“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron
If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.
The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.
Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now adding flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.
So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.
But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.
Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.
Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:
“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)
So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.
Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”
Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.
Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.
I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.
If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:
“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind…” ~Paul Simon
Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.
But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!
What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?
Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo