Creative Writing: Turning a Yawn-Maker Into a Page Turner

Okay, so I’m a day late on this, but yesterday was my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party, so cut me some slack.

I just recently started reading what I would term a suspense thriller. And although it’s jam-packed with problems–conspiracy theories, whistle-blowing, threats of nuclear war, a hint of romance–it didn’t grab me until around page 90. Other books, like Vannetta Chapman’s A Simple Amish Christmas, or Stephanie Gallentine’s Refuge, hooked me almost from page one. So what was it about these books that drew me in while this other one sent my mind adrift? I think the answer lies in characterization. In Vannetta Chapman’s Amish romance, there weren’t any exploding cars, smoking guns, or raging tornadoes–okay, so maybe there were a few hail-producing storms, the emotional kind anyway. But in both of the novels, what hooked me was not the outer conflict so much as the inner turmoil the outer conflict revealed.

So I guess it all boils down to effective characterization. How does the conflict affect your character? How does it stand in the way of their ultimate goal? In my latest novel, Impossible Choices, Alice Goddard’s ultimate goal is to gain love and acceptance. This is her driving need, and it colors everything she does. It taints her perceptions and wreaks havoc on her rationale.

And Trent, her husband? He aches for success, because in gaining it, he will finally find value in himself. Or so he thinks, but in his attempt to slay the dragon lurking within, (Plato reference, here.) he becomes what he fears the most. In his mind, he is the provider, Alice’s knight in shining armor.  And this desire, the desire to perform and provide, colors all he does. It’s what drives him to the poker table. Everything hinges on that next big win, that next promotion, that winning campaign.

And what about their inner demons? Like Alice trying to be that perfect daughter, to fulfill that image of womanhood that has been ingrained in her since she was old enough to talk, and Trent trying to fill the deep void his father’s alcoholism created? And what about their spiritual needs? Their insecurities, fears, phobias? All of my characters, even the minor ones, have enough emotional baggage to fill an entire library worth of books. But because the typical women’s fiction novel only has around 80,000 to 100,000 words, I must choose the action, and responses, that propel my story further, leaving the other baggage for another day. And another book. (Book number two. grin.)

Think about your own life–the things that annoy you, hurt you, anger you, or bring you anxiety. I would suspect that most of your reactions have little to do with the actual event and more to do with your interpretation of the event. And your interpretation is often largely due to the emotional baggage you carry. If you are apprehensive about going to the gym, that is likely due to insecurities based on appearance. Or perhaps a faulty body image. If you are frustrated by your children’s mess left all over the house, this may be due to an overall feeling of being taken for granted. When a commercial makes you cry, it’s probably evoked a memory or exposed a longing.

To write a great story, we need to know our characters deeply. And as they interact with one another and deal with the storms that come their way, each scene should reveal one more piece of their psyche. Not in words: “She has always longed for her mother’s approval.”

But in action:

“She straightened her shirt, tucked her hair behind her ears, and rang the doorbell. Her stomach fluttered at the sound of approaching footsteps. A moment later, her mother opened the door. As usual, her hair was swept back in a french roll and her lips, which curved slightly into an appropriate smile, were painted to match her long fingernails.

“Jane, what a surprise.” Her eyes darkened as her gaze swept over Jane.

Jane tugged on the hem of her blouse and looked past her.

Okay, so I’m not going to write an entire scene here, but truthfully, it often takes an entire scene, an entire book, really, to accurately portray a character. But the scenes used should also propel your story forward. Characterization and plot development go hand in hand. Your story should revolve around your character and your character must react, on an emotional level, to the story.

Some great questions to ask while developing your characters:

What is (your character) most afraid of?

What do they long for most?

What was their childhood like?

What was their relationship with their parents like?

What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them and why was this embarrassing?

Where are they most comfortable?

How do they relax?

What situations cause them anxiety?

What types of clothes might they wear? Do they wear make-up? How much time do they spend on their hair? Do they paint their nails? For males: shave regularly or sporadically? Wear cologne? Frequently wear dirty/stained clothes. lol

Are they spontaneous or do they plan ahead?

Are they risk-takers or are they more cautious and analytical?

Neat and tidy or messy?

(These are just starters.)

I like to visit various psychology sites when I’m developing my characters. Here’s two of my favorites: Personality Pathways and HumanMetrics.

Then, once I’ve uncovered my characters’ basic personality traits, I get more specific and research that trait more fully and whatever quirks they have. For example, Trent Goddard is a risk-taker. Once I’ve determined that, I visit other sites like Psychology Today to find out more about risk-takers. Then, as I write various scenes, I ask myself: “How would a risk taker drive?”  “What would a risk-taker’s dialogue sound like?”, ect.

And, because Trent’s an alcoholic gambler, I spent a fair amount of time watching “Intervention”. I also visited numerous gambling and alcoholism-recovery chat rooms and websites. Because Alice, his wife, is an enabler, I visited Al-Anon and other similar sites. What I learned both created scenes and deepened them. Although, much to my husband’s chagrin, it also created rooms worth of post-it notes, scribbled sheets of paper, google-image print-outs, and partially filled spiral notebooks. And just when I thought I was ready to clear away the clutter, book number two invaded my mind, quickly spilling over into the office.

How Has Grace Changed You?

Most of the time when you hear people talk about Christianity and their new life in Christ, you hear a lot about outward behavioral changes. Maybe they’ve given up drinking, or stopped swearing, or maybe they spend more time with their kids when they used to camp out at work. And those are all good things. But by themselves, they’re nothing more than behavior modification. Before each change took place–each genuine change–there was a change of heart. A healing. A restoration. A breaking free from bondage.

The Bible says that Jesus Christ came to set us free.  Free to live authentic lives. Joyful lives. Peaceful lives. As I look back over all the things God has done for me, that is what I value most of all–the emotional freedom. The soul-soaking peace that comes from knowing you are deeply loved. I’m often amused as I think of all the creative ways He’s changed me. Although, not all of them were pleasant. In fact, the ones that penetrated the deepest and brought about the most healing were painful. But looking back, I wouldn’t change a moment. I wouldn’t take back a single tear.

The biggest change in me, and in my marriage, occurred about four years ago when my husband and I found ourselves without a job living in a five hundred square foot temporary apartment. At the time, my heart broke. In under a year, we’d moved from California to Louisiana to Texas then to Missouri. This may sound insignificant to some, especially those who love to move, but it shattered me. Not just because of all the relationships I would be leaving–attaching to one church, only to say goodbye once again. Watching close friendships dwindle to an occasional email. Watching my daughter long for close peer relationships only to move again the moment they were formed.–The majority of my pain came from the emotional garbage each move stirred up. And perhaps if I hadn’t been a Christian, that painful time would have made me bitter, but it didn’t. To be honest, I’m grateful for every single tear I shed. Because looking back, God did so much in my heart during that time, I’ll never be the same. My marriage will never be the same. Our family will never be the same. And I thank God for that.

Prior to this time, I had quite the collection of baggage I lugged around. It colored my marriage, my friendships, even my day to day. I think fear was my dominant trait. Trying desperately to avoid experiences from the past, I had everything down to an agenda. A plan. As long as we had x amount of money in the bank, went on x amount of dates, and had x amount of family time, everything would be okay.

And my husband had his own baggage he lugged around. As you can imagine, our closets were jam packed! And his driving trait? Fear. Same as mine, only instead of running from his past, he was dodging his future. As long as he worked enough hours, got that next promotion, and came up with enough innovative ideas, he was great.

Everything was just peachy.

And most onlookers probably would have agreed with our superficial assessment. But God wasn’t fooled. As the Bible says, man looks on the outside but God looks at the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7) and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t hide the dark shadows, the thick cobwebs, and gigantic tears. So what did He do? Like a loving, gentle Father, He began to clear those things away, broom sweep by broom sweep.

If He would have asked me how I’d best like to deal with everything, I probably would have asked for a band-aid. Maybe I’d tidy things up a bit, stack all my luggage in one corner, splashed an extra coat of paint on the walls to go with the smile painted on my lips, and call it good. But God wanted more. God wanted me to be free.

The Bible tells us that Jesus came that we may have life and have it to the full. (John 10:10) I’m not sure if we really understand what that means, but I do know this: A full life is not one clouded with past hurts. A full life is not controlled by fear. A full life is not tainted with bitterness or anger. A full life–a spirit-filled life, a grace-changed life, is a life of freedom, of peace, and joy. That, my friends, is the life Jesus came to offer us.

But sometimes the getting there is hard. I think if we were honest with ourselves, we have this vision of God sitting up in heaven magically twinkling his nose, instantly zapping our heart to wellness. Now, I’m not saying that instantaneous emotional healing doesn’t occur. I’m just saying I’ve never experienced it. My healing has always been the sweat and tears kind–the result of God bringing me to a place where I would experience anew my greatest fears and deepest pains, but with a twist. A twist of grace. Like He did with our four moves. When all else was taken away, and God showed up and held our family together–actually made us stronger, I realized that I no longer had to. And when my husband’s worst fear, unemployment, occurred, and God stepped up and provided for his family, he realized that he no longer had to. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a husband should not provide and I am certainly not saying that a woman should not maintain her home. What I am saying is that the responsibility ultimately lands on God. We are called to obey. He has promised to take care of the rest. And sometimes it takes Him stripping everything away, bringing us to the place we fear the most, so that we can see His hand.