Tag Archives: emotions

Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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If Dogs Could Write

Last night, I was making tuna salad for my work lunch. For a treat, I usually allow my dogs to lick the can the fish comes from, and I also give them the water the fish is packed in. Typically one dog commandeers the can–considered to be the most special and important aspect of this treat, and his brother has to make do with lapping up the juice and then circling anxiously until he’s finally allowed his chance at the by-now polished container.

The rule in my house is that no furry individual gets a people-food treat until after the people in the house have finished dining and left the table. Moreover, dogs aren’t allowed in the kitchen while I’m preparing supper. It’s a safety issue. No one handling hot pans or kitchen knives needs to trip over a fur-faced moocher.

However, last night, the rules went out the window. When I opened the can of yellowfin packed in olive oil, something I don’t usually have, the dogs swarmed my kitchen. They would not leave and only reluctantly moved out of the way each time I needed access to the refrigerator. The fish was on the island, and they remained as close to the island as they could get. They were focused, determined, goal-oriented, motivated, and passionate about getting that tuna can. (Incidentally, no, I did not give anyone the drained olive oil. A substitute was found.)

So what does my culinary incident have to do with writing fiction? Let’s consider 10 things a writer can learn from dogs.

  1.  Dogs understand goals. They may be hardwired to instinctively beg for any food in your hand, but they know what they want without any ambivalence or apology. A story protagonist should be focused on a clear, easy-to-understand goal.
  2. Dogs are strongly motivated to achieve their objective. Call it instinct if you wish, but they aren’t giving up until they succeed. Both the protagonist and antagonist should be powerfully motivated and determined.
  3. Dogs have a plan. If just showing up doesn’t get the morsel, then how about bumping Master’s leg? If that doesn’t work, what about giving Master THE LOOK? If that doesn’t work, what about whining? If that doesn’t work, any cute tricks to try? The dance? The leap? The back flip? The balancing on the haunches while waving forepaws? If tricks don’t work, send in Brother who has the angelic face and succeeds best in begging. If that doesn’t work, what about the supreme risk of tripping Master?
  4. Dogs understand that sneaky antagonists generate conflict. Ever try persuading a begging dog to leave the premises? The command is ignored. A louder order achieves a temporary flattening of the ears but the dog doesn’t move. A shout will drive the dog out of the way, but the dog immediately circles and takes up a new position even more in the way, preferably one that requires Master to step over the dog.
  5. Dogs feel a gamut of emotions. The divine temptation of tuna fragrance hitting the nostrils. The watering of the mouth. The desire. The anticipation and hope. The crash of disappointment. The leap of new hope. Bigger crash of disappointment. The stubborn intensity of trying again. The agony of waiting. That sense of Master wavering. Master is picking up the can. Master is walking toward the utility room. Master is calling. The joy, the ecstasy, the delight of success! Ah, yes, dogs know the rollercoaster of emotions, whether they are spinning in a circle to earn a piece of popcorn or growling at the Fed-Ex guy. And so should your protagonist. Stories aren’t merely reports of character actions. Through viewpoint, your protagonist should feel a variety of emotional reactions–positive and negative–to whatever is happening in the story.
  6. Dogs believe in what works. Repetition doesn’t faze them. If begging a certain way achieves a laugh and cave-in of rules from Master, then the dog will repeat what was successful. Find writing principles that work and use them again and again. Your characters in each story will be different. The story situation or problem your characters are dealing with are different. But your approach as a writer–the setting up of the story situation, the introduction of a goal-focused protagonist, the clarity of the story’s goal, the determination of the antagonist, and a climatic showdown at the end that resolves the issue–should be the same. Trust writing principles and use them every time.
  7. Dogs keep things simple. Every time they run outside, it’s their favorite thing to do. Every time they run inside, it’s their favorite thing to do. They live in the moment. They forgive easily. They lavish love with generous hearts. All they ask is Master filling their food bowl on time, Master filling their water bowl when it’s dry, Master remembering there is a cookie at lunch, a cookie after supper, and a cookie at bedtime, and Master scratching tummies and tickling ears occasionally. So should your plot be kept simple. What does your protagonist want? Who wants to stop your protagonist? How will your protagonist overcome opposition to win? Any time you find yourself wound into an excessively complicated plot that has you baffled, simplify it. Clear, direct, easy to understand, exciting.
  8. Dogs know there’s a time to play ball. Or Frisbee. Or fetch. If your scene is stuck, take a walk. Let the breeze ruffle your hair and blow the cobwebs from your mind. Take some deep breaths and increase the oxygen flow to your brain. For twenty minutes or so don’t gnaw at the problem that has you stymied. Just let your thoughts float freely. Enjoy the pretty sky. Stretch your legs. Take a moment to watch Canada geese putter in the park. And while your dog barks at them, snap a photo. Pause to greet a young mother out strolling with her children. Connect with the real world. You and your dog have shared a pleasant, simple experience outdoors. When you come inside, chances are you’ll feel refreshed and that Gordian knot of a plot problem will be something you can solve.
  9. Dogs have fun. Optimistic and generally upbeat, they are always ready for adventure. Even better, they believe–with a few exceptions, such as bath-time–that anything and everything will be enjoyable. Writing, too, should be fun. It’s challenging and hard work, but it should never be dreary drudgery. If it is and if you dread sitting down at your keyboard, something is wrong.
  10. Dogs keep their minds open. New experiences. New days. New people to love. New toys. New treats. Writers need to be receptive to what’s new and believe that almost anything can become fodder for a story, or inspiration for a character or setting.

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Know Your Heart

When I was a fledgling writer, struggling to learn the writing craft, I came across the following advice:

Write what you know.

Like many sage pronouncements from the oracle of wisdom, this one is invaluable and true, but it’s subject to misinterpretation.

I failed to understand it for many years, although I tried hard at first to follow it. Then I realized that I couldn’t experience the events or visit the settings of the fantastical or historical stories I wanted to write about. I decided this saying wasn’t for me.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only thing we can truly know is what lies inside our hearts. What we feel. What we care about. What motivates us. What we yearn for.

Those are the things we know and understand. Those are the things we can write about with conviction and honesty … if we’re willing to explore them and share them.

Everything else–the vista across the dusty plains of Sparta, or the battering rush of wind while sky-diving–can be researched through library and online sources, walking around a location, and interviewing experts and survivors.

Therefore, let’s amend the sage piece of writing advice to

Write about what you know emotionally.

Now, does this mean you should only spill your personal experiences? Not at all!

Real life is filled with trivialities and little incidents that don’t necessarily add up to much. Real life isn’t designed to be an escalating drama in quite the same way as writers shape a story. Let us not hobble ourselves by such limitations.

Instead, we can utilize a technique I call Emotional Transference. (Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

It’s a simple, three-step process of analysis combined with memory. Firstly, you determine the precise and appropriate emotion needed for any given situation in your plot. Secondly, you draw on your memory of having experienced that particular emotion. Thirdly, you transfer those feelings into your character.

For example, let’s use the situation of a man who has just discovered his wife has been unfaithful to him. We begin by analyzing this character, whom I’ll call John.

How does he feel about his wife prior to this discovery? Does he love her? How much? Has he been happy with her? How long have they been married? Do they have children? Did he adore her from their first meeting, or did it take him time to fall in love?

What type of man is John? Is he hot-tempered, impetuous, impulsive? Or does he rely on reason, keep his cool, and stay laid-back?

Do you see how the answers to all these questions will have an impact on his reaction to the news?

Let’s say that he first met her at a party, where he was sitting shyly in a corner and she was the darling center of attention. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He was drawn to her immediately, so attracted that he left his corner and found the nerve to speak to her. For him, she has been the love of his life. And although it took him a long time and much effort to court her and win her, he has always adored her.

They’ve been married five years and have a three-year-old daughter. John–content with his job and home–has had no inkling that the woman he would do anything for is dissatisfied with her life … or with him. He’s been blind to everything, ignoring the signals she’s given him.

But now, he’s discovered the truth. What will he feel?

A single, overwhelming emotion at first … then a rush of several.

Let’s choose some for him:

Shock
Denial
Grief
Denial
Anger
Misery

Of course, we could simply sum these feelings up in a single word: heartbreak.

We could write, John was heartbroken.

How dull! Readers skim over such statements, with no vicarious sharing of the character’s experience. They won’t care about John, and will shrug off his plight with no more than a twinge of sympathy.

That is not how you enthrall readers.

Instead, we must show John’s heartbreak by describing and showing his emotions. Doing so will make John come alive.

Remember step two of this process? The remembrance of your emotions?

Let’s go back to our list. The first emotion on it is shock.

Sift through your memories to a time and place where you experienced shock.

Not mere surprise dropped on you suddenly, but shock.

Shut your eyes, and conjure up that event. Did you disbelieve what you were being told or witnessing? Did you need the news repeated to you several times? And inside, was your stomach hollow? Did your legs feel weak? Were you dizzy? Did you start sweating? Were you cold? Did you have to sit down?

Did you start crying at some point? Or did you stay locked up, numb and frozen?

Draw on those sensations, and transfer them to John, whose happy world has just shattered.

Will he be boring then? Not at all. Give him emotions that bring him to life and fit his story situation, and readers will remember when they, too, have undergone broken trust and betrayal. Their own awakened emotions will mingle with John’s, and they will care. They will feel that John is vivid and interesting, and they will want to see what John does next.

That is how you write the fiction that you know.

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