The Risky Middle Realm of Character

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by Larry Brooks on April 6, 2013

Avoid at all costs.

Writing great characters is tough stuff.  In my view, the most challenging part of great storytelling.  You can get all the other complicated stuff exactly right – concept, structure, theme, scenes – and your story can still just sit there, a bowl of perfectly prepared oatmeal, without a lot going for it.

Nobody leaves the house in search of oatmeal.

This might be one of those new ways to look at it that unlocks your inner bestseller self.

Think of your characters – your major ones, at least – as vehicles.

For what?  For a vicarious experience.

Your hero isn’t a tour guide as much as she/he is a surrogate with a mirror — when the reader looks in, they see themselves.

Through them your reader will be transported into the character’s story world, face their problems and chase their goals, elude their pursuers and demons, drink the wine of their victory or feel the sting of defeat.

It’s your job to make the experience memorable, visceral, and dripping with vivid emotional awareness.

This is as linear and inevitable as math… if the character isn’t feeling all that much, neither will the reader.  That’s what those other things – concept, structure, theme and scenes – are there for.  To optimize the vicarious reading experience.

That’s a 404 subtlety in a 101 writing workshop.  Get there quickly.  Cause your reader to disappear into the character, because what the character is going through is just so… deliciously… something.

It doesn’t have to be pretty.  Sometimes the best vicarious experience is one you’d never want to actually live through.

Think of your character as occupying a spot on a continuum.  

A continuum is a finite linear scale of opposite extremes at either end, gradually dissolving toward each other.  One end is utterly dark, the other blindingly light.  The middle… dawn or dusk.   Shades of gray.

Or… one end believes passionately, the other is full of atheists   The middle offers agnostics and those who are spiritual but not religious.

Here’s one we can all relate to: the continuum of happiness.  At one end there is suicide, the other, pure bliss.  The middle… probably a lot like reality.  Be careful with that one, we get enough reality when we’re not reading.

Another: the continuum of wealth, however you wish to measure it.   One end is dirt poor, the other, filthy stinking rich.  Microsoft kind of rich.

Just examples.  I’m confident you now fully understand, if you didn’t already (after my post on vision I take nothing for granted) the notion of a continuum.

So now let’s apply this tool to our story building.

In this context, we need to define the continuum of character experience in terms of emotion… and then be mindful of where your protagonist resides on that continuum at any given moment in the story.

The idea is to move them around.

Since you are the creator (your chance to play god) of this fictional being, you get to not only mold your hero and main players any way you want (including in your own image)… you can put them through anything you want.

You can send them to heaven, or you can put them through utter hell.  In great stories, both are often in play at various stages.

At one end the character experiences darkness: fear, hopelessness, anxiety, threat, danger, regret… all the things we hope to avoid in life… and love to read about.  Not because we’re sadistic, actually it’s quite the opposite: like the terror of a killer roller coaster, somehow we feel more alive for having lived through it.

At the other end of this continuum the character experiences bliss: ecstasy,  hope, redemption, laughter, joy, love, peace, passion, fulfillment, fame, fortune… absolute and pure upside.

Here’s the ticket.  The trick.

This is the guideline/mantra to paste onto your screen as you decide what your character will experience in the novel:

Avoid The Middle.

The middle of that continuum, that is.

In Part 1, place your hero toward one end of the continuum.  Make us feel one of those two extremes.

And then, at the First Plot Point… change it.  Either make it worse… or give us a glimmer of hope.  Hope that must be pursued in the face of opposition.  Hope that demands a stiff price, with stakes that demand and are worthy of heroism in the face of that risk.

Even in the most mundane and vanilla of existences (which, when you think about it, and are honest about it, leans into the dark side of this continuum), there awaits the possibility of darkness or bliss, often behind closed doors.

Take us behind those doors.

This, in a nutshell, is what your story is about: the hero’s pursuit of resolution.  Your job is to make that ride as vicarious as possible… by being the pilot of the continuum itself.

Allow your reader to experience the continuum, a state of extreme being, through your hero.

In terms of the writing process… this becomes your target.  The blinders come off and a world of storytelling possibilities will manifest before you.

Avoid the middle.  Give your hero something extreme to live through and, thus, feel.

It’s known as the hero’s journey… and when you look at it closely, it aligns with this very principle: the hero’s journey is the movement from one end of the continuum to the other.

And you are the cruise director.  Give them their money’s worth.

*****

If you’re intrigued by this whole notion of  story physics (vicarious experience being one of six primary categories of story physics), please consider my new book (out in June), “Story Physics” (Writers Digest Books).

{ 27 comments }

Matt Duray April 7, 2013 at 1:41 am

Brilliant post. I like how you keep touching on Story Physics lately – in this case, making your reader vicariously experience the story through your hero. Looking forward to the book.

I’m once again reminded of Robert McKee. He says that in any given scene, the value should be reversed. So, if the hero begins the scene with hope, he should end it in despair. Perhaps not at the very ends of the continuum with every scene, but enough of a reversal to know that the hero isn’t ending the scene the way he started it – which McKee claims would be a non-existent scene because nothing has changed. Do you agree?

Using hope/despair again, let’s say the hero enters the First Plot Point scene in a hopeful way. He’s going to propose to his girlfriend. By the end, the FPP has turned that hope to despair because she says she doesn’t love him anymore, so he shifts from positive to negative on the hope continuum.

At the start of the next scene he’s still in despair – because that’s how the previous scene ended – but then has an idea: remind her why she loved him in the first place. A glimmer of hope, ending the scene the opposite way to how it started. Not as dramatic as the previous scene but there has still been a reversal, albeit a minor one, while avoiding the middle (he’s also responding to the FPP).

The next scene starts where the previous scene left off, with the hero hopeful to win her back. He goes to her mother’s house where she’s staying, with a mix CD of songs that will remind her of all the good times they had. He hands it to her when she opens the door… and she says she’s been seeing someone else for the last month. Another reversal on the continuum from hope to despair, ending the scene on an opposite charge to how he started it. And so on.

Is this right? Should the hero – and the reader – experiences these movements on the continuum in every scene?

(I liked your little aside about the post on Vision, by the way).

Larry April 7, 2013 at 7:21 am

@Matt — glad you liked. It hit me on the recumbant bike at the gym, then poured out at midnight.

I am a big McKee fan (his teaching, that is), but I think on this one it’s a dangerous absolute to say “every scene.” I think an AWARENESS of this is indeed valuable in every scene, every moment, but I’d rather frame it as “movement” in every scene, the character is in “motion” from end side of the continuum to the other. Sequences are more absolute in this regard, entering one way, coming out the back-end reversed.

McKee’s absolute (every scene) in this regard is especially problematic in Part 2, where the driving context is “response/reaction” (to the new situation launched at the FPP). Hard to go to extremes of elation, for example, when your world has just been unhinged. Rather, the context of Part 2 is one of darkness (in certain stories), in Part 3 it becomes one of hope, and in Part 4 the hero EARNS the ending state (either bliss, or complete devastation, your call). Again, author awareness is the key, and avoiding the middle in EVERY scene is a pretty good truism. Everything has it’s variable nature where truisms are concerned. We get to make these calls… it’s why some books and some authors are better than others. We live and die by our creative story decisions. The only constants are the driving principles, which will never fail us.

Even when we don’t know what the words mean. “-” L.

Kerry Boytzun April 7, 2013 at 8:49 am

I think what Larry is responding to Matt about (good discussion) is to have an awareness of “Story Sense”.

Matt, your scene of the guy trying to win back his girlfriend only to find out she had already left the relationship with another guy–boy does that ever remind me of a lot of my past relationships. I don’t know if they had already found another guy, but they had made a decision they no longer loved me. Myself I find it idiotic to try and win back anyone in the realm of love, in real life, as those decisions aren’t logical. But Stories are a whole new ball game.

Reminds me of a song Bill Withers sung: “Aint No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)”
The love of his life left him, and he’s only sitting at home and says: ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone …

I’ve been there (she dumped me) and I’m sure a ton of people have. The logical thing would be to move on, but where’s the fun in that–in Story? In a story we want to see if the guy can win her back–or get even, but for sure: we want to see and feel the guy “process” the emotional pain and try to make sense of it. My wife adores the romantic comedy genre but I don’t think I could write one. It’s not where I reside, at least not right now.

I’m more like…

“Nobody leaves the house in search of oatmeal”. Then I thought of the three bears looking for who ate the last @!#@ box of oatmeal and the grocery store is closed. There’s the culprit. The three big fuzzballs find Goldilocks–passed out, with her face in the bowl sitting on the porch swing. She’s a mess, in tatters, still drunk from last night’s bender. The bears, upset but curious, give her a prod and she snorts and looks up. Goldi gives them a scowl and promptly fires off a projectile vomit of breakfast–all over them. “Shit, if it ain’t the three F–n bears. You boys look kind of small…say, y’all got anything to drink in this dump?”

Yeah baby…now I’m getting interested! WAIT. (song) “Stop, what’s that sound, everybody take a look around.” It’s sirens…comin’ for Goldilocks. And the number of bears may be soon less than three. Bigger things to worry about than oatmeal. Like that bag of old gold coins Goldi whips out of her bra and slaps down before the bears. “There’s more of that sunshine boys, but we better make me vanish–now. I hear my Pappy coming. He’ll be wanting this back. And he thinks bears are good. For target practice.”

cheers,

Kerry

Sara Davies April 7, 2013 at 10:00 am

There’s a difference between emotional intensity and emotional direction, right?

I’m wondering how this relates to “character arc” over the course of the whole story, and how that change relates to any changes that might occur from the beginning to the end of a scene. What I’ve read elsewhere about scene construction is that every scene should have an expository mission – gives necessary information to move the story forward, poses a question and answers it. Some writers seem to believe a hero has to change over the course of the story, and others say not. How important is it for a character to change?

The degree of change seems to be an issue independent of the creation of an emotional experience that is intense and vivid enough to give the reader the experience of being there.

Rahnia Devire April 7, 2013 at 10:05 am

Larry, THANKS : ) This nails it.

All the other bitty-its of character-building advice just jump into place and make a dancing whole, when you say this.

That’s what characters are: AVATARS. Totally. At last, I grok.

As reader, that’s what I look for. But as writer? I’ve been treating them as paper dolls to dress up and play with. No wonder they seemed flat. No more.

(and, at the risk of idolising you – but I think your ego can take it – I totally love the way you keep pulling these meta-ah-ha’s out of the depths of your hat. I get something from most of the writing teachers I read, but generally, they give juicy little isolated puzzle pieces, while giving the impression that even they don’t know quite for sure why they’re needed, only that they are. You? You are the one who says “right, people, here’s the picture on the box. Now at least you know what you’re trying to build.”)

And, your book is so already sold…

(but please don’t stop)

Zoe April 7, 2013 at 10:29 am

Agree completely with Rahnia. For me this post puts the whole vicarious aspect of character into perspective, with a clear guide on what to aim for. One of the most fun things about writing any story is making your characters do the things you would if you could.

PS if you start a fan club Rahnia I’m so there with you haha.

Robert Jones April 7, 2013 at 10:47 am

Larry–First of all, thank you for this post. This has been something that has been jumping out at me to get right for several months. Mostly, I see writers who have little else in mind but an emotional ride. Hollywood is a primary source for blasting us with more and more visual stimulus while leaving everything that ties us to character and plot at the door. But movies are a visual medium, and they cater to whatever sells. I don’t like it from a story POV, but the fact that they are taking their own extremes is not something that is lost on me.

Then, back at the beginning of the year, I’m reading an interview that Russell Blake did with indy splash, Colleen Hoover. She didn’t have a lot to say about the mechanics of writing, or even want to write a blurb to sell her work, but when it came to emotion, she said she knows that when something is happening to her characters that pisses her off, she knows she is on to something.

I believe it was Kerry who said something very similar here. This is a very key note in writing. A make it or break sort of deal when writers tap into it…even some who stumble through the other aspects of craft. But for the novelist, I think this takes on a whole different dimensionality. Stephen King said one thing in his writing book that has stuck with me. Writing is a sort of telepathy. We beam our images, experience, and emotions directly into the skulls of our victims…er, audience.

For a lot of people, those extreme situations–or vicarious experience–might be better than the real thing, certainly safer…in terms of those extreme cases. I think that could apply to anything that smells of danger, or risk.

I have a memory of going to an amusement park as a kid with my parents. There was a tent that showed a film of a virtual roller coaster. The kind that makes you feel dizzy because the camera is sitting right on the nose of the roller coaster. The interesting thing is that there was a real roller coaster not fifty feet from the tent, yet the virtual tent was always pretty packed. There were no chairs. Obviously by standing you were apt to feel more dizzy as you watched.

But the question that came to mind was, why not just hop on the real thing? Not the best person at dealing with heights, that was an easy answer for me. Inside the tent, people could keep their feet on the ground and still experience what it might feel like…vicariously.

To me, it always comes back to fear. And yet, not matter how extreme the extremes, curiosity wants to be satisfied. And I think this post is a fine example, a real eye opener, that the greater the extreme, the greater the curiosity.

On a side note, if amusement parks put a virtual tent next to all their extreme rides, it would be an interesting experiment to see which pulled in more cash, the real deal, or the virtual experience.

Curtis April 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Larry. Thanks for this.

My take away….1. Characters are people too. 2. When I stop writing “about” those characters over there on the screen, engage them as people and risk living inside their skin, Uncle Buck will have his voice and Sara Jane will have hers. The monotone story that has the feel of an episodic report is gone. The story is alive with the flesh and blood risk of loss and promise of discovery that life as a quest offers. Again, thanks for this.

Ron Estrada April 8, 2013 at 2:56 am

Another great post, Larry. I see now why my characters seem flat in some scenes. It’s natural for me–probably most of us–to bring our characters back to “reality.” But readers don’t want reality. If they did, they wouldn’t read. I love the visual on extremes. I’ll try to stay clear of the middle.

Robert Jones April 8, 2013 at 5:54 am

@Sara–I’m thinking that within the parameters of character change, lessons learned, there would also be the catagory of a character proving themselves to be right when struggling against great numbers who believes they are wrong.

That would still create change and/or learning in that it confirms a belief. Faith in anything, either a religion, or a pursuit, is stil having faith in an idea, pushing past the doubts, the odds, no matter how great.

Methinks as creators we do this every day. Maybe not the same as a character going up against say, the laws, or mindsets of something that hasn’t been done, or invented. But if we take our own experiences and failures and multiply that, we at least have an idea of what a character might be feeling against such odds.

There’s a quote from a writer whose name I can’t think of at the moment, it goes something like, “Writing is easy, all we have to do is sit down and open a vein.” We bleed ourselve out, cutting through to pure emotional energy, find it, then lose it to the sudden obstacles we encounter along the path of perfecting ideas into words.

Yeah, that’s huge lesson to share with the world, not to mention a helluva triumph when you reach the point of success, proof it hasn’t been for nothing.

Monica T. Rodriguez April 8, 2013 at 8:07 am

Another great post that offers revelation and that “meta ah-ha” someone mentioned above. Very helpful for thinking about my characters. Now, off to write something!

MikeR April 8, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Personally, I love to read a book that gives me the chance to participate, vicariously, in “a different place and time.” But, =authentically= “in that different place and time.” The novel becomes a way for me to suspend disbelief and to spend time there. It gives me the opportunity to mind-meld with people who are living in an environment that is most-decidedly not “ordinary” to me … but to see it as they do.

To pull that off successfully, the author must immerse him/herself into what that alternate reality =really= was.

That, to me, is the profound power of a novel. Maybe the experience that they live through is NOT “something that you would never want to live through.” But it is something that is so utterly different from YOUR daily life, and yet, so authentic, that you are happily swept-up in the differences. A novel can transport you to the “Little House on the Prairie,” or to “Where the Red Fern Grows,” or even leave you “Gone With the Wind.”

The vicarious experience must be compelling. But it can certainly be one that I would, vicariously, enjoy living through. Let it be one that I can learn from. Such is the power of the novel. “Take me there!”

Robert Jones April 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm

@MikeR–I agree with you. In fact, doing a period novel currently myself, I even empathize with you. The differences throughout history can be very interesting, yet the similarities when it comes to people and behaviorisms are almost more frightening. At least to me.

I spent a lot of time being fascinated by the period before I ever decided to write about it. And as Larry has said here, and in SE, places can play a big role in our stories, taking on character themselves. I always think about the earlier Woody Allen films when I hear that, how he made NYC the canvass he painted his stories on.

Then I get to my story, told in first person, but with multiple POVs, and everything has to be filtered through their eyes and perceptions. It’s a great way to make it all seem very normal to the characters, more personal, but then I have to be careful to show each scene–especially those with historical differences–as matters if fact, or the characters feelings about it, not my own. Plus, if it isn’t relevant to the character’s story, I can’t take a walk down the street and explain the times. My reality would be blown, suspension of disbelief lost.

Not sure what POV you are writing your story in, but if you can stick to the discipline of first person, the limitations can ground the characters, as well as pulling off that authentic participation you mentioned by having the audience get inside the characters and feel what they are feeling…even if it is (or especially if it is) very different from what we believe to be correct behavior toward such issues today.

MikeR April 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Robert,

The POV of my story is that of a (black) bathroom attendant in a railroad hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the late 1950′s. But, having said that, “the usual race-card” material simply does not apply – and this is definitely one of the things that I want my reader to =feel=. The reality is much more complex and ambiguous than you might initially think.

The city (of course) exists, and the railroad station still does; the hotel (probably) does not – and yet, it might. I haven’t decided whether or not to use a real setting. My character is a WW2 veteran (the war ended not 20 years ago), although I haven’t yet decided what – if anything – to do with that.

The really interesting thing, for me, is that … if you want to set your story in a historically-authentic time and place, and especially in a place where travelers from all over the country came-and-went every day, you don’t have free rein. Most of the things that I’ve come up with so far cause me to – to borrow an obscure computer-programmer term – “flip the ‘BOZO’ bit” on the idea. I must reach well beyond the obvious.

Whatever the character does, and, whatever confronts the character (as brought about by the antagonist character) must “ring true.” Yet, the characters themselves, in part, engineered to cause them to “ring.” The story situation is, of course, completely artificial. Yet, it must feel genuine, and it must bring the reader to time that they have never experienced.

I guess I’m fortunate in that this -is- “my place,” albeit very slightly before my time. I look forward, myself, to the visit. I only hope that I can treat my characters honestly.

Robert Jones April 8, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Mike,

Sounds like the train station would be the perfect setting as far as people coming and going of different backgrounds. I knew someone, an older fellow, who told me he spent some time on the road going from place to place without a vehicle of his own. He mentioned slipping into train stations…or maybe he broke in…late at night when no one was around to get warm and sleep on benches. Train stations attracted more travelers than the trains were apt to carry. So yes, all walks of life might be encountered there.

Not sure how round the clock your station might be, but I imagine that never stopped the weary.

I think that period pieces probably demand the most research. And you never know where those key little snippets might be found. On line, books, video, I spent time at a local library that had a lot of interrelated material. For example, a good train station story from anywhere, washroom attendant facts. Sometimes if something good was within a decade, I fudged and used it as long as it fit the criteria.

But in the end, all you can do is your best and keep it as true as possible. Because I really believe the stranger than fiction rule wills out. No matter how interesting, great, or terrible the things you discover may seem, there are always worse case scenarios that went unrecorded. I think this is probably even more true for the 50s because the people of that era kept everything to themselves.

Might be a very good hook for you…”A time of secrets kept.” And the worst of them never never passed the lips of their perpetrator…or their victims.

Sort of gives you curiosity appeal, plus breathing room in terms of total historical accuracy. No one ever is. Not even the history books.

MikeR April 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Chattanooga had two stations – Union and Terminal. The former was razed; the second still stands as the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” At the time of my story, it was a very active station.

The characters in my story are by no means vagabonds. Their hotel is quite tony; the clientèle sophisticated. They consider their roles to be honorable professions for people of their social station, as in fact they were. They live there. Comfortably, in their terms. But also: they have nowhere else to go.

Chattanooga’s public library has an entire floor devoted to local and regional history. There are specialist research libraries devoted to black history, and to railroad history. I know these sources. I may need to draw upon them for ideas about exactly what =does= take place and why. Choosing who the victim-character (a white man) is, why he’s coming to town, and who among the regulars (or is it the owners) had the knowledge and motive to commit or to authorize the crime and to see to it that it won’t even make the papers. Choosing also exactly what it is about all this that drives the protagonist through his story arc, given that he has everything to lose, as do his associates.

Robert Jones April 8, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Mike, sounds like you’ve got it down, and tons of material that is just totally cool and ripe for picking. I already want to see where you take it all.

Sara Davies April 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Reading a book about memory as a phenomenon (how it works, how people have thought about memory throughout history)….One of the ingredients to successful memorization appears to be the habit of attaching visual imagery to what you want to remember. For example, I had to remember the website address to a place that includes “nela.webex”…so I pictured Jody Foster in the movie “Nell” and a spider web encasing a Fedex truck. Now, I’ll probably remember the address long after the information is needed. I was thinking about that and wondering how important visual imagery is to making the content of a book memorable.

What are the ingredients of “vicariousness”? If I remember little or nothing about the words – or even what happens in a story – I tend to remember how a book made me feel. The feeling it leaves me with at the end determines whether I like it or don’t like it – makes a bigger impact than other parts or characteristics.

Off hand, I can remember the endings of only two books I read years ago – I could tell you what happened in those closing scenes – which I can’t do for most books that I’ve read, including books read far more recently. Both of those novels had strong and unusual imagery in their closing scenes. As I think about it…what I remember most from everything I’ve read is some kind of strong sensory data. Even if I remember little else – such as what the book was about, the story line, the characters…I still remember the imagery…even from books I read as a little kid.

I’m guessing a combination of sensory associations (not long, just vivid) with strong emotions would make any story more compelling. If not visual descriptions, then ones that incorporate the other senses in a way that is evocative of related emotions.

Robert Jones April 9, 2013 at 2:01 pm

I’m a fan of the old writing statement of showing your story. With visual media becoming larger all the time, huge visual effects in films, topping out with 3D, this is what we are competing with in terms of the average audience member.

I don’t prescribe to the doom and gloom of printed words becoming passé. All the electronic reading devices being sold sort of put that notion to rest…or at least gave it new life. For anyone who has worked for any part of the entertainment industry, the doom of everything from book, to movies, to graphic novels has had its Nostradamus impersonators calling the show in its final act–pretty much across the entire entertainment game board–since around the mid-90s, directly following the Internet.

But I digress.

Part of what makes a vowel unique is that we get inside of the character’s heads. But one must also think in terms of film. There is alway some type of business going on in a given scene. If not, it’s more of the character daydreaming. “Immediate Scene” is something happening before the eyes of the reader, on screen and live. So whatever the live action is that’s going on, needs to be touched on in some visual way on every page.

Think of actors. Your characters are the actors in your movie, and you are the director. Therefore, long bursts of though will be broken up by action, visuals, the character doing whatever they are doing in their reality. Dialogue is going to be broken up by action as well, gestures, movement. Again, thinking about a story in terms of actors, they aren’t just close up shots of heads talking the entire time.

So movies and novels find more and more in common. And watching a good a tor, or director, or director of photography, there is always something…some type of physical acting happening in the the character’s physical universe.

People do remember better with a strong visual. And the more visually you can write in terms of creating memorable visuals on the page, showing characterization through an action whenever possible, the better the chance someone will think it should become a movie…and want to buy the rights.

It doesn’t mean you have to overly describe every page, or even every scene. But there’s a balance, and the camera isn’t always stationary. Even thoughts can be written with a certain amount of visual context.

MikeR April 9, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Robert,

I’m looking forward to it myself .. whatever it turns out to be. I love to time-travel.

spinx April 10, 2013 at 7:52 am

Thanks, Larry.

You just helped me a great, great deal right here.

And still, things are getting really hard now. Yes, my writing is there, it comes, and I don´t have trouble bringing down 2000 words a day, for days – but then – oh, the MOTIVATION——————–>> and pop goes my heart.

But I know it is just another subconcious (do you write it like that??) part that keeps telling me I am on the wrong path.

Any tips?

(and even if not, you saved my ass times and times before…..been a while for me….cheers ;T)

Larry Brooks April 10, 2013 at 8:36 am

@Spinx — good to hear from you. Ah, motivation… we all deal with it. Let’s start with at given: you love writing. You love to tell stories. So, when someone we love isn’t getting along with us, it usually means WE are doing something wrong. In this case I agree, when we are achieving volume but not loving it, and you suspect it’s that little voice telling you “you are on the wrong path” …. then let’s work on the path itself.

In other words, in this case, don’t just keep writing in the hope you’ll work your way back into the story (major revision later in that case), but rather, just stop, set it aside. Go back to square one and analyze the story at its more structural, conceptual level. Then analyze all six realms of story physics (compelling premise? dramatic tension? how’s your pacing? does the reader empathize — root for — your hero? Is there anything worthy of them rooting? Are you delivering a thrilling/scary/memorable vicarious experience/ Is there anything about your execution that strikes you as a “secret weapon” in terms of voice, technique or freshness?

These are all we have to work with by the way. The secret to getting back on track IS to work with them, and just them (and NOT working on the manuscript itself). Kick it around. Narrate these answers to a carefully selected friend (writer or not) and ask how “compelling” it all sounds, and if not, why not? Play “what if?” games with alternative story beats and creative decisions. Try out new notions and directions.

Also, grab a novel that’s in your wheelhouse, perhaps similar in tone and topic to yours, and lose yourself in it, see how they harness story physics.

Swim in this pond for a while, refresh yourself in it. Not a magic pill, but the best way I know of to get the love back. Hope this helps – L.

Sara Davies April 10, 2013 at 10:10 am

@ spinx

I get stuck when I don’t know where I’m going. That’s why Larry’s brand of macro-analysis is so helpful. What also helps is having more than one project going at the same time. If one of them isn’t working and I need to get some distance, I can still feel productive. I hate being *off* so much that I’ve decided I *have to* do more than one project concurrently so I won’t fall into that intolerable wasteland of emptiness. One of my problems is that I get too close to what I’m working on and can’t be objective about it, and I know I can’t see clearly…and that makes me uneasy, and then I get stalled out. Lack of motivation could be a sign of lack of clarity (can’t get there from here), discouragement (know something is wrong but don’t know what it is; lose confidence), fatigue (general burn out), or getting stuck on a specific, known problem (like when I’ve put my hero into the airport’s mechanical vents and now can’t figure out how to get him back out). Just recently started running because I can’t be in front of a computer screen all day…shutting off the chatter in my head and getting a change of venue helps.

Anyway, I feel your pain. ;)

@ Larry

That is a great response to spinx, which strikes me as one for the archives…. Seems like mastery over the medium means knowing how to solve the problems, even if the solutions are not immediately obvious. Knowing where to look is the whole battle. Like they say…if you lose a quarter in the kitchen but keep looking for it in the dining room, you’re never going to find it.

Robert Jones April 10, 2013 at 10:40 am

Hey spinx–that subconscious voice is really your conscious voice telling you those things. It’s a wall we create…sometimes for safety purposes, other times just bounces off the very limited walls of our reality and says, “This is not possible. Who do you think you’re fooling? You’re going to fail.”

The safety part works as a defense mechanism, reminding us not to get our hopes too high. That way, if we land on our butt, maybe it won’t hurt so much. But mostly, this part of the brain just echoes everything the non-creators are always telling us, or those who maybe had their own aspirations at one time and let then slide because everyone else told them they would fail. Behind everyone who tells us things are hopeless, I don’t care who they are, is one of two things…someone else who closed the box on them so they could never fly, or a fear that your going out on that limb would hurt, or embarrass either yourself, or them. God save us all from well-meant intentions.

The other side of this might be that you are getting too comfy in your habits. This could mean you are closing in on finishing, meaning you’re that much closer to sending your work out to the world and feel nervous about it, or you’re not currently challenging yourself enough. That last part could be a fact (as in you’ve been running for a while on the same level and need to up your game to the next level), or it could be a falsehood (as in things really are getting easier through practice and you feel you should be struggling more).

We fool ourselves all the time with crazy notions that have been thrown into our heads. Like, things have been going too smooth lately, I’m due to get hit with something bad. One of my personal favorites right there. The world will not give you a hand up while doing anything that the majority feels is risky, silly, or a pipe dream. Creative endeavors are always considered pipe dreams by those who believe life was meant to be hard, get a normal job…whatever the hell that means. And since this mentality is usually hurting, often angry, never completely happy, one might wonder why they would advocate such things as normal, much less recommend them. Like alcoholics who hate to drink alone, misery loves company.

Not sure where on any if these things you may find yourself. Maybe nowhere. If you’re doubting the path as being right for you, sometimes a little break might be required. A weekend away, or an activity that will absorb you entirely for a couple if days. Then ask yourself if you love writing, why you got involved with it. If the love is there, tell the other voices to shut up (they won’t for long) and keep on marching forward. Because once you have a little success, all those voices WILL change. The inner voice will confirm you knew what you were talking about all along. And the outer voices will suddenly be proud instead of doubtful. Some might even say they always encouraged you when never an encouraging word did they ever utter. Trust me on this one.

It’s like that quote Larry uses from time to time, no one knows anything. Just know yourself and follow the inner urges. If they’ve been around a good chunk of your life, chances are they will lead you somewhere. Follow your gut and let the rest reverberate off the walls of the box like ghosts from a bygone era.

My two cents worth.

MikeR April 10, 2013 at 2:03 pm

It is interesting to consider my present point-of-view as it inexorably (and, “expectedly, although to-this-newbie surprisingly”) begins to =diverge= from my present company.

My chosen protagonist, yes, WAS “in a bathroom,” and DID “overhear something” and DID (almost…) “witness a murder,” but … he lived (in my home-town) fifty years ago (as I not-quite remember as an infant child).

“He was a negro (don’t flinch at that word… because they did not) washroom attendant.” He lived in =that= world, not ours. He was, really, not-at-all, in the world described by, say,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7335315.stm
… yet governed by the self-same dynamics.

Suddenly, I am tasked with finding a way to construct “a publishable($) story,” but with constructing a story that “rings true” when I have successfully “taken you” to this not-so-distant time.

The essential dynamics of story-telling are the same … and, trust me, Larry, they are a =godsend= to have been presented so clearly! But the =context= of this particular story, of the contract that I have unwittingly made to the present-day reader, is considerably different. “Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2013″ is a world of gigabit-Internet. The “Chattanooga, Tennessee” of my droolingly-unaware youth was … not. Suddenly, I find myself (happily…!) not only challenged by creating a story-line that is compelling, but to create that story-line in a context that is historically believable =and= informative.

“Cowabunga!” Let’s go! ;-)

Jason Waskiewicz April 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

This is the idea I needed. My hero tends to be very quiet and almost secretive. Part of the fun of writing him (yes, I’m finally at that stage) is people who think they’re close to him finding out that they only know small parts about him, and not always the same small parts. This has made him interesting, but a character like that can come across as a bit boring.

But, I’m approaching my first plot point. This post gave me a new scene. He is going to undergo a tremendous setback, but come up with a solution. It occurs to me that he needs a scene in the middle where he is in the depths of despair and shock over the setback. This will also give the reader direct insight into his character: he is resilient and solution oriented, and also, despite his quiet, secretive nature, he cares deeply about people and things.

This post was a big help!

spinx April 12, 2013 at 5:53 am

Ohhhh – I feel so good all of a sudden!

Thank you for the very well formed, well intented and long responses. I read each of them twice!

Larry, you are right. And reading it from someone else makes it all the more obvious. I know that my lack of motivation comes from just what you pointed out. I start a story, write pages, and pages, and just like that (a week into it) I stop. Because somehow, the characters seem fake to me, the story seems boring, and I loose my passion for it. And then the next day, I start a completetly different story, different characters, and the cycle continues.
It seems to me, that often i mistake a loaded situaton I would like to write for a whole story that follows that incident. I need to make (and grasp) that difference between certain actions, and situations that appeal to me – but can´t do much else.
And somehow, that fact alone frustartes me! In my head I see myself as being more developed, more skilled – when I am simply NOT.
Of course things don´t work that way, and I will kick my ass to make it through this stage.

Thank you for answering my questions (all of you! Honestly, it really means a lot ;T)

See ya.

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