Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Categorized: Character

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I put in a lot of work and study when it comes to honing my writing skills. This means I’m always searching for ways to become a stronger author and craft teacher. Want to get better at anything? Look to those who are the best at what they do and pay close attention.

This said, wanting to deepen my understanding of drama, I enrolled in David Mamet’s on-line course for Dramatic Writing (which has been superlative). In one of the lessons, Mamet said something that challenged my thinking regarding characters.

I won’t directly relay what his assertion was because it’s very much a class worth taking, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. Regardless, his commentary regarding character creation made me extremely uncomfortable.

At first, I balked. Big time. Challenging ideas do that.

I thought, Yes, well Mamet’s referring to stage and screen. With written fiction we have narrative. Actors don’t possess this.

Which IS true, yet Mamet’s unconventional opinion stopped me long enough to give his angle some serious consideration. Did his assessment relate to our sort of fiction?

Craft Crossover? 

Written form stories hold some major advantages, the largest of those being internal narration. The audience knows what’s going on in the head of the character (or can believe they know).

On stage or screen, it’s up to the actors’ abilities to accurately portray the internal, which is a tough order. It’s also why if a book is made into a movie, watch the movie first.

Otherwise…

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

This largely has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) regarding the play/film. Internal narrative allows for a far more intimate psychic distance that is ONLY possible in the written form.

The medium is different and thus should be judged differently…though we still gripe the book was WAY better.

Stage and film rely on the screenplay which is very BASIC. It’s all dialogue and up to the director’s vision and the actors’ talent. Character creation for stage and screen cannot help but differ from written form, yet by how much? What can we learn from our sister mediums?

****Other than Sister Mediums is a way better reality show concept than Sister Wives? #SquirrelMoment

Character Creation

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I thought back over works I’d edited, earlier stories of my own and had a moment of revelation. Why were some characters so flat? As interesting as some form-molded widget popped off on an assembly line?

Conversely, what made other characters almost come ALIVE?

What was the X-factor?

Now that I’ve noodled this, I’ve revised some of my thinking. Multi-dimensional characters are not something writers can directly create. Rather, these lifelike people are forged from the crucible of story.

Dramatic writing uses a core problem (fire). The core problem generates escalating problems (the hammer). The trials (increasing heat/hammering) reveal, refine, define, and ultimately transform the narrative actors into characters.

Story alone holds the power to bestow resonance.

Fill-In-The-Blank People

Sure, we can do all the activities of filling out a character profile. But, these character sheets alone are about as telling as a ‘fill-in-the fields-profile’ on a dating site. Height, weight, build, nationality, attractiveness, education level, how many kids, previously married, hobbies, etc.

Dating profiles also provide blank spaces for additional ‘deep, character-revealing statements’ such as: I’m not a game-player, love Mexican food, and my favorite activities are crossfit and hiking.

FYI: ALL of that is likely a lie (other than enjoying Mexican food). Anyone who starts with I am not a game-player is almost guaranteed to be a game-player. It’s Shakespeare’s Rules of Romance. Or, as I call it, ‘The Lady/Dude Doth Protest Too Much’ litmus.

Anyway…

No School Like Old School

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
….or not.

Do I create character profiles? Sure. I also put a lot of thought and research into what ‘people’ I want to cast in a given story. It’s a great activity, but be careful. We can’t camp there. Activity and productivity are not synonymous.

Ultimately, fictional characters reflect the real human experience in a distilled and intensified form. This, however, doesn’t give an automatic pass on authenticity.

Aristotle might be Old School, but his observations regarding drama resonate even into the 21st century. In Aristotle’s Poetics he asserts:

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. ~Aristotle

This gives three schools: Polygnotus (more noble), Pauson (less noble), and Dionysius (real life).

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Even today these three schools of story thought are alive and well. Marvel’s Captain America movies proffer the larger-than-life hero, the man better than real men (Polygnotus).

Westworld and Game of Thrones provide a vast assortment of villains who are worse-than-life, an exaggeration of evil (Pauson).

Then, movies like Training Day or Glengarry Glen Ross show men as they really are…flawed. They’re not entirely noble or ignoble (Dionysis).

Granted, this is a vast simplification, but we can see novels fall into these schools as well. Genre dictates a lot of this. Harry PotterThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and A Man Called Ove could reasonably be placed in each category.

Talk is Cheap

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Why do I mention these ‘schools’ of story? Depending on genre, readers will have expectations when it comes to what they’ll find entertaining. As writers, our primary job is to entertain. This said, stories are for the audience. This means we need to either serve them what they enjoy, or serve them what they don’t yet know they will enjoy 😉 .

As a general ‘rule,’ readers who gravitate to stories like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are fundamentally different than readers who prefer stories like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. What readers are looking for—regarding story and characters—will be specific to the genres they gravitate to.

It’s critical to define what kind/flavor of story we want to tell, because an idea can be delivered any number of ways (parodies prove this).

Also, telling a story audiences don’t yet know they will love must work with the boundaries of preference. Take the boundaries and push them or deliver them in a new, fresh way.

J.K. Rowling didn’t completely ignore reader expectations and preferences for YA fantasy. She merely delivered her stories in a brand new way. She cast a boy (Harry Potter) as her lead protagonist.

At the time, the YA fantasy world was dominated by female protagonists. The genre’s audience expected one approach, but only because they didn’t yet realize they’d LOVE something else. An unwanted boy living under the stairs, unaware he’s a wizard destined for greatness.

Talk the Talk & Walk the Walk

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Earlier, I mentioned character backgrounds. These are a good start, but they’re only that. A start. Characters aren’t who we (the writer) say they are. Characters are composed of what they do or don’t do.

Go back to my analogy of an on-line dating profile. Someone can talk a great game on some dating site. Yet, it won’t be until that first awkward meet at a coffee shop—in person—that this profile is put to any real test.

Sure, he might say he’s a nice guy and have loads of pics of him with puppies and kids. But, how does he respond when the barista knocks a scorching hot venti Americano all over his best shirt? Does he laugh it off and try to calm the hysterical barista? Or, does he throw a fit, demand the barista be fired, and threaten to sue?

She might claim she longs for friendship and intimacy in her profile. But, at coffee, how often is she checking her phone? Her Facebook? Does she engage and listen, or does she have the attention span of a goldfish with severe ADD…who just smoked some crack?

Same in Stories

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

We can tell the reader a character is a certain way, but how that character acts matters more. For instance, I did an edit not too long ago and the writer said the female protagonist was a strong alpha female. Problem was, the MC didn’t act like one. I called the writer on the lack of continuity.

This is part of what we (editors) mean when we use the phrase, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

The writer can TELL me (the reader) all she wants how this character is an alpha take-no-prisoners gal, which the writer did in the set-up. Fair enough. But three pages later, when this alleged ‘alpha female’ is essentially begging for a chance at contract? I called FOUL. If she’s an alpha personality, then she needs to act like it. Actions speak louder than words.

We can TELL readers a character is anything, yet how that character acts is all that matters.

Talk is cheap and, adding to that…

Humans Are Liars

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
*hangs head* Yep. Probably.

We’re all liars. We might lie to others (to one degree or another). Mostly, though, we lie to ourselvesWow, the dryer really shrank my pants!

No judgement. Goes with being human.

We all want to believe if something horrific happened, we’d act heroically. Maybe we would. But, perhaps not. We all want to believe we’d NEVER do X (kill, run, hide), but there’s only one way to know for certain.

Trial by fire.

Problem is, what we believe about our own character (integrity or lack thereof) is all theory until we’re faced with some crisis that puts that belief to the test. Only a test can reveal our belief as truth, half-truth, or a lie (self-delusion). Crises show us what we are made of (or not).

The hero-in-his-own-mind may, when faced with an actual trial, turn out to be a complete coward. Conversely, the person who wholly believes she could never be heroic might, in reality, be the most heroic of all.

It’s the same with characters in a story.

Character Crucible

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Structure (story) acts as the crucible and how we put the story together is what steadily turns up the heat on all parties involved. Next time we’ll focus in on the components of story, the scene and the sequel. But here’s a preview and how it relates to character.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, an invaluable resource which I recommend every writer buy and study).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Notice how the scene presents the problem, which then provides a way we (readers) can witness how a character acts/responds externally.

The sequel permits audience access to the internal. We can peer into the thoughts of that character. This is where we’ll witness how a character evolves/or devolves over time. For bonus points, internal narrative—in scene and the sequel—is a fantastic way to mess with readers’ heads (I.e. the unreliable narrator).

In the End

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Everyone has his or her version of the truth, but we as writers must tangibly demonstrate this. This means, when we strengthen the story, this automatically can strengthen the characters.

Everything in dramatic writing is and should be intentional. No extra screws or bits. Granted, practice will make us all better at this, but in great stories there are NO free rides. Period. No thought, setback, bit of setting, snippet of dialogue is there to simply take up space.

It ALL serves a vital/integral purpose.

And, if any character’s actions do not line up with who we (the writer) says he is? It better be intentional 😉 .

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). Advanced material, lots of FUN! Who better to teach character THAN a character? LOL.

I’m also offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. Both are advanced-level material to take your writing to another level.

What Are Your Thoughts?

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Is the saying, ‘Show, don’t tell‘ making a bit more sense? Can you see how problems are the ONLY way to really deliver character? How actions can be used in all sorts of ways, even as a way of misleading the audience for WHAMMO twist endings?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***February’s winner is Gabriella L. Garlock. Please send your 5,000 word Word document in a doc.x file, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen @wana intl dot com. Congrats!

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

You can sign up HERE!

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Every story begins with an idea. Alas, stories can only be created when at least two vastly different ideas collide. The place where they meet is the BOOM, much like the weather. Storms erupt because two very different bodies of air meet…and don’t get along.

Only one will win out. In the meantime, lots of rain, lightning strikes and maybe some tornadoes. After the powerful storms, the landscape is altered, lives are changed, some even lost.

It’s the same with powerful stories. Yet, instead of weather fronts colliding, differing ideas are colliding.

It’s wonderful to have a great story idea. Alas, an idea alone is not enough. It’s a solid start but that’s all. Loads of people have ‘great ideas’ and that and five bucks will get them a half-foam latte at Starbucks.

Ideas are everywhere.

What differentiates the author from the amateur is taking the time to understand—fundamentally—how to take that idea and craft it, piece by piece, into a great story readers love.

Building Ideas into Stories

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Stories have key components required for building, and I promise we’ll get there. My goal, this go-round has been to elevate the teaching and deep-dive in a way I hope you’ve not experienced before.

I always found craft teaching either was so simplistic I was all, ‘Got it, sally forth.’ *taps pen* Or, the instruction was so advanced (assuming I was far smarter than I was) and it made me panic more than anything.

Like the ‘write your story from the ending.’ Sure, meanwhile, I’ll go build a semi-conductor.

There was this MASSIVE gap between X, Y, Z and why I was even doing X, Y, and Z. Why not Q?

And all to what end? How did I make all the pieces FIT? *sobs*

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Anyway, this is why we’re taking things SLOWLY. I want to fully develop these concepts so you can create incredible stories far more easily. Yes, this is master class level stuff, but hopefully I will help mesh with 101 concepts so even beginners will feel challenged (as opposed to utterly LOST like I did).

For those new to this blog or anyone who wants to catch up, here are the lessons so far:

Structure Matters: Building Stories to Endure the Ages

Story: Addictive by Design

Conflict: Elixir of the Muse For Timeless Stories Readers Can’t Put Down

The Brain Behind the Story: The Big Boss Troublemaker

Problems: Great Dramatic Writing Draws Blood & Opens Psychic Wounds

How to Write a Story from the Ending: Twisted Path to Mind-Blowing End

Ideas as Character Catalyst

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

When we discussed the BBT, I showed how all BBTs are an IDEA. This IDEA might manifest as a villain or as a core antagonist. The core antagonist only different from a villain in that this person’s goal is not inherently destructive, evil or nefarious. Their idea(s) simply conflicts with what the protagonist’s idea(s) and what the MC believes he/she desires.

This antagonist generates a core story problem BIG enough to shove the protagonist out of the comfort zone and into the crucible. This pressure (problems) creates heat which is the catalyst that creates the cascading internal reaction which will fundamentally alter the protagonist.

These internal changes are necessary for victory over the story problem via external action (choices/decisions). The MC cannot morph into a hero/heroine carrying emotional baggage, false beliefs, or character flaws present in the beginning. Why?

Because these elements are precisely WHY the MC would fail if forced to battle the BBT head-on in the opening of the story.

The story problem, and what it creates, is like a chemical reaction. Our protagonist, by Act Three should transform into something intrinsically different…a hero/heroine (a shining star instead of a nebulous body of gas). The problem should be big enough that only a hero/heroine is able to be victorious.

Villains as BBT

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Villains are fantastic and make some of the most memorable characters in fiction whether on the page, stage or screen (Joker, Buffalo Bill, IT, Dr. Moriarty, Cersie Lannister, etc.). A common misperception, however, is villains are ‘easy’ to write. No, mustache-twirling caricatures are easy to write. But villains, villains that get under our skin, who poke and prod at tender places take a lot of preparation and skill.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is extremely dimensional. We, the audience, are conflicted because he’s horrible, grotesque, cruel… and suddenly we find ourselves rooting for him.

That seriously messes with our heads.

Dr. Lecter has an IDEA of polite society. Act like a proper human and be treated like one. His IDEA of what a human is entails all that separates us from animals, namely manners and self-control. Act like a beast, and beasts–>food.

This cannot help but conflict with any FBI agent’s duty to protect all lives (deserving or not), and help mete out justice in all homicides (even of those horrible folks we’re all secretly happy Hannibal made into a rump roast).

All I can think is thank GOD Lecter is fictional or half the folks on Facebook would now be curing world hunger.

Anyway….

Superb characters are never black and white, right or wrong because that’s an inaccurate reflection of humanity.

We (the audience) sense the falseness of such a simplistic character, and, while one-dimensional characters (villains included) can be amusing for a time, they’re not the sort of character that withstands the test of time. They don’t possess enough substance/dimension/gray areas to elicit heated debate and discussion among fans for years to come.

But villains are not ideal for all stories or all genres.

Core Antagonist as BBT

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

There are what people call character-driven stories which don’t require a villain. I twitch when I hear the term ‘character-driven’ because too many mistake this as a pass for having to plot. NOPE. We still need a plot 😉 .

Plot is what will drive the character change.

I’ve used the examples Steel Magnolias and Joy Luck Club in other posts so we’ll pick a different one today. The Mirror Has Two Faces is one of my favorite examples.

The BBT in this story is the IDEA that physical beauty is bad. This IDEA is manifested in the story problem, which is created by Professor Gregory Larkin. He believes he knows why he’s always been unlucky in love.

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension
He’s attracted to her…mind.

Being an analytical Mathematics teacher at Columbia he gets a bright idea. He believes superficial attraction and sex is what has ruined all his relationships (and is partially correct).

He theorizes that physical attractiveness always undermines authentic intimacy. Thus, he postulates a solution. Find and date a woman he finds completely physically unappealing. Then he’ll find true love (Story Problem).

Enter in Professor Rose Morgan, a shy, plain, middle-aged professor who teaches literature also at Columbia. Ah, but Rose also happens to have a stunning older sister and a mother who was model-gorgeous in her heyday, a mother who always has to be the center of attention.

Gregory Larkin believes he can only find love without physical beauty, that physical attraction has only a bad ending.

Close, but No Cigar

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Rose Morgan also has issues with beauty, though is not actively aware of it initially. Her mother’s obsession with her own beauty has propelled Rose to demur and become a wallflower. She dresses in frumpy clothes, wears no makeup, doesn’t exercise and does nothing with her hair.

Namely, she doesn’t want to compete with Mom. Mom’s distorted overvaluation of physical beauty has created an equally distorted devaluation of physical beauty in Rose.

When Larkin asks Rose out and the relationship blooms enough for them to marry, it seems his theory is sound. Rose wants to believe she’s okay with this. That she is okay that she was picked because she was utterly unattractive on the outside.

Sure, it stings, but in the end, does it matter? They are close, share similar interests, enjoy each other’s company and she’s no longer terminally single.

Only once married, does Rose realize she’s sold herself short in a big way.

She didn’t believe she longed for Puccini and romance and lust and for a man (her husband) to want her. That was for ‘pretty girls’ and she was lucky to even be picked at all. Right?

Right?

Wrong

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

One night, Rose presses Gregory for sexual intimacy and he freaks out. He rejects her advances, and is angry at her for upsetting his tidy formula for lasting love.

This crushes Rose.

Rose believes she repulses him, but is very wrong. He did want her, probably more than any woman ever before. Yet, he still clings to his false IDEA. He remains undeterred that physical attraction/relations will ruin true love. He leaves right after this disastrous night for a lengthy lecture tour.

Rose finally faces her fear of being pretty and her false beliefs that she a) is not pretty and b) does not deserve to be pretty. She cleans up her diet, gets her hair done, changes her wardrobe and wears makeup. She feels differently and notes others treat her differently, too.

Gregory also does some soul-searching and starts pondering he might be wrong. Maybe outer beauty does not instantly negate inner beauty. Perhaps beauty, physical attraction, lust wasn’t the problem. He was.

Maybe.

Showdown Between the Ideas

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Gregory returns to NYC and sees Rose has bloomed. She’s a very different wife inside and out. Not only is she stunning, but she’s now confident and knows what she wants, what she deserves.

She apologizes for her part in the problem. Confesses she never should have agreed to a passionless marriage. She thanks him for helping her see her own cowardice, but in truth she wants passion and Puccini, love and sex and more than marriage melba toast.

Gregory is dumped…again.

This forces him to take a hard look at himself and his ‘theory.’ He’s forced to choose between his ‘flawless theory of perfect love’ or Rose.

Will he let Rose dump him and go in search of an even more physically unattractive female? Or will he ditch his theory and woo Rose back?

Ideas as Weather Fronts

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

What happens when a cold front meets with a hot front? A STORM! Same in stories. This is why it’s critical to understand the BBT and the proxy carrying out the idea. It’s why it’s just as vital to understand the protagonist and his or her IDEA to be challenged.

Like in weather the colder and drier the cold front and the hotter and moister the hot front, the bigger the BOOM.

Thus once you’ve selected the IDEAS that will clash and what sort of characters will serve as the delivery mechanisms, make sure to choose who will suffer/change the most. The higher the stakes the better the story.

Also ask (for both sides):

What does he/she want? Why does he/she want it? Why now? What happens if he/she fails to get what they want?

When we articulate these and craft these ahead of time, we can make sure to pack as much punch into the plot as possible. No reader wants to invest 12-15 hours into a story where there are low stakes or no stakes. Where no one changes. ZZZZZZ.

Y’all might laugh, but I’ve edited many a work with no stakes. When I asked the writer, ‘What happens if she doesn’t find out the secret?’ Usually, I got, ‘She um…just doesn’t?’

Nope. That isn’t a story, it’s a sedative.

À la fin…

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Ennui Cat says love is for fools and brings only pain. He’s judging your book…and you.

But mostly you.

In the end, think how many weather metaphors we use when talking about people and conflict. A storm’s brewing. Lightning rarely strikes twice. Could feel the crackle in the air.

If conflict is thought of like storms, then reverse engineer this. How do storms work? What makes them bigger and nastier? Use this to help add power to your plot problem.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this help make plotting a tad less intimidating? Are you perhaps seeing where/why your previous idea floundered? Didn’t realize you needed at least TWO for a story?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***Will announce February’s winner next post.

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Wounds matter in life and in fiction. The last blog was a bit heavy, true. My goal was to start the dialogue about being wounded. You are not alone. I am not alone. We’ve all been hurt in some way and to some degree. Just goes with being human.

Admitting weakness, failure, mistakes, and flaws isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be downright terrifying for even the ‘strongest’ of us. It’s an especially daunting task in a world that idolizes something none of us will ever be…perfect. Wounds are part of the human experience. When we understand the nature of wounds, our fiction becomes all the richer just by adding in these layers.

All genres and all stories require wounds. No wound and no story. Even The Little Engine That Could had self-esteem issues and a confidence problem 😉 .

Wounds provide friction vital for conflict, No conflict, no story. Conflict turns pages, sells books, and cultivates fans. The entire point of stories is a flawed character overcoming some internal issue (damage) in order to triumph over an external problem. It’s why readers read fiction.

Genre Dictates Damage

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

This said, the wounds need to fit the genre because genre acts as a guideline for reader expectations. Our goal as authors should be to meet then exceed reader expectations. Stories are all for the reader or should be, which is why genre constraints can be very helpful for writers.

No one expects a cozy cupcake mystery to explore the nature of evil. Readers who gravitate to this genre are wanting a lighter read and will resent us playing Dostoyevsky. Conversely, if a reader is in the mood for a story that probes the depths of the human condition, they’re probably not picking up a novel about a cupcake baker who solves local crimes.

Many emerging writers often shy away from damaged characters and use genre as an excuse to avoid the uncomfortable. Big mistake. A cozy cupcake mystery can give the reader the light entertainment she craves and also offer emotional resonance she needs…without being Crime, Punishment and Cupcakes (though that’s a killer title, LOL).

When we understand wounds better, it helps us cultivate layered characters who’ll make for page-turning stories, regardless of genre. Let’s look at some common sources for wounds.

Pain of Perfect

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

First, what is perfect? Good question. Humans all across time and in every culture idolize perfect (always have and always will) though what perfect is varies vastly and changes all the time. Just take a moment to check out female beauty standards across the ages and it’s easy to see how, while the world around us might change, people don’t.

We are still ridiculous.

The ancient Incas thought being cross-eyed was super sexy. RAWR. They often fitted infants with a plank between their eyes to artificially create this ‘natural’ beauty for those unlucky enough to be born with ‘normal’ eyes. Ancient Greece was hot for the unibrow.

From ideal body type to what constitutes success to what constitutes normal or abnormal is in constant flux, and is different everywhere. It even varies from household to household depending on culture and you got it…wounds. This is where writers can have a lot of fun creating mayhem in fiction.

Falling Short

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

No matter what genre we write, a character failing to ‘live up to’ some ideal is gold. Maybe your character has spent a lifetime being measured against the ‘perfect’ older sibling, and struggles with self-esteem. This character might flounder trying to create his/her own distinct identity.

Or flip it.

What if the character happens to be the ‘perfect’ older sibling? This character didn’t ask for family or outsiders to pick on his or her younger sibling for not being as smart, talented, pretty, ambitious, etc.

This character never asked to be the standard unit of measurement to judge another human being. How much guilt might come with that? Think of the pressure or even the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’?

Also, we have another ‘person’ who lacks a distinctive identity. While we have two very different ‘people’ both characters are defined in relation to the other. Outsiders have denied agency to both. It’s amazing how something as simple as birth order can create a wound that drives characters and their decisions (good and bad).

We see this sort of wound explored in everything from The Joy Luck Club (literary fiction) to Game of Thrones (epic high fantasy) to one out of every three Hallmark movies 😉 .

The Diseased Family Tree

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Since we’re all in the holiday season, we might be more intensely aware of how wounds can come from those closest. We touched a bit on family damage with ‘perfection.’ Family damage can come in many forms.

Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box does a brilliant job of exploring the ‘anti-goal’ which is a common fruit of the diseased family tree.

Judas Coyne is a famous rockstar, wealthy beyond imagination who has everything (including a lot of emotional baggage). Hate, anger and resentment fueled his incredible success, yet false guilt and profound shame keep him from enjoying any of it. A vengeful ghost determined to destroy him body and soul might be the only thing with the power to liberate Coyne from his emotional bondage.

Sometimes the diseased family tree is not as obvious. Often, parents believe they’re giving their children the best, but are actually deluded about the nature of their motives.

In The Luckiest Girl Alive, TifAni’s mom is superficial, materialistic, and self-absorbed. Her father is an emotionally absentee ghost who resents his life. Her mother pushes for TifAni to attend an elite prep school to give her daughter all the opportunities she missed (code for ‘marry real money’). Dad doesn’t have the spine to stand up and say ‘no.’

Both parents are too self-centered to realize TifAni in that school is a ticking bomb.

Of course, not every character needs to grow up in Season Ten of The Jerry Springer Show in order to take on some damage. The road to therapy is paved with good intentions.

Parents are human, too.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty explores how the best of intentions can poison everything.

Life Wounds All

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Life has 100% fatality rate. No one gets out alive. Also we’re all going to get hurt somewhere by someone. Thing is, life is all…pointy. If family doesn’t make us bleed, then school, peers, romantic interests, work colleagues, Facebook or plain bad luck will.

I know. I missed my calling writing inspirational cards 😛 .

Why am I talking about all this? Because we writers have more ‘competition’ than any other time in human history. With no gatekeepers, discoverability is a nightmare. There are a gazillion choices for books and most of them (like cable channels) are a waste of what little free time we have.

More is Not Always Better

From movies to television to books, audiences are deluged with tired tropes, boringly predictable plots and characters with the emotional depth of a goldfish. We can see this ‘glut of meh’ as a problem or use it for our advantage.

If we know why readers read, what they want, then we can work hard on what matters. Readers long for emotional connection and stories that help them deal with pain, ease their pain or maybe even solve/release their pain. They want hope that messed up people overcome big problems in spite of, or perhaps because of, wounds and flaws.

At the other side of the problem is joy, peace, true love, freedom, fulfillment, healing, understanding, wholeness! Wounds are healed and victory sealed. Who doesn’t want more of THAT?

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

What Are Your Thoughts?

Getting tired of the same old same old? From Hollywood to books it feels like it’s just the same stuff over and over. I get giddy when I discover something truly excellent. What about you?

I love hearing from you and am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of DECEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

I’m running Round Four of my ‘Write Stuff’ Special. 20 pages of deep edit for $40. ONLY TEN SLOTS AVAILABLE. Get your slot HERE.

NEW CLASS! 20% Early Bird Discount

The Art of Character: How to Craft Dimensional ‘People’ in Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD (Only $36 with discount)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: January 4th, 2018 7:00 P.M. EST—9:00 P.M. EST

No matter what genre we write, the key to writing unforgettable stories always rests with character. How do we create intriguing characters who hook readers and never let them go? What makes a character unforgettable? How do we write stories that endure?

It is easy to fall into tropes and caricatures if we lack a fundamental understanding of human nature and how this plays out in the dramatic narrative. This class will delve into how to add depth to our characters which will, in turn add, resonance with our plot.

This class will cover:

  • Discovering Wounds;
  • Understanding Coping Mechanisms;
  • How Wounds Collide to Increase Dramatic Tension
  • How to Create Dimensional Characters
  • Using Character to Plot

***A FREE recording is included with purchase.

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Ah, the masks we wear. We all have them because it’s impossible to be fully human and devoid of cracks. We are all wounded. Yet, therein lies the conundrum for those who long to become writers. We’re all cracked, damaged, dinged yet simultaneously bombarded by countless conflicting messages.

Media, culture, family, society are like a gaggle of cocaine-fueled stepmothers relentlessly determined to make us ‘perfect,’ only then to turn around and zing us for being ‘superficial’ and ‘fake.’

It’s okay to cry, darling. Just next time wear the waterproof mascara.You’re a mess.

Many of us are the walking wounded, encouraged to embrace our flaws, experience all our emotions…but then cover them up because no one wants to see that. Jeez!

This ‘logic’ is absurd enough in life, but for authors we must choose the painful path if we hope to write the great stories, the ones that change people and endure. Perfect, flawless, normal and well-adjusted spell death for fiction. Superb stories provide a safe place for readers to ‘feel and heal’ and our job is to deliver that 😉 .

Yet, this comes at a price. I know! Always a catch.

Funny Thing About Pain

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb
My leg after Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition. What? I won the Silver.

I remember the first time I broke a bone. I was barely four. What stands out most is it didn’t hurt. At all. I remember gaping at my left arm in a spiffy S shape, unable to wrap my head around why there was NO pain. After many years and many more injuries I learned the wounds that hurt were never as bad as ones that didn’t.

Of course this is basic physiology. When an injury is bad enough it overloads the pain centers of the brain, short-circuiting our ability to feel anything. This gives time for the sympathetic nervous system to flood the body with hormones to keep us alive.

Heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and our endocrine system unleashes a tsunami of fight or flight hormones. All these physiological responses—in the meantime—are necessary for us to survive long enough to do something about the wound. But, if the shock is not dealt with, the victim will ironically die from the very mechanism designed to keep the body alive.

Emotionally Walking Wounded

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Something similar happens to us when we experience emotional trauma. Emotional disconnection—also known as denial—is the mental equivalent of ‘being in shock.’ Denial was never intended to be a permanent solution, just a stopgap to protect our psyche from overload. It’s the brain’s way of protecting us from emotional implosion (I.e. a nervous breakdown or psychotic break).

Like the body lowers blood pressure and heart rate to keep us from bleeding to death, the mind dulls our emotions and minds to keep us from unraveling. There will (should) be a time and place to face the trauma, but drinking demons from a fire hose is not our brain’s first choice.

The trouble, however, is that though we need to face these traumas, denial can become a comfortable purgatory.

For many of us who’ve been through trauma we are still too damaged to face our pain. We have become masters at hiding, stuffing or numbing our emotions into submission. Maybe we’ve endured our wounds so long we’re unaware they even exist because pain is our ‘normal.’

Dare to Be Wounded

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

As authors, we’re wise to appreciate that readers read for the same reasons writers write. Wounds. This is where things get…tricky. Many writers write because we’re wounded. Face it, writing fiction is way cheaper than a good shrink or solid criminal defense attorney.

Murdering imaginary people is legal 😀 . *double-checks on Google* Yep, totes legal.

Yet, we writers simultaneously happen to live in a culture that shames the ‘damaged’ which makes us hesitant to admit we’re wounded. Many of us learned in high school it was safer to bleed in the library because the sharks were in the cafeteria.

Trouble is, being afraid to face or admit we’re anything but perfect makes for some seriously dull as crap ‘stories.’ Yet, I posit this:

All fiction is about a wound colliding with a core problem in need of resolution.

Fiction (stories) must possess both wounds and a core problem. If we only have problems, we don’t have a story. We have bad situation after bad situation after bad situation. Characters passively flung like flotsam and jetsam on the cruel currents of Life’s Unfair.

*yawns*

When we wax rhapsodic about inner demons (sans core problem in need of resolution), that isn’t fiction either. It’s comes across as self-indulgence, journaling, whining, lecturing or even pontificating. Why? Because fiction the wrong medium for solely discussing wounds. Essays? Self-help? Blogs 😀

Cool…maybe. As fiction? Snoozefest.

If we don’t have a wound or a core problem in need of resolution, we have pages of nothing happening. I call this the Literary Barbie Dream House (or Literary Holodeck if you prefer). No matter how glorious the prose, how lovely the description, how spectacular the world-building, it’s words on a page not a novel.

Writers KNOW Wounds

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

We’ve all heard that nebulous and seriously unhelpful advice, Write what you know. Um, I’m writing about space battles. Huh? Maybe you’re like me and tried to write a suspense with a cop as a main character, then thought, ‘But I’m not a cop.’ Then our idea slowly succumbs to Death by Research. 

This isn’t a pass to skip research but writing what we know is referring to wounds. We know human fragility and brokenness and often on a far deeper level than most. We see and sense what others miss. Many writers are extremely sensitive to the world and the feelings of others.

There’s a good reason many of us are introverts.

Dare to Unmask

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

We are all emotionally messed up to some degree. If you’re not at all messed up then you’re a) a robot b) in denial c) a sociopath d) not fit to be a writer. There is no normal. ‘Normal’ is a setting on the dishwasher. Normal is also normal (a.k.a. boring), ergo terrible fiction.

Perfect people are dull and we secretly resent them because we know perfect is a LIE. Readers cannot connect with perfect, but they will connect with wounds. This means we writers, uh, need to connect via wounds.

Yeah.

Also, the wounds we will write the best *tugs collar* will likely be the ones we hide deepest and….*mutters low* the ones we fear most.

My own writing was all Literary Barbies until I understood the gold is always guarded by a dragon. The larger the treasure, the bigger the beast. Emotional damage in fiction is GOLD.

This means, my relentless drive to hone my skills as an author has been a petal-lined path with unicorns, rainbows and daily facials.

Okay that was a total lie. WHAT? I’m a writer. I am PAID to LIE.

I had to face I am an OCD control freak, a rabidly critical perfectionist, and a Type A+ because Type As didn’t do the extra credit #Slackers.

So Many Masks

And so little time. If we want to excel at writing, first things first. What are our masks? What wounds are we hiding? If we are brave enough to do this hard work, this is when the great stories happen (which we’ll talk about in another post).

For me? My primary go-to mask is the clown. Shocking! I KNOW!

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb
Am I doing something wrong? Or are Kiwi butts smaller?

For me? Everything is funny. Like this (refer to image below). I saw this digital billboard while presenting in Dallas and fell over laughing.

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

All I could think was, Holy Moly! Lock up any moderately attractive males under thirty. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Also, SAIL? What exactly are these Seniors Active in Learning learning about? And does it have anything to do with the PSA about roving cougars?

Or is the Cougar Alert some new dating app like Tinder? Like if you’re a young man wanting romantic time with an older attractive woman, this can help you know if any are in your area?

Writer brains. Sigh.

Which humor is wonderful. I love to laugh and love making other people laugh even more. The problem, however, is that I use comedy to deflect, minimize, hide and, if pushed? Fight dirty.

Alas, there’s a good reason comedians have such a high suicide rate. They might be the funniest person in the room, but they’re often the most wounded. Jokes are a fantastic smokescreen for pain. This means most other people are oblivious to how deeply the ‘clown’ is hurting (I.e. Robin Williams). The self-defense mechanism ends up being the comic’s undoing.

Case in point, I was once in a horrible accident and had all the EMTs cracking up as they prepped me for the ambulance. My shame for actually ‘needing help’ spilled out in grand comedy, almost to my detriment. The first responders initially had no idea how badly wounded I really was because I kept them in stitches…since me needing stitches was *shivers* such a burden.

Though I hate admitting this, I’m fairly sure if I were shot I would either a) make jokes or b) profusely apologize for the mess as I tried to clean it up while stemming the bleeding…without using the good towels #Duh c) try to do surgery on myself with a glue gun and Batman stickers from Spawn’s last school project to save money or d) all of the above.

I learned to hide my weakness, needs, hurts behind a mask of humor and still do. When that doesn’t work? I have a vast collection of other guises to fake that everything’s fine. By paying attention to my own masks, I’m learning more about my wounds (many ignored so long they were forgotten).

Also, this is opening my eyes to others. What are their masks and what wounds are still bleeding beneath?

Born of Blood

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Most humans are in some way driven by wounds (for good and bad). What we value, who we like, who we attract, our choices in clothes, friends, foods, music often have roots in an old injury (which is why The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is such a fabulous resource for crafting dimensional characters).

Setting my Comedian mask aside, here is the Controller. Trust me I deleted this at least seventeen times because vulnerability is not my strength. Since I am working on that, I am sharing about me *breathes in paper bag*.

I didn’t one day hatch an OCD control freak. I’m aware I possess rituals and habits other find silly or annoying. Fine. Ha ha ha. But that is MY finger above. Got myself while cooking last week. I always sharpen my knives before I cook. ALWAYS.

Even though I get teased about it.

Why do I do sharpen them every time? Because dull blades slip and this is what happens when I take someone else’s word the knife has been sharpened…and it hasn’t.

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

I’m way better than I used to be, and small stuff like a nicked finger rolls right off my back (when years ago it might have unhinged me).

Yet, while I’m better in some ways, in other situations, my OCD control freak behaviors escalate off the charts lest I suffer apoplexy. Why? Because there are still areas I’m deeply wounded. I’m terrified of large crowds. It’s why I chose a profession where I work from home. I always drive or at least keep the car keys once out of the car. Also, I shop alone.

Why? A number of reasons, but namely my father was a narcissistic sadist who found it extremely entertaining to leave me places…without me knowing.

As a kid, he’d take me to the grocery store, the mall, and even amusement parks and then just…leave. Like literally slip away when I wasn’t paying attention, go to the car and drive off. When I was eight, he found it very funny I spent the entire day at Six Flags looking for him instead of riding any rides.

I know. WTH? Dunno. It was the 80s and apparently not illegal to just leave a kid wherever so long as you eventually came back.

This said, while I still have lingering trauma that dictates the control behaviors, something else happened in me. I strive to be extremely considerate, careful, protective and there few people more responsible than me. In fact, I am over responsible.

I didn’t share this for any kind of self-indulgence (trust me). Rather, what I’ve learned is that writing can and has helped me heal a lot of issues and since my stories (I hope) are on a deeper level, readers might be able to experience healing as well. If I can find the courage to feel the old pain and bring it into the light, it can lead the way for the reader as well.

And makes a more interesting story. That jacked up childhood can be an anchor to drown me or an engine to propel me anywhere I want to go. Choice is mine.

The Wound Gives the Why

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

I’m challenging you guys to embrace the wound because humans are born of blood and so are the best characters. It’s what makes them feel so real. Sure we can have a tattooed felon or a homeless prostitute as an MC but that damage is more obvious. Those types of characters also won’t work in some genres.

Some damage can only be seen by noticing the mask. Masks aren’t always beautiful, but are always deceptive.

What if your heroine is a doctor dedicated to saving lives? Great. Why? She’s wounded. Why does your hero sign up for every dangerous mission? Take on only the toughest murder cases? Sacrifice his/her personal life to rescue inner city kids?

Does your heroine really need to make every holiday storybook perfect? What propels your hero run into burning buildings? Why do any of these “people” do all these admirable and selfless and courageous things? They’re wounded.

And if not, they’re dull as dirt.

Once we (Author God) know the WHY, then everything else makes sense. We now know why she’s a serial monogamist who’s only attracted to bad boys and players. Or why he’s a nester who always falls for women who bleed him then leave him.

***For more on this I STRONGLY recommend a class Cait is teaching tomorrowBad Boys: Dangerous Love, From Rejection to Redemption.

A character’s need for order, or habit of always being late, or putting everything off to the last minute now has DEPTH because these ‘behaviors’ are tethered to something more than ‘just because.’

Wounds will enhance all fiction. ALL of it.

That cozy mystery with the cupcake baking sleuth? Yep, her, too. WHY is she chronically late? Because when she was fifteen she showed up early to meet her friend at the family business. She walked into a robbery, startled the gunman and knows she’s why her best friend’s dad was killed. If she’d been late, BFF’s dad would’ve been robbed but alive. In her mind EARLY means people die. No, humans are not rational (and good characters aren’t either). But the job of the story is to reveal the lie.

We don’t need to write deep probing Russian literature to create stories with meat.

Also, when we know and explore the wound, PLOTTING is MUCH easier because we know precisely what problem will create the most stress and force the most change.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Have you been afraid to write in a way that makes you feel vulnerable? Afraid to feel? I know I have. Working on it. What novels, series or movies resonated with you most? Looking back, did you connect because of what we discussed today? Have you used your fiction to work on your own masks, wounds, issues?

What are YOUR favorite go-to masks? Why do they help? How do they backfire?

I love hearing from you, and I am NOT above BRIBERY!

What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And a quick reminder of class tomorrow!

Bad Boys: Dangerous Love from Rejection to Redemption

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, December 1st, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Today, it’s me, Cait! Join me as we venture into a common craft mistake committed by virtually every emerging writer—something I like to call ‘dismemberment.’ Because nothing says love like body parts strewn about.

Sarcasm aside, dismemberment is a bad habit that can impact the flow of the story, collapse the fictive dream, and confuse or even insult the reader.

Dismemberment is literary filler that demonstrates we (as the writer) don’t trust the readers’ intellect, thus we are “brain holding” as Kristen likes to say.

Offering fair warning: I’m in a stabby mood today. Really stabby.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Dismemberment is one of the most common craft mistakes, but it’s also one of the most insidious. It’s one of the most prevalent reasons readers lose interest in a story, or fail to get interested in the first place.

We (readers) get tired of stopping and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. We keep pausing because our brains keep pondering tangents unrelated to the actual story.

If Taylor’s eyes just flew across the room at a dinner party, how does he discreetly get them back if he can’t see? Was any partygoer hit by a flying eyeball? Oh hell! Is one of his eyeballs stuck in some debutante’s expensive up-do?

Aaand this is when the whole story goes off the rails *explosion noises* *screams of pain*

So, what is dismemberment?

Dismemberment is when body parts move around independent of the character.

When we (as editors) see a sentence like, “Seraphina’s violet orbs roved around the room,” our first instinct is to stab. Uh, I mean pick on the obvious issues like…’orbs’ and ‘violet.’

For readers, their first instinct is usually…HUH? What the hell just happened? Do her eyes get dust bunnies on them?

The core issue has nothing to do with Seraphina gazing around the room. Rather, it’s her eyeballs going for a stroll *cue image of eyeballs rolling across the floor like marbles*

Now that you can’t un-see that in your head, let’s dig a little deeper into what dismemberment looks like, why it’s a writing no-no, and how to avoid, fix, and occasionally even use it (properly).

Dismemberment Makes Things Awkward

Remember The Addams Family and Thing?

Dismemberment - Cait Reynolds

The show was brilliant, and took the idea of dismemberment and ran with it. The show turned a disembodied hand into a character with attitude, opinions, relationships, and interaction with the other characters. It was hilarious…because it was so weird.

The problem is that what’s funny weird for a television show becomes disjointedly bizarre in a novel. Once we start being able to identify dismemberment, we can’t help seeing it everywhere. We also can’t help seeing the unfortunate imagery of random body parts moving around.

Eyes, hands, and feet are the usual body parts featured in dismemberment, though I’ve definitely seen a fair share of shoulders, legs, arms, and heads.

“His head flew across the room…”

“Her shoulders slumped down…”

“His hand reached out to her…”

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Why do we fall into the trap of dismemberment? One possible answer is that we are struggling with how to describe the action in a scene. This is the fault of what I like to call the Inner Pushy Stage Director. Similar to the Inner Editor, the Inner Pushy Stage Director has a lot to say about gestures, blocking, and interpretive dance. #JazzHands

The Inner Pushy Stage Director doesn’t trust the reader to instinctively know the series of movements involved in the simple actions of picking something up or a character moving through rooms.

Her hand reached out to open the door.

Oh-kay.

To be blunt, we (readers) are not stupid and we “get” one would have to reach out a hand to open a door unless telekinetic powers are involved. If telekinetic powers NOT involved, then we as readers assume the character can simply open a door without explaining how this “opening a door” process happens. We’ll keep up just fine. Promise.

By believing we need to give the reader every single detail of an action, we use twenty words to explicate what maybe two or three words could do far better. Inexperienced writers often resort to giving agency to a body part as a way to vary the prose away from constantly using the ‘he’ or ‘she’ as the driver of action.

And, that’s how we end up with Seraphina’s violet orbs roving around the room…maybe stopping to get a canape… See? Creepy, right?

Happy Feet

Body parts do not have emotions. Period. Ever.

There is no situation in which the following sentence is correct: “His hands clenched into angry fists.”

No. Nope. Zipit!

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Another reason we fall into the trap of dismemberment is that we use it to portray a character’s emotion, whether it’s Seraphina’s POV or her noticing that Taylor is angry.

What has really happened is that we have flubbed the technique of drawing attention to a physical ‘tell’ for a character’s emotion.

Instead of:

His hands clenched into angry fists.

As opposed to clenching hands into joyous fists? #Weirdness

What we really mean to say is:

He clenched his hands into fists.

If we have the correct dialogue/action/inner thoughts leading up to that moment, we shouldn’t have to use the word ‘angry’ at all. We should also be able to avoid turning Taylor’s hands into their own POV characters. We also can just say that he clenched his hands since the word “fists” is implied.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction
You do not want to end up like Cartman and Jennifer Lopez.

Why is Dismemberment So Bad?

Isn’t variety the spice of life? Aren’t we supposed to try and find new and creative ways of describing our characters and conveying actions? Couldn’t you say that it’s ‘artistic’?

No. No, and no. (See, totally stabby this morning.)

Dismemberment violates one of the fundamental rules of writing: Always maintain connection between reader and the story. Always.

You know what breaking the connection does? It creates…bookmark moments. Every instance of dismemberment lets the reader drift a little further away from the engrossing empathy that keeps them immersed and turning pages. It’s a subtle loss of connection that, given enough time, may even relegate our books in the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

I will sacrifice everything for a book hangover because I *have* to find out what happens to Seraphina. Or Taylor. I identify with the choices and emotions of Seraphina and Taylor, but if those choices and emotions are assigned to body parts, I’m just not as invested in the outcome of the characters.

If there is too much, Seraphina’s head flew across the room when Taylor unexpectedly arrived to the party, then I’m more concerned why the partygoers aren’t trampling each other in terror to flee the room and the flying head.

Dismemberment takes the edge off of tension and blunts the poignancy of the ‘either-or’ that drives plotting and character arcs.

There’s one other reason that dismemberment is so very, very bad.

Welcome to Amateur Hour

Dismemberment is one of the clearest symptoms of amateur hour. Editors can spot a sloppy writer in any number of painful ways, but dismemberment in a FINISHED, EDITED, AND PUBLISHED BOOK is the equivalent of the author holding a neon sign over his/her head flashing ‘AMATEUR HOUR – 24/7.’ 

Even worse? The fact that whoever was paid to edit and proofread did not catch the dismemberment…just maybe see about a refund.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

In my opinion, amateur hour editors sin worse than amateur hour authors. There is more to being an editor than running a manuscript through Grammarly and finding typos, which is why writers need to use prudence and maybe referrals when choosing an editor (not just price).

If you think I’m being harsh, I’m a small fry compared to agents and NY editors. They’re inundated with more manuscripts than they could read in a lifetime, meaning they are actively looking for reasons to stop reading. The moment these folks see dismemberment? Their head doesn’t fly across the room, our novel does.

#SlushPile #NoTimeForN00bs

Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together

So, now, we have to pick up all the scattered body parts and emotions, and order the 40-pack of super glue from Amazon.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

The first part of recovery is to train ourselves to recognize dismemberment so we can get out of using it improperly. While it might take some time to break the dismemberment habit, this is one case where we do need to stop and listen to our Inner Editor as we draft.

Instead of noting the dismemberment and promising to deal with it in revisions, we should take the time to correct it then and there. It’s simple to fix. Just delete a few words and reassign the emotions to the character instead of the body part.

Do this over the course of 50,000 words, and you’d be surprised how quickly a new and better habit forms…

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction
When you start to hear Cait’s voice as your Inner Editor…

Of course, no one is perfect (except for me, duh). That is why there is the editing phase of writing, when we catch those sneaky little instances of dismemberment that slipped a body part in our path without us noticing.

In terms of actually fixing dismemberment, think of a movie. Really think and try to recall how often the director has the camera zoom in on a JUST a body part (okay ASIDE from porn).

Funny how it’s a little tougher than you thought to come up with examples. Why is that?

Well…wait for it…because the moviegoer identifies with the character, not the body part.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

There’s one other thing to watch out for when we are correcting a scene with dismemberment, and that is the dreaded ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ problem. In this case, it manifests in the far-too-frequent and indiscriminate use of the word felt.

Seraphina felt her ears heat up from embarrassment.

There’s no dismemberment in this sentence, but it’s kinda blah. I mean, the whole point of the sentence is to inform the reader that her ears are getting hot. Meh.

Like I said earlier, if we are guiding the scene the right way, we won’t need to point out that she’s getting embarrassed. The reader will already be getting the sense that Seraphina’s experiencing humiliation/shame/whatever.

We could make the sentence more interesting and ENGAGING with just a couple tweaks.

Seraphina fought to keep her expression neutral, even if her burning ears were bright pink giveaways.

In this example, I changed up the passive ‘felt’ for a more active purpose to the sentence. We still understand that she’s feeling embarrassed, but now, she doing something other than just passively experiencing a sensation. Also, I’ve given the other characters in the scene something to notice and/or react to with Seraphina’s obvious struggle to keep a straight face.

Dismemberment - Cait Reynolds

When correcting dismemberment, just remember: put the emotion back in the character’s head, and have him/her/it DO something to express it.

Disciplined Dismemberment

Like every rule, there *are* exceptions to the ban on dismemberment.

Once we are on auto-pilot in terms of avoiding dismemberment, we can finally use it as the tool it was really meant to be. (Hey, you can’t go through medical school without gross anatomy – dissecting body parts has its place!)

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

We can use body parts when we are trying to heighten tension.

For example, let’s say Seraphina and Taylor have been gagged and tied up, but there’s a knife nearby to cut their bonds. Just riffing here:

Seraphina held her breath as Taylor tried for the knife. His fingers flexed and stretched as long as possible, desperate for the blade. Tendons popped out on his hands, hands that reached farther and farther until they shook from strain, only to finally slacken in defeat.

In this moment, Taylor’s ability to reach the knife is critical. By zooming in on his hands and their actions, my goal is to build tension and create a vivid, visceral visual. It’s worth nothing that in this situation, Taylor’s hands are the only part of him that can have any action.

If he wasn’t tied up or his arms were free, then I’d describe the moment differently and put Taylor himself back in the driver’s seat.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Another way of using body parts is by having the POV character notice a particular action or emotion on the part of someone else in the scene.

Taylor did a double-take when Seraphina’s eyes widened a mere a fraction. He wasn’t sure if she was surprised or angry, but it was enough to put him on his guard.

The reason this example works is because I’m showing, not telling, and the dismemberment provides something for the POV character to react to – in this case, a confusing signal from Seraphina. When used in this way, dismemberment can be an excellent tool for revealing or concealing clues, creating misunderstandings, and varying communication between characters between verbal and non-verbal forms.

THESE EXAMPLES DO NOT GIVE US PERMISSION TO GO BACK TO HACKING UP BODY PARTS AND HAVING THEM RUN AROUND DOING THINGS ON THEIR OWN!

Just like truffle oil…a little goes a very long way.

Class with Cait this Friday!

I’m offering a really cool class tomorrow night! It’s my blurb-writing class. In it, I will show you all my secret tips and tricks (even beyond what I wrote in this blog post) to painlessly writing those crucial 150 words that will SELL YOUR BOOK!

What’s extra cool about this class is that I will take TWO blurbs from attendees and rework them LIVE AND ON-THE-FLY IN CLASS to demonstrate just how simple and effective my techniques are.

Yeah, I know. Super cool.

Anyway, here are the details–hope to see you tomorrow night!

BLURB BOSS: WRITING BLURBS THAT SELL BOOKS

Blurb - Cait ReynoldsInstructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

If the cover is an invitation to the party in your book, then the blurb (the back cover description, the summary, your entire book in 3 short paragrahs) is the RSVP card readers check off as attending-with-the-chicken-option when they buy your book.

The trouble is that for so many books, while the cover is invites you to a rave, the blurb reveals it’s really polka night at the VFW.

So, if the blurb is so important, why is it so hard to write? Raise your hand if you hate writing blurbs. Raise your other hand if you agonize over writing a blurb, and it still feels like it’s awful when it’s done.

The heart’s cry goes up from every single writer ever: “THIS IS HARDER TO WRITE THAN THE 90,000 WORDS OF MY BOOK!”

And yet, it shouldn’t be. Approached from a different angle, a blurb should be one of the easiest and most fun things to write. Yes. I went there. I said it. Hopefully, after taking this class, you will be saying it, too. No more blubbering over blurbs. Ever.

This class will cover:

  • Understanding the purpose of a blurb in attracting readers;
  • The top secret formula to structuring a blurb;
  • How to plug-and-play every blurb, every time;
  • Why everything you think is important in your story really isn’t (in terms of the blurb);
  • The secret to keywords, blurbs, and algorithms.

As a bonus, bring a copy of your blurb to the class for group workshopping! I will pick two and edit them LIVE IN CLASS to show you just how easy it is!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

Register today!

For subscribers, click to my site to view gallery of upcoming classes (gallery doesn’t show up for you). But here are the two biggies coming up from ME (Kristen LAMB)…

BRAND BOSS! When Your NAME ALONE Can SELL! November 14th, 7-9 EST and comes with FREE RECORDING. $45 for General Admission, GOLD Option Available!

PLOT BOSS! Writing Novels Readers WANT TO BUY! November 16th, 7-9 EST and comes with FREE RECORDING. $40 for General Admission, GOLD Option Available!

Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!