Article of the Month

Top Ten Power-Busters and How To Solve Them

                     c. 2002 by Alicia Rasley

10.  Boring beginnings. CHECK FOR:
___Can the reader tell who the protagonists are early on? Viewpoint matters here! The reader will imprint upon the first viewpoint character.
___Is there action on the very first page-- the protagonist doing or experiencing something that is relevant to the plot?
___Do you withhold backstory unless it's needed to understand the action?  Don't use chapter one to tell all that happened up to this point.
___Do you give some sense of conflict (internal or external) early?
___If you cut this chapter and started with chapter two, what essential event/information would you lose? Focus on that.

9. Limping to a conclusion. CHECK FOR:
___Do you have an entire last act? You should have some crisis/dark moment (the event that jeopardizes everything) that causes the protagonist to make a difficult choice and take the action that brings on the climax. The climax should resolve the external plot. The resolution should show somehow that the protagonist has overcome the internal conflict enough to give and accept love freely.
___Does the last act of the book to resolve the conflicts established at the start? Go over your story questions and make sure each is answered one way or another.
___Does the crisis force the protagonist to face the internal conflict and overcome it, thus becoming able to take the action that will lead to the climax?
___Is the climax a real event, complete with action and reaction?
___Is the theme reinforced by the ending? That is, if the theme is "It takes a village to solve domestic violence," then the ending should show neighbors helping the abused wife, not her forced to kill him to escape the abuse.
___Does the resolution show, at least in miniature, the restoration of order in the story world? Does it show what sort of love these two people will share in the future (nurturing or wisecracking or passionate or...)?

8. Fear of scenes. CHECK FOR:
___What is the irrevocable event in this scene? How does it affect the plot? Does it contribute to the chain of cause-effect of events in the plot?
___Have you told this as vividly as possible, in the viewpoint of a protagonist?  Is the setting as intriguing and the action as dramatic as possible within the limits of plausibility?
___Is this scene caused by an earlier event or decision in the story?  What effect does this scene have on the rest of the plot?
___Does the protagonist take some action or make a decision either in this scene or because of it? Beware of scenes which merely show a character living through an event. The protagonist should be experiencing it fully and reacting to it.
__Is there progression in this series of scenes?  Do the stakes rise as the events progress?  Watch out for: Too many scenes mostly the same event told differently, or regressive complications, where the stakes get lower as events proceed.
___If you shift viewpoint, do you have a clear reason for doing so?

7. Motivation missing.  CHECK FOR:
___Do the main characters start out with goals? It's easier to entice them into meaningful action if they want something.
___Does the protagonist have motivation for the goal, i.e., "I want to go to art school so I can become a cartoonist and escape servitude in my father's company"?  Is there an internal motivation underneath the obvious one, such as, "I want to show my father-- and myself-- that I'm nothing like him?" The character doesn't have to know the internal motivation early on... but you should.
___If the protagonist later drops this important goal, do you provide sufficient motivation, such as a competing goal or a conflict of values?
___Does the protagonist have values that might provide motivation and conflict, such as the value of financial security which could power the goal of success while causing the conflict of a fear of taking risks.
___Can you identify the motivation of other characters too? It's not enough that you need the villain to start stalking the heroine. The villain has to have reason for it too.
___Does every action and reaction result somehow from the character's internal or external needs or desires?

6. What a coincidence! CHECK FOR:
___Do the major characters come into the plot because of who they are and what they do, not just by coincidence?
___If you have an accidental event, can you make it more purposeful? For example, if he's on that corner when the car driven by his long-lost brother drives by, can you make one or the other of them have planned it?
___Do the revelations and discoveries come about because of protagonist's action? Don't just have the beautician happen to tell the heroine about the day the murder victim got her hair done... have the heroine seek out the beautician and ask.
___Is the ending brought on by the protagonist's actions and decisions, not by a "deus ex machina"? Don't let coincidence save your protagonist's skin.

5. Cliches and more cliches. CHECK FOR:
___Most cliches come at the beginning of the story. Does your story open in a fresh way that shows something unique about these characters?
___Does your conflict derive from these people and their values? "Standard" conflict won't teach them what they need to learn to grow and change.
___If you want to use a cliched scene, can you give it a twist that makes it different from other such scenes?
___Do all the scenes fit these particular characters, their motivations, their conflicts?  If your characters are individuals, they won't act like cliches.

 4. Stitched-together stories.  CHECK FOR:
___Character-plot coherence. Could this set of events plausibly happen to and because of this character? Think of the protagonist as being on a journey towards growth and change. Can you track that journey through the events of the plot?
___If you start with a plot idea, ask, "What kind of person would be most likely to get involved in such a plot? And why would these events cause him lots of trouble?" That is, make sure your plot fits your protagonist and causes that person the appropriate conflict.
___Read back and see if every event causes some change in the character and a deepening or an improving of the conflict.
___If you have cliched scenes, it's very likely you're going to have a stitched-together plot, because your characters aren't going to be behaving in character, but rather to fit the dictates of that cliche.  Rethink those scenes-- ask, "How would he/she really act in that situation?"
___If you don't know your characters, interview them. Ask them what they want and how they intend to get it. Ask them what they're worried will happen when they pursue that goal. Let them guide you through their story.

3. Conflict conflicts. CHECK FOR:
___Does your protagonist have real conflicts? In most books, the main character has an external conflict (usually what is getting in the way of the goal), an internal conflict (maybe a conflict of values because of that goal, or a need that won't be fulfilled by getting that goal), and some interactional conflict (the romantic conflict in a romance). These conflicts should come about because of who this character is and what he/she wants and cares about.
___Is your conflict both difficult to resolve but plausibly resolvable? Does your protagonist have to work hard and grow in order to resolve it?
___ Can you identify one overarching external conflict? Beware of serial conflict, where the first conflict is resolved in chapter 3, so bring on the hurricane, then the mad stalker, then the jealous ex.... One major beginning-to-end external conflict helps keep your book coherent and your characters focused.
___Does the amount/type of external conflict fit the scope and tone of this book?  A short traditional romance is going to be overwhelmed by a totally evil villain bent on destroying the heroine's life.
___Can you identify how the internal conflict makes it difficult for this character to give and/or accept love freely?  How can resolving it help resolve the romantic conflict?
___Are all the major conflicts resolved by the actions and choices of the protagonists?  Don't let other people do the work of the hero and heroine.
___Does the external conflict resolve in the climactic scene?

2. Pincushion plotting. CHECK FOR:
___Is there a single, overarching external plot? Make sure at least one storyline begins at the beginning and ends at the end.
___Does every scene contribute to this overarching plot? If not, does it impede or advance the protagonist's growth somehow?  Don't put in an action scene just for action-- make it challenge the protagonist in the way he/she needs.
___Is your plot like that of a mini-series, with the character changing in response to events and thus responding in a new way to the next set of events?  Don't let it be an episodic plot, like a sitcom, where each week's story wraps up neatly without causing any effect on the characters.
___Can you chart your protagonist's journey through the plot to greater growth and wisdom?  Is this the precise sequence of plot events that will force your protagonist to take this journey and make it to the end?
___Can you identify a theme for this book? Is some value affirmed or denied by the story events? Make sure all the events go to proving or exploring this theme.

1. Passive protagonists. CHECK FOR:
___Are the protagonists clearly the major actors in the plot? Do they affect each event in some way?
___Does every event also affect the protagonist? Can you chart the cause-and-effect relationship between event and protagonist?
___Do your protagonists act heroically at some point (especially in the end)? Do they overcome inner problems in order to resolve the romantic and external conflicts?
___Are your protagonists challenged by the plot? If they easily handle every obstacle, you've got a cartoon superhero, not a hero and heroine.
___Have you kept secondary-character influence and accidental solutions to a minimum?  The wise old man who explains all to the young hero is taking center stage-- consider making the young hero at least demand the tutelage.
___Do your protagonists each have an internal journey to complete?  Make sure in the end they're different than they are in the beginning, and different in the ways you have identified as essential to growth.

Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets, Point of View Manual, and plot guidebook:

The Story Within Writing Series

The Power of Point of View

The Story Within Guidebook

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Alicia Rasley's interactive workshops

Go to previous articles:

The Internal Journey

Plotting: The Three Acts

Synopsis Creation: Plot Revision

Paradox in Balance

Character-Plot Coherence

Romantic Turning Points

Individualizing Viewpoint


Quick Character Motivation Exercise

Dazzling Dialogue Tips

The Submission Journey

Suspense Is More Than Surprise

Scenes on Fire!

 Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes

 Character Motivation

 On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening

Tightening the Sagging Middle

Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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