I’VE BEEN reflecting on all the unpublished manuscripts I read and critiqued in 2019, ranging from sci-fi to high fantasy to detective procedural to YA romance to literary efforts that don’t fit into a genre category. Despite the range of styles and writing quality, if you were to take my critiques of all these books and average them out, you would be left with two primary observations–or two editorial conclusions, if you will.
The nearly 40 books I read last year are a decent enough sample size, I think, to predict that your manuscript–assuming it needs substantial work, because some don’t–can be described one of two ways:
1) Your plot moves forward at a suspenseful pace, your action sequences are well-managed, and many of your chapters end with a compelling hook, BUT I don’t feel like I know your characters.
2) Your characters are well-developed, they have clear flaws and motivations, and I’m rooting for them, BUT we’re halfway through the book before anything happens and I’m losing my connection to them.
The relationship between character and plot is a delicate thing. You can’t slap a description and a little backstory on a character and then send them off into a complex plot that isn’t shaped by and entangled with that character’s fears and desires. In some instances, the plot “happens to” the character, but for the most part it should be the character’s decisions that move the plot forward, and those decisions should impact the reader’s understanding of the character. You can’t develop an action-packed, twist-filled story and expect the reader go along for the ride when the protagonist and secondary characters feel like total strangers. If you have a supsenseful plot but your characters are flat, that means there’s too much of the plot “happening to” the characters, or the characters’ decision-making is robotic and predictable, not the result of deep, conflicting emotions.
Now let’s say you’re great at character development, and by Chapter Five the reader has fallen in love with the hero, has the hots for the love interest, can’t wait to read more wise and mysterious dialogue from the mentor archetype, and has a deep, guttural hatred for the villain. If the plot doesn’t have proper momentum, you’re going to lose your reader. This doesn’t apply to established authors who’ve gained the trust of their readership and are able to present things at whatever pace they please, but to an unknown author, a new reader will be less forgiving. You need to hook them. You need to surprise them. You need to pique their interest fast.
Especially if that reader is a literary agent.
Your plot needs to rely on your character development, and your character development needs to rely on your plot.
ALL PLOT, NO CHARACTER: Johnny presses the button and the mob boss’s car explodes with a deafening blast, killing all his enemies in one fell swoop.
PLOT WITH A DASH OF CHARACTER: Johnny presses the button and the mob boss’s car explodes. In the deafening blast he can hear his brother’s vengeful laughter. They killed him, and now Johnny has killed them back.
EQUAL PARTS PLOT AND CHARACTER: Johnny’s finger hovers over the button. All his enemies are in that car, but so is his idiot brother, though even in this moment he wonders why he should care. It was Dale’s own fault he got himself tied up, tossed in that trunk, and most likely killed.
He might be alive, though, and if Johnny pushes the button and blows the car to pieces, he’ll spend the rest of his life not knowing. In his mind, Dale will forever be tied up in the dark, terrified, waiting for his older brother to come to the rescue.
Then again, if he lets the car pull away, countless people will die.
Johnny jumps at the sound of the engine firing. The explosion ruffles his hair and his ears ring from the deafening blast.
Forgive the clunkiness of those examples, but do you see the difference? In one story, Johnny gets his revenge and, yay, an explosion. In another, he faces a complex moral dilemma, a decision that will save the lives of innocent people but will also kill others violently, including his own brother–and then he accidentally does it.
It wouldn’t be as interesting if Johnny expressed only pure, gushing brotherly love in that moment. His resentment of his brother is what allows him to vacillate, to consider sacrificing his brother for the sake of blowing up the bad guys. And here we have an example of character and plot advancing one another in unison.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to be publishing several posts on the topic of storytelling. There’s a ton of great writing out there, and any given manuscript is potentially the next book that will captivate the world, but one thing’s for certain: the author of the next big bestseller will be someone who works diligently to strengthen the weaknesses–and preserve the strengths–in their story. Someone willing to revise, rewrite, or reconceptualize altogether. Someone willing to throw in the towel on a deeply flawed manuscript and charge head-first into a new one.
That’s the quality an agent looks for in a client. It’s the quality I look for in a client, too.
All that said, I read some amazing books last year, and I look forward to reading a fresh new batch in 2020.
P.S.–Want to make sure your story is as rich, concise, and complete as it can be before you query agents or self-publish? Get in touch through my contact page, the Google form on my editing services page, or Twitter DMs. I’m currently running a 25% off special for a full manuscript critique to be delivered on February 14th (only one available). I also have great rates for query submission packages (query, synopsis, and sample chapters), partial manuscripts, outline development, and writer coaching.