Get Out to Lean In Takeaways from CWC 2016

Chicago Writers Conference

This week we turned our blog over to CWC2016 attendee Ellen T. McKnight, a fiction writer published in literary journals and currently at work on a novel. She teaches writing workshops and hosts a blog about writing called Connecting through Story. Follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.

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Like many of you, I’d rather be closeted away with my writing than do just about anything else. But the kind of inner life that drives good writing isn’t always compatible with the extroversion required of writers these days. The idea of self-promotion makes us wince. We need help to understand how the inner and outer aspects of writing fit together. This year’s Chicago Writers Conference was a great reminder of the importance of putting ourselves out there.

For more of my guest post on the CWC blog, please click here.



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Stakes and Sympathy Tension Series Part 3

Not only do stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot in fiction, they forge a connection with the reader as well. Stakes invest the action with tension. The key to generating stakes is to make your protagonists’ wants and needs BIG. Wants that stir us; needs that change lives.

In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder talks about the importance of harnessing primal forces in the crafting of personality. By primal forces, he means basic drives: survival, hunger, sex, fear of death, protection of loved ones. I’d add others, such as the urge to find love, concern for others, self-realization (a sense of purpose or self worth), and the need to grow up.

Stakes can shift over the course of a novel. Characters can be deluded. Needs can go unrecognized. Less important wants can give way to more compelling needs. Look at George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He thinks he wants to get away and have his own life, but ends up trapped, taking care of others. What he really needs is to reclaim his own value and let others take care of him.

A move in the direction of more significant stakes is a move in the direction of greater tension.

A further refinement is that stakes for the protagonist and the reader aren’t exactly the same. This difference is subtle, but essential to the goal of generating tension in the reader. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.) Readers pick up on stakes in at least three different ways:

1. Identification: I want what you want.

Identification tends to involve wants we all share, such as the basic drives listed above. For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we desperately want the characters to find love and beauty despite the ugliness and hate of their capture. We’d want that for ourselves. We identify with their feelings.

2. Empathy: I want you to have what you want.

Empathy invites readers to care about wants outside their own experience. It usually centers on more sympathetic characters, the strength of whose wanting can stir a sense of stakes in us all. I like the funny example of the Disney movie Ratatouille for this. I couldn’t understand how I was going to care about a rat learning to cook, but once I saw the movie, I did. In serious novels, this approach can take readers to places they might otherwise never understand. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind. We empathize with the character. (See The Love of a Writer.)

3. Direct stakes: I want this for myself.

Some plot situations throw out stakes directly to readers, such as saving a child in danger. Even if the character doesn’t fully want it, we do! The solving of a mystery can present its own stakes. That’s probably why mysteries can get away with such grouchy detectives. Another example of direct stakes is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with its deliberately unsympathetic and unreliable main characters. The mystery there is on the level of character. We care about the solution.

Stakes for the reader are an interaction of character and plot, sometimes more of one or the other. If the stakes are empathy-based, then it’s relatively more important that we care about the protagonist and want him or her to succeed. If the wants or needs are so universal that we can’t help but share them, then our sympathy can be weaker. A gauge to determine whether the stakes are working is the tension produced. How tense the stakes make us feel gives us a way to assess their strength.

In all these situations, the physical sensation of tension can act as the writer’s divining rod. Is your character impelled by a big enough want or need? Consider tension. Is your character’s resistance or fear strong enough to put that goal in doubt? Consider tension. Does your character need to be more sympathetic or, conversely, more unreliable? Consider tension. Are the stakes investing the action with real meaning? Consider tension.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Tension Begins with Character. Next month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.



The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.