Goals, Motivations, and Action

I’m using Janice Hardy’s wonderful Editorial Map for revising the first draft of book four, found in her equally wonderful book Revising Your Novel. But I got hung up on a few things.

The map asks specific questions for each scene or chapter. By answering, you see where you’ve gone astray. After mapping out the whole draft, you have a snapshot of where the story needs work.

One question has you list out the goals and motivations for each scene, and one question asks what the point of view character is doing in the scene.

How are they different? Isn’t what the character does, her goal?

So I did what I always do when I have a writing question. Went out to dinner with my friend, author and editor Susan Schreyer. (It’s our excuse to eat out.)

What I realized while talking to her is that the ‘goal’ question relates to the over-reaching goals and motivation. The internal goal, so to speak, which ties to the theme or premise. What the character is doing relates more to the physical, immediate goals and motivations attached to a specific scene.

Of course I knew that.

Right, Susan?

I then talked to Susan about a couple of scenes I found that didn’t have any goal or motivation, whether out there in the ozone or right in the character’s lap. I knew the scene had a purpose but it wasn’t quite fleshed out enough to make that purpose clear.

Susan, of course, had a great suggestion. She said to go back to the previous scene and see what the decision was. This doesn’t mean a physical decision made by the character like deciding to get tea instead of coffee. It means the conclusion of the scene.

Not to confuse that conclusion with the ‘sequel’ which should follow each scene. In other words, the scene is me finding an earwig in my hair, and the sequel is lots of yelling and thrashing about. You can’t have a scene without a sequel. Think ‘action/reaction’. The decision is what the character does after the sequel. Like washing hair for three hours.

That decision should always tie to the next scene. The decision causes the next step in the plot or the character arc to happen.

And in the scenes I struggled with, I realized they didn’t tie to the previous scene or decision. They were just kind of hanging out there on their own. No place in the story arc.

It’s going to be a fairly simple thing to revise them to find their place in the story. Right at the moment, I love this revision process. We’ll see if I feel the same later.

And I already knew that about scene/sequel/decision.

Right, Susan?


Dahlias (aka earwig flowers) from By Dinkum – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21343403

High Stakes in Mysteries

I’m reading Revising Your Novel by Janice Hardy and here’s a bit from the book that made me laugh. It’s from a section dealing with how to fix scenes where stakes might be too high, or not high enough.

“If the protagonist walked away, what would change? This can help spot stakes that seem high, but aren’t really. For example, ‘they could die’ should be the highest stake of all, but if the protagonist walks away she’ll live. Problem solved. Sure, others might die, but do readers really care about a faceless mass of unnamed people? Nah.”

That made me think about something similar, one of the biggest issues for me in reading (and writing) a mystery series.

Those ending scenes when everything’s about to be wrapped up, all will be disclosed, and there will be the final life-or-death battle between the good guy and the bad guy. Yes there are authors out there that kill off the protagonist of a series, but that’s rare. So is there any reader out there who thinks the protagonist might actually die in those scenes? Most commonly, no.

So then how high are the stakes, really? If you know the main character is going to survive, then there isn’t any reason to have that whole final scene. When I’m reading a mystery series and get to that part, to be honest, I skip it and go the ending where all the threads get explained. And even as I write one of those scenes, in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘how many are going to skip this?’.

What makes those final high stakes scenes work for me as a reader, and that I need to remember as a writer, is to place the risk elsewhere. Since I know the protagonist is going to survive, then what keeps me reading is if the author has taken the one thing that is most important to the protagonist, and put that at risk.

If that character cares deeply about something, and that could be taken away, then I’m going to be hooked as a reader and race through the tense scenes. Think about it. An author may not kill off the protagonist, but it’s way easier to remove something the character cares about. Secondary characters can be mourned and then replaced, right?

I want the risk, the scene that keeps my heart racing, to be something where I don’t know what the author is going to do. Something where I don’t sit back and scoff and say, ‘go ahead and pull the trigger; you’re not going to kill off the main guy in your series’.

As an additional thought, that type of scene might work just fine in a stand-alone mystery (since there’s no series, the protagonist might not make it) or in the first or second books. Mainly because you don’t know if the author is going to stick around and make a series or not. But after the third book, when a series is here to stay, that final scene stops working for me.

And I stop reading them.

There are some cases where I stop with the whole series. My husband and I used to be big fans of John Sandford. But after twenty-some books they all sound alike. The protagonist wanders around and asks questions, the answers lead up to the final life-or-death scene, and the protagonist survives. The books are so boring now I can’t even go back and re-read them.

And after this, I go back and re-read the endings of my books and squirm a bit. In my defense, it’s the first few so the series isn’t in concrete yet. Which means…who knows what’s going to happen in the next one?

(Ha! Aren’t I tricky, sneaking in a blatant teaser?)

Writer’s Tools: Cut, Paste, and Delete

In Ghost Roads, I’d finished the whole thing, edited it all, sent it to beta readers, thought it was ready, and then gave it to my editor. She came back with one simple question that ended up in a great deal of revision.

Luckily, this time I realized the vital question about half way through book four. I’m busy cutting, pasting, and deleting at the moment.

Book four is tentatively titled Sunshine On My Shoulders. I recently realized that I kept jumping back and forth between who the antagonist was. I thought it was one character, then had a brilliant (so I thought) light bulb moment when I realized that no, it was this character. Then a week or so later, I had another light bulb moment.

I’ve gone through a lot of light bulbs.


I thought I was struggling to find the right antagonist because that’s what keeps changing.

So I went to Janice Hardy’s excellent book, Revising Your Novel, and the section on what to do if you think you have the wrong antagonist. She says one issue might not be the antagonist himself, but the core conflict or premise of the novel.

And that’s it. Not the antagonist at all, but the victim. Because I hadn’t discovered how exactly the victim tied to the core conflict. In other words, if you don’t know why someone is killed, how can you know who did it? Or why they would do it? My villains were all innocent.

I’ve figured it out. Now I’m using those writer’s tools of cutting, pasting, and deleting. Some things have to happen a little sooner. Some things need to happen immediately after others. Some characters are going to have to wait until the next book. And some characters are going to have to step up and get busy.

It’s actually kind of fun being ruthless with the delete key. And I don’t have to make as many changes as I thought because my subconscious was working and some scenes now make sense. Thank you, subconscious.


Working hard

I’m headed back to do some more cutting and pasting. I think I’m done deleting.

For the moment.

After all, the editor still hasn’t seen this one.