I'm reflecting on chapter 3 of Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass, "The Inner Journey." Rather than regurgitate what you've already read, I've picked two ideas that were especially relevant and challenging to me. Feel free to add other ideas from the chapter. Haven't read the chapter? Don't let that stop you from joining in. We love hearing your voices.
Think of your favorite story of all time.
Now, what has kept that story more like a memory than fiction?
Was it the conflict? The meet-you-for-lunch reality of the characters? The action? The snappy dialogue? The lyrical prose?
According to Donald Maass, it's the emotional landscape of the story. And the starting place is opening ourselves up to our own emotional landscapes. We've been talking about the power of writing personally, honestly, transparently--except when, as Latayne pointed out on Monday, writing from reality can be dangerous. But typically, the more willing we are to mine our emotional lives, the more compelling our characters will be.
By way of example, let me give you peek into one of the most traumatic periods of my life. If you're thinking high drama, prepare to be disappointed.
Just as my first novel was gaining the interest of an agent and a publisher, I started having weird physical symptoms. My hands and my feet felt as though someone was driving spikes through them. Doctors were clueless.
To minimize the pain, I discovered two coping mechanisms: 1) Stay in the most neutral position possible. This meant lying on the floor, usually with my dog, watching the 2000 election returns. Remember hanging chads? 2) Apply ice to the back of the neck.
Since this went on for 15 months, I had lots of time to till my emotional landscape. I grieved my loss of ability--every movement intensified the pain. I wallowed in self-pity. I ranted at doctors (in my
imagination only) who dismissed me. I wondered if God could be trusted. Was He even there? Could I die soon, please? I dug for courage to make it to 9 am, 10 am, 11 am...I felt betrayed by the church. I'd become invisible. My friends disappeared. I clung to the thinnest threads of hope. I asked my husband to hide my sleeping pills. My life devolved into doctor's visits, who I realized weren't going to solve my medical mystery within the allotted 1-hour period and bone-crushing loneliness. Until...until...trust leached from my bones and I settled in to live well with pain.
Writing a novel about lying on the floor for fifteen months would be b-o-r-i-n-g, boring! But writing a story with the knowledge of this kind of upheaval was like opening a Swiss Bank Account of emotional currency I could loan to my characters. And connect with my readers.
Since Jesus promised us tribulation (grievous trial; trouble or suffering) in this world, I assume you also have a Swiss Bank Account of emotional currency. In that case, what Maass has to say should redeem, at least in part, what you've been through:
One of the joys of writing 21st century fiction is the permission it gives you to feel deeply and wide. Your task is to tune yourself to the frequency where honest emotions come through with a crackle and hiss. p. 22A huge part of our humanity is our inner conflict. Not inner turmoil (I want to do this, but I do that.) Maass describes inner conflict this way:
The strongest inner conflicts plague characters with two desires that are mutually exclusive. When believably built, inner conflict leads to unsettling actions...Inner conflict is a dilemma. It's a debate that can't be won, an unavoidable fork in a road that leads to two equally feared or desired destinations. It's a predicament that's powerfully human. p. 23
Strong characters, the kind that become as real to you as those you dearly love, have strong inner conflict. In structuring your story, you will want to deliberately inflict your main character (at least) with a very strong inner conflict.
I recently read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Here's the book description from Amazon.com:
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
The description hints at the inner conflict. The girl cannot get close to people she cares about, but she desperately needs and wants to get close to those people. All while I read the story, I ached to draw Victoria into the circle of love that is my family. She. Is. A. Character. In. A. Novel. And still I ached. Hope would present itself and be snatched away. She would sabotage every opportunity at intimacy in huge ways. I fell to sleep thinking about her. I woke up reaching for my Kindle to see how she had fared in the night. The resolution is brilliant, hopeful yet guarded. It's honest. I will never forget her.
I wonder what emotional currency the author brought to this story. How did she gain insight into someone with reactive detachment disorder? That is for her to know and for us to enjoy.
What struck you about Maass's ideas dealing with the inner journey? What stands in the way of creating a rich emotional landscape for your story? Can you cite examples of stories that successfully connect emotionally? When structuring your story, do you deliberately juxtapose your character's desires? Will you? Anything else from the chapter you care to discuss?