A Deeper Core

The degrees of difficulty in writing increase as an author moves from narrating external events to inner thoughts. The rhythms of our musings are not easily captured by a neophyte writer, so if you want to write a serious novel, what are you supposed to do? The first step is creating a prism through which both outer and inner events are funneled.

One guiding dictum in literary fiction is: how can the protagonist overcome his own self? In other words, obstacles are more readily found in external events. But as you move inside the mind, what is the obstacle there? It’s you.

We are all a mass of contradictions. For instance, a person knows she should keep quiet when her in-laws are discussing a sensitive subject, but she blurts out inappropriate advice anyway. A father would be ashamed if his daughter ever found out he is attracted to her best friend. You can find such lapses in anyone. The question is: how do you make them serve the purposes of the novel?

A less experienced novelist is advised to track only those inner conflicts that can be resolved during the course of the story. You create loops you can finish, in other words. If a character, Meg, is extremely shy, for example, you can plot out a series of incidents in which that trait is most embarrassingly put on display. You can work through both how Meg feels while the incident is taking place and what she says to herself afterward. Depending on your purposes, she can either conquer her deficiency by novel’s end, or she never does overcome it and faces the consequences.

Such loops are not random; you continue to reinforce the point. As you write out the series of events, you’ll come to see that you can’t write the same thoughts over and over. The reader will become bored, not to mention yourself. You are forced to invent variations. Perhaps Meg seeks out the advice of her extroverted older sister. Maybe the sister gets involved in a few scenes, driving in the spike of inadequacy further. Or Meg deliberately decides she is going to act differently, and she’s caught out while testing these uncharted waters.

All the while, you’re exploring your chosen loop. Because you have a focal point, you can’t maunder off on a bunch of unrelated observations that don’t have any depth. You keep biting on that nut between your teeth. That’s how it finally cracks open and reveals its prize.

Exercise: It’s not enough to choose a trait that you feel deeply. Being shy, for instance, is very common. So how do you make it bizarre, i.e., interesting to the reader? You set up outrĂ© circumstances. You have the character react in strange ways, such as cutting. Above all, don’t be typical. The whole point is to challenge yourself—and your readers.

“In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.”
—Edna O'Brien

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.