t my choice, though. I don’t have to come back. I don’t know if I want to come back.”

“You just said…”

“I don’t know what I want to do!” I couldn’t help it. I was mad. At Mom for raising me here and then making me stay. At Palmer Lake for expecting me to keep doing what Mom did and for never telling her that they appreciated her. At Sami for showing up. At myself for not being able to make a simple decision. “I want to see what the Companion is up to.” I jerked my chin up, “I’m going up to send out boonose and see if I can make the spysat do what I want it to.”

This is all fine as motivation, but I haven’t set up any kind of real problem for him to overcome. Cron used an interesting word here, “quest” when she noted, “…something integral to the protagonist’s quest [has] to be at stake…”

The definition of a quest is, “a long search for something that is difficult to find, or an attempt to achieve something difficult; [examples] “Nothing will stop them in their quest for truth.”; “She went to India on a spiritual quest.”; “She does aerobics four times a week in her quest to achieve the perfect body.”

It’s not a trivial word. It’s not just a vague disgruntlement with life in general. It’s specific. Like the “Quest For The Holy Grail” or the Indiana Jones movies (, the main character should have strong feelings and be driven to do something antithetical to the direction his or her life has taken up to that point.

I suppose – I just realized this! – that the story should begin at a profound ethical decision being forced on the main character by circumstances. The quest is a long search for something difficult to find. In “Weather Witch and Mole Man” – which is a great title! – I have Larry and Sami become buddies in the span of a very few pages. I can’t make his life that easy. They have to fight and struggle and MAYBE come to some kind of common ground.

In fact, that’s exactly what I did in “Road Veterinarian” – again though, it happened too fast. Stories that get awards (the popular one, like to Hugo) oftentimes present a totally new idea in an entertaining way. DUNE by Frank Herbert has been called the most popular SF novel of all time. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” looked seriously at the advent of nanomachines used for medical purposes. Even FRANKENSTEIN or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly, the parent of science fiction, had at its foundation a profound concern about how electricity might be used to unravel the moral foundation of humanity by allowing almost anyone to “create a human” by stitching together parts of dead people and reanimating them by electricity; which itself came from experiments done “in the middle of the 18th Century” (approximately 1750, though there is a woodcut from 1780 showing the set up), experiments with something called “medical electricity” (, that caused the limbs of dead animals to jump at the touch of a battery current. Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN was published in 1818 following, it notes here, a sort of “ghost story competition” (

At any rate, “a quest” is what should drive EVERY story. How does my writing stack up to that? It doesn’t at all in “Weather Witch and Mole Man”. Maybe in “Kamsahamnida, America”; it’s been a while since I read any of my stories, but after starting “A Pig Tale” (my first short story sale to ANALOG), I can see why Stan Schmidt liked it. It started very strong: “Damp, cool air carried the words clearly. Rachel Sheffield said, ‘We’re splitting, Dad. I know you don’t like it, but…’”

Clear conflict; she’s getting a divorce; then her dad tries to kill himself; then she illegally uses an experimental drug on him…her hand is forced along by choices all the way. “The Last Mayan Aristocrat” starts strong – even the title hints at high stakes, and the first sentence carries it through subtly, without smacking the reader in the face: “She knew it was going to be a bad day when Kish, the last high priest of the Maya, was already on his step, panting, waiting for her.”

What about stories in submission? “May They Rest” and the “Panhandlers”:

“Tiviifei Jones straightened, no longer leaning on his cane as the gMod platform sank to the ground. The Human Cemetery and Memorial was still, cool, Earth green, and vast. A final resting place for ten thousand, four hundred, and eighty-two Weldon colonists slaughtered by invading aliens.”

“My sixth Side-By-Side Partner Ride saluted one of the panhandlers standing on the intersection island and said, ‘You became a teacher to “help people”?’ He guffawed. ‘I could name a thousand things that would have been a smarter move than that!’”

OK – I’m pretty satisfied. “May They Rest” is in a style similar to that of Clifford D. Simak, a fellow Minnesotan. As a young adult, I’d dreamed of one day driving out to his home and introducing myself. I was crushed when he passed away in 1988, less than a year after my wife and I got married. All that time, wasted…Stan Schmidt agreed that it was in a style similar to Simak’s, what I eventually discovered was called “pastoral speculative fiction”. “Panhandlers” hinted at the conflict, though it wasn’t specific. Of the two, I think “May They Rest” had the stronger beginning; it also deals with anger, abandonment, and end-of-life issues (like “A Pig Tale” did.)

So, maybe I have learned this lesson. Only time (and editorial response!) will tell.

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