Make Readers Suffer—Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS

Image courtesy of Reuters.

Image courtesy of Reuters.

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS Christmas and is enjoying this wonderful time of the year. Holidays bring family and friends together and usually? This equals CONFLICT. Use it. Eavesdrop. Great writers make a MESS because that is what is the heart of the best stories. The uglier the better. You will one day be grateful for that seriously jacked up childhood.

Sally forth!

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, 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. 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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  1. #1 by Irene Kessler on December 26, 2014 - 1:29 pm

    I love this post. I think I’m doing okay but don’t know if I’ve gotten into the guts yet. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. #2 by coldhandboyack on December 26, 2014 - 1:32 pm

    Great stuff today, and a great reminder too.

  3. #3 by Lanette Kauten on December 26, 2014 - 1:39 pm

    The movie that immediately pops into mind is “The Terminal.” At first, we don’t know why Victor flew to New York, only that he can’t leave the airport because his country was no longer recognized as a country because of a civil war that broke out while he was on the plane. Victor has a goal, a reason to be in NY, and it’s not just for sight-seeing. We don’t know what it is until the end, so I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. But we know that Victor has two problems: grieving over the tragic events in his country, and not being able to accomplish his goal in a country where he can’t even speak the language.

    One of the most heart-breaking “aww” moments was when the antagonist (head of security for the airport) found a way to get Victor out of his airport– have Victor apply for asylum by saying he’s afraid to go back to his country. Because of the language barrier, this took a bit for Victor to understand, but when he does, he says, “No, it’s my home. I’m never scared of home.”

  4. #4 by Pamela Trawick on December 26, 2014 - 1:40 pm

    Thanks for the reminder and specific discussion of the real story problem.

  5. #5 by Daven Anderson on December 26, 2014 - 1:53 pm

    It’s okay to solve the protagonist’s big problem if you replace it with an equal of greater dilemma.
    Each of the three novels in my Vampire Syndrome saga presents Jack Wendell with a huge problem. Jack’s next problem is always hiding in the background and building up…😈

  6. #6 by Cheryel Hutton on December 26, 2014 - 2:00 pm

    The biggest problem holding me back from publication for YEARS was my reluctance to be mean to my precious characters. I finally got over it, and got published.

  7. #7 by impossiblebebong on December 26, 2014 - 2:07 pm

    “You will one day be grateful for that seriously jacked up childhood.”
    This reminds me of the article I just posted today🙂

    “for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.”
    Family of my reason -for-living-in Europe personified this passage.

  8. #8 by Rebecca on December 26, 2014 - 2:11 pm

    Thanks for the opportunity to get some feedback. I do have an agent, but she keeps asking for revisions. She’s not satisfied; I’m guessing that there really is something not right with the ms, but neither of us can figure out what it is.

  9. #9 by mstaciestark21 on December 26, 2014 - 2:17 pm

    Reblogged this on StacieMStarkActivist.

    • #10 by Rachel Thompson on December 27, 2014 - 10:02 am

      I’d try out some none-pro beta readers and ask other writers. to review it. Someone will put a finger on it.

  10. #11 by Anna Erishkigal on December 26, 2014 - 2:22 pm

    A timely blog post as the first half of my current WIP is BORING and I’m trying to figure out where to interject conflict to put my audience at the edge of their seat until we get to the second half of the book which is edge-of-seat material. So, I’m like, who can I kill? Who can I torture? Who can I do terrible things to so the first half of the book is interesting enough to carry my readers to second half with the big showdown?

  11. #12 by chickinwhite on December 26, 2014 - 2:24 pm

    Very helpful, as always… Thanks, Kristen! And – hope you had wonderful holidays – and no conflicts on that base… 😉

  12. #13 by jrosebooks on December 26, 2014 - 3:19 pm

    Thanks for the post. Good food for thought as I’m working through my massive editing overhaul. My main characters (and villains) have that internal conflict, but I’m not sure how well I’ve intertwined it with the plot – did I choose the best possible plot to challenge my two heroes? Did what’s in my head make it clearly onto the page? Possibly. Onward, Analysis!

  13. #14 by logankeys on December 26, 2014 - 3:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Logan Keys Fiction and commented:
    I love this advice!

  14. #15 by logankeys on December 26, 2014 - 3:46 pm

    Done and done! I find that I throw out too much conflict and have to focus myself. Whenever characters get along too well I force them to play a bit with insecurities. The idea is to get it out in the open right? RIGHT? LOL PLEASE PICK ME I SO WANT MY first twenty looked at lol

  15. #16 by sharonhughson on December 26, 2014 - 4:14 pm

    Yes, I suck at this. I need more conflict. I need to be meaner to my characters.
    I am happy to say, I think I know what each of my characters really wants (or thinks will make them happy). My problem: do I give the reader that same perspective?
    Not too much conflict at Christmas this year. Guess I should’ve eavesdropped on the Lamb family gathering, huh?

  16. #17 by Ernesto San Giacomo on December 26, 2014 - 4:16 pm

    Perfect timing Kristin!
    I just finished the MS for my fantasy novel. This was definitely a great post to read before going into editing mode.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Kristin (and to all fellow bloggers, authors, and commentors)

  17. #18 by Dawn DeSousa (@DawnDeSousa) on December 26, 2014 - 4:43 pm

    Yikes….spent all that money on therapy learning to deal with conflict not create it.

  18. #19 by MonaKarel on December 26, 2014 - 5:21 pm

    I know a book is ready to leave my hands when that first page, preferably the first sentence, makes my character (and me!) uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s right there from the beginning. And sometimes the rest of the book is done, first draft, before that beginning is ready to be written

  19. #20 by Jessica Vasko on December 26, 2014 - 5:24 pm

    This makes me wonder how much of my writing is surface.

  20. #21 by jrosebooks on December 26, 2014 - 5:31 pm

    I’m curious if POSITIVE going for the guts moments count?

  21. #22 by Patton Hyman on December 26, 2014 - 5:54 pm

    Dear Kristin.

    I’ve been enjoying your posts and have recently finished reading your book (very helpful). I’m a nonfiction writer and have written a book about applying mindfulness in business and law. I’ve taught meditation for more than 35 years, and have been a business lawyer for an even longer time. The book has been professionally edited and the next challenge is getting it published–which ain’t easy for a first timer like me. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I hope you and your family had a wonderful Christmas. Cheers, Patton

    • #23 by Rachel Thompson on December 27, 2014 - 10:18 am

      Patten, I’m not Kristin but I have a suggestion. My lawyer friend had a similar path and how he gained success is this: He self published, at first he was his own distributor ( garage full of books), and he advertized his books in journals that interested parties read. Sales started slow but once rolling the big 5 beat a path to his door. He rejected mainstream offers–there is more money in self publishing. He targeted the likely readers directly. How may law and business journals are out there? PS. Big businesses love to have speakers do presentations, they pay big to have guests in and they buy books of the speakers.

      • #24 by Patton Hyman on December 27, 2014 - 12:36 pm

        Dear Rachel,

        Thanks for the observation. You are very likely correct that self-publishing is the way to start. I’ve explored that as well, although a cousin of mine who is in publishing (although not on the editorial side) wants to help me find a traditional publisher (as he says, I hate to see you spending all the money you need to to self-publish). If nothing pans out on that front in the next few months, I’ll probably re-focus on self-publishing. If your lawyer friend would be interested in talking with me, I’d love to hear about his experiences. Thanks again! Cheers, Patton

  22. #25 by kirizar on December 26, 2014 - 6:04 pm

    Hmm, I have a friend who feels that books that start out with action or conflict-based events are just trying to ‘hook’ the reader and that that is a gimmick. But, I like that kind of writing, so we just agree to disagree. It is much harder to write a successful ‘hook’ though.

  23. #26 by Vickie Johnstone on December 26, 2014 - 7:02 pm

    So that’s why Eastenders is so popular – it’s full of conflict! Thanks for the tip🙂

  24. #27 by Tahlia Newland on December 26, 2014 - 7:09 pm

    I often tell the authors of the books I do appraisals on: make life harder for your characters. Be really mean to them. I had to remind myself of that for my most recent book too. I had to make the author who was bullying the reviewer much more unstable and therefore dangerous than I originally wrote him, and I had to take the end to a much more scary conclusion than I originally wrote it. But the thriller plot is, as you say above, just the story, the bigger question in Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds is – what constitutes our identity and what is the nature of creativity? The metaphysics in the metaphysical thriller isn’t just in the fact that the protagonist has meditative experiences, it’s in those core questions. Funny though. I didn’t really realise exactly how deeply I’d gone into those questions until after the book was finished. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make them the big question. It just came out as I wrote.So I we don’t have to start with those questions, but I do think they need to be there for a really satisfying read. It’s like you write, then ask yourself what your themes are, then rewrite to make them stronger.

  25. #28 by sethstephens52 on December 26, 2014 - 7:48 pm

    Conflict is story! I’ve heard this before but you broke it down in a way that made it all very clear. Thanks! Alfred Hitchcock said something like, movies are life with the boring parts left out. I think good fiction is the same way. Anyway, thanks for sharing, and I’m going to link back to this post after I post this comment.

  26. #29 by Heather McLoud on December 26, 2014 - 8:13 pm

    What if you’re good at structuring your novel around “the real question” and weak at developing a driving plot to hang the question on? Would love to see a blog post on that!

    • #30 by teachjournalism on December 30, 2014 - 12:57 pm

      I’d love to see a response on this because I feel it is my problem as well. I have a plot to work with, but don’t trust that it is strong enough to hold readers. Guess we won’t know until I get more of it written, and I won’t get more of it written until I get over those trust issues, eh?

  27. #31 by Kathy Waller on December 27, 2014 - 1:12 am

    My characters are such nice people. By the time I’ve gotten to know them, so are my villains. I know it’s necessary, but going for the guts is difficult when the guts belong to people you like.

  28. #32 by Kathy Waller on December 27, 2014 - 3:53 am

    Note: I understand it’s the reader’s guts we’re going for, and that’s okay. I’d just like to get there without going through the characters’ guts first. I’ve already resurrected one victim because she’s too good to be bad to.

  29. #33 by srilakshmirekha9 on December 27, 2014 - 4:15 am

    oh my god

  30. #34 by Rachel Thompson on December 27, 2014 - 9:56 am

    Your character sounds a lot like you, but bigger. I’d make your protagonist into a male, or for a good twist, perhaps a gay person or some other social outsider trying to make it in the “normal” world–lots of conflict naturally ensures. The character arc then becomes self acceptance, forgoing societies demands to remain true– embracing his better mental state. What if the whole world is wrong and one person is right?

  31. #35 by Cristal Ryder on December 27, 2014 - 12:45 pm

    Great post! Left me thinking how to make it suckier for my characters🙂

  32. #36 by bearfilmcritic on December 27, 2014 - 1:25 pm

    Reblogged this on bearfilmreview and commented:
    Figuring out your character’s personal problems (GUT) will definitely make your stories have more depth and seem more real. Excellent advice.

  33. #37 by bevbaird on December 27, 2014 - 3:27 pm

    Those are crucial questions – now I need to answer them for my works in progress. thanks Kristen – this post is so helpful.

  34. #38 by miq on December 27, 2014 - 5:16 pm

    1. Great reminder. I’m in the midst of editing, and adding/intensifying/amping the conflict in every scene is one of my goals.
    2. Whenever I’m needing a little boost to start writing or editing I read a couple of your posts. They always make me excited to get back to work. Thanks for being my own personal cheerleader!

  35. #39 by donaldkennethwalker on December 27, 2014 - 6:39 pm

    Once in life it actually pays to be an a**hole. You get to be that butt of a boss that acts like they never was once an employee. Or that jilted lover who the girl of their dreams chooses Mr. Wrong once again and expects you to be there waiting with open arms. And my favorite is the black sheep of the family who’s family acts like their secrets aren’t just as dark if not darker.

    And in your revenge or plot resolution you can either be worse than your antagonist of have them ammo up the wrongful treatment of the distress character… Either way something had to give.

    Once again thanks Kristen for helping us fellow authors be the best we can be… Even if it’s in the worse way.

    • #40 by donaldkennethwalker on December 27, 2014 - 6:40 pm

      Sorry for the typos… Editor is on holiday break…. Lol

  36. #41 by katkent2014 on December 27, 2014 - 7:20 pm

    Gut perfect. Thank you.

  37. #42 by katkent2014 on December 27, 2014 - 7:55 pm

    Creating conflict is so much fun as a YA writer as teens have an uncanny ability to create conflict and drama naturally and the goofiness of their youth just adds to make the story more charming. Great reminder on CONFLICT.

  38. #43 by mikajolie on December 27, 2014 - 10:30 pm

    Reblogged this on mikajolie.

  39. #44 by Charlotte Gerber, Mystery Author on December 28, 2014 - 8:24 am

    Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber.

  40. #45 by jocelynnbabcock on December 30, 2014 - 12:39 am

    Thanks for reminding me to dig deeper and find that raw, scabby wound the MC struggles with.

  41. #46 by Kit on December 31, 2014 - 10:50 am

    Great advice! I definitely need to take another look at my MG/YA work, working on the GUTS. I particularly liked the advice to eavesdrop in connection with the conflict. I see/hear conflict when I eavesdrop, but hadn’t thought to dig deeper as I do (even if much of the digging deeper is in my own imagination). For example, what’s really going on in the battle in line at the grocery store and how can I use it?

  42. #47 by Jeffrey H. King on December 31, 2014 - 3:42 pm

    Go for the Gut – nicely said. Makes me think of Stephen King, who never goes for the soft pictures. He’s unfiltered, midnight-nightmare dirty. And that’s why you turn the pages. Same goes for Tom Clancy, who in one of his Jack Ryan novels kills off the whole fo congress and the executive branch. Leaves you in holy defecation mode, wondering what could possibly happen next.

  43. #48 by Cinette on January 1, 2015 - 11:55 am

    I found that I was way too nice to my characters in my younger days, but then I married into an Italian family and learned all about conflict:-) Jokes aside, conflict makes a person – or character – stronger for dealing with it. It’s the best way to show our character’s growth.

  44. #49 by Lisa Vogel on January 1, 2015 - 4:57 pm

    The movie that comes to mind is the one that comes from one of my favorite novels of the same name: We Need To Talk About Kevin. In it, a mother primarily, but a father, too, struggle with whether or not their son, Kevin, has a real problem or is he just a normal kid with a bit of an aggressive side. The end result (and this is not a spoiler as it is stated up front) is that, yes, Kevin has a problem. He ends expressing it by becoming a murderer. So, why couldn’t the father see it? Why couldn’t the mother, who did see that something was severely wrong, do enough to help him? What stops them — and it stops all of us in one area of our lives or another — from talking about Kevin, getting to the bottom of Kevin, stopping Kevin from becoming a murderer? This, in the sense, is true for my novel #1 that I am currently revising. The details of my characters’ lives are completely different but the underlying point is the same. . . if you’ve got an issue that needs dealing with (and who doesn’t???), why IS it so hard to take corrective action? At least in my life, it is hard. I mean it is REALLY hard. That’s what I like to address in my writing.

  45. #50 by Jen on January 1, 2015 - 6:33 pm

    Do you or anyone here have posts on how to logically tease out the change related to the True Problem? I don’t want to “manipulate” the change, but keep chipping away at my Protag’s Lie until eventually she is able to come to the Truth to her True Problem on her own. I’m not sure how to do this without being heavy handed (or the change coming out of thin air).

  46. #51 by Raani York on January 2, 2015 - 7:32 pm

    Happy New Year Kristen. I’m not sure where I’ve been too nice (except in real life of course) – sometimes. But I have to admit I permanently keep in mind that I’m writing for an audience where “being nice” is a good thing. I’m still thinking about a loud, noisy, blod-shet, shooting, killing, cussing and cursing kind of Thriller to write… unfortunately my mind always ends up about where the Guy turns into a Softie meeting the woman of his life… I wonder if my simple brain is just not able to get over the romance. *sigh*

  1. Make Readers Suffer—Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS | My Passion's Pen
  2. Make Readers Suffer—Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS Great Reminder | Mona Karel Author
  3. Kristen Lamb’s Advice On Writing Novels | Plain and simple
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  5. Wednesday links: Conflict and first impressions | Miranda Burski

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