Monthly Archives July 2013

Critique Technique, part 16: Unclear or Insufficient Obstacles

Black and yellow concrete barriers

Image courtesy of Shi Yali /

I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a clear obstacle. It’s a beautiful sunny day outside and I’m inside at the computer. It may be clear, but it’s not sufficient—here I am. I know, I know. Waah waah waah. The sooner I stop whining, the sooner I’ll be done so I CAN go outside.

Right, then. On to it.

Back in Part 9 I wrote about conflict. One form of conflict for characters is the obstacles they face: the things that keep them from achieving their goals. Obstacles come in many forms: physical objects, situations, people, animals, laws, psychological or emotional blockages, and more. Pretty much anything can be an obstacle given the right circumstances.

That, unfortunately, can be a problem as well as an opportunity.

Authors have t...

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Critique Technique, Part 15: Unclear Character Goals

A story’s characters have—or should have—a variety of wants, needs, desires, and longings. Those words may seem to be similar, but the shades of difference between them are important.  Goals—things a character hopes or intends to achieve or accomplish—make those wants/needs/desires/longings real. In a romance, the heroine has a goal to catch that special man; in a spy thriller, the spy may have a goal to do his job and get away; in a literary novel, the protagonist may have a goal of reaching an understanding of a long-ago relationship gone bad.

In his excellent book Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham writes about characters having a variety of goals at the story, chapter, and even scene level. The goals I listed above are story-level ones...

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Critique Technique, part 14: Out-of-Character Behavior

Comedy has been defined as “ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or extraordinary people in ordinary situations.” But what if the piece you’re critiquing isn’t comedy—or isn’t meant to be comedy? When a character you’ve come to know suddenly acts in a way that makes you stop, scratch your head, and say “huh?”, maybe there’s a problem.

Maybe. That’s an important word. What does the story’s context tell you about this new behavior? If Alice suddenly starts screaming, which she’s never done before, but it’s because the car she’s riding in just went off a cliff, that’s reasonable. If, on the other hand, as the car begins its graceful, 1,000 foot descent, she calmly takes out her .357 Magnum and blows away the driver, well, maybe not so much...

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Critique Technique, part 13: Timing the Reveal

A while back, in part 9, I wrote about timing as it related to conflict. The questions above revealed to me another layer of the writing onion: timing as it relates to revealing character aspects. I have a feeling this is one of those things that many writers, especially new ones and “pantsers” (writers who don’t plan out their stories in advance, but instead write “by the seat of their pants”), don’t think about. I admit I hadn’t until I wrote those questions down. I wouldn’t be surprised if experienced writers, whether they outline, stitch together scenes, or pants-it, do this more subconsciously than consciously, no matter what genre they write in.

But it’s still something worth thinking about: when do you reveal a particular personality trait or characteristic?


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