If the Problem’s Not Your Plot, What Is It?

Susan DeFclasses, craft, fictionLeave a Comment

two panel image with a cat on the left with a caption "What it looks like" and a tarsier on the right with a caption "What it is:"

There are a few major reasons people come to me as an editor and a book coach, and this is something I’ve been reflecting on as I prepare for the class I’m teaching for Jane Friedman this Thursday, Maybe It’s Not Your Plot.

Generally speaking, people come to me because:

  • They have an overwritten novel (sometimes hugely so; I’ve worked on novels that clocked in north of 200K words) and can’t figure out what to cut in revision
  • They’ve put their novel through a million drafts, and they know something is still wrong, but they don’t know what it is
  • They’re writing speculative fiction, and they’ve gotten so lost in the world building that they can’t seem to work out the actual story
  • They either can’t seem to figure out the ending of their novel or know that the ending they have isn’t quite right
  • They’ve reached the end of Draft One and just don’t know what they need to focus on in revision
  • They “pantsed it” with their first draft, and now need to figure out how to structure their novel
  • They’ve received lukewarm reader response, or
  • They’ve had their novel rejected by agents and editors

Here I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I help people solve all of these problems (and many others they’re not even aware of) by doing the exact same thing, and that’s helping them build a real character arc for their protagonist.

Which is to say, all of these issues might APPEAR to be problems with what happens in the story, when in reality, they’re problems with why it happens.

Plot is generally what’s obvious to us, as both writers and readers–familiar, like the cat in the graphic above.

Character arc is more like the tarsier, in that it’s not so obvious and familiar, because it operates on a deeper, more subterranean level. As readers, we’re generally not aware of character arc at all (at least until the end of the novel).

What we are aware of is the effect that character arc has on us, which is the effect of making us feel.

Character arc is often treated like a discrete element of craft–on par, say, with conflict, dialogue, or voice–when in reality, I believe, it’s a structural element, foundational to the story itself. That’s why it’s such a powerful tool for cutting through thorny plot problems.

Don’t know what to cut in revision? Look at your character arc; if the event or subplot doesn’t intersect clearly with the internal journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

And this is hugely helpful when it comes to the endless possibilities presented by a fascinating speculative world: Think of the possibilities of that big world as a field. Putting the protagonist through a clear internal journey cuts a path through that field–which is to say, an actual story.

As for a novel’s ending, there are many ways that the events of the plot could conclude, but there are only a few ways that will deliver the moment of truth required by the protagonist’s character: The moment when they will finally see what it is they’ve been missing, or failed to understand, get out of their own way, and change.

Moreover, character arc is what determines the emotional quotient of the story: how invested the reader gets in it, and how much they care about what happens to the protagonist. So it’s often the key to turning around lukewarm reader response, and *crickets* from agents and editors as well.

I’ll be digging into all of this in further geeky detail this Thursday, April 14–so if you’re working on a novel, please! Save yourself some time, effort, and frustration by joining me for this class.

I promise I’ll break all of this down in a way that’s intuitive and easy to understand. (And if you need further incentive, there will be more cute animal photos like these. =)

Until next time,


PS. If you can’t make the live event, no worries–you can catch the replay later.

How does transformation begin?

Susan DeFcraft, fictionLeave a Comment

fresh shoots of green plant in the dirt

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on transformation–in art, and in life.

This week found me back in Portland. After two years away, due to the pandemic, it’s been a deeply meaningful time of connecting with old friends.

I’ve known one of these friend since my midtwenties. Like me, she’s a graduate of Prescott College; like me, she’s had a career as a freelance editor and book coach. Over lunch, she shared that she’s now transitioned to working with clients in a capacity that’s akin to a spiritual life coach.

That’s a transition that might not make sense to some people, but it made sense to me. This friend used to coach people writing self-help books; now she’s actually helping people transform their lives.

One of the things she noted about this work was something she termed “seeding”–making a small suggestion to a client, rather than a large one, about a way they might see things differently. Just floating an idea about change, without making a big deal about it, then moving on.

This, she said, is a big part of what helps the client actually make that big shift later on. Because they can have their resistance, their push back, to the small suggestion, rather than to the whole idea, the complete reframe. Which means that the next time this idea comes around, they generally have less resistance to it, more curiosity.

Seeding an idea in this way, gradually, sets the stage for a real breakthrough later on.

All of which couldn’t help but remind me of the way character arc operates in novels: The story can’t push the protagonist to see their internal issue all at once. Rather, it pushes them this way a little bit at a time–from this angle over there, and then that angle over there.

The story gives the character time and space to push back and resist–and in fact, as readers, we must see that person’s resistance to change if the eventual transformation is going crack our hearts open via the magic of catharsis, and really feel convincing.

In the end, the work my friend is doing with her clients and the work I’m doing with mine is very much parallel: We’re setting the stage for a convincing, affecting, meaningful internal shift. And in so doing, maybe even helping to heal a bit of our broken world, one human heart at a time.

This month for Jane Friedman, I wrote about some strategies for setting up this kind of transformation for your protagonist in the opening pages of your novel, while also serving to draw your reader in–so if you’re interested in creating this kind of “story medicine” in your work, you’ll find some very actionable tactics for that here.

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Traci Skuce in conversation with Susan Defreitas

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

On February 7, I had the pleasure of presenting on one of my favorite subjects at Traci Skuce’s Write Your First (or Next!) Novel Summit.

You may hear me getting a little evangelical here about character arc! It’s a subject I speak and write about often, because I believe it truly is “the heart of story.”

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Wishful Thinking Won’t Get Us There (But This Will)

Susan DeFblack history month, fictionLeave a Comment

people standing and overlooking a mountaintop

It’s Black History Month, y’all,

 so it seems a fitting time to talk about the change we need to see in the world.

Specifically, the change we need to see in our characters.

I write–and talk!–a lot about character arc. Over at Traci’s Skuce‘s Write Your First (or Next!) Book Summit, I shared why I consider character arc the heart of story. And over at Jane Friedman’s blog this month, I noted that the strongest, most emotionally compelling character arcs tend to be based on the author’s own experience.

But there’s something I wanted to share with you here behind the scenes, and that’s this: A lot of writers have a hard time owning their own personal growth, and that of the people they love.

Which is to say, a lot of White writers imagine White characters acting in enlightened ways on race that…realistically, they probably would not.

Here I’m talking about the privileged child who, nearly from birth, has empathized with people of color.

I’m talking about the White mom in the 1950s South who has no anxieties or objections about her son marrying a Black woman.

I’m talking about the White YA protagonist who exhibits nothing but unbridled cultural sensitivity toward her Latina best friend.

The worlds we create in fiction are in many ways idealized, and that’s part of the fun. But we do ourselves and others a disservice when we deny the hard truths of reality–and deny the growth we ourselves, and those we love, may have gone through.

I think this is particularly important when it comes to the ways we portray race, and the consciousness of race. Because it’s in modeling growth, not perfection, that we make that kind of growth feel safe for our readers.

That means, instead of depicting White characters who exhibit wholly enlightened attitudes, we depict them as people in the process of change.

That privileged child may have been a lot like any other privileged child, unquestioning of what she’d been taught or absorbed about race, until confronted with a situation of injustice that awoke her empathy.

That Southern mom may have had to fall in love with her grandkids before she could see how wrong she was to try to keep their parents apart.

And that YA protagonist might mix up the Virgin Mary with the Virgin of Guadeloupe, or her bestie’s godmother with her grandmother, and have to be set straight.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the promised land.”

I think we can see it too, now more than ever: The hope and promise of a genuinely egalitarian society.

But to actually get there as a culture, and as individuals, we need to climb. And rather than Instagram-worthy pictures of the summit, I think what we could really use right now are some detailed trail maps that will take us there.

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