Last week, I talked about all the wonderful learning gems I picked up at the Vermont College of Fine Arts during my first semester.
But it’s hard to include everything in one post. Here is more, and this time I’d like to get more specific. I usually don’t blog all that much about the mechanics of writing and story building. I talk more about the process, the courage, the inspiration, less about the tools and the how-to’s. But the concepts I want to talk about today — desire, truth and change — they might sound technical, but really they are so big. They make the story.
The following lessons apply to writing pretty much anything, from picture books (with some tweaks, perhaps), to short stories, to, well, my favorite, YA novels, of course.
We all want things. That’s what makes life interesting. Fiction, too. Fuel your character’s journey with desire.
What does your character want? It sounds obvious. But looking back, I know I didn’t used to think enough about it. Now, before I write my scenes, I really hone in on the protagonist’s desire. If I am unclear on what it is, I pre-write, have my character speak to me for a couple of hundred words, or throw a few of my people together and let them have a conversation.
It’s good to be aware of both what the character wants throughout the entire story and what the character wants in the scene/chapter you’re working on. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Not wanting something/dreading something can work well too. But, as I always tell my kids, when you focus on what you want, instead of what you don’t want, the results will be so much better!
There is another level of desire for the writer to be aware of: what your character thinks he or she wants. vs. what your character really wants. And why. That’s something else to know.
Finally, a good story is populated with people, all sorts of wonderful, terrible, flawed people, right? The more desires those people have, the more alive and real they will feel to both the writer and the reader. So, get to know your people’s secret (or not so secret) wishes. Then place them into your scenes, sit back and watch, as their desires clash and propel your story forward.
I credit one of my workshop advisors from January, the wise and generous Kathi Appelt, with opening my eyes up to the idea of a character’s “truest truth.” Every character — and I think maybe every person — should have at least one, a big one. Take a moment now to think: what is one thing you believe in with your entire being? What is one truth you could stake your life on?
And then do the same for your characters. Maybe he believes in the power of music. Maybe his belief is that life is not fair. Maybe her belief is that her physical beauty will carry her through. Or that her mom is perfect. Or that dragons exist, or that there is no God, or that global warming will one day kill us all, or that one day, she will sprout wings, that one day she will fly. (That last one’s from Castle of Concrete, my debut novel 🙂 ). Do you see? The belief can be wise or misguided, positive or negative. But characters are much more interesting when they believe in something.
Also keep in mind, belief is subject to change. When the character’s innermost belief is shattered by the challenges and events that have been pushing your story forward all along, it turns into an unforgettable moment that transforms your protagonist, and ideally, your reader.
Of course your main character must change in the course of the novel. An interesting main character will also affect change on others around him. But keep change in mind on scene and chapter level as well, as you write, plot or revise your story. In every single scene something should happen. Which is another way of saying, in every single scene, a change must occur. Or it’s not a scene at all. Just as with desires, changes come in two varieties: internal and external. Here is what I do for every scene, especially when revising (not always when rough drafting, where I explore more):
I write down an Outer Turning Point and an Inner Turning Point for each chapter. Sometimes, by the way, there are more than one. An outer turning point deals with external action, (anything from witnessing a car accident, to leaving the room, to finding treasure), while an inner turning point shows a shift in thought or feeling: for example a change from hope to despair, or a shift in awareness (he will never like me; I am wasting my time). Being aware of these changes helps prevent the characters from constantly see-sawing, or flip-flopping, in their feelings and decisions. (As in: now she likes him, now she doesn’t, now she likes him again). Sure, sometimes a character might change his mind, but it happens in a series of inner and outer turning points building on each other, building into an arc, a progression of change and growth that feels true.
Also, sometimes when I am revising, I’ll copy the first sentence of my scene, and the last, and look at them together. This is a very telling exercise. If you do this, you’ll know right away if there was change or growth in your chapter. You will know whether it was cohesive, or if it falls flat.
So, that’s it. Desire, truth and change.
If your scene loses momentum, or your story does, go back to those three pillars.
These are good to keep in mind for real life as well.
In human experience, desire, truth and change mean everything — or at least they should. As we live out our lives, let’s never be lulled by the daily routine, by the sameness of days and weeks and years, into forgetting our own truths and desires, and change — good change — will take care of itself!
I hope this helps! Any questions?