Monday, September 7, 2015

How to Let Your Characters Move The Story Forward

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Announcement for those who are participating in the Summer Writing Challenge: The challenge ends TODAY. Please make sure to email me (Stephanie(at) and tell me how you did so I can enter you to win one of our prizes. Prizes include a paperback copy of Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book, ecopies of both The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet and The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet, and one of these super cute tote bagswith your choice of designthat my sweet friend, Olivia, makes: 

I need to receive your email by Friday, September 11th if you want to be entered!

Onto talking about middles!

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

It struck me several years ago that middles are hard to write because it's where all the story stuff happens. Unlike the beginning of the novel, I'm no longer just foreshadowing, hinting, and setting things in motion. Now I have to start paying off those promises I made in the first few chapters. My main character and the love interest need to fall in love, she needs to suffer for her just cause, and I have to figure out what, exactly, that "big secret" is that made the end of chapter three so intriguing...

Whether you're building an outline, working from an outline, or writing from the seat of your pants, I think you owe it to yourself after every scene to ask two big questions:

1. What's been set in motion?
2. What are you guys (the characters) going to do about it?

Even if you've already created your outline and you're working on a first draft, I still think it's a good idea to ask these questions and double check that the story is progressing in a way that feels logical and organic.

Let's take a look at each of these questions:

What's been set in motion?

When I find plot holes in my manuscripts, it's largely because I didn't evaluate everything that would have been set in motion because of a scene. Either I didn't pause to think it through from every angle (Well, sure, my main character is grieving. But why is my villain just sitting back and letting her???) or I was just flat-out oblivious at the moment. Staring so hard at trees, I missed the forest.

Returning to the scene in Tangled that we touched on two weeks ago when we talked about the first test for your character, Rapunzel is now on her journey to see the floating lights. She has faced her first test by being put in a situation she had feareda roomful of "ruffians and thugs"and she's overcome. Excellent.

Now it's time to look around the Snuggly Duckling and examine the repercussions of Flynn bringing Rapunzel here and Rapunzel belting out, "I've Got A Dream." Here are the four that I spotted:
  • The ruffians recognize Flynn from the wanted posters and send someone to fetch the palace guards.
  • The singing is loud and attracts the attention of Mother Gothel, who now knows what Rapunzel is up to.
  • The lead ruffian (not sure if his character has a name, but the concert pianist) is endeared to Rapunzel and her dream.
  • The palace guards arrive and they bring the already-arrested Stabbington brothers with them.

What are you guys going to do now?

Now that we've surveyed the impact of the scene, we get to turn to our characters and say, "Okay, guys. Now what?"

Again, maybe you already have another scene in your outline that you're working toward, but this is a good moment to make sure that your characters are moving forward in a way that's logical to the backstory and personality you've given them.

Let's look at how each character reacts when the palace guards arrive:

Flynn: Hides. He doesn't want to get caught.
Rapunzel: Hides with Flynn. Crazy as it is, he's the one who knows where they're going. She needs him.
The lead ruffian: He knows a secret way out. If he can sneak Rapunzel out of the pub, she can live her dream, and he'll feel good about helping.
The palace guards: When they realize Flynn has escaped, they split up. They leave a guard with the Stabbington brothers and the rest pursue Flynn.
The Stabbington brothers: They have a score to settle with Flynn. They overpower the guard and head down into the tunnel.
Mother Gothel: She's seen the whole thing and decides instead of joining the chase, she'll just be waiting at the end of the tunnel.

See how this leaves us feeling like the story builds in a logical way? It feels like the characters are pushing the story forward rather than following the story around.

Pick a scene from the middle of your book. Preferably one you haven't worked on much. After you've read it, ask yourself what's been set in motion, and then ask your characters what they're going to do about it. Maybe your story already builds in a logical way, or maybe you notice something that feels off. I'd love to hear what you discover!


  1. Love this! I think logic is an amazing tool in creative writing.

  2. Oooh, those are great points. I didn't even think of everyone doing things because of what they did (man, that sentence made more sense in my head), I just thought the characters ran where ever they pleased. I must go over my manuscript now... Thanks for the great advice!

  3. Thanks for the helpful post!
    'Tis sad that the summer challenge is over . . . oh well.

  4. Thank you so much for this inspiring post.

  5. Wow! This is a lot to think about! Okay, I'll give it a try with a scene from my current WIP (it's a contemporary fantasy--just to explain why some of the characters are thinking about magic and stuff. ;)).

    Kate has just arrived at the hospital to see how sick her mom is.

    What's been set in motion:

    --Kate discovers just how much worse her mom has gotten. She also discovers that magic can't be used to heal Mom.

    --Kate's dad doesn't want Kate to stick around at the hospital for fear that she'll find out he has an idea of what could be used to heal Mom, so Dad tells Kate that one of her closest friends is staying at the house.

    What are you guys going to do now:

    --Kate decides to go home and pick her friend's brain about the illness.

    --Now that Kate's gone, Dad can continue his research on Mom's illness and a possible cure.

    Is that sort of the way it's done? Any suggestions?

  6. Thanks so much! This has given me some food for thought--both for my editing and what I'm going to write next. I try and keep my characters on the path to their goal, but it can be hard. In a way, it feels like your characters are actually alive and you need to actually be on your game in case they suddenly run off back home and do something completely off the plot...that happens to me a lot when I'm writing and I just sort of lose track. Please say this happens to other people? X))

  7. I didn't participate, but what about a bag with the words "This Bag is Bigger on the Inside" written on it? XD

  8. After reading this I realized one of the first scenes of my story doesn't make much sense.
    Or, rather, it made sense but after plotting the story and really getting to know my character it just

    So, Aney and Duke antagonize each other. Fine. It's not weird she decides to save Jerry from his harmful pranking.
    ...Only she turned out way more neutral than originally planned. What now? How are they going to meet?!

    I mean, they're going to meet anyways because of the situation they're thrown in, but then Aney would just see Jerry as "Another one of those annoying brats" and*something* would have to happen for that to change, whilst if they had met before the situation could be something for them to afront together...Um...

    Any advice on how to make two characters meet? There are so many possibilities...but I'm seriously tempted to make them crash into hello now... Damn Aney's apathy, it's so unconvenient.

    (Perhaps I'll just go with that first fix, ha ha.)