Category Archives: Reader Investment & Empathy

Don’t Split the Party!

Yes, the title of this post is one of the most revered and honored tropes of role-playing games. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories I could tell about the consequences of an adventuring party going their separate ways and being systematically wiped out by frustrated Dungeon Masters whose carefully constructed campaign is being turned into a shambles by players who think it’s a grand idea to have everyone wander off on their own.

But this post isn’t about gaming. It’s about writing. Of course, like all “rules”, this one is frequently violated to great effect in numerous stories from “Lord of the Rings” to “The Avengers.” So as Barbossa would say, this isn’t a “rule” so much as a “guideline.”

But it’s a solid guideline if you want to create a story where readers can experience the rich interplay of characters that is really only possible when the reader has become not only acquainted with individual characters, but has also developed an understanding of the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships between groups of people.

It is rare for any story to rely on a total focus on one main character. It is incredibly difficult for a writer to keep readers interested in a story like that anyway. So the vast majority of the world’s favorite stories usually have one main focus, but that main focus is surrounded by other characters whose stories weave their own threads around and through the main character’s thread.

In that group of orbiting characters, at least one should be a friend of the main character, not just a flunky, or a tool the main character uses to advance their agenda. Friendships allow the reader to see the main character as a living, breathing person. The more a writer can create a sense of true mutual love and respect between the main character and another character, the more likely readers will be to empathize and sympathize with the protagonist. In most cases we want to root for characters we like, and observing how the protagonist interacts with close friends is the best way for a reader to learn the normally hidden vulnerabilities that make them human and relatable. Sometimes these “friends” are also siblings, but usually not.

Creating close friendships does more than make a protagonist more human. It also gives the author opportunities to use that relationship to bring elements of the story to more compelling climaxes, and to explore emotions to sublime depths. What would the story of Frodo be without Sam? Would we really care as much about Lizzy and Mr. Darcy without Charlotte and Bingley? And Harry Potter would have been far less interesting without Ron and Hermione.

Building relationships like that takes time. It can’t be “told” it has to be “shown” in dozens of little details sprinkled through scene after scene. And that’s not easy to do if you can’t keep the party together long enough to build them.

It’s Dangerous to go Alone!

The old man isn’t whistling dixie. It is dangerous to go alone. When protagonists quest alone that’s when a spooky crack-addict fox tries to pull your head off in the labyrinth, or a weeping angel tries to send you back in time, or worse….you may be forced to hunt for a second, slightly smaller shrubbery so the Knights Who Say Ni can have that cool two level effect. But in order to avoid spending the entire second act searching for a bush, your character can’t be like Link. Your character needs more than a sword for their adventure. (unless the sword being proffered is Nightblood. That would be sweet!) Your character needs friends that are willing to accompany them.

I don’t think it’s enough just to have a friend cheering the hero/heroine on while they alone vanquish foes. It’s also not enough for the friends to simply guard the hero/heroine’s back. Shared burden, means shared risk and shared trauma. If they fight at the hero/heroine’s back, and come out unscathed it’s not going to be genuine. Sure, depending on the character they may fare better or worse than the hero/heroine but there is still going to be a mental and/or physical toll. That toll, and the recovery from, is what brings the hero/heroine and their companions closer together which in turn makes the journey worthwhile to many readers.

Now, there’s two different ways this can happen and both ironically are found in The Fellowship of the Ring. The first way is Frodo’s Band of Brothers. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam were pretty tight when circumstances forced Frodo to leave the Shire. But rather then let Frodo go on that very long walk by himself, they join him, sharing the adventure and the many dangers. Even when those dangers separate the hobbits, the danger they did survive together, as well as the dangers they faced apart in pursuit of their common goal, didn’t harm their friendship. Heck, Frodo would have been a goner several times over if it weren’t for Sam. The nice thing about this route is that there’s a baseline relationship to help or hinder all of them along the way. Unlike the other route which is…

The Fellowship — specifically, the non-hobbit members. None of them knew Frodo and company before the Council of Elrond and vice versa. They didn’t know if any of them were traitors, or would succumb to the power of the ring, or would abandon the group. They had to take a chance to serve the greater good and at least try to save the world. It’s not much to base a fledgling relationship on and as expected those fledgling relationships were tried. Some flourished, most in fact, and some died (but we all saw that last one coming, right?). My point being, that they went from zero to FUBAR in a very short time and that amount of strain can only make or break a relationship.

Both of these can be really tricky to pull off but the end result, an unbreakable bond, is usually worth it.

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

Adding Sexual Tension

First off, everyone here at The Fictorians wishes you a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sexual tension can always be expected in any romance or erotica story, but it can always work as a major or subordinate plot point for your speculative fiction work. While the ideas I point out here are not specific to any genre, they can be used in any work to spice things up.

So what exactly is sexual tension? It’s not people and/or aliens going at it like Captain Kirk and the green-skinned Orion woman. It’s everything that happens before the sexual act. Unfortunately, people don’t really think about some of the details that go into an attraction, especially since we tend to be blind to it.

First Contact Protocol

The sexual tension was overwhelming Kirk…

When two individuals meet, there has to be some kind of signals sent and received that they find each other at least interesting. This is that “chemistry” thing movies and OKCupid accounts always go on about. Sometimes we don’t even realize this is happening. Our brains flip a few switches associated with that person and puts it in the “this other person is someone I’m interested in learning more about” section of your memory.

To really get this across to the reader, you need to show some signs using all of the senses. In addition, using a point-of-view that allows poking around inside someone’s thoughts will go a long way. Have them meet each other’s gaze, which is extremely overused so make the situation unique. Maybe she smells something that makes her think of her first love, and it turns out it is the natural musk of a female Sklorr from Bernard’s Star. Perhaps a man is working on a widget in the engine room and hears someone singing lightly to themselves in three-part harmony, only for him to discover it is a Gnork from Vega, which happens to be a gender-neutral species. Maybe two characters from different worlds bump into each other in the cantina and all they can think about is the feeling of feathers and scales brushing against each other. Get as much in there as you can, but spread it out a bit so you don’t fall into the laundry list problem.

For many guys (and some gals), there is a “checking out the other character” moment. The other one may not even realize it, but there is certainly some ogling and appreciation for the form and figure. They have a strong visual mode tied to their sexual sensory input for their brains. This can be utilized to show at least one has some interest in the other character(s).

Go To Jail, Do Not Pass Go

Since we’re trying to ramp up the sexual tension, the characters cannot decide they like each other and start banging away against the main engine, although that worked great for Kaylee in Firefly. There has to be good reasons why they could never be together. It could be position — no, not that position, I mean one could be an officer and one enlisted. Maybe there’s a taboo against being with that Sklorr… “I heard they eat their mates after they’re done.” One man may be on his way to Jupiter to start a new job as a special investigator while the Gnork from Vega is a jewel thief wanted in three planetary systems. There are plenty of options available to you, but make certain it is a good, logical reason.

Because they are definitely interested in each other in a romantic way, being forced apart will make them constantly think about each other, sometimes focusing on the little details. When we are smitten, we tend to experience everything our romantic other does as a performance. We note how one corner of their mouth doesn’t curl up as much as the other when they smile, or how the tone of their laughter makes our hearts flutter (especially during Valentine’s Day!)

Frustration and Calamity

It’s important that things keep getting in the way of the characters pursuing each other. If they were so close to each other that they can smell each other’s toothpaste, have someone (such as the comic relief character) stumble into the room just microseconds before their lips were going to touch. Have the Sklorr set up a nice date with her human girlfriend, only to have the transport tube break down on the way to the restaurant. The human will be angry and wonder if her date stood her up, while the Sklorr will be frustrated that her romantic date she planned out in detail was ruined because of a tiny component she forgot to replace when she worked on the tube system this morning.

By keeping them apart when they’re so desperate to be together, we create lots of sexual tension. The reader is wondering every time the two characters are in a scene together if they’ll finally get to that all-important first kiss. You want to keep the audience guessing until late into the middle section of the novel. But will they go further? You can fill in those details at the (ahem) climax of the manuscript.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.