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.
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.
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