Learning something new about your characters

I recently had an interesting experience. I asked a friend of mine to read a piece I’ve been working on for three years, on and off. After countless revisions to the piece, workshopping it with a group, and many teeth gnashing attempts to re-write the ending I had to admit it: I was stuck.

The overall flow of the story was fine, and I thought the characters were in good shape, but I just couldn’t figure out why the story didn’t have a natural conclusion point to resolve (or not resolve) the dilemmas the characters face in the story.

After hanging onto the story for about a month, my friend sent me the piece back with extensive notes. One of the notes mentioned why the husband and wife were so different and how that was probably the key to the story and its conflicts.

When I read my friend’s comments, I was struck dumb. I couldn’t believe it – he broke the whole story open for me again in a way I hadn’t previously considered but which made perfect sense. Thankfully, he really liked the main character in the story and gave me encouraging comments about keeping her as ‘troublesome’ as I was portraying her to be.

As my regular readers know, I struggle mightily with longer form stories and this story is now about 2600 words, over 10 pages, which is absolutely the longest story I’ve written to date – and I’m nowhere near finished.

Readers are so important for critical feedback. I’m hesitant for anyone to see ugly drafts of my unfinished stories (my writerly perfectionist tendencies) but I’m glad I invited this person to read and give me the sober advice I needed to make some essential changes to tone and tension.

What’s so fascinating to me is that I feel like I’m writing a new story. After three years of working on this piece, it was extremely challenging to go back to it time and again knowing I’d be facing the same issues. Now things are flowing and falling into place with these characters. Their motivations and inter-relationships are becoming clearer to me.

I still don’t have the ending, but at least I’ve got many more options for an ending than I had before this reader gave me the insights I was lacking on my own characters.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you believe in getting feedback from trusted first readers?