Many fiction manuscripts submitted to my literary agency feel lackluster. Much genre fiction feels tired. Many mainstream and literary novels also strike me as stale. Even when well written, too often manuscripts fail to engage and excite me.
What is missing when a manuscript hugs the wall and refuses to dance? Originality is not the key. It can’t be, otherwise, no wounded detective would ever have a chance and every new vampire series would be dead on arrival. Even over-published clichés can sometimes break out and sell big. The same is true of look-alike mainstream and literary fiction.
The issue, then, is not whether a story has a cool new premise. Whether hiking a well-worn trail or blazing uncharted wilderness, when a manuscript succeeds it is invariably fired by inspiration. Passion comes through on the page.
How does that passion get there? Here are some exercises to apply to your novel-in-progress. They are designed to dig up what matters in your story and infuse it in your manuscript in effective—but not obvious—ways.
1. Find the Uncommon in Common Experience
To get passion into your story, do it through your characters. What angers you can anger them. What lifts them up will inspire us in turn. Even ordinary people can be poets, prophets and saints. That’s true in life, so why not in your fiction?
Here is an exercise designed to discover and utilize what is universal in the experience of your characters, especially when they are regular folk like you and me.
Write down what comes to mind when you read the prompts below:
- Is your story realistic? Are your characters ordinary people?
- What in the world of your story makes you angry? What are we not seeing? What is the most important question? What puzzle has no answer? What is dangerous in this world? What causes pain?
- Where in the world of your story is there unexpected grace? What is beautiful? Who is an unrecognized hero? What needs to be saved?
- Give your feelings to a character. Who can stand for something? Who can turn the plot’s main problem into a cause?
- Create a situation in which this character must defend, explain or justify his actions. How is the plot’s main problem larger than it looks? Why does it matter to us all?
- Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the emotions, opinions and ideas generated in the prompts above.
2. Find the Common in Uncommon Experience
What if your protagonist is already a genuine hero? If your hero or heroine is an above-average, courageous, principled and unstoppable doer of good, then you may believe that you don’t have a problem. Cheering will begin automatically, right?
Wrong. Perfect heroes and heroines are unrealistic. Readers know that. They will not strongly bond with
such characters. To connect, they need to feel that such
paragons are real.
That is also true for the world of your story. The rarefied stratosphere of national politics, international intrigue or any other out-of-the-ordinary milieu will not draw readers in unless there they find some way to relate to it.
The following are steps you can take to humanize your hero and make the exotic world of your story real for us ordinary mortals:
- Is your story about uncommon events? Are your characters out of the ordinary?
- Find for your hero a failing that is human, a universal frustration, a humbling setback or any experience that everyone has had. Add this early in the manuscript.
- What in the world of the story is timelessly true? What cannot be changed? How is basic human nature exhibited? What is the same today as 100 years ago, and will be the same 100 years ahead?
- What does your protagonist do the same way as everyone? What is his lucky charm? Give this character a motto. What did she learn from her mom or dad?
- Create a situation in which your exceptional protagonist is in over his head, feels unprepared, is simply lost or in any other way must admit to himself that he’s not perfect.
- Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the results of the steps above.
3. Develop the Moral of the Story
What if your novel already has a driving message? Suppose its purpose is in some way to wake us up? That’s great, but your message will harden your readers’ hearts if you lecture or preach. To avoid that, let your story itself be your lesson. The teacher is your central plot problem. The students—? Those are your characters.
Here are ways to use those elements to get across your point:
- Is there a moral or lesson in your story?
- When does your protagonist realize she got something wrong?
- Who in the story can, at the end, see things in a completely different way?
- At the end, how is your hero or heroine better off?
- At the end, what does your hero or heroine regret?
- Who, in the midst of the story, is certain there is no solution, nor is there any way to fully comprehend the problem?
- Why is the problem good, timely, universal or fated?
- Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the results of the questions above.
4. Build the Fire in Fiction
Did you ever get lost in the middle of writing a manuscript? Have you ever wondered, deep in revisions, if your story holds together or any longer makes sense? Have you ever lost steam?
Steal from life. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? How often, when something bad happened to you, did you think to yourself, at least this will be good material for a story someday?
Well, now’s your chance. What has happened to you, its details and specifics, are tools with which you can make every scene personal and powerful. Use the following prompts whenever you are stuck, or if inspiration simply is low.
- Choose any scene that seems weak or wandering. Who is the point-of-view character?
- Identify whatever this character feels most strongly in this scene. Fury? Futility? Betrayal? Hope? Joy? Arousal? Shame? Grief? Pride? Self-loathing? Security?
- Recall your own life. What was the time when you most strongly felt the emotion you identified in the last step?
- Detail your own experience: When precisely did this happen? Who was there? What was around you? What do you remember best about the moment? What would you most like to forget? What was the quality of the light? What exactly was said? What were the smallest and largest things that were done?
- In this experience from your life, what twisted the knife or put the icing on the cake? It would have stirred this feeling anyway, but what really provoked it was … what?
- What did you think to yourself as the importance of this experience struck you?
- Give the details of your experience to your character, right now, in this very scene.