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A CAYCE for fiction

If vital elements are missing from your story, this five-item list will reveal what you’ve overlooked.

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Cary Holladay has written fiction for 30 years and taught for more than 20. She developed the following checklist to strengthen her drafts and assess student work. Her advice: If vital elements are missing from your story, this five-item list will reveal what you’ve overlooked.

The heart of fiction is character development, and the best way to show that is by putting characters in situations of opposition and hardship. An old Gaelic proverb says, “If you want an audience, start a fight.” Ask yourself: What’s the fight in my story? What’s at stake?

This means initiative, the ability to do things, with an emphasis on action rather than passivity. Ask yourself: What can my main character do that is unexpected and aggressive? Remember, aggression can take many forms.

Your main character must want something enough to fight for, obsess over and go to great lengths to obtain it, making mistakes along the way. Aristotle said, “Man is his desire.” People’s passions reveal who they are. Ask yourself: What does my protagonist want? That’s arguably the single most important question.

Ticking Clock
A sense of urgency creates suspense and drama. Put some sort of time pressure on your character – the rent is due, the in-laws are coming, a tornado is predicted to strike in 10 minutes. Keep the clock ticking. Make that anxiety part of the key scenes. Ask yourself: How is time running out for this person?


Ethical or Moral Dilemma
Ultimately, your protagonist needs to make a hard and irreversible choice. Show your character’s struggle with the issue and its consequences. Ask yourself: What decision does my character have to make?

“The list is easy and effective,” says Holladay, an English professor at the University of Memphis. “I’ve come to rely on it for my own writing, and it gets results in workshops, too. Students readily see where classmates’ stories need development. I love to hear them ask each other, ‘Where’s the ticking clock?’”

For mnemonic purposes, Holladay calls her list the CAYCE checklist (conflict / agency / yearning / clock / ethical dilemma). Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) was a psychic who could allegedly diagnose illnesses and predict major events while in a trance-like state. The association with his name helps remind Holladay – a devoted realist – of fiction’s embrace of mystery and oddity. Ask yourself: What is going on in my draft that is extreme or unusual? What bigger, stranger stories are present by implication, hovering just above my pages and worthy of deeper exploration?

Originally Published