Fleshing it out

Fleshing it out

I confess, this sounds like the start to a horror genre post but it’s not, despite my residence in Stephen King country. No, the image that popped into my head as I was beginning work on a new novel was a scene at the beginning of the visually compelling SF movie The Fifth Element in which Leeloo, the Fifth Element, is reconstituted from DNA from a little bit of her that survived a spaceship crash. All of this to say, I have a writing lesson for myself in all of this.

As I’m starting a new novel, I find that the basic story line feels like bare bones. Basically, my early notes boil down to “stuff happens.” It’s been a while since I’ve started a brand new project from scratch, and it’s my first time being deliberate about it. So as I lay out the major actions and events of the novel it feels like I only have a skeleton, so I’ve been struggling to figure out where the meat of the story will come from.

As a way to move things forward, I’ve returned to a favorite book for thinking about character: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I’d first learned about it at a writing conference where the presenter recommended it as a tool to help you think about complexity in character backstory. While the title sounds a bit strange, it helps me think about the things that shape us, that shape my characters, the hurdles they must overcome, and the scars their past left.

The book is organized in sections like “Crime and Victimization,” “Misplaced Trust and Betrayal,” and even “Specific Childhood Wounds.” Given that my current work is on a new thriller, being able to dial up the stakes for the character from the moment they appear in the book, carrying the baggage of a life already lived before page one, helps add depth, complexity and realism for my characters.

But more than that, the book is a great prompt for me to think about more than the “what” happens, but “why” the characters act as they do and how they react to events that transpire in the book. Most importantly, I find it keeps me from letting my book become a chain of events: A happens, then B happens. Or even A happens, therefore B happens. Instead it lets my explore that “why,” in the way E.M. Forster immortalized it Aspects of the Novel: “The king died then the queen died” is a story; “The king died then the queen died of grief” is a plot. What differentiates the two is the character motivation and emotion. Exactly what I’m working to add to my own draft: meat on the bones.


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