Hello, writers. It’s hard to believe two months of our new year are gone already. I’m scrambling to get Jinx 2 ready for the copyeditors by Monday, while Jinx 3 is taped to the wall as a series of index cards written in different colored markers.
(I can’t remember what color each character was in the last two books. The Bonemaster is aqua at the moment, though on reflection I’m pretty sure he was either red or magenta to start out with. Probably magenta; I think Simon Magus was red.)
I hope you caught Emmet’s brilliant and funny diary on
beginnings… if not you should. Beginnings are incredibly important. Every editor and agent I’ve worked with takes this as given. I’ll still be revising the beginning of Jinx 2 even as it marches out the door. I spent much of yesterday putting in and taking out the second sentence.
The reason is simple. Glancing at the beginning is how most prospective readers decide whether to read.
But tonight I want to talk about Passive Protagonist Syndrome.
Here’s an example of a synopsis with PPS:
The Jewel, The Jewel! is the tale of a callow youth, Beauregard, who is the Chosen One who must find the Jewel of Togwogmagog to save the realm. But where is the jewel? With the world going to hell in a handbasket around him, he is forced to go off in search of same. Many terrible things befall him on the way.Anyway, you get the idea. (And no, I can’t write synopses.) The alleged protagonist is only the subject of one sentence, and that sentence says he “is forced to” do stuff. This is a protagonist who fails to protag. Everyone around him is protagging. He’s just eye-candy.
But a kindly vampire and several other stout companions—one with a terrible secret—each befriend him. The vampire is the one who rescues Beau when the Evil Earl, who wants the Jewel for himself…
That’s rather obvious PPS. But PPS is insidious. It creeps into chapters, scenes, and paragraphs just when you think you’ve got it licked.
Here are two things I’m learning now:
1. Your protagonist needs to be active in the scene even if s/he’s nailed to the floor.
Don’t let other characters take over your scenes. (I have this problem with Simon Magus. He’s very hard to control.) Even if the scenes really belong to other characters—fights between other characters, discussions between other characters, shady deals between other characters—make sure your protagonist is shown reacting constantly. You can do this by showing the protagonist speculating about the other characters’ motives, observing their expressions, etc.
(That’s assuming your protag is able to witness the scene. If your protag is not there in any way, shaper or form… can you justify the scene being in the story?)
2. If the chapter ends with a line of dialogue or a reaction-shot, as often as possible the line or reaction should be that of your protagonist.
I learned this quite recently from Anne Hoppe, the editor of Jinx. She pointed out that several of the original manucript chapters ended with someone else (usually Simon) delivering a line of dialogue. Instead, Jinx ought to respond or react to the line, if only in his head, in order to maintain his protagitude.
If the scene ends with the Evil Earl or the Dread Least Grebe cackling in triumph, clearly in control of the situation, and the Callow Youth arse-deep in transom alligators, it still needs to end with the Callow Youth’s perspective, intentions, concerns, etc.
A Callow Youth is nailed to the floor of the Tower of Doom, while the Evil Earl and the Dread Least Grebe argue about whether it would be more advisable to hold him/her for Ransom, or feed him/her to the transom alligators and make it look like an accident.
Write the scene. Make sure the CY reacts at least twice during the scene, and then gets the last line even if s/he can’t speak.
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