I had an amazing time at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Oregon conference this past weekend. I learned craft from Laini Taylor (author of Daughter of Smoke and Bone), middle-grade humor from Bruce Hale (the very prolific middle-grade author of the Chet Gecko series), and attended a special session on story and character arcs by HarperCollins editor Andrew Harwell.
The main lesson I came home with was in regards to character. Of course, I picked up a lot about writing for a middle-grade audience, which is invaluable to the point that I can’t express myself in words, and writing as a reader experience. But mostly, I started thinking long and hard about character.
Character and story function as a feedback loop: one informs the other. I don’t think a story is complete if it’s purely character-driven, but neither if it’s purely plot-driven. I said to someone last week that “readers fall in love with characters,” so giving them a character to love right off the bat is important. But this week, as I’m mulling over some of my favorite high concept books (one of Laini Taylor’s best pieces of advice was to “read what you love and dissect what you love about it”), I thought, “No, we fall in love with stories, too.”
That led me to the conclusion that they work best when completely in tandem. Andrew Harwell’s discussion of plot and character arc as two distinct, separate, but overlapping units made so much sense to me.
As we were workshopping synopses (a few folks read their MG manuscript synopses out loud, and Andrew provided feedback), Andrew said something that really stuck with me. He was complimenting a synopsis and said:
“I like how you check back in with the characters after each major event, so we know how they feel about it, and how they’ve changed as a result in their desires and actions.”
This isn’t verbatim, but you get the idea: the synopsis told us how each plot point wasn’t just important in the arc of the story, but in each character’s arc, too.
No plot point should go without affecting or changing the characters. If you’re looking for something to cut during a revision, cut the things that are purely plot or story-driven. As you’re planning or outlining or post-outlining, check back in with your characters and see how each event makes them feel, how each event changes them or affects them.
By the same token, I think it’s important to show character changes or developments with plot points. We talked a lot at this conference about how “action” is what keeps middle-grade readers hooked, and we need to give a lot of it at the beginning to reel them in. But “action-packed” doesn’t mean riddled with sword fights or explosions; action also comes from inter-character conflict and tension. There can be a lot of tension in a room with two people not talking. Maybe one knows something the other doesn’t; maybe they have a history together.
Armed with this new perspective on story and character, I’m tearing through my revisions. What are you working on? How do you monitor your character arcs?