Welcome to the last lesson in our June series on how to ditch your job as a novelist and become a ghost writer of biographies about fictional people. You can find the first three lessons here:
- Let Your Characters Write the Story
- Let Your Characters Write the StoryII: How to Listen to Your Characters
- Let Your Characters Write the StoryIII: Ideas on Trial
Very briefly, the key to letting your characters do the work of writing the story can be boiled down to these four steps:
- Get a story started. Any way. Any how.
- As soon as your first character shows up, resist the urge to create his story for him.
- Listen to your deepest instincts, guided by everything you know about the character, and let those instincts guide all your decisions.
- Put all your instincts through a trial period to make sure it really is the character talking and not, in fact, you dominating his story.
Last week we talked about the importance of discerning the difference between a Gut Instinct (your characters talking) and mere excitement over a new idea (possibly just you talking).
Today we’re going to talk about the two problems you’re most likely to encounter while using this writing method.
- What if my character won’t say a word?
- What if my Gut Instincts confirm two ideas that are completely non-compatible?
When Your Characters Won’t Talk
This problem can manifest in three ways:
- Your character has been rolling along just fine, then suddenly shuts up.
- Your character is perfectly talkative about some topics, but refuses to say a word regarding A Particular Topic.
- Your character won’t say anything.
1. The Dead Stop
You and your character have been working together great. You’ve had a long series of successful Gut Instincts and the story is coming together beautifully. Then–boom–everything screeches to a halt. The character quits talking to you. The Gut Instincts dry up. And you don’t know why.
When this happens to me, invariably I find it’s because I didn’t properly put one of my supposed Gut Instincts on trial. Instead what I have is a False Assumption. And the character is saying, in effect, “How did that get into my story?”
Solution: Try to remember the last time you and your character were working well together. Then try to remember what you plugged into the story about the time your character fell silent. Put it through the Gut Test again. You may have to re-test several elements from the story before you pinpoint the one that caused your character to rebel.
2. The Tabu Topic
You find your character willing to talk about almost anything–except for one topic that causes her to close up like a clam. No matter how many times you broach the subject, you can’t coax a word out of her.
One of two things is going on here. Either your character isn’t ready to talk about it, or she’s sure you aren’t ready to hear about it. Either way, you can be sure that you’ve stumbled across a key issue in the character’s story.
Your fictional client needs to develop a comfort level with you. The two of you are perfect strangers at first meeting–and yet the character is going to be opening up the deepest layers of her heart to you. Sometimes she’s not ready to face the music. And sometimes she knows that you’re not ready to accept whatever it is she wants to tell you until you understand more of her story.
Solution: Try approaching the question from every possible angle. If that gets you nowhere, then move on to another topic and try returning to it later. Sometimes a few days or weeks–and all the satellite information you gather in the meantime–can make all the difference in the world.
3. The Stoney Silence
This is the character who won’t talk to you at all. No question you pose ever triggers a Gut Instinct.
This is by far the hardest character to work with. And the most rewarding. This is the character who has been so deeply scarred by his past, he refuses to revisit it.
The silent character often comes off as a self-sufficient and strong. The reason they’re so hard to work with is because … half the things they tell you are lies. Lies they’ve created not to thwart you … but to cope with their own wounds. Lies they believe about themselves.
Solution: These characters can’t come out and talk to you about their deepest heart because they’re afraid to go there themselves. They require an infinite degree of patience. Don’t be satisfied with surface answers. Ask them hard questions. Don’t be surprised if they get mad at you and walk away for a couple of weeks. Gut Test relentlessly until you get down to the very root of their pain.
When Two Ideas Are Mutually Exclusive
Sometimes your Gut Test will confirm two ideas which can’t possibly work together. For me, this usually involves a dead character showing up later in the story–but other equally impossible scenarios frequently happen.
Patrick, for example. Early Gut Instincts revealed that this was a character who placed the importance of family ties above all else and reveled in his role as “uncle” to his best friends’ kids. But Gut Instincts also revealed that his only “family” were his close friends.
It baffled me that he never got married and had kids of his own. Yet when I questioned him about it, the resulting Gut Instinct said that Patrick had in fact vowed to never marry.
So here we had two Gut Instincts, but in conflict with each other: A man who loved family, but refused to have one of his own.
Solution: First, put the conflicting story ideas through the Gut Test again. You may merely find both of them confirmed.
You’ll recall I said in the last lesson that when an element of the story passes the Gut Test, you must carve it in stone. If the story element consistently triggers your Gut Instinct, you can be sure the character has spoken.
Even if two elements appear to conflict.
If both elements pass the Gut Test a second time–and a third, fourth, and fifth–it means you’re missing some vital clue that will explain everything. Ask your character about it (write a list of possibilities that could reconcile the discrepancy) or work on other parts of the story until you happily stumble across the key that explains all.
I eventually learned from Patrick that there had been A Woman once. That they had been engaged. And that she had left him for someone else. Patrick’s loyalties die hard. Sadly, he is still in love with his lost fiancée. No other woman has ever managed to take her place.
The missing key that reconciled the disjointed parts.
Every author’s creative process is different and all are equally valid. The process I’ve described these past four weeks is just how I get the job done. Certainly other authors’ unique processes have been an inspiration to me at various times, and I’m just adding my voice in hopes of inspiring you.
If I could name three benefits to my particular writing method, these would be it:
- The story feels as if it comes together on its own.
- Once a decision passes Gut Inspection, I can be relatively confident that it’s not going to change.
- The story is written straight from my heart and soul.
Like I said, this method isn’t about character-driven writing so much as it’s about getting in touch with the Inner You–the place where you seem to know the whole story already.
- Have you gotten stuck on your story? Identify which of these problems may be baffling you and try the solutions provided.
Still stuck? Leave me a comment! I’ll be happy to get back to you.
Thanks for joining me on this exploration of an intuitive story-writing process. Next week starts a new course: Twitter for Rank Beginners. I hope you’ll join me! If you don’t want to miss out on any of the classes by me or Carrie Lynn Lewis, we’d love to have you subscribe. Thanks for reading!