Kristen Lamb

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Posts Tagged: writing about inner demons

We have been doing a lot of talking about structure lately because if we as writers don’t grasp structure? We can never deliver story. Sometimes to see what a novel IS, it helps to look at what the novel is NOT. Thus today I am going to pick on the most common “novels” I see that really are not novels.

Hey, just because we wrote 85,000 words does not mean it is a story.

Sucks. I know.

The “My Book is About Inner Demons” Novel

Code for: I have no clue how to plot so I am just going to wax rhapsodic and hope if I use enough BS and glitter, it will work.

Nope.

It won’t.

Last time we talked about inner demons, but inner demons alone are not enough. Inner demons are NOT a story.

All dimensional characters have inner demons. The inner demon is not proprietary to the literary genre (literary folks just have more leeway to camp out there). Commercial fiction—the good stuff, not the throwaway stories—have characters who are dealing with very real internal struggles and who conquer them.

These internal struggles are tossed into a crucible by the plot problem that makes the demons outwardly manifest. The characters are not simply solving any problem, rather the perfect problem, the one that will force the existential crisis that prompts change.

When I see a lot of internal thinking and more thinking and even more thinZZZZZZZZZ…….

Where was I?

*wipes drool off keyboard*

Oh yes, thinking. This is not a story. This is self-indulgent tripe.

Most people are not self-aware. Yes, we all battle with inner demons every day, but even regular people hire therapists at a hundred bucks an hour to help give them some clarity.

Why humans gravitate to story is that we may never be able to name our own demons, let alone conquer them. But in the fictional world? Victory is possible.

In the beginning the inner demon is only going to be reflected in the world-view (paradigm) of the protagonist.

For instance, we may show a workaholic (a protagonist with a work or achievement-centered paradigm). If the character is thinking and musing, Gee, I really work too much. My kids are growing up without a father. My wife no longer loves me. This character is TOO self-aware.

In the beginning, the protagonist believes the paradigm works and will scream and yell and cry when we Author God, rip it away.

He believes success=love, fulfillment, etc.

It is only when the plot problem challenges this belief, shatters it, pulls the blankie away, that the character is forced to rethink the worldview and uncover the WHY. Why do I feel I am only lovable if I have a phat paycheck?

If the character gains this internal insight at the beginning of the story, there is no room for growth and it is cheating. The protagonist has been given insight without the existential crisis.

There is no golden fleece without the quest.

Part of the tension that will keep pages turning is that the reader, much like any therapist, probably spots the protagonist’s baggage from the get-go. The tension is wondering if the protagonist will reach awareness before it is too late.

Remember that the protagonist would fail if pitted against the antagonist (BBT) in Scene One. The protagonist must evolve into a hero in order to triumph.

The “I Have Two (or 3 or 4 or 5) Protagonists” Novel

Nope, we need to ask, WHOSE STORY IS IT?

Remember we have been talking about creating a CORE STORY PROBLEM for our novel. This means there is ONE protagonist. When I get manuscripts where a bunch of stuff is happening and there are three or four or five POVs and I have no clue who I am supposed to be rooting for?

This is a huge red flag there is no core story problem. ONE character has the role of the protagonist. The reason is structure.

In Act Three the protagonist evolves into a hero (presses on when all others would have turned back). He alone fights the BBT in Act Three. He is the one who undergoes the most change because he is the one to solve the core problem.

A slight deviation (exception) to this is what is called The Buddy Love Structure. A good example of this is Lord of the Rings and The Hobbits (Samwise and Frodo) are essentially grouped into one. Can they toss the Ring of Power into Mt. Doom?

Now, LOTR is a super complex plot. There are lot of other subplots and they are all essential for the success of Frodo and Samwise. Yet, in the end? It is their story—not Aragorn’s, not Gandalf’s.

It really is Frodo’s story (with Samwise being a super close supporting actor). Why? Aragorn, Gandalf, Merry & Pippin all have their own subplots which help get Frodo on Mt. Doom….but they don’t have the ring.

HE DOES.

One other way to know the story is about Hobbits? IT OPENS WITH THEM.

Structure dictates that the first character we meet (unless an obvious POV from a villain) is our protagonist. We are like baby chicks and we imprint on the first person we meet.

*imprints on Frodo Baggins*

As I mentioned a moment ago, exceptions would be introductions (whether in prologue or Chapter One) from the antagonist’s POV.

So if an unnamed killer is gleefully chopping up coeds to Madame Butterfly? We get that is probably NOT or protagonist/hero. Yet, I will see works like this where the book opens with the POV of a murderer and then I get the POV of a unit secretary, a wife and then, three chapters later, the detective.

NO.

If it is the detective who brings down The Aria Killer, we meet him off the bat. If we deviate from this, it confuses the reader.

***We also would need to ask why the hell all these other people have been given a POV.

Remember that with every POV we (the reader) need TIME to get attached. Additionally we as the reader, must also dedicate time into resolving that POV character’s problem and driving their arc. Like Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!” But notice the word I keep using here.

TIME.

You have four or five or six POV characters? That is going to impact the overall length of the novel. Sure, Stephen King gets away with an 1100 page book, but can we?

And even in the case of two protagonists, one will be subordinate to the other.

Right now I am writing a Western Horror and I have the B story-line. The female bounty hunter plays a HUGE role in solving the plot crisis, yet it is my coauthor Cait’s character who will do the final face-off against the BBT. Also, just so you know, we have had to put this into a three-book series just because having multiple POV characters takes up space.

That whole time thing again.

The “But Lots of Bad Stuff Happens to Her” Novel

Bad situations are NOT a novel. Bad situations are not even conflict (but probably another post).

A novel involves a core story problem in need of resolution. Often what I will see are all these “pseudo-vignettes of bad things happening” with multiple POV characters and yet they are all roads that lead to nowhere.

This is not a novel, it is a mess.

Now, and we are getting to some advanced stuff here, there IS a vignette structure, but it is more than just unattached scenes of bad crap happening.

There is a method to that particular structure.

Often we see this structure when a GROUP forms the protagonist (Ya Ya Sisterhood, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Joy Luck Club), yet even then the GROUP will still have a point man (or gal). There will be an overall thematic point.

In The Joy Luck Club we have many vignette stories from all the members of the club, the mothers and daughters but, and this is a BIG BUT—two things make this different than The Novel that Is Not a Novel.

A true vignette will follow the rules of structure internally, meaning a protagonist presented with a problem who faces off and solves said problem by the climax of the story. It isn’t just scenes of passively reacting to bad stuff happening.

Additionally, the vignettes will group together to solve a bigger thematic problem.

Case in point. In The Joy Luck Club we open with Jing-Mei Woo who says this:

My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts.

The point of this entire novel is how the mothers left China trying to change, to set right the wrongs of their own mothers. Yet, though they changed geography, they’ve been unable to keep the same patterns from repeating in themselves and their daughters. The stories posit, Will they ever change? Can the chains of the past be broken?

And, though we get stories from many other POVs, it is bookended by Jing-Mei’s journey. Can she forgive her mother and get on that boat and meet her long-lost half-sisters or will she simply take her mother’s place and keep repeating the past?

The “But This is Really a Series” Novel

Often I will get “novels” where there either is not a core story problem, or there is kind of one….but the writer leaves off the book with a 1950s Batman ending. You know, protagonist is hanging off a cliff and all hope is lost, but the story is resolved if you read (buy) in the NEXT book….

Nope. That is cheating.

ONE CORE PROBLEM. If the book is a series, then there will be one core plot problem resolved by the entire series, but in each “entry” in the series, there is a core problem that must be solved to make it to the next leg of the adventure.

I get way too many writers who are fixated on having a series but they don’t even know yet how to write ONE book.

The “My Book is About Abuse” Novel

If I had a dollar for every new writer who wants to write about abuse…

And, in fairness, there is nothing entirely wrong with that…except that many emerging writers missed my earlier point that a bad situation is not a story.

Shock factor is NOT story.

Thus, the detailed account of abuse or rape or incest or whatever must be more than just the bad (or horrible) situation. A good writer must overlay whatever the topic is she/he is addressing onto the plot frame and that is where the character finds his/her power.

Thus, I recommend that if these touchy topics appeal to you, find books that do this well and pay attention to the story problem chosen to help the protagonist conquer the abuse.

Remember that often those abused don’t recognize they are being abused, so that paradigm in the beginning is often VERY skewed. The plot problem reveals the truth the character cannot bear to see and propels her to FACE it and face her tormentor and triumph.

Well there are probably dozens of other versions of Novels that Are NOT Novels, but this is a decent enough overview. And remember, there is a learning curve to all this. I wrote my own share of Novels that Really Were Not Novels when I was new, too.

What are your thoughts? Other than that you hate me and want to stab me in the face? Hey, I am offering my Plotting for Dummies Class, so that might help and breathe. We have ALL been there.

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One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

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But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

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Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

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One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

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The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…..um, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby 😉 .

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For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

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Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them 😀 .

***NOTE: Pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

Remember I am holding the very first BATTLE OF THE PAGES and slots are filling up FAST! (Information below).

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

May’s winner will be announced next time 😀 .

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Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

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