Saturday, June 12, 2010

Character-driven action

I attended a writer's workshop this past week at Glen Eyrie Castle, Colorado Springs. I selected just one of many excellent things I learned to share on today's post: character-driven action.

This wasn't a regular writer's conference with agents, editors, pitches, etc. Instead we got to pick from one of four published authors with years of experience, and join them in a small group for writing exercises, brainstorming, group feedback, and some one-on-one critiquing from the author. It was an intense three days! With all the writing books I've studied, critique groups I've been in, and past conference workshops, I was surprised at how much I still learned.

There's taking-it-all-in kind of learning, and then there is learning by application. This unusual type of extended small-group workshop gave me opportunity to immediately apply things and almost just as immediately get feedback and brainstorming. Amazing! It helped me work out some crucial turning points in my book, Raining Toward Heaven.

The most crucial thing I learned/applied was the idea of character-driven action. We all know how we need to start our first chapters with action to hook the reader. As soon as Kathryn Mackel, the author that lead my group, described character-driven action to me, I knew it was going to help my first chapter. It's putting your character in a situation that causes them to act, so we get to see something about their personality and their motivation.

My main character is in a coffee-shop that adjoins a flower shop and she sees a young man buying roses for his girlfriend. She feels envious because today is her first anniversary and she hasn't even heard from her husband yet - typical of his neglect of anything romantic.

My group helped me brainstorm character-driven action to start this first chapter. So far she sees something happening and reacts to it. But she's not doing anything. One suggestion was to have a kid come into the flower shop on the heels of the young man to purchase a flower for her sick mother. The kid counts out her change, but she's fifty cents short. My character offers to pay the difference. Now she's actually doing something that tells us about her character. I'm not sure if I'll use this particular example, but it definitely shed some light on the power of character-driven action.

Ending with a couple great quotes I got from the other authors at the workshop (James Scott Bell, Angela Hunt, Nancy Rue):

Good writing is where precision meets passion

Creating art is an interaction between you and God

We write a novel to evoke emotion

Just curious about that last quote, what do you guys think? Is storytelling about evoking emotion?


  1. I'm a big fan of the book: Techniques of the Selling Writer. It really drives home the idea that writing is all about getting your reader to respond. Without a response or opinion on what's happening, then what's the point in reading it?
    Can you really love a book if it doesn't have an emotional effect on you?

  2. Of course, good stories evoke emotion. People are still milking the Brothers Grimm to scare the heck out of people.

    To be serious, I think that's one reason why books have endured when television was supposed to have destroyed them. A sizable group of people still exist who want to imagine what's going on in the story with the writer.

  3. It sounds like an awesome conference! What a wonderful opportunity. Of the three quotes, the last one was the one that made me think, "oh yeah!" Yes, I believe storytelling is all about evoking emotion, I know that's what I love about the great books that I read.

  4. That does sound like a great conference. And I'd have to agree with Emily. If you don't connect with the book on some level, you won't remember it.

    The biggest compliment I've ever gotten on my writing was when someone told me that really connected with my character on a personal level. They felt like they were living the same thing.

    Evoking emotion IS essential. (in my humble opinion of course!) ;)

  5. I think all writing is about evoking emotion. Why else would we read? It's what I look for when I pick up a book - will it stir me emotionally.

  6. I agree that a novel must stir emotion, but I don't think that's the purpose (at least not in every novel). For example, I enjoy detective fiction, but it's the sense of justice at the end that satifies me. There is emotion involved in that, but I don't think it's the goal.

  7. For me, it's all about the emotion. From an early age I've found myself drawn to books that have characters who make me feel. I know others will react differently, but that's what works for me. :)

  8. I suppose it is about evoking an emotion because you're working at getting a reaction out of your reader--excitement, adventure, empathy... whatever. So you may be on to something.

    And what a cool workshop to attend! And in CO (my home state)! I have to remind myself so very often that my character(s) needs to act and react physically.

    In other news, I'm loving the new skin. Have a great weekend (what's left of it)!

  9. Hey, there's another Kay!
    I agree with the statement. Every good book I've read evokes some emotion or another.

  10. All commenters - the consensus is we all believe books (at least fiction books) should evoke ane emotional response. Seems kind of like a duh question but when I first heard this statement it surprised me. I guess I had never looked at it that way! If someone had asked me what fiction was about, I would have answered "for entertainment, and the really good books make you think." Which is true, too, but I hadn't realized how important the emotional element is (at least, for women). Some books of course seek to evoke "bad" emotions - horror, for instance (fear, shock). Connie pointed out some mystery or crime novels are about evoking a sense of justice, but justice also evokes emotion. Thanks for the input!

    Emily - thank you for mentioning Techniques of the Selling Writer - I've found that's why blogging has become so interesting to me, because I can respond to articles and even start a conversation. And I absolutely agree - I can't love a book unless it's had an emotional effect on me.

    Kay - good point about the Grimm brothers stories. Anyone who loves to read will scoff at the thought of TV ever replacing books. But why do written stories fulfill us readers in a way TV doesn't? I know there have been studies done on it - don't remember the details though.

    Susan - all three of those quotes really made me stop and think. The precision and the passion is sort of related because we wouldn't be able to convey emotion in our stories well, without both precision and passion.

    Janet - yes that the word I've often used to - "connecting with a book". Another way of saying it's evoked an emotional response. I think that would be the biggest complement for me, too.

    Jan - now that I think about it that's why I pick up a book too. Before I just generalized it as "I want a good story that keeps me turning pages. But it's tension, emotion and identification too that makes me care enough to keep turning.

    Connie - we've all agreed emotion is a huge driving factor in why we read. But you had a really good point too. Is it that the most crucial ingredient is emotion, regardless of the purpose?

    Jemi - another important point: it's characters who make us feel.

    Jackee - Getting a reaction out of your reader - yeah that is another way of saying evoking an emotion. Btw, where in Colorado are you from?

    Kay D. - welcome!

  11. How fortunate to get to attend a workshop like this! And how exciting to come across such fabulous advice to help you with your book. Thanks for sharing it.

  12. I don't know about other writers, but I definitely writer to evoke emotion. Sometimes I have to remember to write the rest of the story! :)

    I like this idea of character-driven action. I definitely need to think through how to apply this to a chapter I'm struggling with right now. Thanks!

  13. This workshop sounds great.

    I definitely believe in writing to evoke emotion. And hopefully I've achieved that goal with my wip.



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