What do we do NOW?

I was reading a manuscript the other day and was jolted by the words on the page … and not in a good way. One character turned to another character as they were standing there in the scene and said the dreadful words…

“So, what do we do now?”

Had there been anyone else in the room at the time, they would have seen me start visibly and shudder.

The characters in the scene then proceeded to stand around, looking at each other and wondering what to do. One of them suggested that perhaps they should eat something while they waited. The plot, story and characters had all come to a complete stop … not with a skidding sound or with a crash but as though they had simply run out of gas and coasted to the side of the road.

I remembered back to when this happened to me as an author and the memory of it is still vivid in my mind. I was working on the second novel in the ‘Bronze Canticles’ series with Laura. The plot was moving along well enough down my original outline … or so I thought at the time … and the pages were flowing out of my printer at regular intervals. I was pleased with the progress the book was demonstrating.

Then it happened. I was writing a panoramic scene where the characters were surveying the expansive valley floor below their lofty perch, when my main character turned to the character next to them and said those same, dreadful words…

“What do we do now?”

I knew, in that moment, that the character was not speaking to the character next to them but was, in fact actually yelling at me– the author — from the page. The words the character said in the dialogue — ‘What do we do now?’ — were being translated into my mind as I read them on the screen in front of me as my main character actually screaming at me from between the words…

“Hey! You’ve left us stranded in the text without any motivation capable of driving either us OR the story forward! You’ve screw up the plot and the characters somewhere and now we’re STUCK HERE, YOU IDIOT! FIX IT OR WE’LL NEVER GET OUT!”

Having thus been thoroughly chastised by my own creation, I sat back and reexamined the last few chapters. I realized that about four chapters back, I had robbed the characters of an opportunity for not only motivation but for action inside the plot that made complete sense in terms of where the story was going in the outline. So, I rewrote those four chapters, bringing my characters back to that same point on that same overlook … and my heroes did not hesitate one moment but filled with fundamental motivation and solid plotting propelled themselves into the next part of the story with no further urging on my part.

Now, it may seem strange to you that your characters actually talk to you, the author, from the page … but I’ve had this happen too often not to listen to them. They know better than anyone what is happening in their story. It is often difficult to understand them because they speak to you through actions and dialogue that is never directly to you but to others inside the story. You have to listen very carefully sometimes to hear what they are trying to tell you — that their character is bored because they are not being utilized properly or that they are listless because there is not enough action in the plot.

However, when all your characters are standing around, looking at each other and saying, “What do we do now?” … THEN you should hear them screaming at you that you have left them out of gas in terms of both character motivation and plot.

And you had jolly well LISTEN to them!

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