Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fiona Harper on Writing - Running down that hill...

So, you’ve avoided the saggy middle by letting your characters reach a turning point, both in relation to their external goal and internally. Shouldn’t it just be a roll downhill to the end now? Fiona Harper continues her series on character arc and story structure by exploring how you can keep the tension high as the plot gathers momentum.

We talked last time about how your characters often have a rest period after all the effort they’ve put in to get to the middle of the story, push past their own internal obstacles to make progress towards their goal. The next bit should be a piece of cake, right? I mean they’ve started to conquer that pesky self-defeating behaviour that was hampering their progress. Surely things will get easier from here on in?

Photo: David Torres Costales / @DavoTC
I used the metaphor of climbing a mountain when I talked about our characters making their way to the mid-point of the story. Now it’s time to descend down the other side and continue their journey to their final destination. I’ve climbed down a mountain (a long time ago, but I have done it!) and is certainly not a piece of cake. In fact, I think I found it harder than the journey up.

On the climb, the momentum comes from us pushing ourselves forward. It’s hard work, but we go at our own pace, slowly making progress. On the descent, other factors are added into the mix. Gravity and momentum can easily take control, pulling us down the hill faster and faster. This is the point in the story where outside forces often come into play. It’s easy  for things to spin out of control, with possibly disastrous results!

Michael Hague calls this section of a story Complications and Higher Stakes. Blake Snyder calls it Bad Guys Close In. Both phrases emphasise the need for escalating tension. Your character has made that internal shift. They’ve chosen to accept the scary challenge to grow and change and it’s as if the universe now decides to test that resolve by increasing the size of the obstacles in their way. “You think you’re strong enough to do this?” Fate says. “Well let’s see if you revert to that protective, self-defeating behaviour if I throw this at you!” Robert McKee says that true character is revealed under pressure, and this is often what we do now – increase the pressure to see if our hero and heroine crumble and give up.

But the most effective obstacles are not random events: an earthquake or an accident or the return of a jealous ex-lover.  Often there are things set up at the beginning of the story that have been set aside while our characters struggle in starting this new journey, and this is a great time to deal with them.

For example, in Pretty Woman the fact that Edward is a billionaire and Vivian is a hooker must be addressed.  It is at this point, just as their relationship is deepening that the secret about Vivian’s profession is revealed. In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days Andi and Ben have found it easy to use each other for own ends when feelings weren’t involved, but now they are starting to fall for each other, the fact they are both keeping secrets adds pressure to their growing relationship.

In French Kiss, Luc and Kate have had their ‘honeymoon period’ where they have a break from their mission to follow Charlie to the south of France and spend some time with Luc’s family. They’ve started to find common ground and really like each other rather than just tolerate each other to achieve their respective goals. They get back on the train and head to Cannes. The rest of the story can’t just be about Luc and Kate’s growing feelings about each other. Kate had a purpose in coming to France, remember? She wanted to win Charlie back and now she's has started to make that change from scared, neurotic Kate to a woman who is learning how to relax and embrace life, it’s time for her to deal with the whole AWOL fiancé problem once and for all.

This is another point in a book where I always get stuck. I think it's because I've laid the groundwork for most of my story elements and have to think about how I'm going to weave them all together to create a happy ending. Ask yourself: what threads of external conflict have so far been left unresovled and how can I use these elements to intensify the internal conflict?

Next month -  The Big Black Moment: what happens when your characters reach their lowest point?

Fiona's next book Always the Best Man is now available in America on eHarlequin and Amazon
The best man...for the bridesmaid?  Standing at the altar, Damien is breathless as the woman he loves walks toward him-to marry another man. Knowing bridesmaid Zoe's watching him makes it harder still. The opposite of the bride, Zoe's too loud, too vibrant, too...everything!

Zoe can't resist provoking him-just once, she'd like to see "Mr. Perfect" lose his cool. She can tell there are fireworks smouldering behind those pale blue eyes. But before the wedding night is over, their unexpected connection will threaten to undermine everything they both believe about themselves and each other.... 

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