On Monday, we talked about a major way writers can ramp up the tension in their novels. How do we do this? We externalize (or, in Corbett’s words “exteriorize”). Stuff in a character’s head has no outward consequences, thus making it impossible to generate dramatic tension.
The Road—Talk is Cheap
Many writers try to skirt externalization, because they “say” they want to write “literary works.” Yet, even in literary fiction, externalization is critical. Why?
Because 99 times out of a 100, when someone tells me their writing is “literary” this is actually code for “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit.” Hey, I’ve been guilty, too. Don’t feel badly. If we aren’t making mistakes we aren’t doing anything interesting.
Thinking does not literature make. Many writers don’t like externalizing because, as humans, we have been conditioned to shy away from conflict at all costs. Great fiction writers must do the exact opposite and generate as much (outward and inward) conflict as possible. Even “literary” writers don’t get a pass.
I have two Post-It Notes on my computer. One reads GO FOR THE GUTS and the other is THROW A ROCK IN IT. The second the characters get a breather? RUIN IT.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Award-Winning book The Road, we see a similar situation to Would You Rather? (discussed Monday). It’s one thing to say we will never give up our humanity, that we will never resort to the animal state…but what about when that is tested? How long can The Man go without food? How long can he watch his son go without food before he compromises?
These tough existential questions are what drive the tension of the book because the big questions are placed into context so they can be tested—a regular guy and his boy in a world that has gone horribly wrong. Yes, there is some internalization, but the outside characters and circumstances force that existential question out of the character’s mind and into reality.
Make Them Commit
It is not enough for The Man to think about how society has gone to hell in a hand basket and he isn’t like them (those who’ve resorted to cannibalism to survive). He and The Boy have to be placed in situations that externally test this conviction. How will we (the reader) know the characters have succeeded? They will make it to the ocean without eating other humans or die trying.
Think about whatever it is that your character is battling, then externalize this. If the person is a drug addict, don’t go on and on with backstory of cocaine binges or drag us into backstory about his abusive father. Show his buddies stopping by in a limo full of hot babes with high-dollar cocaine to offer. Make him CHOOSE and MAKE HIM SQUIRM. Give him a problem, stakes and a real opportunity to fail and face BIG CONSEQUENCES.
TORTURE YOUR CHARACTERS—IT IS GOOD FOR THEM!!!
Give him a story problem with REAL stakes. Make him scream!
If your character is shy, force her to speak in public. If your character is a sex addict, have his coworkers demand he join them at a strip club for a bachelor party. If your character is a control freak (Marlin in Finding Nemo) pair him with an ally that will make him nearly break from stress (like Dori, another fish with short-term memory issues).
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some of the movies or books you like? Why do you like them? How did they torture their characters?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!