Stuck on your manuscript? Bring on the villain

Bring on a villain, like this one, when manuscript is stuckDelightful chap, isn’t he, our villain? I particularly admire those enormous teeth. And that improbable moustache.

I’ve blogged about villains before — including charismatic villains played by Alan Rickman (yes!) and Richard Armitage — but today’s blog isn’t about individual villains. It’s about what villains can bring to our manuscripts, especially when we’re stuck.

I was stuck on my current wip. It was moving at the rate of a glacier before we had climate change.
In other words, it was going nowhere very slowly.

Crit partners : support when stuck

Consult a crit partner when your manuscript is stuckI admitted as much in a phone call with my crit partner, Sophie, a while ago.  As crit partners, we usually speak on the phone twice a week, in addition to emails. Phone calls are an opportunity to provide mutual support if we’re stuck and, when necessary, a little judicious nagging. Much recommended.
Email nagging doesn’t work nearly as well 😉

Sophie’s advice was simple. She referred me to the wise words of fellow-author, creative writing teacher and Libertà friend,
Elizabeth Hawksleywhen stuck, bring on the villain.

That was when I realised that, actually, my story didn’t have a villain. Well, it did, but it’s a dual-time story. There was a villain in the modern-day part. But in the Regency part, there wasn’t one. And, partly as a result, there probably wasn’t enough conflict in the Regency part, either.

woman in misty landscape, too misty, so story is stuckNow, I’m not saying that a story has to have an actual villain in order to have conflict.

Conflict comes in many guises. It can be totally internal to the characters and often works the better for that. Or you can create both internal and external conflict so that the stress on the characters is enormous.

But Sophie’s comment had given me one of those light-bulb moments. I saw a key flaw in my story — the Regency part was a bit misty and flat and conflict-free. Because of that, it wasn’t grabbing me, the author. And because I wasn’t grabbed, my wordage was grinding to a halt.

Stuck? Bring on the villain (or the conflict, at least)

Stuck? So just insert villain here?
Didn’t Raymond Chandler say that, when stuck, authors “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand”?

Blofeld's cat being stroked by a classic villainIt’s not as simple as that, of course.
(And although Chandler did use those words, he wasn’t saying authors should do it.)

I couldn’t just parachute a Regency Blofeld into the historical section of my story and expect it to solve all my problems by magic. It took me a good two or three days of rumination to understand what the conflict might be and how it might work. But in the end I had it. Once I knew what the conflict was, I gave my imagination free rein to come up with a worthy villain.

And then two of them appeared.

Cloaked woman paces in marble corridorBecause my first villain — actually, a villainess, if I’m going to be precise — decided she needed a suitably scheming hanger-on. Two for the price of one in the villainy stakes. Yay!

The great thing was that, once I had them, the words just flowed. Thousands of words a day. I was even dreaming about my story. That’s always a really good sign, don’t you think?

I haven’t finished the story yet, so I can’t say whether my villains get their just deserts.
But they possibly will…

Crit partners are the business when you’re stuck

teamwork helping one another climb mountains when stuckMy most recent preoccupation was getting my heroine out of a plot hole. She was stuck in one location and needed to be somewhere else. Unfortunately, there was no obvious way for her to escape. I was racking my brains and coming up with ideas that were just about plausible, but not satisfying to me as a writer.

Our twice-weekly phone call came to the rescue. Again. Sophie asked a question that provided, in just a couple of words, an off-the wall idea that pointed the way. It dovetailed beautifully with the not-quite-there solution I’d already come up with. And my heroine tells me she’s absolutely delighted. (At least, she was until I dropped her into another hole. As you do…)

hand inserts key into lock with light behindI think this shows how well crit partners can work together. We each have access to the other’s instincts and imagination. It requires a lot of trust, of course, and understanding of how the other partner works. But I’ve lost count of the number of times that a question — or a throwaway remark from one of us — has sparked a whole new train of ideas in the other.

And new sparks, allied to a writer’s imagination, can lead to much more satisfying stories — not just for the writer, but possibly for the readers, too.

Joanna Maitland, author


8 thoughts on “Stuck on your manuscript? Bring on the villain

  1. Julie Vince (write as Julia Wild)

    That was such an enjoyable blog – thank you! I totally agree – I too am working on a dual time line story with a villain in each era – in my first draft, they are always tremendously bad… I do tone them down once it comes to editing (usually!) Love the inspiration from reading this today. Julie xxx

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you so much, Julie. Love the idea of your “tremendously bad” villains. Great fun to write, aren’t they? Best of luck with the wip, too.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Ros. We all struggle with our wip from time to time, I suppose, but when it’s happening, it all seems to very hard, doesn’t it?

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this – and thank you for the mention. What makes villains particularly good, I think, is that they can get the heroine at her most vulnerable point (enter Mr Wickham?) Lizzy prides herself on despising Mr Darcy – and the handsome and duplicitous Mr Wickham eggs her on.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Terrific example, Elizabeth. I suppose it’s another example of what Sophie calls “screwing the punch”. Besides, villains are such fun to write.

  3. Melinda Hammond

    Excellent advice, Joanna, thank you. How wonderful that you and your crit partner work so well together – that is a real advantage. My current story has two villains although, sadly, neither of them as charismatic as Rickman or Armitage, which wouldn’t work in this instance. I do think a good villain can add spice to the mix!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Melinda. And well done on two villains, also. My Regency pair aren’t like Rickman/Armitage either, since my two are both women. My present-day villain could be Rickman, possibly, if he were still alive to play the role. So much missed. A wonderful actor.

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