Helga Schier on Plot Structure and More
In this interview, editor Helga Schier offers advice on plot structure, character development, and dialogue, and explains how to avoid common problems in fiction manuscripts.
Helga Schier was previously Executive Editor at Random House, and now offers a full range of editorial, ghostwriting, and coaching services for authors. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Conversation with Helga Schier
CWN: What are some of the most common areas where fiction manuscripts need developmental work?
Helga Schier: Most first-time writers who come to me for advice have trouble with two seemingly distinct issues, which, upon a closer look, go hand in hand: more often than not inexperienced writers are telling their story rather than showing it, and just as often neither character nor plot develop naturally. A novel must comprise both, narrative that quickly moves the plot forward (telling) and dramatic scenes that come to life in dialogue and supportive narrative revealing the characters’ interactions before a reader’s eyes (showing). By the same token, plot and character must be intrinsically connected, and must motivate and inform each other. In other words, the plot is motivated and moved along by a character’s psychological disposition for certain behaviors and reactions to events, as much as a character’s behaviors (typical or not so) must be motivated by the novel’s plot. For example, a typically shy and rather submissive character should not speak out against a more outspoken and dominating character unless the novel has prepared the somewhat untypical behavior. A mother may believably overcome her shyness if speaking on behalf of her child, if the novel has been able to show closeness between mother and child and if the plot thus far ascribes urgency to the mother’s atypical behavior, i.e. if failure to overcome her shyness will have an adverse effect on the child. The two issues converge: only if the novel shows us a close relationship between mother and child will her atypical behavior be motivated and thus believable, and only if her atypical behavior is important within the plot will the story (plot and character) develop naturally.
CWN: What are some of the most common language-level problems you’ve found in manuscripts?
Helga Schier: Above and beyond the fact that, for the most part, writers should use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling, I’d say that with regards to language usage anything goes. Language creates and defines a writer’s voice, and as an editor I try to go with whatever voice and style has been established. Even bad grammar, punctuation or spelling could potentially be part of a writer’s style. That said, inexperienced writers tend to overwrite or underwrite, although it is the in-between that (usually!) works. Some writers consistently use too many adjectives to describe a single noun, and don’t leave anything to the reader’s imagination, which may become overbearing after a while. On the other end of the spectrum are writers who shy away from descriptive words altogether, offering a bare bones narrative that leaves everything up to the reader’s imagination, which may impair the narrative’s ability to offer guidance through the universe the novel tries to establish. Clearly there are successful examples for both styles of writing, and so it is very difficult and, in my mind, even presumptuous to prescribe a particular style of writing. Thus the only advice I’d give any writer is to always be aware that it is the language you use that creates the world of the novel. This means two seemingly contradictory things: not a single word in a novel is irrelevant, and never use a word that is irrelevant.
CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of plot structure?
Helga Schier: Plot structure has many definitions. The most basic definition being beginning – middle – end. Clearly every novel needs these three elements, but most successful novels do more than just tell us about a succession of events. Successful novels provide a motivation and/or purpose (beginning) of the events as they unfold (middle) and strive towards the resolution (end). Motivation, purpose and resolution provide meaning to the simple succession of events, and allow the reader to make sense of what is happening in the novel’s universe (and perhaps even beyond). Plot structure is further defined by the particular sequence of events as they are told either in chronological order or in flashbacks or in thematically associative order. Which plot structure works best for any particular novel depends very much on the story a writer wants to tell. In the end, the pieces of the story must all come together which is to say that the beginning must foreshadow the ending, and the ending must echo the beginning.
CWN: Could you talk about some of the types of problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of character development?
Helga Schier: Character development is a character’s growth, or lack thereof. In other words, character development answers the question whether or not the character will rise above his or her flaws, or will fall because of them. This is true for any and all genres. Even an action driven novel needs a character arc, for all novels are essentially about people and the way they behave. Therefore a character’s behavior needs to be motivated within the novel, either by the character’s psychological disposition or by the novel’s events and their potential effect in the characters in the novel. This does not mean that characters cannot behave in surprising ways, i.e. out of character. On the contrary, it is often the unusual behavior of a character that makes a novel move forward. As long as that unusual behavior is explained and prepared by events or relationships in he novel, the novel’s universe still makes sense. For example, it seems surprising and unbelievable if, for example, an extremely successful, responsible and loving man just up and walks away from his wife and kids. Whether or not this behavior is at the beginning or end of your novel, an explanation must be intrinsic to the novel, i.e. both relevant and logical within. A run-in with the law, perhaps (which might be a good premise for a crime story), or a serious mid-life crisis (which might be a good but sad ending for a character study). Anything goes, which means any character can behave in any possible way, as long as the novel develops a good reason for him or her to do so. That’s where character and plot development need to go hand in hand.
CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of pacing?
Helga Schier: Pacing is the novel’s rhythm. If the rhythm stays the same throughout, it might have a hypnotic effect and put your readers to sleep. Depending on the genre, the pacing of a novel needs to vary throughout, and it needs to do so on many different levels. The rhythm of sentences and paragraphs as well as of dialogue and narrative scenes needs to progress more slowly when you want the reader to be engaged intellectually and pay attention to details, and faster when you want your reader to be engaged emotionally and feel tension and suspense. The precise rhythm is prescribed as much by the genre as it is by the particular plot point. A thriller may start with a bang as you establish the crime, may have fast-paced sections throughout to keep the reader in edge, interspersed by only a few sections that seemingly put the reader (and characters) at ease, only to race towards the inevitable ending. A romantic comedy may start slow as you set up the situation and create your novel’s universe, only to move fast in the end, when the question whether boy-gets-girl becomes truly relevant. If the novel is to move fast, use shorter sentences in shorter scenes, which will increase the notion of tension, almost as if the novel were out of breath as it races towards its conclusion. By the same token, a narrative that takes tie uses descriptive words and phrases that call attention to important details.
CWN: Are there any specific issues with dialogue that fiction writers should watch out for?
Helga Schier: Dialogue must seem natural. Yet what seems natural is not the same as recorded conversation. Natural dialogue must reveal true interaction between people (the dialogue partners), which however, is different from both well-phrased speeches and the constant stop-and-go of real-life conversation. Dialogue should include shorter sentences than a speech; involve pauses, interruptions, and individual speech patterns illustrating a character’s personality, status and background. Yet by the same token, dialogue should be more stylized than recorded conversation, for the dialogue needs to do more than just record conversation. Natural dialogue needs to propel the story forward while it reveals the relationship between the characters involved in the conversation. Thus both the words the characters speak and the narrative showing us what’s going on between the lines become part of the plot and character development. Gestures, glances, body language and actions are as vital a part of the dialogue what is being said. Clearly this is in part due to the fact that both in a novel and in real life, people don’t necessarily mean what they say or say what they mean. In other words, the dialogue is and should be driven by the underlying conflict, either between the dialogue partners, or between what they say and what they mean, or the conflict that propels the plot forward.
CWN: Do you have any advice for writers on revising to improve manuscript beginnings and/or endings?
Helga Schier: The beginning of a novel needs to grab the reader’s attention while at the same time establishing the basics of the story, i.e. time, place, main characters and their relationships. A novel’s ending must be well prepared throughout the novel, which means that you should not introduce last minute plot twists or character conflicts. However, there is no sure-fire formula that will help you create a great beginning and a meaningful ending, and it truly is up to the writer to find the best opening line and last page for his/her particular novel.
CWN: Do you have any other words of advice for fiction authors who are in the process of revising a manuscript?
Helga Schier: Know your world. Know your characters and why they do whatever it is they do. Know the story you want to tell and why you want to tell it.
Plot Structure - Next Steps
Our online course, Self-Critique for Fiction Writers, will help you improve plot structure, character development, and other aspects of your fiction.
If you enjoyed this interview, you might also enjoy our conversation with author Meredith Sue Willis about plot structure and her novel-writing process.
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