Kristen Lamb

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Talk is Cheap—For Great Fiction Drive the Demons to the Surface

The Road
The Road

On Monday, we talked about a major way writers can ramp up the tension in their novels. How do we do this? We externalize (or, in Corbett’s words “exteriorize”). Stuff in a character’s head has no outward consequences, thus making it impossible to generate dramatic tension.

The Road—Talk is Cheap

Many writers try to skirt externalization, because they “say” they want to write “literary works.” Yet, even in literary fiction, externalization is critical. Why?

Because 99 times out of a 100, when someone tells me their writing is “literary” this is actually code for “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit.” Hey, I’ve been guilty, too. Don’t feel badly. If we aren’t making mistakes we aren’t doing anything interesting.

Thinking does not literature make. Many writers don’t like externalizing because, as humans, we have been conditioned to shy away from conflict at all costs. Great fiction writers must do the exact opposite and generate as much (outward and inward) conflict as possible. Even “literary” writers don’t get a pass.

I have two Post-It Notes on my computer. One reads GO FOR THE GUTS and the other is THROW A ROCK IN ITThe second the characters get a breather? RUIN IT.

In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Award-Winning book The Road, we see a similar situation to Would You Rather? (discussed Monday). It’s one thing to say we will never give up our humanity, that we will never resort to the animal state…but what about when that is tested? How long can The Man go without food? How long can he watch his son go without food before he compromises?

These tough existential questions are what drive the tension of the book because the big questions are placed into context so they can be tested—a regular guy and his boy in a world that has gone horribly wrong. Yes, there is some internalization, but the outside characters and circumstances force that existential question out of the character’s mind and into reality.

Make Them Commit 

It is not enough for The Man to think about how society has gone to hell in a hand basket and he isn’t like them (those who’ve resorted to cannibalism to survive). He and The Boy have to be placed in situations that externally test this conviction. How will we (the reader) know the characters have succeeded? They will make it to the ocean without eating other humans or die trying.


An Exercise:

Think about whatever it is that your character is battling, then externalize this. If the person is a drug addict, don’t go on and on with backstory of cocaine binges or drag us into backstory about his abusive father. Show his buddies stopping by in a limo full of hot babes with high-dollar cocaine to offer. Make him CHOOSE and MAKE HIM SQUIRM. Give him a problem, stakes and a real opportunity to fail and face BIG CONSEQUENCES.


Give him a story problem with REAL stakes. Make him scream!

If your character is shy, force her to speak in public. If your character is a sex addict, have his coworkers demand he join them at a strip club for a bachelor party. If your character is a control freak (Marlin in Finding Nemo) pair him with an ally that will make him nearly break from stress (like Dori, another fish with short-term memory issues).

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some of the movies or books you like? Why do you like them? How did they torture their characters?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

47 thoughts on “Talk is Cheap—For Great Fiction Drive the Demons to the Surface”

  1. JoAnne PotterJoAnne Potter

    You knocked it out of the park with “the big questions are placed into context so they can be tested”. Don’t we all want to write about the big questions? But the questions are big because by them we govern life decisions. So show these decisions…and with it, you get the whole package: conflict, opposition, changed lives, everything.

    Also, Kristin, you were right about WANA. I’m not only having a blast but impressed with the feedback. You guys rock.

  2. MonaKarelMonaKarel

    ****Because 99 times out of a 100, when someone tells me their writing is “literary” this is actually code for “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit.”****
    Thanks for a great morning laugh…all too true and yes, pages and pages of mindless drivel have come out of theses fingers. I’ve noticed in the books I really like reading, “stuff” happens all the time. All. The. Time. No down time, no lounging around in contemplation. As much as i might like the relaxation of writing massive numbers of words about not much of anything, since Seinfeld is no longer dominant, stories about nothing really don’t do much for anyone

  3. hopecookhopecook

    Great post Kristin! I love torturing my characters, and I love interrupting a scene where characters are either arguing or sharing a tender moment by throwing some sort of mayhem at them out of nowhere. It’s extremely useful for getting out of scenes 🙂

  4. Stephanie NoelStephanie Noel

    “The second the characters get a breather? RUIN IT” Games of Thrones and everything Joss Whedon produces follow that pattern. And it works. I need to throw more problems at my MC. She’s a bit flat right now, lacks personality. Thank you for the great post.

  5. Deb ScarfoDeb Scarfo

    I agree with Stephanie…”The second the characters get a breather? RUIN IT,” is the only way to let a character grow and emerge. Awesome advice Kristin!
    I almost feel sorry for my characters sometimes! They never catch a break! Guess I am doing it right then. 🙂

  6. Liv RancourtLiv Rancourt

    I love how you take complex concepts and break them down so they’re manageable. Thanks for the post!

  7. corajramoscorajramos

    Okay, you’ve been peeking into my novel, haven’t you? It is time to throw a rock into it and I have to have a big rock–I love that whole concept of the sticky notes. Great idea.

  8. kenlizzikenlizzi

    OK, you’ve convinced me. Enough mind vomit from my protagonist. He’s had enough of a breather. Time for…surprise monster attack! I will think of the monster as a Kristen, in your honor.

  9. Shea FordShea Ford

    The Grapes of Wrath! Those poor people were totally hit with obstacle after obstacle. Just when you thought they were in a safe place and could finally get ahead, BOOM! Hit by The Man, Mother Nature, other scrablers, etc. It kept me reading.

    Finally bought your book We Are Not Alone, but had to “confess” to hubby because I accidentally used the wrong account to pay for it. lol At least I picked a time when he was not stressed so he was okay with it. 😀

  10. Sonia G MedeirosSonia G Medeiros

    The Road is not my favorite book (because of the message, not the writing)…and now you’ve gone and made me reconsider. Curse you! LOL

    I’ve started keeping the “torture your characters” in mind whenever I write. Whenever they have a moment to breath, I try to screw things up for them somehow. The scary thing is how much fun that is. Makes me kinda worry about myself. 😀

  11. Tommie LynTommie Lyn

    Skeeter, I thought you might enjoy this post by Kristen Lamb. She usually has some interesting things to say about writing. I took her blogging class last summer, and she helped me with my bio:

    Tommie Lyn grew up in the Appalachian foothills of north Georgia immersed in firelight whispers. She listened spellbound as older generations spun chilling tales of local events, including stories of the supernatural. And sometimes, they even used the word “murder.”

    She carries on the tradition of her kinfolk, the storytelling magic guaranteed to rob hours of sleep and make the night come alive. Only the brave dare step into her world to listen. And sometimes, the voices still whisper…

    And she came up with my tagline…”Mountains in my heart, sand in my shoes.” She amazes me.


  12. markneumarkneu

    Lester Dent, the mega-prolific pulp writer said “Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it.” I agree with this so much that my WIP is called “Valda Goes Through Hel.” (There is only one “l” because it is the Norse spelling, btw.) Talk is fine but until your character has to back it up with hard choices it is just an intellectual exercise. – not drama.

  13. S.C. ChalmersS.C. Chalmers

    As ever, great advice – thank you! 🙂 Now, to go poke my characters and figure out just what will make them squirm even more.

  14. Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites)Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites)

    Thanks, Kristen, I just Tweeted your torture your characters line. What a good point. Sometimes I do too much internalizing with my characters, and this was a good reminder not to do that.

  15. Daniel Escurel OccenoDaniel Escurel Occeno

    I will assume Externalization of the Character is like Bruce Wayne needing a masked. Is he the “nutbag” for protecting his identity or are the criminals? Peter Parker giving up his given responsibilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider is another example? The External conflict?

  16. Daniel Escurel OccenoDaniel Escurel Occeno

    Or the hero develops paranoia that the government has targeted him because the president is jealous of his popularity? Should he continue in struggling to have a source of income?

  17. lauraleighjohnsonlauraleighjohnson

    Great article. It made me realize I’m being too kind to my characters. Sure they are only 12, but certainly I can find a way to throw more rocks at them.

    I could tell that something was missing, not anymore. Thank you!

  18. ontyrepassagesontyrepassages

    Ha ha ha, “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit.” I loved that. I’ve also, unfortunately, read it in excess and beat it off with a stick when I find it creeping into my writing. It’s my desire to write a story and not an ode to my ego.

  19. mummylovestowritemummylovestowrite

    Reading this – “‘when someone tells me their writing is “literary” this is actually code for “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit,” is exactly why I shy away from reading self-described ‘literary’ fiction. Bleh.

    I also have a Post it note on my desk for inspiration (I will now add your ideas too). “The saddest summary of life contains three descriptions: could have, might have and should have” – Unknown. It reminds me if I don’t finish this novel and give a writing career a serious try, I will always wish I could-a, would-a, should-a.

    Another fantastic post Kristen, thank you.

  20. jwtroemnerjwtroemner

    I’ve got to say, I’m more than a little bit in love with this series on externalization. What I want to know is: where do you come up with all this stuff? I’d be out of ideas in a month if I blogged as much as you do, and you’re still bringing up fantastic stuff!

  21. Kalpana MisraKalpana Misra

    I’m delighted to have found your blog! Valuable insights there. I write short stories and am working on a novel. Distracting myself with blogging.
    I shy away from action in my character’s lives – I don’t want them to suffer and I know that you’re right when you say – torture your characters. It’s so boring for a reader to be only in the mind of the character – things have to happen. That’s my big challenge.

  22. KimKim

    The absolute worst thing for me as a reader is when there is the anticipation of conflict, and then…nothing happens! The tension just fizzles out. I’ve physically thrown books across the room in frustration. I won’t name names, but a couple were by very famous writers.

  23. Bonnie McCuneBonnie McCune

    Thanks for the presentation today at CRW. I got a lot of ideas and tips. Was exhausted by the end.

  24. Jamie BurtonJamie Burton

    The Road is my favorite book. I loved the choices the Dad had to make. The reality of a world gone wronge was shown on every page. As a writer (not literary) it is a great book to study because nothing is held back.

  25. David EricksonDavid Erickson

    ‘pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit’. I hate that word, but it sure says a mouthful, pun intended. I shy away from books that are considered literary for that one reason. While I think it’s great to explore the protagonist’s internal conflict, tell me a great story. If all factors are darn good I’ll put up with only so much mind-puke before my eyes glaze and I start skimming.

    As to conflict – yes! But too much is just too much. I really enjoy Clive Cussler, but there reaches a point where it gets almost comical. The last two of his novels I was close to begging for it to end with a 100 or more pages to go. The story and the great characters is what held me to the end.

    Personally, I like a little breather between conflict as it’s more realistic and you get a chance to know the characters better. As long as most of it isn’t carried on in the protagonist’s head. Reading should be fun, not unending tension. We all get enough of that in our every day lives.

  26. www.loricorsentino.comwww.loricorsentino.com

    Great post as always, Kristen! I really enjoyed your talk yesterday at the Heart of Denver Romance Writers/Colorado Romance Writers workshop. I really enjoyed myself and learned heaps. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge! Tomorrow will be posting my first NEW blog, and already have two more in the works for later in the week. Thank you for the inspiration and ideas!

  27. clirvinclirvin

    Thanks for another great article. Quickly becoming one of my favorite writing blogs.

  28. Dennis LangleyDennis Langley

    Recently took a class on writing “Literary” Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I am starting to shun anything with the “L” word. 😉

    As for conflict, I could not agree more. Every scene should leave the main characters in greater jeopardy until the final scene and climax.

  29. Sheila CallahamSheila Callaham

    Great post, as always, Kristen! I’m going to have to start tweeting the now infamous vomit quote and refer authors back to you!

  30. J. N. JohnsonJ. N. Johnson

    I’ve always struggled with the term ‘literary’ What does that mean, exactly?!? Now I know: Self-indulgent mind-vomit! 🙂 love it! And thanks for giving my brain-matter much to think about. You have become my #1 writing resource. Thanks Kristen. You rock! now…as soon as I can figure out how… to… tweet this….ahhh..I’m such a rookie!

    • lythyalythya

      Hmm, isn’t it just that literary fiction focuses more on character than an outward plot and the outward plot exists to externalize the inner conflict. To me The Old Man and the Sea is a particularly literary piece 😛

  31. lythyalythya

    I remember a book series that caught me when I was little and that moved me a lot. The lead was thrown into so much shit and the wonder of the book that she just kept going. Sometimes I just sat and screamed “why don’t you walk away?!” but her attachment to the people in need (people who treated her like crap) was too great.
    Oh, I need to reread that one …

  32. MorgynMorgyn

    Throw a rock in it — doesn’t get more pithy than that or more meaningful!

  33. robsparkes2013robsparkes2013

    Great post, and I agree that there has to be problems for things to be interesting.

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