How to Balance Character and Action!

How to Balance Character and Action  by Julie Hyzy

Characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, are the fuel that keep a plot moving. I’m sure you’ve heard many writers—whether plotters or pantsers—compare writing a novel to taking a trip.

Characters are fuel

Whether they start with a detailed road map or simply with an idea and a general direction, writing is likened to driving from one place to another with stops at interesting sites along the way. While that’s a fine analogy, allow me to offer an addendum: Drivers/authors aren’t going to get far without fuel. Compelling characters are what provide the power to keep a story moving. Without them, readers won’t feel an urge to join the journey. In that unfortunate case, even the most exquisitely devised route—with all its fascinating must-see attractions—may never be fully explored. Put another way: Until a reader is emotionally invested in a character, any actions in support of or against that character’s well-being fall flat.

A guy and a truck

Allow me to offer a very basic example: In an opening scene a guy gets run over by a truck.Let’s say the author manages to incorporate a measure of suspense into the story. Our unlucky guy—staring at his cell phone—steps onto the street as a truck barrels around the corner.

A talented author may do a phenomenal job of drawing out the seconds before impact with descriptions of the man, the truck, weather conditions, and time of day. This same author, knowing that details are key to believability, may work hard to depict an accurate accident scene, using, say, three pages of exposition to illustrate the horrific destruction.

After the collision occurs and the guy has been smashed to bits, readers may keep turning pages if they wonder why this guy’s death was important or why the truck didn’t stop. But unless this story comes from a trusted author, readers will only keep turning pages if they care.

In the example above: Do you feel any sadness at the street-crosser’s demise? Do you feel anything at all?

Probably not. It’s hard to truly care about the dead pedestrian yet because we readers know nothing about him yet.

But what if there’s more?  Let’s back up a little.

What if, moments before the poor fellow steps onto the street, he’s on the phone with his pregnant wife who called to tell him she’s gone into labor, that there’s blood everywhere, that she’s called an ambulance? Worried for her and their child, he steps up his pace and swears he’ll meet her at the hospital soon. His car is on the next block. He looks up from his phone to face the oncoming truck.

Now, how do we feel about this character?

While the example above is no one’s idea of a brilliant opener, I’d suggest that the second approach—the one where we learn a little about our soon-to-be-deceased’s family life—provides enough characterization, both for him and for her, to provoke an emotional reaction from the reader. And it does so without slowing the action. I’d argue the characterization adds to it.

In this imaginary tale, if the next scene shifts to the wife at the hospital, we’re immediately invested in her welfare and that of the baby. She’s unaware of her husband’s death but we readers know that the news will be hitting her soon.

That kind of tension—knowing that at any moment her world will come crashing down—is what keeps us turning pages.

Along the way, while the wife shifts from angry to worried, we also learn more about her character. And again, the action hasn’t slowed down one bit.

Conversely, if this same story started with the guy waking up in the morning, taking a shower, going to work, thinking about the baby and having that trigger a memory of his own childhood and playing on the swings and running with his dog, and, and, and… (see also: no action), only the most determined of readers will make it past chapter one.

How can writers effectively balance characterization and action, then, in a way that captivates readers and keeps them engrossed into the wee hours of the night?

Action is the accelerator, but characters provide the power!

According to the title of Christopher Booker’s oft-quoted tome, there exist only seven basic plots. Even if Booker’s estimate is off by several dozen, that still leaves millions of books per story line out there. Whether the story is tragic, comic, follows a protagonist on a quest, or one of the other plots Booker describes, what sets a tale apart is its cast of characters.

Because I believe this so firmly, I subscribe to this notion: While action moves a story forward, it’s the characters that truly drive the plot.

Action is key, and not only in crime fiction. To extend our take-a-trip analogy, action as the accelerator—we step on the gas if we want to get anywhere. When we exert pressure on the gas, our speed increases, just as action pumps a reader’s adrenaline to get those pages turning even faster. As our speed increases, however, we use more fuel. And that’s when we must rely on character power.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for character internalization during an exciting action scene can serve to intensify your reader’s experience. I’m not talking about slowing the action with a detailed flashback. Slowing the action is not our goal. But taking the time to include a sentence or two—perhaps a mere phrase—not only keeps your reader grounded, it has the potential to deliver buckets of delight.

In a key scene near the end of my new book, Virtual Sabotage, protagonist Kenna Ward doesn’t know if certain individuals in a virtual reality scenario are real or simulations. As she fights for her life, she takes precious seconds to evaluate and then re-evaluate whether to fight for their lives as well. These quick moments bringing the scene’s characters into sharper focus also serve to intensify the action.

Soul-searching

Another concern when balancing characterization and action is keeping your character’s soul in mind. Would he or she take the steps you need them to? Would he or she react the way the plot requires them to? If not, the story won’t work. Characters must follow the rules of their own souls. Plots can change on a whim.

Remember that your characters are always right—about themselves, that is. Try to figure out why they refuse to behave the way you need them to. Is it because you haven’t laid the proper groundwork for this behavior? You haven’t explored a dimension of their personality that a certain action depends on? Maybe that means rewriting a prior scene.

While there are few absolutes in writing, I will defend this as one of them:

Do not ever force your characters to do something against their will.

To clarify: I’m not suggesting that characters can never be encouraged to act against their wills. Putting a gun to your protagonist’s head often serves as ample encouragement. What I’m advocating against is forcing behaviors that don’t make sense and that your characters balk at performing. When an author forces such action from his or her characters, it shows. That author loses credibility. And readers.

Action vs. activity

Don’t confuse action with activity. Action propels the story forward. Activity describes what’s going on. And while well-placed activity can set the groundwork for action (think of the phobias and OCD tendencies of detective Adrian Monk, brought to life by the actor Tony Shalhoub on the TV series, Monk), activity for activity’s sake (filler) risks putting your reader to sleep.

Some of the best examples I’ve found that balance characterization and action come from the late, great Sue Grafton. In her excellent alphabet series, scenes are presented to the reader through Kinsey Millhone’s personal filter. Every one of Kinsey’s wry observations not only delivers sharp detail, it allows us to peer into her soul as well. Pick up a Grafton book to see what I’m talking about. The stories move at such a quick clip you almost don’t realize how well you’ve gotten to know Kinsey along the way.

There are so many complexities about balancing character and action that I’d love to have an afternoon of conversation to dig even deeper into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Next conference, let’s chat! Or let’s talk now on the Career Authors Facebook Page!

Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author of the standalone thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018, Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series

Suspense Writers: Here’s How to Keep Your Readers Up All Night

Suspense Writers: Here’s How to Keep Your Readers Up All Night  https://careerauthors.com/creating-suspense-in-fiction/

For many writers (and readers), “suspense” is a genre. However, it is also a key element in almost all fiction—if you want your readers to keep reading, that is. Tools for creating suspense belong in every writer’s toolkit because they help arouse expectation or uncertainty about what’s going to happen.

And that worry pulls readers deeper into your story, whether it’s a romance (will the woman find out about her boyfriend’s lies?), a thriller (will the hero find the terrorist in time?),  literary fiction (will the main character forgive her mother?) or any other genre.In an earlier article, Hank detailed some ways to increase emotional suspense for a novel’s characters. In a sense, all suspense is tied to eliciting emotions—anticipation, worry, fear, hope—in the reader.

You may find one or all of the below tips helpful in adding suspense to your novel, no matter where you’re at in the writing process, from drafting to the 14th revision.

Foreshadow

Plant clues early and often that something bad is going to happen. Readers will pick up on them and be worried on the protagonist’s behalf. You can do this for minor negative happenings (a radio report of a traffic jam, the protagonist must catch a flight, readers worry she’ll miss it), all the way to catastrophic ones (the main character is dropping things more often, he makes a doctor appointment,  the doctor runs tests, and all the while readers are on the edge of their seats wondering if he’s got ALS or is just klutzy). You can use foreshadowing many, many times per book, layering it in.

Ratchet up the stakes

In the miss-the-plane example, readers will feel concern only if the consequences of missing the plane are significant. Will she miss her best friend’s wedding, be late for an important job interview, not reach her father’s deathbed before he dies? Make the character’s goals clear from the get-go, and her reasons for wanting/needing to achieve them, and the stakes will come into focus. As the book progresses, the stakes should get higher (and you can—and should—foreshadow those early on, too).

Use surprise

If suspense is based on uncertainty, then predictability is the kiss of death. On occasion, when you foreshadow something negative, flip it around. Maybe the plane the character missed ends up hijacked, crashed, diverted to Islamabad, or parked on the runway for twelve hours. Surprise—she’s better off for having missed it! Maybe missing the plane forced her to turn to her ex-boyfriend with the pilot’s license to fly her to her best friend’s wedding, and they rekindle their romance. If you do something like this early on, the next time readers pick up on your foreshadowing, they won’t know what to expect and that will build suspense.

Take away your protagonist’s weapons, team, and defenses

Toward the end of many books, there is a climactic meeting between the protagonist and the main antagonist. For maximum suspense, the protagonist must meet his antagonist alone. This is why Dumbledore (and many another mentor in literature) had to die. When you strip the protagonist of her gun, her allies, and possibly her sanity (temporarily), you throw the outcome into doubt and that creates suspense.

Be creative when thinking about your character’s “weapons.” Yes, it could be an AR-15, a death ray, or a dragon, but it could also be professional respect, self-confidence born of a solid relationship, a logical mind, or other psychological element.

Use these techniques, and don’t feel bad that you’re keeping your readers up late at night, turning the pages to find out what happens in your books.

What authors do you think are good at building suspense? Have any tips of your own you want to share? Come tell us on Facebook.

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

THOUGHTS ON POETRY

 

 

I reblogged this from something I wrote almost a year ago. 

What is poetry and its place in the human psyche? Poetry and prose, I believe, magically transports the reader to visualize vividly a very personal place in time, bringing to life every possible emotion seared into the psyche that the reader may have experienced in real life, wished for, dreamed of, or feared.

This is what makes poetry so emotionally beautiful and painfully true. We get it and it can be transforming. But, where does poetry fit in, in the whole scheme of our human experience. Poetry reflects our romantic inclinations, our troubled history, our social truths, politics, and the most beautiful of all philosophies – who and what are we anyway, in the scope of all there is under Heaven and Earth.

Poetry is romantic. The great writer and poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley said, “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”  It is, also, I believe, as Robert Frost wrote, “when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

Poetry is more than a history of human desires. “Hence poetry”, wrote Aristotle, “is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are rather of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”

Poetry is often compared to the ultimate in what is truth. “Poetry, wrote Joseph Roux, “is truth in its Sunday clothes.”  Leonardo da Vinci, believed that, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” John Ciardi wrote, “Poetry lies its way to the truth.”

Poetry is political. “All poets, all writers are political”, writes Sonia Sanchez, “they either maintain the status quo, or they say, ’Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.”

Poetry is also philosophical. John Lennon believed that, “my role in society, or any artist or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

However, even though all the above quotes bare witness to the impact of poetry and prose on the human psyche, yet, no one has described and defined poetry and prose as beautifully as William Shakespeare, who wrote that poetry is,  “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”

Poetry and prose, I believe, represent the wonder of human imagination and all that lies between heaven and earth as we struggle to understand what it means to be human in a world that is constantly changing the definition of what is humanity and what it is not.

by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

Important Parts Of Life.

A beautiful poem to touch the heart and soul.

REFLECTIONS OF A MINDFUL HEART AND SOUL

Darkness and light

are both intertwined

among the threads

of my life’s fabric.

Found on Pinterest on 12-17-16. Stephen Hayward. Stars

Love and fear

are found at

the intersection of

commitments I make.

Beauty and truth

are found when I

contemplate my desire

for what is good.

Respect and faith

are a part of

any relationship

where trust endures.

Life and death

are journeys I

must endure

to embrace eternity.

 -Yu/stan/kema-

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Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.