The Girl on The Train & Two Critical Elements of ALL Great Stories
There are two essential components all great writers possess and unfortunately these are highly unnatural abilities. Most of us have to hone and refine and strengthen these skills because they are so counter to human nature. First, most humans run from conflict. Great writers go straight for it. Secondly, most humans really don’t pay attention to or explore the motivations of others. Great writers master what makes other people tick.
We humans are hardwired to avoid conflict and that makes sense. Wandering around in the brush gathering berries, fruits and small game left one exposed and vulnerable. For our ancient ancestors? Every day the goal of “not dying” was preeminent among the Things To Do. But the problem is this. Just because we now have high-rises, smart cars and Facebook, it doesn’t mean that our biology has caught up.
It’s why modern humans are struggling with so many neuroses and stress illnesses. We are wearing out our fight or flight mechanisms because the body cannot tell the difference between outrunning an angry bear or taking on a Facebook troll.
Rejection very literally meant death for thousands of years. We had to have the safety of a tribe to keep us fed and safe. Isolation was a death sentence.
So fast-forward to modern times and there is always this every-present voice to keep the peace. To not make waves. Problem is? Fiction is the wave-making business.
Understanding Other Humans
Most people operate from a perspective that is highly self-centered. I am not meaning this to be disparaging, but we do. If someone won’t talk to us or avoids us, we often assume that person is mad at us. This goes back to that fear of rejection thing. Another human avoiding us is less often about them and more about us.
What did I do? Did I say something wrong? Why doesn’t she like me?
It is a rare person who automatically thinks, “Wow, I bet that person is very shy.”
Whenever we encounter those who are naturally gifted authors, I believe it has less to do with the ability to write, to string words and lovely prose together. It is more that those folks naturally dive headfirst into conflict without hesitation. They also are acutely aware of the goals, conflicts and motivations of others.
The rest of us? We simply have to train these.
How Conflict is Birthed from Understanding Weakness
I do a lot of editing and very often it’s the work of new writers. As I read pages I often can see this is a person who likely made As in English (only college was not training us to write commercial fiction).
On the surface there is nothing wrong…except that everything is surface. Too often new writers are far too nice. They hesitate to exact authentic suffering and instead settle for a shill…the bad situation.
Bad situations don’t say anything about who we are. It highlights nothing about our failings as people, about our flaws. Anyone can be attacked by a band of blood-thirsty marauders, get caught in a hurricane, singed by a dragon or attacked in an alley. This is all external and says absolutely nothing about people, about who these characters are. Because it’s surface. The bad situation alone is not enough.
I love this meme because this literally says it all. When we are new, however, we are very uncomfortable with bad decisions. Truly bad decisions. Often our first novels are more of a holodeck for us to play out how our world should have turned out, starring the person we always wanted to be. Dialogue often sounds like eavesdropping on a child playing alone.
I call this Literary Barbie Syndrome (or Literary G.I. Joe Syndrome for the guys 😉 ).
Literally, nothing is happening. Oh characters might bitch at each other and come across as needing a Xanax or three. The girls might want to fall in love or go to the dance. The guys race off for another space battle Pew! Pew! But deep down? Nothing.
And much of this has to do with our fear of acknowledging weakness, because we worry it might be seen as our weakness. It is still a self-protection mechanism for what others might think of us should they read our book.
We must learn to separate from that. Writers create all kinds of characters who are NOT us and if others don’t get that? Meh. Let them wonder.
Great writers understand people other than themselves, then use the power of empathy to crawl into that world and crack it open to the light.
Case In Point
Right now I am reading The Girl on the Train. Talk about conflict and human weakness!
The protagonist is a raging alcoholic. She is bitter and angry and self-destructive. She drinks until she blacks out and that creates problems…BIG problems. Then she lies to cover up her failures. She is conflicted—the person she is trying to be (sober) versus the person she ends up being despite her best efforts (drunk).
She has very sympathetic reasons for why she is that way and this is what terrifies the reader. Because the way it is written, we all take a breath and know that under the right circumstances, that could be us. Strip enough of us away, lay our world in ruins and we, too might be that drunk asleep on a park bench. Good fiction draws us in because it promises to show us what terrifies us.
Rachels’ flaws shine a light on the dark places of US, the places we fear to go, the places we fear we could go.
But this is also why we root for her. We want her to win. We want her to be sober because if there is hope for her, there is hope for us.
Rachel isn’t some caricature caught up in a bad event (a woman’s disappearance), she is a horribly flawed and broken character whose redemption is being offered through this bad event (core story problem). Thus every setback she encounters is inextricably tied to her path from perdition to salvation.
Yet, what if the author Paula Hawkins worried that people might believe she was a closet drunk if she wrote a character like Rachel? That the vomiting on the stairs and waking up in urine-soaked clothes was some fictionalized version of her real life? And maybe some people do wonder that but thing is? Ms. Hawkins clearly didn’t care.
She wrote for maximum conflict and created raw and riveting characters who are profoundly flawed, thus immensely vulnerable which makes for a story that will last generations.
I understand that not all fiction is gritty like Girl on a Train, but this works for other genres as well. Helen Fielding’s romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. Michael Connelly’s crime fiction The Lincoln Lawyer. Some other books that do this well? Big, Little Lies and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (women’s fiction). Rebecca Well’s The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. All of these authors excel at conflict and exploring human weakness/strength and what motivates us all. To read their books is to look deeply inward and see ourselves and that is the heart of great fiction.
What are your thoughts? Do you have to go back and remind yourself to be harder on your characters? I certainly do. Do you struggle making them flawed? Do you worry that the flaws you put in your work might reflect on you? Hey, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t freak me out. What are some works of fiction that really drew you in and why? Do you now laugh at your First
Holodeck Novel? Man, mine cracks me up. What was I thinking? Hey, we all start somewhere 😀 .
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, 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).
Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter TONIGHT! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks!
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
FRIDAY October 14th Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS
You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?
***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.
FRIDAY October 21st Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.
If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.
In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.
The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.
Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.
SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors
Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.
The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.
The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.
This class is going to cover:
- How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
- What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
- How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
- What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
- How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
- How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
- How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
- How can a blog help you sell more books?
- How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.
Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.