Friday, February 26, 2016

Blog Series: Manuscript Mistakes: Starting in the wrong spot

Manuscript Mistakes: Starting in the Wrong Spot

I’ve been interning for an agent for over 6 months. I’ve read a ton of manuscripts and overall, most of them are just not ready for representation. I’ve wanted to share my experience with writers for a long time, but life gets in the way, you know?
So, I will do my best to capture the things that I have been seeing in manuscripts over time. In order to really do this blog justice, I will take on the mistakes one by one, so I can really explain each. Today’s post is really nothing new, but it bears repeating. And repeating. And repeating. Start your story in the right place.
So here's what reading has been like for me. I get a manuscript. I read the query (it’s great to paste it into the manuscript you send to agents). I dive in and hope for the best. I’m wanting every story to be THE story. I want to say “I saw that story when…” I want to turn every page with excitement for what’s to come. I really do. And so do agents, by the way. But what happens most of the time is as this: I read the first chapter and it’s pretty good. Then I read the second. The third. Soon, I find I am 40-50% of the way into the story and yet nothing has really HAPPENED.

I should clarify, it’s not that things aren’t happening per se. It’s that the MAIN CONFLICT has yet to present itself. There are all these little tiny conflicts, but they really aren’t moving the story forward. They aren’t adding anything really to the plotline. It’s like the character going through their days and nights and weeks but there’s nothing at stake. There’s no drama to keep me invested. At this point, most readers (and agents) have probably put your novel down, away, sent the rejection. But as an intern, unless it’s awful (and I have read a few that I really couldn’t finish), I need to read the whole thing. So I soldier on, even though it’s a painfully slow read.

In my reader’s report, I end up saying things like “this story got interesting at 60%” or
“the story didn’t need the first ten chapters.” I know, as a writer you feel like “No, this stuff that happens all matters!” But you really have to look at it objectively and ask “Is there anywhere else readers can get this information without giving it to them here?” or “Does this scene REALLY need to be here?” In general, your inciting incident should be within the first two or three chapters. And you have to critically examine your story…is that chase scene REALLY the inciting incident? Is that death of random character REALLY what motivates your main character? Does it change your main character’s entire world? If that scene DIDN’T happen, would your story still be the same?
I’ll give an example that everyone knows. Hunger Games. The inciting incident is NOT Katniss volunteering, or the game itself. It’s when Prim’s name is pulled. If that hadn’t happened, the entire story would not have occurred. Prim’s name being pulled happens within the first 10% of the story. We don’t need to see Katniss’ life beforehand, how her father died, how her family is. We get that threaded within the memories and flashbacks she has during the games. Sure, it’s important information, but it’s not THE STORY. It builds character and reveals motivation, but it’s not why we care about Katniss. We care because she takes her sister’s place, even when she is certain she will die.
That point MUST be within the first few chapters of your story. YOUR event that propels the main character in action. And you MUST look for that moment with a critical eye. You have to detach yourself from your story. Here’s a tip: when you are finished with your story, take your first 25 pages, paste it into a new document and see if you can identify the inciting incident. Have others read it and see if THEY can find it.
The other thing I have to do as an intern is write a synopsis for every manuscript I read. I have become a pro at ferreting out the main story from the side stories. So, here is the other tip. Write a short (2-3 sentence) paragraph of every chapter. Stick to the main story and the main characters. In general, while I am writing the synopsis, I skim back through every chapter and ask myself “What is the conflict in this chapter? What happened? What did the main character do or learn? How did it move the story forward?”
It’s at this point where it becomes really clear what chapters moved the story along and which chapters were just existing. Every scene should mark a change in a character. Every. One. Otherwise, why does that chapter matter? It could be beautifully written. Funny. Interesting. But if nothing HAPPENS in it, throw it away. OR revise it to make it MEANINGFUL.
In most manuscripts I read, I see interesting chapters in the beginning, followed by *sad tuba* chapters in the middle to the end. It’s like they forgot how to create page turning conflict all the way through. I find myself forgetting what the story is even supposed to be about. What was the character motivation through the entire story? Again, it’s like the character is doing things, but none of those things are cohesive to one main goal.
Writers remember: every story is about someone who wants something, tries to get that thing, and either does or doesn’t. And that ONE THING is the conflict. “How do I get this thing? Even when obstacles are in my way?” should be the central question threaded through EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER. If not, you're not creating a story that’s moving. Don’t just have conflict; have conflict that matters to the END GOAL.
In short, make your MAIN conflict clear within the first few chapters (as long as they aren’t 20 page chapters). Write a 2-3 sentence summary of each chapter when you are finished (or go over it in your head at the least) and ask “How does this chapter add to the main conflict and move the story forward or help the main character get closer to their end goal?” Then separate the first few chapters and see if you and other readers get the same information about the conflict from the first 25 pages or so. Make every conflict matter.
How do YOU make sure the main conflict is threaded through every scene?

Next up on Manuscript Mistakes: Flat characters

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights. It's useful to think of the difference between the main conflict of the story and little, less significant ones.


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