There Will Be Blood

This is something I say to almost every writer: Make no mistake, there WILL be blood! No, I’m not referring to the movie. Or even to literal blood. But to the fact that if what happens in your plot doesn’t force your protagonist to struggle mightily internally – to ruthlessly challenge their most basic, painful and deeply guarded beliefs, to make them bleed — then even the most “objectively” dramatic event will be shockingly dull.

Dig deep to unearth your character's backstory, including their wounds, fears, and more

You want to hurt your protagonist, truly, madly, deeply, and with strategic precision. You want to dig into her past and find the thing that would cause her the most intense pain – emotional pain – and then . . . lean into it, hard. Double it. Triple it. And then imagine how you could make it even worse.

By making it worse, I do not mean throw a random external obstacle at her, or make what she has to do physically harder, or, if all else fails, simply make her reaction over the top. That’s external. That’s surface. And, maddeningly, that is the advice writers are often given. Things like (and I’m not making this up): “Hey, if your protagonist is mad at her boss, you could have her yell at him. But why not make it even more dramatic? Have her key his car in the parking lot. But why leave it at that? Instead, have her set his car on fire!”

Worst. Advice. Ever.

Why? Because it focuses solely on amping up the external. And much, much worse, unless setting the boss’s car on fire is something she’s been building to from the get go, unless it would force her to confront her escalating internal issue, unless it’s something that given who she is, she would do organically — it’s utterly and completely arbitrary.

Here’s the kicker: It’s not even believable!

Because the first question we, as readers, innately ask is: “Why would she do that?” And the answer isn’t, because she’s really, really angry.

Think about it, most of us have probably been super angry at our boss at some point in our lives. Really hopping mad. But how many of us would have set his car on fire? Not that we didn’t WANT to, heck, we might have envisioned it in great graphic detail, in slo mo, for days. But to actually do it? Well that takes a person with a specific background, a finely honed trigger point, and a deeply set agenda. And in the case of our fire starter, that background would then inevitably spur her to make the decision to torch her boss’s car.

For instance, perhaps her boss has been heckling her, in the same way her abusive, belittling father did, and she’s swallowed it, excused it, rationalized it, losing bits of herself along the way, because, she told herself, keeping her head down is the only way to get the promotion that she’s been slaving away for for years. The promotion that will prove to her dad that she is worthy of respect. The promotion that, she just discovered, her boss gave to his nephew, telling her that she never would have moved up anyway, because she’s too meek, because she never does anything daring, anything innovative, anything unexpected, and never will. Oh yeah? With nothing left to lose, that person very well might flip all the cards and go straight for the blow torch. And we’d know why.

Want to create realistic, memorable characters that resonate with readers? Dig deeper into their backstory

So how do you, the writer, avoid inadvertently pushing your protagonist to do something she’d never, ever do? Here’s the secret: Your goal isn’t to go wide and broad, it’s to go focused and deep. Going wide means simply envisioning a “plot” – a series of external events — and so your protagonist’s job becomes to merely do what the plot dictates. Boring! And shallow. Going deep means creating a protagonist whose past dictates what she does, what she wants, what she believes, and most importantly: why. Thus your protagonist – all your characters – do things for their own subjective, personal reasons. THAT’S what makes a story believable. And here’s the beauty of it: by digging deep, the plot itself begins to emerge, because you know what would hurt her most, and chances are she’s brought it on herself.

That internal struggle – think: the emotional cost of each escalating decision the plot forces your protagonist to make — is where the blood comes from. NOT from bombs a bursting, cars a crashing, or dogs biting. After all, emotional pain is far more potent, life changing, and memorable than physical pain – regardless of how horrific said physical pain is.

That’s why your goal is to embarrass your protagonist, mortify her, force her to do something that, ultimately, is excruciatingly hard emotionally. In other words, the very things that paralyze us in real life.

And what’s killer is that because we so studiously avoid emotional conflict in real life, it can go missing in our stories, or be reduced to a very pale, tepid, easily resolved version of what would actually happen. Think: Hallmark Lite.

So you don’t inadvertently fall into this common trap, here are a few things to keep in mind, the better to deftly lure your protagonist into an escalating gauntlet of genuinely transformative pain. As Emily Dickenson so sagely said: A wounded deer leaps the highest.

  • It’s about vulnerability. It’s about the things we hide, the things we don’t want others to see. What is your protagonist hiding that, slowly, through the course of the story, will be exposed? Why does he believe it must be hidden? We’re not talking about logistics here – like, he keeps where the treasure is buried secret because if he told anyone they’d dig it up and steal it. Duh! That’s surface. We’re talking about a closely guarded secret about how he sees things, especially himself. Here’s a dramatic example (often the secrets are subtler, more idiosyncratic) but, for our purposes, this works: Imagine a teenage boy with the skill to be the star quarterback – the coach, his bros want him, need him for the team, which has been losing, and he’s their only hope — but he envisions himself as a figure skater. In a skirt. Now, imagine how he thinks said bros would see him if they knew the truth? Imagine the lengths he’d go to to keep them from finding out, and – this is key – the pain he’d feel from keeping the secret, from lying, from longing to be who he really is. In other words, you know exactly what would be extremely scary, utterly painful and ultimately liberating for him.

 

  • Force yourself to write those utterly painful, hard moments as they’re happening, and don’t leap over them. Don’t sum them up after the fact. Don’t have your protagonist tell us what happened. Let us experience it, in his head, as he does, in real time. Even if it’s a flashback. Our secret figure skater would have a lot of revealing past moments, which he’d call up in service of making the hard choices the plot would force upon him. Like the moment when he realized his true passion, and the moment when he realized how the world might see him as a result. Your job as a writer is to imagine the most painful thing that could happen to your protagonist, and then, go even deeper. I’m hitting on this hard because writers often skip gut wrenching moments because they’re, well, gut wrenching. Don’t. It should be hard. For you. It should hurt. You. In fact, if it doesn’t hurt you at least a little bit, you’re not doing it right.

 

  • Finally, here’s a rule of thumb that will make your novel deeper, richer, more riveting, keep you on track as you write forward, and save you countless rewrites in the bargain: When you’re trying to figure out what happens next, don’t look to that external grab bag of objectively dramatic “Big Events” you could lob at your protagonist. Instead look into your story’s very specific backyard. There lies the answer to the question What would hurt, test, undermine my protagonist the most?

My advice? Keep your eye on the prize: Dig deep, down to where the blood is. Reap the blood. Put it on the page. That’s what the reader comes for. We’re hungry to see what would happen if we actually had to confront the truths about ourselves that we’re too afraid to reveal in real life, to see what it would really feel like, and hopefully change a bit, grow a bit, and maybe even feel a little less vulnerable. Giving us that vicarious experience is your job as a writer. It’s what makes you courageous. And what gives you incredible power.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com

 

 

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14 Responses to There Will Be Blood

  1. Sherry Lowry says:

    Lisa Cron’s work is new to me and is opening anew adventure. a

  2. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 07-26-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  3. As always, Lisa, excellent tips here on how to go deep in story. I’ve bookmarked this page as I slowly crawl forward in my memoir about attending college as a mother of five. I’ve also shared the post online. Thank you for all you do to assist writers, and thanks Becca and Angela for sharing this post on Writers Helping Writers.

    Enjoy your summers, ladies.

  4. Jay Hicks says:

    I too settled nicely into the article and began wowing at those bullet points. I’ve just been told at a Masterclass to do exactly this with my opening scene of my novel – and any others – to show character emotions amped up. I hadn’t wanted to go too deep, I wanted to skate my readers over the deep pain of brutal details and only outlined those horror moments. Wrong.

    How much more powerful is it to go deep and show it like it is.

    That was my takeaway from Masterclass and here it is again. Then I scrolled down – Lisa Cron!!!! I’ve done your Creative Live lecture series and have bought both of your books. I’m not surprised at this powerful teaching coming from you – we all want drama, with all the ear flapping, background lurking, head turning details. It’s not nice when people suffer but we’re so fascinated by the experiences of others. A free ride, if you please. Thanks to WHW and Lisa. Great post.

  5. Laura Lynn says:

    Thanks for the reminder Lisa. I had slipped back into my old ways and focused on the external events of making my protagonist suffer.

  6. Fabulous. Thank SO much for this gritty, inspiring mental and emotional exercise.

    And I was extremely surprised and interested to note that simply imagining your example protagonist’s situation, and experiencing what arose as I mentally did the exercises around his vulnerability, had huge emotional impact for me…

    Thanks for a terrific creative waker-upper, Lisa.

  7. Anything I could say would pale in comparison to the wonderful comments that have already been made. Thanks for contributing, Lisa, and for continuing to dig deeper into these elements that bring our stories and characters to life :).

  8. Talia says:

    I love this. It’s exactly what I needed today! Thank you!! 😀

  9. Cheryl says:

    Lisa Cron, okay, so I’m reading the blog and my head’s nodding in agreement. I keep thinking — why does this sound so eerily familiar? Lo and behold, I scan for the author.

    The one and only crowned story master Cron. I am one of your rabid fangirls. (William Shatner in “Star Trek II” yells “Khannn!” I yell: “Cronnn!”) I recently finished your terrific “Story Genius” and talk about transforming my thinking. YES, absolutely, I’ve received the “make it worse” via external conflict advice and my novels have suffered for it. Plot clutter, no deeper story. No meaning. Meanwhile, I would read another novel featuring wretched or damaged characters — women’s fiction or thrillers, that I found myself remembering a lot better than the blander romance fare. I kept re-reading my old romance novels and preferring them. You know, “Jane Eyre,” “Flowers from the Storm,” Linda Howard’s mid-1990 work, LaVryle Spencer and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ “It Had to Be You.” I loved those novels.

    Why can’t I get into the recent releases? What’s wrong with me? (Smacks head)

    Hallmark Lite! Yes. Most of the rest of the world writes the cute-meet between the cupcake shop owner and overworked mayor, and you’re writing tortured souls — not a paranormal, but a contemporary romance, no less. Eeegads. I worry that my darker characters won’t fit in with the romance genre, have worried about this for years now. Yet . . . if your character doesn’t suffer, the novel’s just bland.

    If I could afford you as my story coach – would hire you in a New York minute! Or a Chicago second! Will definitely check out the links mentioned.

    You’ve helped me THINK FRESH about novel writing, and I thank you. So very much.

  10. Celia Lewis says:

    So clear… now to review, revise, rewrite, rethink my stories sitting in my desk drawers!! Thank you so much – this is just what I needed to read.

  11. Good day to you, Ma’am. In my role as hobbyist author, I read these how-to-write articles at the rate of a dozen a day. I just wanted to let you know, in my capacity as someone who reads and discards these at rate that some people scarf down potato chips, that this is the most profound, logical, and ultimately useful one of these essays I have seen in months, maybe years.

    This is a seriously overlooked area of character development by most authors, including myself (perhaps explaining my hobbyist status), and if you’re a struggling or beginning writer trying to gain a following, READ THIS ARTICLE! I once heard a famous and successful author (I think it was Dean Koontz, but don’t quote me) in a radio interview say something very close to “Everyone has a secret that they would die before letting it come to light. If you discover what your character’s secret is, he will leap off the page.”

    I recognized instinctively that that’s profound advice, but he never explained how to achieve that. This essay does that in spades, and I’ll be linking and promoting it on my own blog next Thursday. If the rest of your material is up to the standard of this item, you’re a true magician, and I thank you for sharing your insights.

  12. What a remarkable post, Lisa!
    You gave me plenty to think about when writing my next scene.
    Great writing advice.

  13. Ah, Lisa, I love you. Your posts always dig to the very core of what writers need to do, which is to circle the WHY, the internal motivator behind all action. Excellent post!

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