Most of us have heard this advice and thought, “But what I know is boring,” or “What I know has already been written.”
Here’s the thing.
“Write what you know” is not about me writing a story about a woman who got pregnant at 17, married at 18, had some more kids, and divorced before she was 21 (though it might make for a damn good story).
“Write what you know” really should be “Write what emotion you know.”
When I got pregnant at 17, I was scared. Not the “I just watched a scary movie and now I need the lights on” scared, but the deep in your bones, life-changing, all alone scared that doesn’t go away no matter how many lights we leave on. I now know that scared intimately. I can apply that scared to my characters in high stake situations.
That type of scared is the scared that I apply to Katia Billings, a twenty-something emergency worker who finds remains of a woman in a dune on Buxton Beach. An EMS worker finding a body isn’t where my knowledge of this kind of scared comes in. It is when she realizes the body is that of her ex-girlfriend’s mother, a woman who has treated her like a second daughter, that I pull from that knowledge of deep in your bones, life changing, all alone scared that I felt when I was 17.
My challenge to you is to allow yourself to remember and feel the hard emotions. What character have you created who can be brought more to life by applying that emotion? Put him or her in a situation and put the emotion in his or her gut. What happens next will determine the story you write.
Think about someone you recently met. You began creating an impression of that person before he or she even mutter a word. Before dialogue begins, we need to know where your character is in space and how she is absorbing it. Show us her body language. You may not want to give up everything at first, but you must lay the groundwork and reveal personality that will help your audience sympathize with her and feel for her as the story progresses.
2) Does my dialogue directly state what my character is feeling or thinking?
Unlike #1, if your answer is yes to this question you are not on the path to greatness. Stating feelings directly makes for stilted dialogue. Instead, try using subtle subtext. Perhaps your character says something that contradicts what the reader knows she is feeling or thinking, thus creating tension that will drive your characters and your reader forward.
Your story is about a million little things, some of which will barely be mentioned. Maybe it’s about the subversion of women or the patriarchal hierarchy of marriage or the ways in which technology is making us feel less secure. Your character will have these subtextual things swirling behind her words. How the swirling undercurrent affects dialogue will tell your reader a great deal about your character without directly saying the words.
3) What conflicts or obstacles stand in the way of my protagonist’s success?
Think external and internal on this one. Your story will likely contain both as your protagonist embarks on a journey toward becoming a more complete being.
The first obstacle your character encounters is that critical situation that changes her life forever. Once encountered, your character must overcome something, fix something, change something. What is it? How will she get there? What will go wrong? Who will stand in her way? Keep in mind, for an obstacle to work it must be logically connected to everything else that’s happening in the story.
4) Does your character have a strong arc?
Readers want to see transformation. The conflicts and obstacles you determine from question #3 will determine your character’s arc. Your character starts somewhere emotionally and physically, and she ends somewhere else. Change is inevitable for all of us every day, every minute. Know your character’s trajectory before you begin.
This is a big one.The word emotion derives from the Latin emovere, which translates as: to excite, to move, to stir or to agitate.
Emovere will drive every decision your characters make. A character may want redemption or revenge or justice or love. She may want something as simple and as complicated as a raise or a baby. Your job as the writer of her journey is to understand her deepest driving force and to think about it for every scene. Emotion is energy, and energy drives momentum that drives your character to overcome conflict and obstacles.
Listen to your characters before you write their journey. Remember, no matter how perfectly structured your writing, if you can’t move your readers to laugh, cry, scream or tremble, you won’t have succeeded in creating a world that your readers want to return to again and again.