Rich Hands in a Poor Garden

One of the advantages of writing a series revolving around the same core cast is the growing richness of the portrayals. A large part of writing any novel consists of discovering what the lead characters are like. How fully a mature version emerges can determine how well the book as a whole succeeds. That advanced knowledge of a character can then be transferred to a second book and those after that.

What cannot be carried over is a fresh plot. While you were tinkering around with the characters in that first book, you were also discovering how the story would develop. That organic process may have worked well the first time around, but it likely will not in later utterances. Why is that?

When you have a variety of players, you’re inclined to find things for them to do. A scene may be devised for the sidekick to the hero, for instance, because he’s so peculiar in that wonderful way. Plus, you decide to give him a wife in order to mine his peculiarity even further. This process is repeated for a number of major characters, giving them scenes in a regular rotation.

Pretty soon, though, you’ll discover a distressing development. Writing for all of your beloved characters has a centrifugal effect on the novel as a whole. They’re spinning out into their separate orbits. Yes, you may have started with a compelling main plot, but it is proving too thin a reed to support so many wayward events.

The process of tinkering to discover new plot developments needs to be explored more fully before you start page 1. Each of the major characters—at whatever level of importance you decide—needs to participate in a plot line that progresses each time toward her individual goal. If you want to give a character a spouse, that’s fine, but first determine how that marital combination can produce or finesse obstacles for the character.

Once your notes show concrete advances that each main character will take, now examine the whole. How can the separate plot lines intersect, and at which points in the novel does that happen? The later the intersection, the more important the plot. What you’ll discover by laying out the skeins separately is which characters truly deserve to lead the next book.

Exercise: If you have already written a follow-up book, draw up a list for each major character. Go through each scene and write down in a sentence or two what plot advance the scene made. When you’re done, look at the list and ask yourself: how much did it move the character’s story forward? Most of the time that will tell you how much she should be featured and how many scenes should be cut.

“A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.