The impetus for writing this series came from an epiphany I had this past weekend at Bob Mayer’s DFW Novel Writer’s Workshop. I had the fortunate opportunity to listen and observe the sessions as a passive participant. Now one cool talent I have been blessed with is that I tend to be good at recognizing patterns; helps make me a very thorough content editor. There are two patterns in particular I happened to spot this weekend, and I believe, if I can successfully avoid these two writing pitfalls, my writing is going to drastically improve. It is my opinion that these two covert saboteurs are responsible for more rewrite than almost any other error. In fact, I know from my own Blood Lessons that these two critical mistakes have sabotaged some really great stories, and cost me countless hours of work.
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc). That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them—he knew they could be rigged to explode and critically wound our manuscript. I have two novels on the KIA list, and one that has been badly injured and is currently being triaged. And if these hazards aren’t bad enough on their own, when they work together (as they often do) the collateral damage can be devastating.
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. To think that simple practice is enough is folly. We have to be taught to do it correctly. It is sort of like going to a gym and swinging weights around with no proper form, then thinking we just need to do it more to get the results we seek. Not true. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as Bob would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic (again, I have been guilty). The writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care.
Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead. The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.
You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.
Before you cared…now you are connected.
That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witnessed this pitfall tank more manuscripts this past weekend—including my own. Bob has this section of his workshop where he makes everyone show their conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict.
Not one person in the workshop could do this. Not one!
Now, don’t get me wrong, there were people who just didn’t see they had a good simple conflict, and it was easy enough to remedy. But, over half of us could not say in one to three sentences what the conflict in our story was, and now we’re staring down the barrel of major rewrite. To varying degrees we had all fallen victim to Hazard #2, and thank God our fellow writers were nearby to drag us back to safety.
It is my opinion that we all knew we were missing this integral piece—CONFLICT—the backbone of our story. I think we sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why our plots grew more and more and more complicated. We were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice.
Complexity is not conflict!
You can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Conflict is biblical, and never changes. It most often revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins in conflict with the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.
And not only do we writers need a core conflict; we need a good core conflict.
There is a difference between…
A criminal profiler is forced to go to Key West and rescue her aunt before the mob uses an inbound hurricane to cover up her murder as payback for a dead family member’s debt.
A criminal profiler grieving her sister’s death runs to Key West only to arrive just before a hurricane.
Now these are just examples I thought of on the fly from my own writing (didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, :D). But, I hope it helps. And for those who would like to learn more about conflict, I recommend taking one of Candace Havens’ on-line workshops www.candacehavens.com, or attending one of Bob Mayer’s workshops, www.bobmayer.org. Bob’s book “The Novel Writer’s Toolkit” (you can buy off his site) and Jessica Morrell’s “Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction” are two excellent resources I recommend for every writer’s collection. If anyone reading this blog has additional suggestions, please leave them in the comment section. I am sure we would all appreciate it.
So, after all of this, what is a good way to spot these two hazards? William Faulkner is said to have advised writers to kill their “darlings,” those little bits of glitter a writer thinks are simply marvelous. To the reader lacking that maternal attitude, they are at best distracting, at worst a reason to stop reading. I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death. Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there.
Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. — Samuel Johnson
Good luck, and happy writing!
The only advice my first agent gave me on the first book we were going to market, was to simplify the plot. It was very complex and he used the example of The Hunt For Red October, at it’s core, being a very simple story. A simple story told well is much better than a complex story.
The emotional link to the characters is what makes suspense. We have to care about the fates of the characters or we won’t care about the story.
Excellent post. I know I have trouble with characterization, and I’m working through a course to learn how to create better characters that readers can relate to. Do you have any suggestions for learning characterization once you’re able to spot the problem? I’m planning to order “The Novel Writer’s Toolkit” – does that book address the issue of characterization at all?
Actually Bob has an excellent template for creating great characters in The Toolkit. I have a blog I will be posting this month on characterization based off a lot of his teachings. And thanks for taking the time to comment. That really helps me hone in on subjects you guys want to hear more about…that and the compliments are always a bright spot in my day. 😀
I haven’t read Bob’s second book yet. I’m behind. But I’ve been told, that if it doesn’t advance the plot, cut it out for my feedback in Venom. Is that right? Anything to help me reach my word count goal of 90 K thereabouts. This does help me out lots. 🙂
This one hooked me (Yeah, I know!) right from the title… Great work!
Just grabbed the Hooked ebook, will get Bob’s book next!