Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reader Whiplash: Developing Characters Organically

A couple years ago, I had just gotten my first brand new car, a cute little Civic, when I was sitting at a red light, and the woman behind me didn't come to a stop. Next thing I knew, my head lurched forward, and I heard that loud collision sound. My pulse raced, as my stomach sank. Not my brand new car!

Thankfully, Amelia (as I affectionally call my little Civic) took it like a champ and didn't need much in the way of repairing. But in the days that followed, I noticed my neck was very sore from the impact. I didn't have to get it checked out by a doctor-- and for that I'm very thankful-- but it was still no fun.

Photo by Sixninepixels at
It's amazing how sharp, unexpected movements can jar us, and even leave us confused, isn't it? If you've ever been in a fender bender yourself or had whiplash, you definitely understand!

So what does this have to do with writing?

All too often, when we're developing our characters, we employ a similar type of jarring motion in our stories. I know I personally have to fight against this tendency all the time. My theory is that this happens because, as writers, we know where our characters will end up, and we want to hint toward that. We get so very excited about their transformation that sometimes we allow it to happen a bit too early. We're thinking we're foreshadowing and layering our characters, while our readers are thinking, "What in the world is going on?"

Let me give an example. We know a good romance requires two characters who are attracted to one another, yet pulled apart from one another through challenges throughout the story, until finally, they reconcile and have their happily-ever-after. But have you ever read a romance that didn't keep that tension until the end? And what was your response as a reader? More than likely, it lost your interest.

So using our example of a romance story, consider a hero who can't find love because he's visiting a foreign country and doesn't want to start a love affair across an ocean. Early in a chapter, he may think to himself something like this (in so many words):

The woman glided across the deck of the cruise ship with a comfortable ease, as if she'd taken this day cruise before. Undeniably Italian, her dark hair formed loose curls at the ends. She smiled at him.

Had he been anyone other than Jack Johnson--Texas native who planned to stay that way--he would've swept that woman right off her feet like Frank Sinatra. But he was Jack Johnson. So he returned her smile and kept walking.

(By the way, I'm completely making this story up for the sake of example, so please excuse me if it sounds a little like An Affair to Remember. Ha!) These paragraphs set up the tension and let us know why Jack isn't interested in a foreign romance. Then, imagine that later in the chapter, Jack strikes up a conversation with the Italian woman, and you find a paragraph like this one:

 The beauty of the Isle of Capri was striking, and stirred something in Jack that had long been dormant. He fidgeted his hands, longing to catch the stray piece of Lydia's hair that had fallen into her eyes. Maybe, just maybe, moving here wouldn't be so bad, after all.

What just happened in this last paragraph? Jack has pretty much decided he's okay with the possible move to Italy, and the romance is now a go. Now, here's the problem. The tension has evaporated, and the reader is NOT going to take Jack seriously because he made this decision so impulsively. He initially tells us he has this serious qualm about ever moving from Texas, and then, in only a few pages, he's already changed his mind! While we may follow a story that flip flops around in this way, we are not going to allow ourselves to emotionally invest in the characters, because we'll never really know what page they are on.

So with that in mind, how can you avoid giving your reader whiplash?

  • Remember that the reader doesn't know how your character is going to change. You might know exactly the arc your characters are going to take, but your readers don't. Take advantage of that. Keep them guessing. Don't "show your cards," so to speak. Which leads into the next point...
  • Remember to take time to develop your characters at each stage, to create a deeper emotional impact. If you've created obstacles for the relationships and goals your characters might have, don't easily rush past those things. Make them count! If a character is hardened to love, make them actually hardened to it, and show us why. They shouldn't feel closed off one minute and totally open to possibility the next. Yes, we should see little moments of hope for change sprinkled throughout, but like pepper, don't add too many of such moments! If your readers believe in the struggle your characters are having, they will also believe in the redemption and healing your characters find. Consistent, slow-changing development (just as in real life) generally leads to much greater reader emotion, and much more believable characters.
  • Don't shy away from keeping tension alive! When a character bounces back and forth between struggle and the end-of-the-book-resolution they will later achieve, that character is no longer providing your story the tension he or she could. By taking your time to develop each character consistently, rather than whiplashing your reader, you will amp up the tension in your story and keep readers desperate to see those characters find better ground.
  • Be conscientious of this tendency during the editing process. Sometimes an initial read-through of a just-written manuscript can do wonders to reveal the whiplash moments. You will be amazed by how much stronger your story becomes whenever you get a hold of what your characters are facing, and you allow them to fully engage in that particular moment.

Have you ever read a book that gave you reader whiplash? Do you struggle with this yourself? I know I do! I would love to hear your thoughts!


Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

You're so clever, Ashley - what a great analogy! Reader whiplash. It's the perfect term, really, and yes, I've read books that have had that jarring effect on me. It makes the author's writing seem kind of crude and amateurish. And yet I can imagine it happening so easily in my own stories, because we live so much of our character's emotional journey in our head and tend to assume we've expressed more on paper than we actually have. Something to watch out for, for sure!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Wow, great analogy! Love it!

Yes, I've read this in books and seen it in movies. Even in those that are otherwise quite well written. Disappointing. Really pulls you out quickly.

Pepper said...

Ohh, Good one, Ash!
And it kicked me right in the creative gut.
I just did this in my historical novel and I'm fixing it now. I wasn't really hinting at the story's end, but more with a desire to CAUSE tension.

Forced tension causes whiplashes too ;-)

"Organic" is one of the best words to remember in writing because it hits at so many elements of story creation.

Thanks for this - and lovely 'mock' story creation, Ash ;-)

Krista Phillips said...

Dude, my neck hurts now. Memories of my run in with a semi-truck are dancing through my head. (Imagine a horrible jarring feel on the interstate... pushing you into two cars in front of you... then looking in your rear view mirror to see the grill of an 18 wheeler in your trunk.....)

Anywho, YES... that is exactly how it feels when writers do that! It's hard... sometimes you DO need to sprinkle hints in there, but sprinkle is the big key. Because on the other end, it's no fun to go through a book with an H/H hating each other with little or no "attraction" and then BAM, last page, they kiss and live happily ever after.

So I submit that you can also slam your reader into the windshield at the END of the book too :-)

I'm liking this analogy...

Angie Dicken said...

I find myself flipping back to make sure I didn't miss something when I get reader whiplash...and that's in published books! Thanks for this post, girl. Great food for thought!!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Excellent advice! I am a "rusher" and tend to push my characters through everything. This is a great reminder to slow it down. ;)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Ashley. I remember one book in particular where it was so jarring I gave the book to GoodWill. That's not my norm. :)

Your tips for avoiding reader whiplash are spot on. And as Krista mentioned, sprinkling in a hint here or there is much more effective.

Thanks for sharing this great wisdom!

Susan Anne Mason said...

This is one of the hardest things to catch when you're writing, and I think I'm guilty of it big time!

Thank goodness for critique partners who will usually call us out on these issues.

Another issue that's almost the opposite is when the author keeps stating over and over again why he/she can't get involved with that person. Okay already - we get it! I've read a few Harlequins like that and it ruined the book for me.

Better go check my characters for whiplash!!

Sue :)

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, you are so right! It DOES really pull you from the story!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, I absolutely agree! I think we struggle with this tendency as writers because we don't always know how to gauge how much information we've already conveyed. It's definitely easier to catch this problem in revision than in initial writing!

Ashley Clark said...

Ha! Thanks, Pep. I figured you'd appreciate that. ;)

Ashley Clark said...

Yes, Krista, I definitely agree!!! I think it's so frustrating when a book switches things up at the very end-- the "and they all got saved and lived happily ever after" syndrome. ;) I think to avoid this end-of-novel jarring effect, we can think of the tension at the attraction not as two opposing forces, necessarily, as much as two parallel ones. That way, the tension actually creates more and more attraction as it causes the characters to see themselves in a different light and appreciate the hero/heroine more.

Ashley Clark said...

Ang and Sherrinda, it's so easy to do, isn't it? I know that sometimes I want to give too many hints of where my characters will end up instead of letting them be in their current stage! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Sue, that is SO true! I don't like when books keep beating you over the head with the same info... I think it feels inorganic because in real life, we don't think that way. I'm with you-- that definitely causes me as a reader to pull back!

Casey said...

This is an awesome analogy, now to just spot it in my own writing! :) Have you ever noticed that it's easier to spot a problem in another's book and not as easy in your own? At least that's me. What what a good example to go off of. That's why your the teacher! ;-)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Ash, I can't tell you how many times a caring crit partner told me to hold back…don't give it away.

I'm like the kindergartner begging to tell what happened. With eyes wide brimming with story I splash my words on the page. Thankfully my crit partners have lassos and have worked hard to teach me to s-l-o-w down. Tell the story in an inviting way and don't spoil the story!

Come to think of it, they haven't told me this in a while…WOWSERS I think I'm getting it!!!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Case! Yes, you are absolutely right! Sometimes it's so hard to see the problems in our own manuscripts because we know what we intended out of a scene. Even whenever we're genuinely open to criticism/improvement, I think sometimes it's just hard to see the areas that need changing! Thank goodness for good writing friends! :)

Mary, it's so hard sometimes to hold back, isn't it? :)

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