Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my

My synopsis workshop finished up this past April for RWA’s Outreach International Chapter, and I’ve also been judging in some contests–boy do folks need to figure out their story arc and plot lines (and character arcs, too). This is one place where a synopsis can help you because it highlights every flaw in your story–all the weaknesses come out. Which is why I think editors really ask for these things.

So what are the THREE big flaws that I’m seeing (on a regular basis)?

1) The big one is that there is no plot line or story arc. In other words, the story rambles along and stuff happens.

This usually can be traced back to the main character (your protagonist) not having a strong, clear goal that’s well motivated and which kicks off the main plot line, or the main character’s arc in a more character-driven story. This goal can be as simple as survive a night in a haunted house in order to win a million dollars (motivated by the need for that money to save mom, who is about to lose the family farm), or it can be to win a contest to win her own self respect, or it can be as big as saving the universe. But there’s a couple of important things about this:

A) The main character’s goal must matter to that character–there has to be something personal at stake.

B) There have to be consequences for failure–ones that would shatter than character.

Once these are in place, the character has been set on a path. Now you’ve started a story arc. The stuff that happens now tries to push the character off that path (this is your plot). Worse and worse stuff happens until the character gets faced with a crisis–and this crisis had better be one that pits the character against wants and needs, so that the character has to make very tough choices. This is where the character gets stripped down to their core–to what makes that person tick. (And if you don’t know this, you need to get to know your characters better.)

Now stuff does happen still but it’s all related to the character’s struggles to get what that person wants. And you make it worse for the character by layering  in what a character needs. As in if you’ve stuffed your character into a haunted house for a night, what your character may need is sanity and a sane world, and that haunted house may strip both away from her. Now your character has internal conflict–stay for the money (external want) or leave to be safe (internal need). And now you can add in an antagonist with a conflicting goal.

This is going to complicate the pl0t–and give you more conflict.

Now your antagonist needs to be thought out–as in what does she want and need?

For example, what’s your ghost’s goal in driving everyone out? This is where you do not want to cop out and go for the cliche. In other words, don’t just go for “She’s insane” or “She’s angry because she was jilted.” Those are weak motivations.

Orson Scott Card in his book on Characters & Viewpoint notes that when you’re digging for your character’s motivations, the first three or four things that pop into mind will always be cliches. (If you don’t have this book, go buy it now, then come back to read the rest of this.) These great ideas are cliche because they are cliche–they’ve been used to death. Keep digging for better motivations. This is vital for any antagonist–write this person as if this character is the hero (we’re all heroes in our own stories).

Could be the ghost is trying to protect others from the damnation that caught her–except she’s driving them mad in the process. Or maybe the ghost has a secret she’s trying to hide. Or maybe the ghost is trying to find a body she can inhabit so she can live again. (And see how those cliches creep in as you’re batting ideas around–that’s why you keep writing down ideas.)

Find out what your bad guy wants as a goal. Find out what your bad guy needs, too. We all need love, right? Well, we all need our own internal rationalization systems, too. Even someone who is mad will have their own reasons for doing what they do.

2) The other biggie I see is that in what’s supposed to be a romance, but the romance is put in like an afterthought. The action overshadows the romance, so the story doesn’t seem as if it’s really about two people struggling to build a relationship. This one is tough.

In a romance, the romance is the main plot line. It’s the main story arc. So you have to have thought about both your hero and your heroine. What does each person want from a relationship? What does each one need? This can be different from the action plot line. It could be your heroine needs to save the world from a plague of vampires–that’s the action sub-plot in a paranormal romance. The plot needs to put her in conflict with a hero (and possible love interest). It makes sense that in this case the hero is the head of the vampires–that’ll give you great conflict in both the romantic plot and the action plot. But now you have to figure out what does each person need and want on a personal level–and how are these going to conflict?

Does the heroine need a steady guy? (And what’s her reason for that–did she grow up in an unstable home?) If she needs stable, you want to either pair her up with Mr. Seems-Like-A-Bad-Risk, or with Mr. Stable-But-Boring. And then you add in what she wants. Could be your vampire fighting heroine needs a partner to watch her back–and she gets Mr. Unstable. Or could be she needs a vampire to come over to her side–so she’s got to seduce one into helping her. The trick here is to keep looking for what adds more conflict and more complexity. Pair up the compulsive clean freak with the slob (The Odd Couple is really a great romance disguised by the fact that it has two guys). Layer in reasons for your romantic pair to be attracted to each other–and layer in plenty of personality issues to drive them apart. Make the relationship the focus of the plot.

Then go back to your action sub-plot. Just remember if the main plot line or story arc is all about action, then you’ve got something other than a romance on your hands. In a romance, the relationship is at the center of the story.

3) The third big thing is that every character’s motivations needs to be clear–that means this info must make it onto the page. This is one where I often feel, as I’m reading, as if the writer knows this stuff, but it hasn’t gotten to the page.

There is the story in your head. There is the story on the page. There is the story in the reader’s head. Ideally, all these match. If one is off, the story flops. This is where you want to ask–“Did I put in WHY my character acts this way or feels this way?” In a synopsis, you simply tell the reader–“He hates cats because he was once locked in a closet with ten of them.” You want to make sure the reader understands WHY your character acts as she does.

The other part of this is make sure your reader understands the setup for the story–how the plot line or story arc kicks off. Get a friend you trust to tell the truth to read this, too, and make sure you are not fudging things. It’s too easy to think, “This is good enough.” You need outside eyes here and someone who’ll say, “This doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t believe this.” That is something to fix with stronger motivations. (You can have a character act out of character or do amazing things only if this is sufficiently motivated–if you have cake-making mom suddenly pull out a sword and behead someone there’s got to be something in her background that would explain why she can do this, or she’s doing this because her child is threatened and she’s got adrenaline making her into super-mom.)

Too often I’m reading something and all I think is “why”. Why did that happen? Why does she feel that way. The worst is when a synopsis just says: And they fall in love. Well…why? What’s different about this relationship and love story? What’s motivating the emotion. Again, this is where a friend who will write “why” all over your synopsis can help. Answer every why–or leave the reason for the question coming up out of the synopsis.

There’s other stuff you can do, but if you cover the big three, you’ll have a much stronger book (and a stronger synopsis).


3 thoughts on “Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my

  1. Pingback: Setting and Atmosphere: Part 1

  2. Pingback: Synopsis writing workshop, suitable for writers’ groups « Nuts and Crisps

  3. Pingback: Aeon Timeline: Outlining Made Easy « Writing Is Hard Work

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