A couple years ago, I had just gotten my first brand new car, a cute little Civic, when I was sitting at a red light, and the woman behind me didn't come to a stop. Next thing I knew, my head lurched forward, and I heard that loud collision sound. My pulse raced, as my stomach sank. Not my brand new car!
Thankfully, Amelia (as I affectionally call my little Civic) took it like a champ and didn't need much in the way of repairing. But in the days that followed, I noticed my neck was very sore from the impact. I didn't have to get it checked out by a doctor-- and for that I'm very thankful-- but it was still no fun.
|Photo by Sixninepixels at www.freedigitalphotos.net|
So what does this have to do with writing?
All too often, when we're developing our characters, we employ a similar type of jarring motion in our stories. I know I personally have to fight against this tendency all the time. My theory is that this happens because, as writers, we know where our characters will end up, and we want to hint toward that. We get so very excited about their transformation that sometimes we allow it to happen a bit too early. We're thinking we're foreshadowing and layering our characters, while our readers are thinking, "What in the world is going on?"
Let me give an example. We know a good romance requires two characters who are attracted to one another, yet pulled apart from one another through challenges throughout the story, until finally, they reconcile and have their happily-ever-after. But have you ever read a romance that didn't keep that tension until the end? And what was your response as a reader? More than likely, it lost your interest.
So using our example of a romance story, consider a hero who can't find love because he's visiting a foreign country and doesn't want to start a love affair across an ocean. Early in a chapter, he may think to himself something like this (in so many words):
The woman glided across the deck of the cruise ship with a comfortable ease, as if she'd taken this day cruise before. Undeniably Italian, her dark hair formed loose curls at the ends. She smiled at him.
Had he been anyone other than Jack Johnson--Texas native who planned to stay that way--he would've swept that woman right off her feet like Frank Sinatra. But he was Jack Johnson. So he returned her smile and kept walking.
(By the way, I'm completely making this story up for the sake of example, so please excuse me if it sounds a little like An Affair to Remember. Ha!) These paragraphs set up the tension and let us know why Jack isn't interested in a foreign romance. Then, imagine that later in the chapter, Jack strikes up a conversation with the Italian woman, and you find a paragraph like this one:
The beauty of the Isle of Capri was striking, and stirred something in Jack that had long been dormant. He fidgeted his hands, longing to catch the stray piece of Lydia's hair that had fallen into her eyes. Maybe, just maybe, moving here wouldn't be so bad, after all.
What just happened in this last paragraph? Jack has pretty much decided he's okay with the possible move to Italy, and the romance is now a go. Now, here's the problem. The tension has evaporated, and the reader is NOT going to take Jack seriously because he made this decision so impulsively. He initially tells us he has this serious qualm about ever moving from Texas, and then, in only a few pages, he's already changed his mind! While we may follow a story that flip flops around in this way, we are not going to allow ourselves to emotionally invest in the characters, because we'll never really know what page they are on.
So with that in mind, how can you avoid giving your reader whiplash?
- Remember that the reader doesn't know how your character is going to change. You might know exactly the arc your characters are going to take, but your readers don't. Take advantage of that. Keep them guessing. Don't "show your cards," so to speak. Which leads into the next point...
- Remember to take time to develop your characters at each stage, to create a deeper emotional impact. If you've created obstacles for the relationships and goals your characters might have, don't easily rush past those things. Make them count! If a character is hardened to love, make them actually hardened to it, and show us why. They shouldn't feel closed off one minute and totally open to possibility the next. Yes, we should see little moments of hope for change sprinkled throughout, but like pepper, don't add too many of such moments! If your readers believe in the struggle your characters are having, they will also believe in the redemption and healing your characters find. Consistent, slow-changing development (just as in real life) generally leads to much greater reader emotion, and much more believable characters.
- Don't shy away from keeping tension alive! When a character bounces back and forth between struggle and the end-of-the-book-resolution they will later achieve, that character is no longer providing your story the tension he or she could. By taking your time to develop each character consistently, rather than whiplashing your reader, you will amp up the tension in your story and keep readers desperate to see those characters find better ground.
- Be conscientious of this tendency during the editing process. Sometimes an initial read-through of a just-written manuscript can do wonders to reveal the whiplash moments. You will be amazed by how much stronger your story becomes whenever you get a hold of what your characters are facing, and you allow them to fully engage in that particular moment.
Have you ever read a book that gave you reader whiplash? Do you struggle with this yourself? I know I do! I would love to hear your thoughts!
Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.