Lessons from the Writing Workshop #11 — Characters

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #11 — Characters

Whether you are writing fiction or memoir, stories have people in them (even in Disney’s WALL-E, the machines have full personalities; in Watership Down, author Richard Adams invest his rabbits with human-like qualities and behaviors). Characters give the reader someone to identify with and someone to root for.

The skilled writer renders characters that are specific; they seem real. Characters that feel generic or merely formed around an idea (the ditzy blonde, the strong silent type) don’t satisfy readers. Readers look for complexity, contradiction, the quirks that endear or annoy. Whether the characters are like people they know or are incredibly different from themselves, readers are looking to bond.

Writers investigate the lives of their main characters—what they were like as children, what their favorite food is, what scares them, what they keep in their bathroom cabinet, what are their secrets. The writer will know much more information than they share with the reader, but such knowledge helps the writer understand what this character will do in a given situation.

Ideally, the writer is not imposing a personality or set of traits upon the character. I tend to believe characters already exist fully formed somewhere in my imagination; I see it as my job not to decide who the character is, but to listen to them as they tell me who they are. Like anyone, a character wants to be known, to be represented accurately. It’s worth it for the writer to invest time and attention into getting to know them. Listening also helps to bring forward a character’s voice—their unique speech patterns and conversational tics, as well as the content of their expression.

Like anyone, a character is most revealed by what they do. Some beginning writers just have their characters sit around and think about things, or have an omniscient narrator describe who the character is. It’s not that interesting when the writer analyzes a character or tells the reader what the character is like, but it’s fascinating when a character takes action that shows the reader who they are. In a recent workshop, a writer introduced an otherwise-classy-appearing woman who proceeds to key the Mercedes of a driver who’d cheated her out of a parking space; the action conveyed more about the character than any description could.

I mentioned this in an earlier post but it bears repeating—we don’t want to read about a character who never does anything wrong and or a character who never does anything right. Even our heroes are more likeable when they have some flaws, and even the most reprehensible villains have positive qualities that humanize them. People are complicated, and your characters seem more realistic when they are too.

In addition to making characters real, we also want to understand their dramatic function in the story. Are they the protagonist (the character the reader will root for, the character who will undergo the most change in the story)? Are they the antagonist (the character who will try to stop the protagonist from achieving their quest)? They might be a support character (best friend, buddy or sidekick) or a contrast character (someone unlike the protagonist, so the reader can compare them) or the love interest. You might occasionally have characters whose function is to provide weight and mass (a group of bullies waiting after school for the young protagonist; a crowd of neighbors who shun the new arrival to the neighborhood), although these characters may remain undifferentiated.

Sometimes a writer will include too many characters in the story. Sometimes they will write characters who have no dramatic function; they’re just there in the story. I see this frequently in memoirs, where every member of a family is chronicled, even if most of them do not have a role in this particular story. Sometimes a writer will include characters with duplicate dramatic functions (two best friends, for example, where one would suffice.)

Characters need names, unless they are insignificant and/or part of a crowd. They also need physicality. No one wants a list of generic descriptors: “brown eyes, caramel skin, curly dark hair, about 5’4”, 140 pounds, usually wears jeans and tee shirts and running shoes.” Such details don’t help us to know the character. Better to use the opportunity of physically describing them to also show us something about who they are (“Jenna’s olive-green eyes were near-sighted, but she was too vain to wear glasses, so she often appeared to be squinting, as if trying to figure out whether to believe you or not.”)

Characters have histories; they come from locations, from families, from cultures and religions and economic circumstances that have shaped their personalities. Of course you don’t want to stop the story to give a big chunk of description or backstory; it’s far better to interweave such details into the action of the story (“It was only as he stood up to leave that she noticed a slight limp when he walked. She remembered the story he’d told about the war that had devoured his childhood in El Salvador. For a moment she wanted to hold him there.”)

We also want to see how a character changes over the course of a story. The protagonist is likely to have the biggest character arc; the significance of the events of the story is often revealed in the change the protagonist undergoes. But any character we follow throughout the story can have an arc, even if it’s not as dramatic as that of your main character. Depending on the plot of the story, the change may be internal (a change of mind or a shift of perspective) or external (a choice made, an action taken) and the consequences may be modest (the character will have a happier life in the future) or immense (the hero saves the world from blowing up.)

It is frequently the characters that stay with us once we have finished a story or novel. They have become real to us; we’ve suffered with them, cheered them on, and often find ourselves transformed along with them. We may re-read the work over and over in order to spend more time in their presence. Because the writer has been skillful, we’ve come to know these characters, and we miss them like we miss an old friend.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #10: Re-Vision

To be a writer, you need to love the writing process. It’s a process of ongoing discovery, the discovery of the wisdom your work wants to convey. If you already know everything that’s going to be in your work, that work is going to be D.O.A. As Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press says, “If you don’t discover anything while you’re writing your work, the reader isn’t going to discover anything from reading it.” It’s an archeological process; you can’t discover that wisdom all at once; we discover it layer by layer. This is why revision is your friend.

It’s the job of a first draft to be insufficient. Sometimes an emerging writer may feel like it’s a rebuke to be asked to revise a work, as if they have somehow failed. Writing is the only art form in which there’s the expectation that you’ll get it right the first time—musicians know they have to practice constantly; actors rehearse; painters paint over their canvasses; dancers spend grueling hours each day performing the same positions.

When your first draft is insufficient your haven’t failed; you’ve succeeded in completing a first draft. When we’re lucky, the first draft maps the general territory the work wants to explore. But there’s a lot we still don’t know at the end of the first draft. Now the real work begins.

Revision is not editing.  Re-vision literally means to see again, perhaps to see anew.

Sometimes you have an idea of what you’re trying to say; revision gives you the opportunity to measure what you’ve said against what you meant. In the process of revision, you may also become aware of additional perspectives, additional angles, additional layers that you couldn’t have seen before that first articulation.

Or maybe you have no idea what you are trying to say. Revision gives you the opportunity to discover the meaning or meanings in what you have written (another word for this is themes), and then to craft the work to deepen those meanings.

Revision isn’t a one-step process.  It’s not just “first draft/revise/done.” A piece may get “worse”—more disorganized, more self-conscious—in a second draft, but that’s not your last chance. Writing offers endless opportunities for redemption. A piece may undergo several revisions, until you’ve discovered as much of that wisdom as you can. The poet Mary Oliver reports that she revises a poem 50-75 times before she is satisfied. Don’t be in a hurry to be done; again, love the process.

As you approach revision, don’t have it in your mind that you are trying to “fix” something (revision is NOT editing). Approach revision with the goal of seeing more, learning more, understanding more, adding power, adding depth, adding risk, adding artfulness. Don’t worry about making it “good”—make it real, make it true, make it meaningful, make it, as Jane Hirshfield suggests, more strange.

How to approach revision if you’re working on your own:

  1. Put away your first draft for a while. Give yourself time to gain some distance, and thus, perspective. How long a time depends on how quickly you can come to see it as a thing in its own right, disconnected from your ego, your ambitions, your intentions.
  2. Interrogate the work and interrogate yourself as its maker. Here are some questions to ask:
    • What meanings have you made? Are these what you intended?
    • Have you made it possible for a reader who does not know you to understand these meanings?
    • Have you made it likely that a reader who does not know you will care about what you have said?
    • What do you want a reader to take away from the work?
    • What have you risked? Have you risked enough? Are you shrinking from some risk in the piece?
    • What have you discovered? Is there more to discover?
    • What of your own questions remain unanswered? What needs to happen for you to answer them?
    • What are the missed opportunities?
  3. Assess the craft elements in the piece:
    • Does the plot reveal the significance of the events that take place?
    • Are the characters believable, dimensional, unique?
    • Is the world of the story—the time and place—rendered so that the reader can enter the experience and know where they are?
    • Does the structure support the reader’s journey through the piece?
    • What are your themes and do you understand the hierarchy of them?
    • What is the voice of the piece and how does that support its meaning?
    • Are your images specific, concrete, sensory and fresh?
    • Does the language/diction help to deliver the world of the piece to the reader?
    • What is the music of the piece—pacing, rhythms, language?
  1. Make a plan for what you will tackle in the next revision. Don’t try to accomplish everything you think needs to be done. Choose one or two things to focus on; choose the most important things to tackle first.
  2. Save your previous draft and then let nothing be sacred as you approach the revision. Risk, experiment, be bold in trying things out. If you make a wrong turn, you can always go back to the previous draft. Let each draft be as playful, as rich with discovery as your first.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

We’ve all been in those workshops. You present a piece of writing and everybody jumps in to tell you what to do to fix it. Some of the suggestions seem like they might be useful, but some are contradictory (one person says, “My favorite part was the first paragraph,” while another insists, “I think you could lose that first paragraph.”) Someone urges you to radically re-direct the work, make it something else entirely than what you had imagined, something more like what they would enjoy reading.

The expectation is that you will go home and revise according to what everyone has said and bring back a product that has been improved by the group’s input. Instead you get home and feel a little discouraged. You’re not sure how to recapture the energy you felt about the work. Maybe you set about to try to incorporate the feedback, but the piece starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster. Or maybe you decide to just put it away for a while until you can get back in touch with your own vision for the work.

For many years, I followed this kind of format as a workshop leader, because it was what I had often experienced as a writing student. But I saw too many writers revising work according to feedback they received and sometimes losing touch with their own vision. I saw workshop participants merely reinforcing their own tastes in their feedback, rather than learning to appreciate strengths in work very different from what they would choose to read. I also sometimes saw writers become risk-averse, writing (or at least bringing in) works they knew would go over well in the workshop, instead of taking big chances and trying stuff out even though it might not succeed. To me, creating a climate in which writers feel safe to take big risks is perhaps the most important value a workshop can offer, so it was distressing to see the process yielding the opposite result.

I began to re-think the purpose of a writing workshop and to consider what writers actually need in terms of feedback. The writer’s dilemma is that, because we are so immersed in the material we are writing, it’s hard to step back and see the results separate from our intentions. One thing important workshop readers can provide is a sense of what they are receiving from the work. Not whether they like it or not, not how they would have created it, but what are they getting out of it? This allows the writer to assess how close they’ve come to fulfilling their intentions.

I also believe it is essential for the writer to retain agency over the work. A piece of writing has its own integrity when it is first imagined—content, form, style. I see my job as instructor to be assisting the writer to best fulfill their intentions for the work. Sometimes they need skill-building, sometimes they need permission to risk more, sometimes they need to overcome internal obstacles (fear, self-doubt). Sometimes it’s useful to them to brainstorm ideas. I can provide those things. But it is not my job as instructor, nor the job of other participants, to “fix” the writing of another writer. I have seen it become proprietary (“why didn’t you take my suggestion; it was really good”), and that can actually be harmful to the writer.

So in the majority of the workshops I instruct these days, we use this process:
• The writer reads the work aloud; participants have copies and follow along;
• The group members take a bit of time to re-read on their own and formulate their thoughts;
• Participants first talk about the meanings they found in the work. That might be an overall meaning or a partial meaning. [Here’s an example: “The meaning I found in your story is that the mother is looking to the daughter to rescue her, and it puts a burden on the daughter who thinks she has to be Super-Woman.”)
• Next, the group talked about what they noticed in the work. Notices are not evaluative; they’re observational. [“I notice that a really big event has already happened to the protagonist when we first meet her.” “I notice several words that I didn’t know the meaning of.” “I notice the humor in the piece.”]
• Then the group is encouraged to pose questions to the writer. These might be questions about form or content or what-if questions. [“What if the piece were told chronologically?” “Why does the protagonist lie about where she comes from?” “What are the rules of this alternative reality you’ve created?”]

You’ll notice there is no moment for participants to say what they liked or didn’t like, to say what’s working or not working. These subjective assessments are just not that useful to writers, nor do the other participants learn much from it. If a reader has found something pleasing, they will learn more from identifying what the writer has done to create that pleasure [“I notice the imagery; I really get to experience the scene you’re writing.”] Similarly, if something is disrupting that pleasure, participants learn from being able to zero in on what that is.

You’ll also notice we don’t give advice. The questions are as close as we come. It’s very different to be asked, “What if you started out right in the middle of the action” than to be told, “Cut out that whole first page and start on page 2.” In the first example, the writer gets to consider, “What if?” I might decide that I could let go of most of the first page, but the detail about the protagonist’s secret is really important to understanding the action, and maybe I need to emphasize that more. I retain the vision and the decision-making power over my work.

Following this conversation, the writer is asked to talk about what they discovered in the process of writing the piece (I find that if the writer hasn’t discovered anything, if the writer is only writing what they already know, then the reader doesn’t discover much either). Finally, the writer may ask any questions they have of the group. Sometimes a writer will want to clarify something a reader has said, or the writer may be wondering about an issue nobody brought up in the discussion. They might ask the group to brainstorm solutions to a problem they’re having. A writer could, at this point, ask “What works and what doesn’t,” but for the most part, they don’t.

I’ve found that a lot of the “advice” or proposed solutions that are given in a workshop are not right. It may be right for the person who gave the advice, but it’s often not right for the work of this particular writer and their vision for the work. Most advice is more about the person who is giving it than an appropriate solution to the writer’s perceived problem with the work.

So if you’re a writer, should you even be in a workshop?

YES, but not to find a committee who will “fix” your writing. Writer can be a lonely activity and writers benefit from the supportive community a workshop can provide, a place to share your process and a group to cheer you on. Writers, as mentioned before, benefit from being able to perceive their work outside their own minds; the reflections of other group members help you to see what you have actually created, rather than what you meant to create. The process of receiving questions helps the writer to re-see their work, understand better the choices they made, and engage with expanded possibilities.

Here are a few guidelines that help you to benefit most from workshop critique:

  • Make clear to the readers what stage the work is in (there’s no reason to focus on line edits if the work is in an early, conceptual stage, for example. Or if this is an almost final draft and you’re ready to send it out, it won’t be helpful if someone asks you to go back to the beginning and start over in a new direction.)
  • Don’t take it personally. I know, this is can be hard. Our writing is important to us and we want it to be brilliant. It’s not fun to find out that the work is not yet brilliant. But that’s the beauty of writing; it can always be revised.
  • Write down every comment you receive, even if it seems dumb in the moment. You can’t know what might seem useful later.
  • If you get some feedback you don’t understand, ask the person to clarify.
  • Give yourself a minimum of 24 hours to absorb the feedback you’ve received before taking any action about it. If you still feel emotional about the feedback, give yourself longer.
  • When you are ready to think about the feedback, consider everything with an open mind. Often the proposed solution isn’t right, but it can still point you in the direction of something in the writing you could pay more attention to.
  • Keep in mind your own vision for the work and your intentions. Don’t let the group become the authority on your piece. Take what is useful to you and let the rest go.
  • If there’s an idea that intrigues you, let yourself explore it and see where it goes. It doesn’t mean it will necessarily end up in your final draft, but often there is further discovery to be gained in pursuing new directions.

In the best workshops, you will learn as much from reading the work of others and giving feedback as you do from receiving critique on your own work. And the reflections you do receive should help spur you to dig deeper, to be more clear, to take more risks, and to find more satisfaction in the work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8:   Plot and the Novel

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8: Plot and the Novel

When I began to write my first novel, I didn’t know anything about writing a novel. I had read hundreds of novels, but had always allowed myself to be immersed in the story and hadn’t studied their construction. My early writing education took place within a feminist context—with wonderful instructors such as Marge Piercy and Deena Metzger—and had focused more on permission and experimentation than on literary technique.

I hadn’t planned on writing novels. It was just that an idea appeared to me and said, “I need to be a novel.” Even then, I knew better than to argue with my writing. This was a novel that imagined a reunion of 1970s feminists reconvening in the late 80s to consider what they had and had not accomplished. So I wrote a draft and revised it, and a friend introduced me to a literary agent who was also a feminist. I sent her my draft, then flew to New York to meet with her.

In the back of the taxi on the way to that appointment, I was Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” living of the dream of being in New York, meeting with someone whom I was certain would become my literary agent. If I’d been wearing a hat I would have thrown it into the air.

At the meeting, the agent sat across from me with my manuscript in front of her. She shoved it across the table and said, “Put a murder in it.” I was outraged. I wasn’t writing detective fiction; I was writing about feminism. I was stunned. I hope I managed to be polite. I stumbled back down the stairs to the street, my bright imagined future disappearing before my eyes.

It took a long time for me to understand what that agent was talking about, and that she was right. The missing ingredient in that novel was plot. A bunch of women gather to talk about feminism—so what?

I had come of age during a moment when writers were disavowing plot; they were creating stories in which people sat around and talked about things and nothing happened. These were writers who had likely been trained in the device of plot, and were trying something new, suspending that element of story. I was a writer who hadn’t been trained in that element, and I needed to learn how it worked.

I came to understand that a story is a record of change, and that change, no matter how subtle or how obvious, needs to be present. Plot is the device that allows you to demonstrate that change.

Sometimes I call it the engine that powers the car. It doesn’t matter how pearlized the paint job or how shiny the rims—without an engine, the car won’t go anywhere.

Readers want to know what they are investing their time in. They want to have a pay-off for reading. The protagonist needs to have a quest (something they want, something they’re seeking) and this helps to establish a central question for the story: will the protagonist achieve their quest?

Readers also want to know what’s at stake, what does the protagonist stand to gain or lose by how that question is answered. It’s the stakes that make them care.

I recently read the first 80 pages of a student’s novel. She had a compelling voice, a powerful situation and believable characters, but each scene read like an episode, one after the next, without a sense of what we were building toward. I suggested she give her protagonist a quest, something she is working toward or hoping for, to give the pages more dramatic momentum.

Sometimes students push back, just as I initially did with the agent’s advice. They think I am asking them to reduce their complex meanings into a simplistic formula. But that’s not the case. A novel has more to say than its plot would indicate; the elements of character, setting, and theme, in particular, work to deliver those layers of meaning. When we go for a drive, it is the scenery along the way and the destination that we care about; but it’s the engine, the plot, that allows us to move down the road.

Eventually I wrote my first novel again (well, several more times) and I took the agent’s advice. I put a murder into that novel, the rape and murder of the daughter of one of those 1970s feminists. Suddenly the women had a compelling reason to gather, they had a reason for evaluating their movement, and we had a question: who had committed this murder?

If this were “That Girl,” Marlo Thomas would have gone back to the agent, shown her the new draft of the first novel and been signed on the spot. She would have tossed her hat up into a blue sky. Reality is always more complicated. That first novel, The Labrys Reunion, was eventually published, but it took twenty-one years from the time I first conceived of it. But that story can be the subject of another blog post, one called “Patience.”


Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

It happens to all creative people at one time or another: We turn on the faucet and nothing pours out. We hear the wind blowing across the arid desert. We feel empty. Disconnected. Blocked.

We may feel we have no ideas. We may feel that what we’re producing is terrible. We may feel bored. Or terrified.

If we have a flair for the dramatic (and most creative people do) we may panic, think our creativity has deserted us and is Never. Coming. Back.

As a writing teacher, I have heard (and sometimes uttered) these laments more times that I can count, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about some different kinds of blocks and how to work with them.

  1. Disturbances in the Field — Life does sometimes get in the way. If you are physically ill or emotionally upset, if you have a heavy deadline at work, if you are moving or giving birth, you may find this interferes with your ability to be creative.
  • If the interruption is finite, a few days or a couple of weeks, you might just give yourself a break and take some time away from your creative practice, or decide to just devote a small amount of time each day to doing exercises without an expectation of producing a product.
  • If the interruption is of a long or uncertain duration, it’s worth it to figure out how you can navigate your circumstances so that you can maintain a creative practice. Sometimes this is a matter of devoting a limited amount of time (I once wrote the first draft of a novel in increments of half an hour a day) or finding a space outside your environment to work in (libraries, coffee shops, public gardens are a few ideas).
  • If I’m really busy, it can be hard to connect immediately to my own creativity, so engaging in meditation or creative play (dancing around my living room, sculpting a ball of Play-Doh into the form of a cat) can help shift me into a different part of my brain.
  • If you find that something is always going on that disrupts your creativity, then it might be worth looking at whether there is fear involved (see #4 below).
  1. Perfectionism — We think what we write is supposed to be “good” as soon as it comes onto the page or screen. But as soon as I start trying to be “good,” I freeze.
    Sometimes I have to tell myself that I am going to write the worst first draft anyone has ever seen (knowing that I can always make it better during the revision process) in order to free myself up to write something. Putting aside the ego and writing badly is a great way around a block.


  1. Lack of information — You’re inspired to write a story set in Iceland one hundred years ago. But you don’t know anything about Iceland one hundred years ago.
    It is reasonable to conduct research and make that part of your creative process. Go to your local library and ask the librarian to help you find resources. You don’t have to know everything before you start writing. Even a little research can get you started, then you can alternate between research and writing.
  1. Fear — Fear is the biggest block. We fear the content of what we are writing about. We fear the ambition of our writing projects. We fear the power of the work that wants to come through us. We fear falling short of our expectations. Fear has many manifestations. If you think it’s boredom, it’s probably fear that is masking itself as boredom.
    The first strategy is to name it, to look it in the eye, acknowledge it
    • The second strategy is to figure out just who is afraid—is it you now, or is it some younger version of yourself (“my sixth grade teacher told me I would never be able to write anything people would want to read”)?
    • If it’s you right now that is afraid, ponder this saying from 12-Step meetings: F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. Where might you be buying in to false evidence? One way we do this is to get ahead of ourselves (“What if I write this, and it becomes a bestseller, and my mom’s friends tell her what I said about her?”) In the present, your only concern is to write the work; everything else is an imagined future that might not play out that way at all.
    • If it’s your younger self who is afraid, find out what they need from you to feel more secure. Just as you would comfort a child who had a nightmare, you can soothe the younger being who is in you, reassuring them that the monster is not real and you are there to protect them. Ask that younger self to help you with the project; enlist them to cooperate with you instead of resisting.


  1. My favorite quote about blocks comes from the poet Judy Grahn (if you don’t know her, you’ll want to), who said, “When the apple tree isn’t bearing apples, no one says that tree has a fruit block.” She was referring to the fact that, like plants, humans have seasons, a time to be creative and a time to go fallow. The expectation that we are like factories and will churn out product 365 days a year is a distortion of natural cycles. We all need time to restore our energies, refuel our imaginations. Sometimes we need to be taking in the beauty of nature, new experiences, new places, reading books or engaging with art/music/performance by others. It might not be a block at all; you might just be in need of rest or nourishment.


Text by Terry Wolverton

Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


Lessons from the Writing Workshop #6: Conflict

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #6: Conflict

As writers, we talk a lot about conflict when we’re crafting our stories. Your protagonist wants something, but obstacles prevent them (or delay them) from attaining it or achieving their goal. Then they have to take action to try to overcome those obstacles.

In the work of emerging writers, I will sometimes see protagonists who have no goal. Or protagonists who face no opposition. Or protagonists who take no action. The stories are often beautifully written but they have little momentum and little for the reader to wonder about.

Why conflict? A lot of writers tell me they don’t really like conflict and don’t want to bring it into their work. However, it is through facing challenges and figuring out how to surmount them that we grow and change. We can see it in our own lives; when everything is just humming along, you might grow a little complacent. But then a relationship change occurs, or we move, or lose our job, or get ill, and we have to find the resources within ourselves to meet that challenge.

Story is a record of change. We tell story to learn how to initiate, respond to or manage change. If everything is fine, you don’t really need a story about it. “How was your day?” someone might ask. “Oh, pretty good, I guess.” We have nothing to say. But if there’s been conflict, we have a story to tell, “I was standing in line at the bank, and this guy came in with a gun and tried to rob it!”

Even in the natural world, stresses in the environment spur evolution in plants and animals and ecosystems. So, too, we want our characters to evolve in our stories.

The four classic conflicts are:

Person vs. Person

Somebody doesn’t want your protagonist to get what they want. This antagonist may be well-meaning (a parent who fears if their kid goes to art school instead of law school, the kid won’t be able to earn a living) or of ill intent (the rival who wants the job your protagonist is up for.)

Person vs. Society

Your protagonist is an outsider in some way, not accepted by the family, the community, or the culture. This alienation stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their quest.

Person vs. Nature

There are forces you can’t argue with and Nature is one of them. The storm is going to come, the fire is spreading, the earth shakes open beneath your feet. How is your protagonist going to survive, and will they save others?

Person vs. Self

Many stories, including many memoirs, revolve around this conflict: how am I going to get over myself or get out of my own way? It may be defensive patterns, ignorance, or unhealed emotional wounds that are the obstacles to the protagonist getting what they want. In the course of the story they will either overcome this, or they will resign themselves to not achieving their goal.

In many cases, such internal conflict can be generated in the difference between what the protagonist expected and what actually happens. I was sure they were going to agree to publish my book but they didn’t. Or I thought I could get across town in 20 minutes but it took me 45 and I missed my court date. Some writers fear that conflict means they have to add fights or big action scenes, but not every story requires that. Internal tension can provide the conflict some stories need.

Even poetry can benefit from tension or conflict. These might come through a narrative element similar to those described above, but might also come from other techniques:
• putting words together that seem to conflict: “a harsh tenderness,” “the arid lake”;
• using words with dissonant sounds, a combination of soft and hard—“janky sweetness”;
• combining long lines and short lines or disrupting rhythmic patterns.
A reader may not be consciously aware of your use of these kind of non-narrative techniques, but it will lend the poem the friction you seek.

When conflict arises, we never quite know what’s going to happen, and this serves to engage the reading in wanting to find out.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5

In a workshop the other day we were talking about the best ways to convey strong emotion in your written work. “The goal,” I said to a student, “is to evoke emotion in the reader, not to tell the reader that the writer or the character felt emotional.”

Emotion is difficult to write about. Words like “sad, mad, happy” are abstract; they convey information but not experience. It’s important to remember that the word “Feeling” can refer to either emotion or sensation, and one very effective way to describe emotion is through the physical sensations produced.

If I write, “As if by its own volition, her fist began to curl and clench. Her face grew hot and her arm cocked back, readying itself to punch; she willed it to remain at her side,” a reader will understand palpably the character’s anger because they will have an experience of it.

If I write, “A wounded bird is trapped in the cavern of my chest,” a reader will have a more vivid experience than if I just said, “I feel sad.” The former offers a particularity of sadness that, while not literal, a reader can imagine. Figurative language (metaphor, simile, things not literally true) can be a powerful technique to convey emotion: “It always seemed to be raining outside his bedroom window.”

While we want the character or poetic persona to be emotional, and the writing to evoke emotions in the reader, the author should try to keep their emotions out of it. A rule of thumb is that the more an author’s emotions are present in the work, the less room there is for the reader’s emotions. Part of the reason for this is that the author may be doing all the work for the reader, telling them how to feel, which leaves no space for the reader’s engagement in the work.

Another pitfall is sentimentality, which I would describe as “received emotion.” That is, as writers, we lapse into the expected feeling. Grandma has died and everyone is sad. This is nothing against Grandma, but life is more complex than that. Grandma has died and I feel guilty that I didn’t bring her groceries every week like I promised I would. Or Grandma has died and I never had the courage to come out to her. Or Grandma has died and I’m so relieved I won’t have to smell the liver and onions she cooked anymore. Or I never really liked Grandma all that much anyway. The reader has nothing to learn from the easy sentiment, but much to learn from the complex truth of human emotions.

An additional technique writers use is the “objective correlative.” First identified by T.S. Eliot (though he was not the first to use it), this is the strategy of describing an object as a way of conveying the emotion of a scene: A couple is in trouble, their relationship is coming apart. Rather than offering an analysis of their dynamics, the author sends them out for dinner and one of them orders a steak. But the meat is over-cooked, it is dry and can barely be chewed, indigestible. The steak correlates to the feeling about the failing relationship, but the author keeps us focused on the inedible steak. The reader feels the character’s disappointment, frustration, hunger unsated, all without resorting to interpretive language that tells rather than shows. So much can happen with that steak: the character can eat it until they feel sick; they can throw it on the floor; they can use it to provoke an argument with the waitress.

In Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, she argues that literature both requires us to use our emotions in order to understand it, and at the same time literature educates and improves our emotions as well as our ability to cope with them. Readers of poetry and literary prose are looking to have their emotions aroused; it is one of the great benefits of literature to provide a mirror of one’s inner life and a safe place to externalize it. Writers cultivate the skills to facilitate this emotional experience for the reader.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.