9.07.2017

Elevate Your Walk-ons

Part of a writer’s job consists of exploring ways to enhance the dramatic impact of a plot event. Depending on the type of novel you are writing, you may have a number of plot events that contain the potential for a very moving scene. The question is: who is impacted by the event?

To show how to use a logical train of thought to reap emotional rewards, I’ll use a single running example. Let’s say a ferry riding through a storm capsizes in the enormous waves. In this case, the author’s starting point is: crowds of people falling from the decks, the clamorous shouts for loved ones, and a number of other stirring details.

Yet who is at the center of this emotional turmoil? The story’s power would be increased exponentially if a character that we cared about was on that boat. It might be a child, call him Josh, placed on the ferry by a father, the book’s protagonist, desperate to get his son off an island. Right away the emotional import of the capsized ferry is drastically altered. Because Josh is important to the hero, he is important to the reader.

Now backtrack from that harrowing scene of capsizing. If Josh appears in a handful of scenes with his father before he boards the ferry, we get to know him. Josh matters to us, because the author has pushed him in front of us and made him matter. Plus, the benefits are dual-pronged. Not only do we sit on the edge of our seat as Josh thrashes about in the storm-whipped waves. We also empathize with the father once he learns the ferry has sunk. Back and forth, scene after scene in two plot lines are laden with emotional freight.

Once this change is made, the next issue is: how can Josh be sustained? In other words, once the boy is out on his own, he now is the leader of his own plot line. What should that mean to you, as the author? Immediately you have to start thinking: how can I elevate other walk-ons to support Josh? Granted, the boy could latch onto a spar and float by his lonesome, but it would be far easier to give Josh a companion via which to contrast his fear and/or bravery.

More than one might mean a lifeboat, and Josh is hauled up onto it by a few wind-tossed, soaked survivors. Now you need to give them names, so Josh can interact with them. After all, you elevated Josh from a crowd. Now you must elevate his supporting character(s). They have a key role to play now. Josh’s interactions with them will keep him vital to the reader until he is rescued at last.

Exercise: If you have a dramatic plot event, see if you can plausibly place a major character at the heart of it. If not, give the protagonist a loved one or the like to serve that purpose. If you have to backtrack from the event to make this new character matter to the reader, is that such a hardship?

“Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”  —Anne McCaffrey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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