Deep POV: Using Personal Vows To Increase Story Tension
Ah personal vows. I’m big on those and one core vow I made several years ago was to seek out the best of the best. Locate talent, nurture it, then share it with you guys. I’m passionate about mastery. Mastery however requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is we cannot do all things. We need to let go. Knowing that, I made it my personal mission (and my company W.A.N.A. International’s mission) to recruit those who were masters of THEIR realms.
My motto? If I am the smartest person in the room, I’ve done something horribly wrong.
Many of you have already had the pleasure of taking a class with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds. If not? She has a whole list of classes coming up (listed below). Today, however, another master is here to share her gifts with us today.
Lisa Hall-Wilson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor to work with. She taught me Facebook 😀 . But she’s also an unbelievable craft teacher so I’m handing today’s post over to her for an amazing lesson about the power of vows….
Want to raise the stakes for your character through internal conflict? Deep POV is a great technique to bring out this tension because it allows the reader deep into the character’s psyche and allows for an intense examination of their motivations and morals.
Drawing a line in the sand, giving your character a personal vow, can create the kind of inner turmoil that drives a character to outrageous page-turning decisions and mistakes. Vows also give insight into backstory and help define character voice.
I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. That was a game changer scene, it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Gandalf went to the ultimate extreme to make sure that Balrog did not pursue the rest of the Fellowship.
Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Great!
Now go shove them off the cliff.
*Note: Not every character does or should have a personal vow. It adds a layer of complexity that requires skill with characterization to pull off well because a vow should influence a character’s motivations and morals, but it’s rarely their main story goal.*
Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again:
I will never…
Everyone has a line in the sand, a secret vow. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable line they will not cross. Most people, at some point, make several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious.
Some people make these vows consciously and others are completely unaware of these personal vows. We are more committed to some vows than others. Some vows are made to prevent a past hurt or harm from being repeated (I’ll never date a drug lord again), and some vows are harmful and need to go (I will never weigh over 100 pounds).
Pushed Beyond All Limits
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novel Blue Moon uses a really great personal vow as a story element. Anita Blake has several rules or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but she is forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off.
As the novel continues, Blake faces escalating circumstances. Some of her compromises haunt her, change her (and not always for the better) and she has to figure out how to live with that. Blake ends up back-tracking and…well, go read it. I couldn’t put it down.
But the reverse can also work.
I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he saw as the greater good. Butler’s character creatively, and rather gruesomely, pushes Foxx to the point where he has to dig in and say here and no farther.
By the end of the movie, Foxx sees the problem with cutting certain corners and draws a line in the sand: I will never make a deal with a murderer ever again.
Vows are hard to pull off in simple plots. These lines in the sand are often in addition to a character’s main goal in the story. For instance, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind vows: “As God is my witness, I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again…” Scarlett’s conscious goal for the story though is to be with Ashley Wilkes. *shakes head – never understood that* That’s what she schemes for, dreams about, etc.
Her unconscious goal is to have the love of a man who can make her feel secure (ahh – see the built-in tension there when what she’s pursuing won’t get her what she really wants). She isn’t even aware of this internal conflict until the end of the book when Ashley finally becomes available and she realizes it’s actually Rhett she wants. Rhett Butler is the one who makes her feel secure (she talks about how he comforts her in the night after a bad dream, etc), but now Rhett’s gone.
However, Scarlett never went hungry again. Her preoccupation with money caused a lot of problems for her, because she confused money with security. It’s easy to see how that vow added tension and conflict for her character.
The Writer’s Dilemma
The problem with this story element is that a reader might lose respect if a character breaks ALL of their personal vows. For a character to remain worth cheering for, if a line in the sand has been defined, at some point the character has to stand their ground no matter what it costs them.
There may be gray areas of their vow they compromise on, there may be some backtracking. They may make a vow part way through the story as Scarlett does. Maybe the character needs to give up a harmful or unrealistic vow. Regardless, these vows strongly influence the character’s motivations and desires heading into the big main conflict. If they don’t, I’d question whether they need to be there.
Personal vows are one way to add compelling conflict, but it requires an intensely personal POV.
I’m teaching a two-week intensive on Method Acting For Writers: Learn How To Write Deep POV starting August 1st. This is just one appendix lesson from that class. I’m offering a WANA-only price for this course.
What are some of your favorite literary vows or lines in the sand?
I’m also teaching a class on Facebook, so you can learn what to post so readers respond on July 22 and a new class on September 9 on creating strong female characters. Check out those classes!
THANK YOU LISA!
Talk to us! We love hearing from you. Well, I do, namely because I am lonely and y’all are seriously interesting. What vows have you made? Good or bad or dumb?
I’ve done all of the above, and have particularly excelled in bad and dumb vows (but I’m much better now 🙂 ). Seriously, I think one of my greatest strengths is I am loyal, but sometimes being loyal is just being epically stupid when you’re loyal to the wrong people, ideas, goals etc.
For instance, I vowed I wouldn’t give up on my first novel. Took 5 years to see I actually didn’t even HAVE a novel so that was a seriously stupid vow. Remember what I always tell you guys, Persistence looks a lot like stupid. Sometimes it IS hard to tell.
And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!
For the month of JULY, 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).
NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!
Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.
Cait Reynolds was my answer.
She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.