Saturday, March 07, 2009

Keep it simple; dig deep

Another writing question today - Jo said:

When you advise would-be writers to 'dig deep', what do you mean?

'Keep it simple; dig deep' is a direct quote from an editor – and they’re always good people to take advice from! But apart from that, this is an approach to writing fiction – but particularly - romances that really resonates with me. I’ve always loved, both as a reader and as a writer, the sort of story that totally engages my emotions, tugs – no, more than tugs – yanks on my heartstrings and twists them into knots. It’s why I’m not a great thriller reader or lover of disaster movies – unless the characters n the story get me involved with them a big way.

So when I advise writers to keep it simple dig deep – particularly that ‘dig deep’ point - I really going back to the tried and tested, often quote, Kate Walker’s most important question – WHY?

The important point about a romance is that readers read them for the developing relationship. They want to know what is happening between the hero and the heroine, what is keeping them apart and how they will overcome that and get together so that they can go into their happy ever after ending having convinced each other – and hopefully the readers - that this relationship has a chance of being one of those wonderful love stories that really does last ‘till death do us part’ and afterwards.

And that sort of love is not based on shallow or trivial things. It’s probably the deepest emotions possible. So to create a great love story you need to create one where the obstacles/problems that come between your hero and heroine – the thing that is loosely called ‘conflict’ are ones that matter, ones that really would keep them apart, ones that are worth possibly losing the love of your life/your soul mate over.

Now you can put in, say, a war situation where the hero and heroine are on opposite sides, or you can separate them physically or have other members of their families scheming to keep them apart, but none of these matter anything like as much as what is going on inside their heads and their hearts. In other words, it’s the internal conflict that matters, and the deeper that internal conflict the better. Because that means that each character has more to overcome and their character growth and development will be far greater and so, inevitably, the happy ending will seem far sweeter when it happens. We’re not talking about dramatic events or shocking melodrama. Too many complicated events, too many story events twists and turns will distract your reader, confuse, stop them concentrating on the emotional development of the story. If anything, my experience is that these tend to distance the reader from your characters rather than bringing them close. And bringing them close is what you want to do.

So you keep coming back to that question WHY? Why does your heroine not trust this man? You can say it’s because she’s been hurt before – but to tar every single male with the same brush just because one guy betrayed you isn’t really enough. So what is it about this man that makes her feel she can’t trust him either? What does he do, say – how does he behave to convince her that he’s going to do it too? Why does she believe that? What are her deepest fears? Her deepest convictions about this man? And what makes her think like that? Why is she made to feel this way?

One of the most useful things you can do is to keep asking your characters ‘Why are you doing this?’ or ‘How do you feel right now?’ and when they ‘answer’ – ask ‘Why?’ and again when they respond – ‘why?’ Imagine if you did this is real life, when there was a problem between you and your partner - if you asked why they would probably start of with some throwaway answer - ‘I’m cross’ – ‘I’m fed up’ – but probe deeper, keep asking that why and (as well as probably getting pretty infuriated with the questions) eventually they will give up the real, deepest reason for the way they are behaving. Human beings are not very good at admitting – even to themselves - the deepest motivations they have. We often cover our tracks by making trivial excuses, rather than admit to some of those deep, often dark emotions like jealousy, a sense of inferiority, a belief that we are unlovable etc.

Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) has a great exercise in his workbook. One is to look at what your character most wants in all the world and then consider what is the opposite of that – the thing that would most oppose it. How could you create a situation where your character wanted both of those things simultaneously? What inner conflict would that set up?

When we are writing romance you need to keep the focus on that emotional story, the emotional development, the emotional changes your characters go through right from the start and so leading into a believable ending. (I am not a big fan of those sudden con version/redemption endings. I believe that you need to see your characters change as they go through the story and not spring a sudden ‘but I love you’ ending on the reader. Wouldn’t convince me in real life so why should it in a story?) So you need to write about the things that matter most to those characters, the most individual, most personal, most intimate motivations they have. Because the more personal something is , the more you can believe that this might not matter to anyone else in quite this way, but it sure as hell matters to this hero/heroine, then the more involved with your characters your reader will become and the more involved they are, the more they will enjoy the story, and the more they enjoy it the more they will remember it – and you the author afterwards.

To quote two great romance writers -
Think of the emotion a scene needs – and double it – Emma Darcy

Don’t spare the agony – Michelle Reid.


Lacey Devlin said...

Hi Kate!

Thanks so much for this post. I love having my heart strings yanked but I fear my own work has never had such an effect. I'm currently working on a piece and asking "why" of my characters was only getting what would be their trivial excuses! I make excuses for my own characters.... Now I can look past it to the bigger problems.

Thanks again.

rayannelutenerblog said...

What an excellent and thought inspiring post!
Exactly what I needed at this point when I need to come up with new story ideas.
Thank you so much.

PS. I find these points so useful I have shamelessly linked to this post on my own blog. I know. Hussy.

Debs said...

Great advice, thanks.

Anonymous said...

carolc said ..

Hi Kate,

Thanks for these fantastic posts you're doing answering questions. The way you explain things always makes so much sense and is extremely helpful.

Glad you had a great time in Fishguard. I'd love to do the course again myself one day.


Sue aka MsCreativity said...

I, too, enjoy referring back to your Q&A posts and the 12-point Guide.

Since the Leicester Workshop ('07) I've recognised my 'problem' areas. I always struggle to up the conflict and of course without these areas I now realise there is no story!
Thank goodness Gray doesn't allow me to get away with this anymore.

It's always good to be reminded by posts such as this. Thanks!

Julie Cohen said...

Yes, and the reminder is always needed! I could do with asking WHY for my current main character, too.


Shirley Wells said...

What another great post, Kate. I shall have to link to you again. :o)

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Oh, this is lovely! Donna Alward referenced your blog post on the AskAnAuthor loop yesterday, and I'm just now catching up...very good, very TRUE material.


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