Query Letters: Seduce, Don’t Summarize

In her blog SlushPileTales, literary agent Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC runs a wonderful series called Query Dice. She critiques queries (with the author’s permission, of course), and invites readers to share their views as well. One thing stands out to me about the queries she’s featured so far: the authors are trying to summarize their book, instead of crafting a marketing pitch to hook the agent. They’re giving the agent more information than she needs, and the result is confusion rather than excitement.

Agents are in part to blame for this. Too many agency websites state that the query letter should contain a “synopsis” or “summary” of the novel. Those words suggest that the author should encapsulate the entire plot in two paragraphs. But as editor Jane Friedman says, “A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.”

Other agency websites ask for a “description” or a “pitch.” These terms are better, but “description” could lead some writers to submit a beautiful abstraction, instead of focusing on plot. And “pitch” could lead some writers to declare, “It’s the next Da Vinci Code!” or “It’s better than Eat, Pray, Love!” Agents don’t want that, either.

What agents really want is back jacket copy—that marketing copy on the back cover that convinces the reader to buy the book. Back jacket copy must entice readers, revealing enough to pique their interest but not so much that their curiosity wanes. Your query should do the same for an agent.

For instance, here’s my attempt at writing back jacket copy for my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

When Charles Bingley rents an estate in Hertfordshire in Regency England, the mamas of the eligible daughters in the neighborhood welcome him with undisguised glee. Chief among these mamas is Mrs. Bennet, who has produced five daughters, but no sons to inherit the family estate. The two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, hope for love but know that marrying well is their only security against poverty when their father’s fortune inevitably passes to a distant cousin.

Bingley is smitten by the lovely but modest Jane. Then, his friend Darcy visits Hertfordshire. The grandson of an earl, Darcy is shocked by the coarse manners of the provincial society. Jane’s vivacious sister Elizabeth teases Darcy out of his silence. But when Jane and Elizabeth’s family expose their own follies at a ball, Darcy whisks Bingley out of Hertfordshire to save him from Mrs. Bennet’s designs, leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth realizes a painful truth: The greatest threat to her future happiness isn’t the entail on her father’s estate. It’s her mother’s crassness, her sisters’ wildness, and her father’s benign indifference. If she and Jane hope to find love with men of quality, the sisters must rise out of the stifling country society into which they were born.

This copy isn’t perfect—for one thing, it names 5 characters, which is 3 too many. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth, doesn’t feature prominently enough. But this is the way the novel reads. It introduces a number of characters at once, and Elizabeth doesn’t dominate at first. In this sense, the rhythm of the copy follows the rhythm of the novel.

Note that this copy focuses mainly on the early chapters of the novel. Then, the second half of the second paragraph skips forward to the midpoint reversal. The final sentence summarizes the protagonist’s course of action based on the new information she receives at the midpoint, which begins the long lead-up to the climax.

Note also what I left out: I barely hinted at the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Their courtship is a critical part of Elizabeth’s internal journey, but it doesn’t drive the external plot. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t realize she’s engaged in courtship with Darcy until halfway through the novel. So I gave the reader just enough information to suspect that the two might become a couple.

I also left out the subplots, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. There’s no room for subplots in a query letter.

Before you try to write the query, I recommend that you first write a logline. A logline is a one-sentence description of the main action of the story. Here’s a possible logline for Pride and Prejudice:

Two sisters in Regency England must marry well to avoid poverty, but the uncouth manners of their family threaten to frighten off any men of quality they meet.

This logline is horribly reductive. It doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of one of the greatest novels of all time. But a logline isn’t supposed to do that. It’s supposed to leave the audience wanting more. And having a logline will help you write your query with a laser focus on the main plot.

Why is writing a query difficult for many budding novelists? Author and self-publishing guru Bob Mayer looks to the Myers-Briggs personality types for one explanation: “Promoter (ESTP) is the complete opposite of Author (INFJ).” As an INFJ author myself, I can relate. But remember, the MBTI types are based on preference, not ability. Writing promotional copy is a skill you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Chapter 4 of Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward contains more information on how the MBTI can help fiction writers plan their career and deepen their characters. This book is available in multiple formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing, and is also available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Related links:
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

Breaking the Surface: Deepening the Characters in Your Fiction

Recently on Twitter, @AgentShea (Katie Shea of the Donald Maass Literary Agency) was wondering “how to make a one-note romance book into women’s fiction.” This is a question I also think about. As a writer of women’s fiction, I find that some romance and chick lit novels leave me dissatisfied. They hint at the depth of their characters but don’t really explore it.

For instance, I recently read a chick lit novel where the heroine is addicted to shopping. Even though she’s getting deeper into debt, she can’t seem to stop herself from buying things. The novel is resolved when she finally takes control of her financial life. But it never explores why she’s got this addiction in the first place.

I get that there’s a temporary high that comes with buying pretty things (have you seen my lia sophia jewelry collection?). I get that the character’s mother also loves to shop. But people with an addiction generally have a hole in their life they’re trying to fill. What’s this character’s wound? In the novel, she doesn’t seem to have one.

This is one area where knowledge of personality type can help you deepen your characters. For instance, this protagonist struck me as an ESFP. She was gregarious, fun-loving, spontaneous, and deeply loyal to the people she cared about. She ignored her negative feelings, hoping they would go away, rather than confronting them directly before things got out of control. So, considering the stressors of an ESFP, what might the source of this character’s pain be?

Personal relationships are of primary importance to ESFPs. Conflict with a loved one, or the feeling of being excluded by their social group, is likely to trouble this type even more than others. Because of their lighthearted and carefree demeanor, ESFPs may find that people don’t take them as seriously as they deserve. I can easily envision how an ESFP character experiencing feelings of rejection might spiral into compulsive behavior.

In this novel, a couple of simple elements might have deepened the story substantially:

  • Spending more time dealing with the heroine’s recent breakup with her boyfriend, which in this case was simply glossed over.
  • Showing other characters consulting her expertise about fashion but not finance (she’s knowledgeable about both).

This is just one example. You can take the same approach to any of the personality types, identifying their stressors and working them into the story.

For other ideas on deepening character in your story, see the list of Breakout Novel writing prompts that Donald Maass currently has listed on the agency website. You can also find these prompts by searching #Maass on Twitter.

Related post:

Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

Men and Their Institutions

I’ve heard that in ancient Polynesian culture, tribes seeking to expand would come ashore on a neighboring island. The newcomers and the male inhabitants would engage in a sort of ritual stare-down. Their angry faces and threatening posture were meant to intimidate the enemy. If the inhabitants showed no sign of weakness, the invading force would leave. But if the inhabitants betrayed fear, war would break out.

This posturing seems an efficient way of resolving conflict—a conflict derived from basic need. It’s easy to understand that if a population outgrew the resources of its island home, the only choices were to find new territory or starve. The human instinct to wage war is about survival. And men evolved to become effective at hiding their emotions.

I grew up believing that war was evil, but I’ve now lived long enough to recognize that war is sometimes necessary. On this Veterans Day, I’m grateful to those who have fought to preserve my freedom and way of life. In our modern society, war is less about territory and more about ideology. Even though the primitive needs that drove humans toward war have largely been eradicated in modern American society, those evolutionary adaptations that assisted men in waging war still remain. And they sometimes manifest themselves in disturbing ways.

On the battlefield, combatants commit what would be acts of atrocity in any other context. They violently protect their buddies from the enemy and even from civilians if necessary. This band of brothers mentality makes war possible. It makes a strong military possible. And military institutions are honorable ones when they’re designed to protect the innocent from aggression.

But outside a military environment, this instinct to protect your buddy when he’s committed an atrocity, or to engage in secrecy to protect your institution from the shame of violent acts perpetrated by one of its members, has no place. And that’s especially true when the victim is a child.

I’m a student of human nature. I write because I want to understand why people do the things they do. But as a writer and a native Pennsylvanian, I’m struggling to understand how an institution like the Penn State football program could knowingly allow a child rapist to operate in its midst.

Does some basic evolutionary drive account for how these men protected one of their cronies by covering up the abuse of children? Or were the men involved in this case an anomaly, driven by the arrogance and selfishness that are our shared human condition?

Even if this behavior can be explained by some primitive instinct, there’s still no excuse for it. As Jodie Foster said when she accepted the Best Actress Oscar for The Accused: “Cruelty might be very human, and it might be cultural, but it’s not acceptable.”

Shoveling the Slush

I had the pleasure of hearing agent Jon Sternfeld speak at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference this weekend. As the newest member of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, Jon is responsible for reviewing the slush that comes into the agency. The term “slush” refers to unsolicited submissions of writers seeking representation. And as Sternfeld points out in this post at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog, thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, the slush pile is growing:

Even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write.

What if there were a test that wannabe novelists had to pass before they could submit to agents? It would be an easy thing to implement. Many agencies now have online forms that writers must use to submit their queries. What if agencies added a simple, ten-question test that you had to pass before you could get to the submission form? It might go something like this:

1. The main character of a story is called the antagonist.

o True
o False

2. Who wrote The Great Gatsby?

o Ernest Hemingway
o John Steinbeck
o F. Scott Fitzgerald
o Saul Bellow

3. The denouement occurs during which part of the story?

o Beginning
o Middle
o End

4. Which of these sentences is punctuated correctly?

o “Open the door”, he said.
o “Open the door.” he said.
o “Open the door”. he said.
o “Open the door,” he said.

5. Every story must have a villain—that is, an evil person who is out to destroy the main character.

o True
o False

6. Which of these sentences is generally considered to be the best constructed?

o She walked quickly toward the exit.
o She walked very quickly toward the exit.
o She hurried toward the exit.
o She walked hurriedly toward the exit.

7. Purple prose should be avoided in fiction.

o True
o False

8. Choose the word that correctly completes this sentence: She opened the door to reveal the surprise and said…

o Walla!
o Voila!
o Valla!
o Woila!

9. Commercial fiction is more artistic than literary fiction.

o True
o False

10. The weather should always reflect the main character’s mood—that is, it should be rainy when the character is sad, and sunny when the character is happy.

o True
o False

What do you think? Are these questions objective enough that publishable writers should know the answers? Are they too difficult or too easy? Would such a test reduce the number of queries agents receive from unqualified writers, or would it be too easy for people to find the answers?

Being able to type letters into a word processor doesn’t make a person a writer, any more than being able to cut a tuna fish sandwich in half with a kitchen knife makes a person a surgeon. A quiz to weed out the dilettantes from the serious writers would give agents more time to devote to those of us who actually sort of know what we’re doing. And that would be a good thing for agents and writers alike.

Tools, Not Rules

Many blogs offer advice on how to write. Often these blogs are didactic, as if the author is right and anyone who does things differently is wrong. These authors, I’m afraid, don’t understand the difference between process and product.

Let’s assume that all novelists have the goal of writing  a saleable novel. That’s their product. It doesn’t follow that they must all use the same process in order to reach that goal.

For instance, many authors recommend that you set a weekly word count goal. That’s great advice, if you’re goal-oriented or tend to be unproductive without intermediate milestones to track your progress. But if you write every day, and you’re happy with the progress you’re making, then a word count goal is just one more worry to interfere with your creative process.

Whether setting a word count is a useful goal for you may depend in part on your personality type. SJ writers may like the structure that word count goals give them. NPs may find themselves getting caught up in research or going off on tangents without word count goals to keep them focused. NJs and SPs may find such goals helpful, or they may find them restrictive. A word count goal is a tool, and the purpose of a tool is to make your job easier. If the tool doesn’t make your job easier, then stop using the tool.

Note, though, that process differs from craft. Show, don’t tell is an example of craft. “James was angry at his brother” is telling. “James kicked his brother’s Big Wheel into the bushes” is showing. Showing is more vivid and involves the reader viscerally in the story. That’s why show, don’t tell has become a mantra of fiction writing. It’s difficult to write successful fiction without employing this technique.

Understanding the difference between product, process, and craft is key to developing into a confident and competent fiction writer. Here are some examples of advice relating to each.

Product

  • Happy endings: Romance novels must have an optimistic ending. This isn’t true for other adult fiction.
  • Likeable main character: Some people will tell you that you’ll be more successful if your main character is likeable. Others will tell you that the main character must be engaging, but not necessarily likeable. It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. Know your audience.
  • Dissimilar character names: If character names are too similar (like Kevin and Steven), readers may get them confused.
  • Title: Selecting a title has less to do with craft and more to do with marketing. That’s why publishers often choose a different title than the one the author had in mind.

Process

  • Write first thing in the morning: Okay, there may be some science behind this. But if you’re a night owl, or you have kids you need to get ready for school in the morning, this advice might not be right for you.
  • Don’t edit while you write: Sadly, some writers become discouraged and stop writing if their first drafts aren’t beauteous. For these people, slogging through the first draft without reading what they’ve written may be great advice. Also, if you’re tempted to wordsmith each scene until it shines like platinum, only to realize after you complete the first draft that half the scenes should be deleted, you may want to force yourself to keep moving rather than getting caught up in revising too soon. But many writers find it useful to edit the previous day’s work before they start drafting new material. This serves the dual purpose of cleaning up the first draft and immersing them in the world of the novel.
  • Write every day: There’s a reason that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the ten commandments. And it’s not just to keep grocery stores from selling wine on Sunday mornings. Humans need to take a break from work to feed their souls. As long as you’re productive, you don’t have to write every day. But if you need that habit in order to stay on track, then maybe this is good advice for you. Just don’t feel guilty if you take a day off. God said it was okay.

Craft

  • Three-act structure: The three-act structure has been the basis of storytelling in the Western world for millennia. It’s so ingrained in us that we naturally follow this pattern when telling stories. Chances are, if your story is working, then it follows the three-act structure, even if you’re not aware of it. Chances are, if your story isn’t working, then it’s not following the three-act-structure. Figure out what parts of the structure are missing so you can fix the story.
  • Conflict: Nearly every successful story consists of a main character who wants something, plus obstacles that the main character must confront in order to reach that goal. If your story consists of happy, satisfied characters doing interesting things, then no one but your mom will want to read it. The momentum behind a story is frustrated desire.
  • Engaging the senses: This is an element of show, don’t tell. Part of your job as a fiction writer is to immerse the reader in the fictive world. It isn’t enough to appeal to the intellect. You must create a sensual experience. “Flowers lined the sidewalk” doesn’t draw the reader into the landscape. Include sensory details: “Golden lilies spiced the air with fragrance, and bees hummed as they hovered over the blooms.”

Learning which advice to follow and which to ignore is one of the toughest challenges that beginning writers face. I recommend this simple guideline: If it makes you a better writer, then it’s good advice. If it doesn’t make you a better writer, and especially if it paralyzes you or keeps you from writing, then it’s not good advice. Listen to your heart, listen to your gut, and keep writing.

For more information on the three-act structure, I recommend Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) or Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff.

When Success Feels Like Failure

Perfectionism takes a toll on the psyche.

I remember, in kindergarten, the first time one of my worksheets was marked wrong. We were learning to write by tracing over numbers, the same number repeatedly, before moving on to the next. I got caught up in the rhythm and missed a transition, writing one too many sevens when I should have written an eight.

I was so ashamed, that on the walk from the bus stop to my house, I balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it into a ditch, hoping my parents would never find out I had made a mistake.

I was four years old.

My entire life, perfection has been the only standard that mattered. Excellence was a low bar to me. It never felt like success.

Graduating first in my high school class didn’t seem like success. It’s what was expected of me. Graduating second would have seemed a shocking failure.

I never aspired to become class valedictorian. During my thirteen years of public education, I was a good student without much effort. And that easy success inured me to any sense of accomplishment.

And so it continues today.

In true INFJ fashion, I create visions in my mind of how things could be. But execution never lives up to imagination. How could it? So instead of seeing the things I did well, I’m mortified by the things that fell short, even if no one else can tell the difference. After all, they didn’t see what was in my imagination. They don’t know how much better it was supposed to be.

The one place where I feel a true sense of virtuosity is in my writing. Through the magic of editing, I can craft a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter until every word is perfect. Or at least, until it feels perfect to me. That’s the gift that creative writing gives me.

In a blog post on Writers and Doubt, author James Scott Bell suggests that doubt is inevitable in any novelist worth reading. But creative writing is the one place where I never feel doubt. If the manuscript is flawed, I can fix it. If I don’t know how, I can learn.

I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than I have on my novel in progress, now nearly complete after an eight-year-journey. And no effort has been so rewarding. I know the novel will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Novels aren’t about perfection. They’re about humanity—our common struggles, failures, contradictions, self-sabotage, and rare brilliant moments when we grasp the longed-for and near-impossible prize.

I was born to write. That’s the positive part of my INFJ personality. The negative is that when I’m speaking with people, I feel barely competent to string words into sentences. And afterward, I obsess over all the things I could have done better. I keep trying to edit my life.

The four-year-old inside me still wants me to be perfect. But the great God-force inside me asks only that I share my gifts with the world. And if I’m grateful for those gifts, I must also be grateful for my limitations. They’re two sides of the same coin.

So when the doubts of my life feel overwhelming, I retreat to the one place where I always feel sure. The one place where struggle is the best teacher and failure the source of deep insight. The one place where I can get it right the fourteenth time instead of the first, and no one will ever know the difference.

I write.

Five Key Elements for Creating Tension in Fiction

Tension is the driving force in fiction. It propels the plot and grabs the reader’s interest. Without it, the story is flat and pointless.

So what is tension? Simply put, it’s the distance between characters and their goals. Authors create and manipulate tension through the use of five key elements.

Outer goal

The outer goal is the character’s stated objective: to solve a murder, to win a beauty contest, to defeat the enemy, to discover the family secret. It’s the focus of the plot from start to finish. The outer goal is resolved in the climax.

Suppose that our protagonist, Josie, is a 30-something lawyer hoping to make partner at her firm. The further she seems from achieving that goal—and the closer her rivals seem—the higher the tension.

Inner desire

The inner desire exists alongside the outer goal. It may be consistent with the outer goal, or at odds with it. The character may be aware of the desire, or it may lurk on an unconscious level.

In our example, Josie’s drive to make partner is intensified by her desire to start a family. If she had a baby while still an associate, maternity leave and the demands of an infant would decrease her visibility, and could move partnership out of her reach.

External conflict

The external conflict comes from the obstacles between the characters and their goals. The source of the conflict may be the environment or other characters.

Josie’s firm has two openings but four candidates. In addition to Josie, there’s Agatha, the leggy blonde with the rich clients and the cozy relationship with the senior partner; Dante, the smooth talker who would sell out his best friend; and Raul, the sweet but clueless family man whom Josie has bailed out more than once to save the firm from embarrassment. Agatha and Dante are formidable rivals. But Raul could prove most dangerous of all, entangling Josie in his mistakes and distracting her from her own cases.

Internal conflict

The internal conflict comes from the obstacles that characters create for themselves, either through self-sabotage or an incompatibility between the outer goal and the inner desire.

Josie has been dating Steve for four years. He’s suave, sophisticated, and has connections that help her in her job. The trouble is, she’s not in love with Steve. She stays with him because he’s convenient and useful. They’re compatible inside and outside the bedroom. But he’s not the man she wants to father her children.

Stakes

Stakes are probably the most important element of tension. The characters must be at risk of losing something of great significance to them if their goals and desires aren’t met. As the protagonist nears the goal, the stakes must increase. This keeps the tension high even as the climax approaches.

Josie’s biological clock is ticking rapidly. Her mother went through menopause at thirty-nine. Josie knows that if she doesn’t find the right man and start a family soon, time may run out for her. As the climax nears, Josie realizes that she’s in love with Zack, her best friend since college. Zack has been offered a promotion out of state. If she doesn’t commit to him now, she may lose him forever. But if she breaks up with Steve, she may lose her biggest client, Steve’s cousin, and blow her chance at partnership. Josie will have to choose between her outer goal and her inner desire.

These five elements of tension are critical to engage the reader and move the plot forward. If you feel your story dragging, look for ways to sharpen these elements and bring the story back to life.

Intuition and the Importance of Being in Your Right Mind

Writers often have good first-hand knowledge of the duality of the human mind. The unconscious is a fertile source of insight and imagination, while the conscious mind wants to enforce structure and rationality on our fevered ramblings—sometimes to the point of editing them out of existence. In writing, as in life, it’s important to find balance.

The unconscious mind is often our first line of defense, grasping incongruities that the conscious mind overlooks. In the book Housekeeping for the Soul, Sandra Carrington-Smith says that the unconscious mind sends its suggestions as “a very light punch in the stomach and the lingering sensation that something is not right, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. If not acknowledged, this subtle feeling can easily be drowned out by our rational mind and the thoughts formulated by the ego.”

One way to approach the unconscious vs. rational mind is to think of them as representing the two hemispheres of the brain. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable TED talk, she explains that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another:

  • The right hemisphere focuses on the present moment. Feeling connected to everything around it, it thinks in pictures, creating a collage from the sensory information it perceives.
  • The left hemisphere is linear. It thinks in words, focusing on details, separating things into their component parts. It compares present data to the past, or uses the data to project the future.

The left brain wants things to be logical. It doesn’t always trust the thought-pictures that the right brain sends. It can’t convert them into words, so it can’t categorize them. Those thought-pictures then settle as a feeling in our gut, a feeling that it’s easy to rationalize away.

But there’s nothing mystical about the perceptions of the right brain. They’re as true and meaningful as left-brain perceptions. When we suppress or misuse right-brain data, we can create all sorts of trouble for ourselves.

In fiction, flashes of insight offer an opportunity to foreshadow events or create suspense. When used skillfully, intuition can be the hunch that helps the detective solve the crime, or the bad feeling that prompts a mother to lead her child out of danger. When ignored, intuition can be the signal that the college student is making a terrible mistake leaving the nightclub with a man she just met. When overused—without the counterbalancing effect of the more analytical conscious mind—intuition could lead the rich widower to fall for the sweet young thang whom he “just knows” loves him and not his money.

Unless you’re writing speculative fiction, it’s your job to offer a rational explanation for the gut instincts of your characters. Drop hints that create the same sense of unease in the reader that the character feels. That way, whether the character’s intuition leads in the right direction or leads astray, the reader won’t feel manipulated. The story will just feel right.

Cooperation vs. Competition: Gender Differences in Communication

tough boy, smiling girlIn my fiction, I like to explore the conflicts that occur when well-meaning people communicate at cross-purposes. People with different personality preferences have different goals in mind when they speak. Gender differences increase the opportunity for misunderstanding.

This potential source of conflict may be problematic for society as a whole, but it’s great for fiction writers. How can you use differences in communication styles to increase tension in your fiction?

How Men Communicate

According to marriage counselor Lesli Doares, male communication focuses on problem-solving, jockeying for position, and creating boundaries to establish independence. Testosterone makes men sensitive to angry faces. Anger gives men energy: it increases competition and calls them to action. But this sensitivity to anger also teaches men to resist showing emotion. They tend to avoid eye contact, because it can be seen as threatening. As a result, they may misinterpret signs of distress—such as frustration, confusion, or worry—as anger. Moreover, men’s ability to empathize with others is diminished when they’re agitated. Under stress, they often pull away.

How Women Communicate

Women, by contrast, communicate to make connections, build consensus, and minimize differences. Oxytocin leads them to focus on bonding activities. They chat to look for common ground and to establish a sense of community. Women are good at reading subtle emotions. They find competition and conflict to be threatening. They tend to soften directive statements by phrasing them in the form of a question—”Can you take out the trash?”—even though they expect compliance. Under stress, their ability to empathize deepens.

Inherent Conflict

It’s easy to see how, in early human society, these differences in communication styles served the species well. While the women were at the campsite gathering food and caring for the children, men were out hunting game and protecting the tribe against threats. Yet in romantic relationships—or any other relationships between men and women—these diametrically opposed communication styles can create endless frustration, misunderstanding, and even distrust. When a woman chats to create camaraderie, the man goes into problem solving mode. She takes this to mean that the man thinks she’s incapable of solving her own problems. Instead of feeling supported, she feels belittled. The man misinterprets her hurt feelings as anger. He doesn’t understand why she’s angry when he was just offering the helpful advice that he thought she wanted.

Note that the male communication style contains similarities to that of Thinking types, while the female communication style contains similarities to that of Feeling types. But personality preferences are just that—preferences. They don’t necessarily reflect ability. Under stress, women who prefer Thinking may be better able to empathize with others than men who prefer Feeling.

In your own fiction, use these gender differences in conjunction with personality preferences to enrich the character development and deepen the conflict.

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.
Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.
The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello‘s hero must display extraverted, sensing, judging energy, while Hamlet‘s hero must display introverted, intuitive, perceiving energy.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over. Isabel Myers defined the “shadow” as the inferior function. It is the least developed, and the one least likely to be used in a rational and mature manner—even in the best of times. When someone is under stress, and the inferior function takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.