Over the years I've been told countless times that Don Maass is a great teacher, so one of the workshops I looked forward to attending at SiWC was Donald Maass's The Inner Journey.
Donald Maass did not disappoint. I'm sure I'll use every exercise he discussed during NaNoWriMo!
(By the way, when I use the word "hero" in my notes, I mean the protagonist of a story, whether male or female.)
Why do we keep reading a story? What keeps us interested? Micro conflict. Line-by-line conflict. Resonance. Associative devises: reverses and parallels.Twitter: @DonMaass
Write with a theme. Write what you care about. Write with a purpose. What is it that moves our hearts as we read? What is it that keeps us in its grip as we read? The emotional side of the story. The inner journey of our heroes. This inner journey can even change us as we read.
To open our characters emotionally we have to open ourselves emotionally.
There are two things we're going to talk about today:
1) The emotional landscape of the story. What are your characters feeling?
2) The journey of the character, the character arc. The character arc is the sequence of changes a character goes through, the series of changes that transforms them.
Part One: The emotional landscape of the story
What story are you working on? What is your favorite place to write? See yourself there, see the computer screen. What feeling are you afraid to put on the page? Write it down, right now, write it down.
What will leave you feeling raw if you write it down? What would be too truthful, too painful, too true? Too angry? What might end your relationship with your special person? What are you hiding from yourself? What is it that you don't want to admit? What is it that you know you have to do but you haven't? What aren't you telling yourself?
To whom in the story does this feeling belong? Who owns that feeling?
When is it, in the sequence of the story, that the character feels this way? Who is going to hear about this feeling? What is going to happen when they do?
This is what I mean by writing emotionally. You need to open yourself up to do this.
In your life, what makes you blissfully happy? Write down the first thing that comes to mind.
Put this happiness into a physical container. What is the most surprising thing about this object? What is it about this object that is wonderfully familiar? Delightfully strange? If you were to give this object, this happiness, as a gift to someone else, if they were to take it into their hands what is the first thing they would say?
Is this object fragile or is it unbreakable? Is this object one colour or is it many? What is its surface like? How big is it? How heavy? When others see it are they curious about it, or are they afraid of it? Do you want to share it, or hide it and keep it for yourself?
Craft a paragraph or passage in which you describe this feeling without naming it ("happiness"). Tell how this emotion looks and feels to others and yourself.
Remember, this emotion exists independently of you. What do you want to do with it? What have you discovered about yourself because this object is in your hands?
When is the moment in your story where you character experiences this happiness? This bliss? Can you put this into your story? Have you? Does it work?
This is a way of writing about primary emotions. "He froze in fear" does not make anyone freeze in fear. Big emotions like blissful happiness are very difficult to communicate so that THE READER feels it.
You can do this with fear, rage, humiliation, lust, etc.
Let your readers feel a feeling without naming it. What is the dominant emotion felt by your protagonist? A certain dream? A certain drive? An emotion? What is it?
Your protagonist needs to express this feeling, she needs to get it out. The story god strikes a character mute. What is the one thing the character can do to let everyone know how they feel? What can the character DO to express this feeling?
These exercises provide a way of working on the emotional landscape of the story. How do we make the reader feel what we want them to? By turning emotion into ACTION.
"He stood mute with rage."
"He used a sledgehammer to turn the car that had killed his wife into a useless mass of twisted metal."
Write down a moment when your hero feels numb. Overwhelmed. Burned out. Exhausted. Confounded.
Write down, in addition, what someone else does as a result of the hero expressing this.
Do you see a place in your story where your character is just going to let go and say, "I don't give a f**k"?
Open an emotional landscape for your protagonist.
Part Two: Emotional Change
What is your protagonist's worst habit? Their weakness? Their blind spot? What would your hero like to change about themselves? What do they know needs to change?
What is the moment, early in the story, that your protagonist tries to change what needs to be changed and fails? Why does she fail? Why can't she do better?
What is the moment in this negative characterization when your protagonist causes embarrassment? Who notices? Who says nothing? Who turns away and tries to pretend that didn't happen? When in the story does this negative trait actually HELP her? Why does it help her? BE SPECIFIC!
As your story continues this negative trait continues. Your character can't stop it. Who does the character alienate? Offend? Disgust? Who tells off the character? Who rejects the character? Who just can't take it anymore?
Having bottomed out, what is something your protagonist does differently? Reader must be able to see that your protagonist has changed.
Working backwards in your story. How could you make this action something your character would never do? Make them highly resistant to this action. Have them dislike it or hate it. They find it to be a flaw/weakness in others. Then, at the end of the story, they have the weakness.
Some people would call what we're talking about here the character's flaw. I like to say that it is solmething the character is powerless to change but does.
Think of three or four ways this thing that needs to be changed is made evident to the reader.
Change involves: a) healing and b) reconciliation
What is your character's deepest childhood hurt? What incident scared her the most? Which detail of this moment does your hero remember clearest? Which part hurts the most?
Write down one place where something identical happens but in the current day.
In the course of the story there will be something ... an obsession ... that your hero can't let go of. There is a deeper reason why the hero can't let it go. What is the deeper psychological reason?
What other character in the story sees that hidden reason before your character sees it? What will your hero say to that character when that character confronts her? Will she deny it?
Who in the story does the hero most need to forgive? Who do they hold a grudge against?
What would have to happen for the hero to forgive that character? What would it take to make it okay? Let that happen if you can. If it is a change for that character that you can include.
Is there some way your protagonist needs to change. Something they need to let go so that what hurt before doesn't hurt anymore. So that they say, "That's okay. I understand".
Grand Arc: Inner Journey, Inner transformation
What is the most important thing that your hero needs to know about herself that she doesn't?
Write down three reasons your protagonist has not to care about the thing they need to know. Through the story find a way of tearing down each of these three reasons.
What is your protagonist's greatest hope? What is her greatest dream? What is the idea? What is it that they wish for or dream about?
Is there a way for your protagonist to taste what they hope for? Can you put it within their reach?
In what way is your protagonist naive? Is what she hopes for impossible? Childish, unrealistic? Not going to happen? When is your protagonist going to realize this? What will replace that hope or that dream?
I want to challenge you. I challenge you to enact this in the manuscript without exposition. No thoughts or feelings. Dialog only: What truth or principle does your hero cling to the hardest? About the world in general. What do they believe, foundationally, is true? Write down three or four ways you can crush that truth. Three or four ways that you can show that this foundational belief is wrong, flat out wrong.
When does your protagonist have to admit they were mistaken? What does she come to believe instead? What will she do or say to someone else to show this new truth?
End of novel: What will your protagonist see or understand about themselves? Work back and find five places to direct your hero away from what they will learn about themselves at the end. Something OUTWARD, CONCRETE and EXTERNAL. Something keeping them from where they need to be, from where they need to go as a human.
What is the biggest thing that is different about your protagonist because of this change? Remember, this change should be something that the character is seemingly INCAPABLE of doing.
This is opening an emotional landscape, building profound change for your hero. This is NOT plot.
Don Maass mentioned that he tweets weekly breakout prompts.
Wow! I walked out of that class wanting to buy all Don Maass's books. One book everyone has recommended is: Writing the Breakout Novel. That's one book I am definitely reading.
Earlier posts in this series:
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part One: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Three: The Psychology of Plotting, Michael Slade