As a writer, the question of how to go deeper used to bedevil me. I would try to get into a flow. I would blank out every single thought in my head so that I could concentrate. The string that came out wouldn’t last for long, though, maybe a paragraph, and when I edited the piece later, half of it would come out because the stuff was so ordinary. 

Yet after I began editing, the answer came to me. The problem was that I hadn’t fully inhabited the space that I could have brought to life. If you want to create a thought string, you should compile all of the relevant data that informs that string. Let’s say you’re a teenager on the docks of New York City in 1850 and you see a magnificent clipper ship approaching from the tip of Manhattan. What, pray tell, does a clipper ship look like? Get those facts in hand first. You should know the different parts of the boat, at least as much as that teenager knows. Now let’s consider the time of day. Have you ever watched a yacht on a sparkling summer afternoon? How did that make you feel? How about on a day with gathering storm clouds? Were you worried for the skipper? Did you think he was reckless being out there, especially with that towheaded boy by his side? 

Now let’s go deeper. In that era, what did a clipper ship represent? It was a magnificent boat that traveled to all different ports in the world. What ports would that teenager like to visit? What does she know about those ports, and how does she imagine she would fit in to those places? Does she want to be set free? 

You see, the problem isn’t concentrating as much as you’re not amassing the facts in which to be immersed. You can do that. What got the character started on the train of thought? What could possibly be related to that idea? Write down a list and then connect the pieces. Pretty soon you will become fluent in running off your own wonderful skein.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and look for interesting spots where you could elaborate. Write down your initial impressions of the object. Now dig deeper. Research that object; find out the facts beyond your first impressions. Try to list 10 different facts. Now write down different tangents that could develop from these facts, related to your chosen character. Even if you end up editing it by half, you still have a strong thought skein.


The Example Proves the Rule

This principle is an important aspect of the effort an author must make to concentrate. Picking one example is often the best way to illuminate the spirit of the whole. That’s because a reader can recognize nuances of the individual instance, whereas a reference to a trend can remain too general to grasp. 

Let’s start with a train of thought, one of the most difficult tasks a novelist must accomplish. Consider the sentence: “Irene was so sick of her job.” That statement, in itself, is not bad. We all can identify with that. Yet it’s also undefined, a widely made claim that doesn’t really move us. Does that mean she’s a chronic complainer? That’s a lot different from a woman browbeaten by a boss who “inadvertently” touches her. 

Stop and step down to the next lower level. What is her single biggest problem with her job? Now expand on that idea: who is implicated in that issue? What are the particular circumstances that bring it about? In other words, use the one specific idea as a wedge to open the entire subject. Let your mind go and enumerate all the details that make her sick of that one aspect of her job. Let’s say her commuter bus is frequently crowded by the time it reaches her corner, and she often has to stand. Now I, as the reader, can identify with that. I know how much I’d hate to stand.

This same method of couching general statements around a specific incident applies to character development. Let’s say, to stay with the job motif, you’re writing a novel about Wall Street greed. The hero, Allen, has joined a hedge fund run by Jared. Rather than saying, “Jared was legendary for making brilliant trades,” could you focus on one trade in particular? Take your time to bring the example to life—with Jared’s overconfidence in the outcome, as opposed to Allen’s doubt about how money could possibly be made. Who did Jared talk to just before he made the trade? What has that person gloatingly said to Allen? 

Now you can expand to that string of Jared’s strange triumphs. What, in passing, were the circumstances of those trades? If one person keeps showing up during the process, could Allen wonder if he’s behind the trades? In other words, the example proves the rule because you can define Allen in terms of the characters grouped around that one deal. Even though Wall Street usually bores me, I’m interested because I want to know how Allen fits in that menagerie. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for general statements and change them to specifics. You only want to pick the most illuminating. We don’t need a full run-down on what Casey buys at the grocery store for her family of four. In other words, don’t expand on mundane material. Just pick out the most telling points you want to make. Then group your thoughts around those nuggets.


Dig Down with One

In order to penetrate into the mind of your creation, you need to appoint targets you want to hit. One of the more frequent choices is the relationship of the protagonist to a supporting character. You have friends, right? You know quite a lot about your best friend. You could sit down and write easily about him.

Once you have identified the who, the next question is when to insert such work. One obvious place would be prior to meeting that character the first time. Let’s say Lisa has learned from a third party that Barbara is having a passionate affair. Lisa is cautious by nature, and she wants to warn Barbara about what she’s doing. Now put your best friend in that spot. What do you know about “Barbara” that would make you inclined to believe that she would pursue an affair? What do you know about her husband or partner? What was Barbara like before she got married? When you start writing down all of this information, you can feel the gears clicking. You know this stuff. You have merely appropriated it for your novel—the way writers steal from real life all the time.

A second placement of thoughts is after their meeting. Whatever convictions Lisa reached beforehand, they were likely thwarted by Barbara during their actual talk. People never perform the way you had schemed they would. So how does Lisa react to Barbara’s devious variations from her plan? Consider each point that Barbara so dexterously danced around. What does Lisa feel about that? How does that dancing around match with Barbara’s past history with Lisa? 

Of possible interest is how Barbara’s reactions start Lisa to thinking about her own partner. Does she affirm loyalty, or has a new light been cast on gripes she’s had for a long time but conveniently suppressed? 

This character interaction needs to progress from one stage to another. If Lisa keeps thinking about Barbara in the same way throughout the book, her feelings will start to annoy the reader, because they never move off first base. So for the next interior monologue about Barbara, consider what has happened to both characters since the last time. 

Let’s say Lisa’s boyfriend has pompously announced that he’s not into her anymore, and he leaves. Now that affair Barbara’s having appears in a different light. Will Lisa have to admit that what she told Barbara last time didn’t work out so well for her? By this time you may be able to forget your best friend. You’ve created enough thoughts, spurring enough conversations, that you have merged with your character instead.

Exercise: Whatever issue you decide to explore, break it into two components: past and present. If Tom is about to meet Henry, who has recently returned from bumming around the world, how does Tom gauge that feat in terms of what Henry was like when they were friends? Did Henry always have a footloose side? Now turn to the present: what does Tom fear will be said about himself because he went ahead and sensibly got his MBA?


Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.