2+3=5 – Adding Up

My posts have been spotty of late, so thank you to those who checked in on our blog to see whether I’d been taken hostage by the beagle. Changing zip codes and time zones is an exciting time, and the two weeks I’ll have been away from the Batcave have put new wind in my sails. We all get a bit musty around the gills from time to time, and nothing cleans ’em out more than travel, playing the tourist in Boston, moving Baby Daughter out of her apt., cramming her worldly sh*t into a too-small rental, driving 10 hrs to Pittsburgh, unloading said sh*t into hubby’s hotel room, where we’ll keep most of it when our townhouse is ready in early Oct.

For all these moving parts to work, we had to do the math…and it had to add up…lest I leave half our stuff on some Massachusetts toll road or suffer a flat tire outside Hartford. Gah. Instead, I was anal beyond the capacity of my DNA, and all went off without a hitch.

And this is something I haven’t been seeing of late in manuscripts. Stuff isn’t adding up. It started a few weeks ago when the story I was reading revolved around the main characters, who realized they love each other. Both characters (yes, I call them characters, even though it’s nonfiction) were very likeable on their own, but they had nothing in common with each other. I kept looking for some commonality that would convince me this relationship made sense. I never did, so I rejected it.

There are a few contributing factors to a story not adding up.

Oil and Vinegar Characters/Plot

Characters who have nothing in common make for entertaining storytelling because you’re doing the literary equivalent of putting a square peg into a round hole (knock off the giggling, you romance writers). The proving grounds are when you can successfully pull off an anti-nuke protester and nuke scientist relationship.

It takes believability, and you’re the one who has to put those moving pieces together so your readers will believe this is a lasting relationship vs. a case of nasty pants. If you leave out one single part of the equation, your math won’t add up, and your readers will react much as I did with the manuscript.

You need to have a golden thread of commonality that weaves through both your oil and vinegar characters, and this takes delving into their past, who they were before they assumed their current jobs (or protests). You need to understand both of them; what makes them tick, how they would typically react, and how easily they are willing to change their minds. I know it’s easy to say that they simply love each other, but a reader is going to ask why/how.

Your oil and vinegar characters have a set of solid principals that go to the very core of who they are, and it takes something pretty big in order for them to compromise.  Without it, your story won’t add up. If the lawyer protesting tearing down a building never compromises her views, she can never believably make happy with the building developer…no matter how rakishly handsome he is.

Be mindful not to weenie out on compromise. It has to be logical, or your readers will tie you to the stake and light a match. One of our upcoming books does this very well. LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES by Melissa Haynes pits herself, a city woman, against the ranger of an African game preserve, who hates all city folks, and most of all, city women. They couldn’t be more mismatched. And while no romance took place, there is a grudging acceptance that this particular city woman is worthy of admiration because of all the daring (and sometimes foolhardy) things she’s willing to do.

Melissa spreads this growing compromise out for the entire book, so readers will find themselves cheering for her as she picks a very unwise fight with a crabby elephant, or tests fate by getting way too close to the lions. She has a pair of brass ones, and this is something I think the ranger finally comes to realize and appreciate. He’s never met anyone like her before.

Take My Word For It

One thing that will have readers buying pins for your voodoo doll is copping out and saying “take my word for it, this makes sense.” Nope. Readers will NOT take your word for it. You’re the captain of your literary ship, so you have to navigate it from the ports of San Pedro to the London shores, and you have to include every single step to that complicated oil and vinegar plot.

The story I’d rejected basically said this. There was no proof of life, other than the author shoved these two characters together and expected me to buy it. It’s helpful if you constantly ask yourself, “Does this make sense? Is this logical?” The problem is, you’re often too close to the story to know, and that’s when your beta readers can be of help.

But it’s also a test of how well you know your characters. It’s easy to create two characters who are polar opposites, but it takes great care to bring them together. An outline is helpful when deciding on the golden strands that will create the sets of compromises that will allow the oil and vinegar characters or plot to come together.

I had a story that I really liked, but the author had one character making decisions that made no sense. When I talked to her about it, she went into a series of events (backstory) that suddenly made all those decisions logical. I recommended that she work on weaving in the backstory because it’s vital to how the story unfolds. Always remember that we can’t climb inside your heads, so if it’s not on the paper, then it’s not in our heads.

As for my own equation adding up, Pittsburgh is lovely.

2 Responses to 2+3=5 – Adding Up

  1. Fabulous post, Lynn. This applies to every story, fiction or non-fiction. Very helpful information, as always. 🙂 Oh, and welcome to Pittsburgh! One of my very favorite cities. I hope you enjoy living there! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Carolyn. I LOVE Pittsburgh. We spend an entire day tootling around, and I know I’m going to love it here. It already feels like home, and I’m actually dreading going back to So. Cal.

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