Sunday, February 5, 2012

Best Writing Advice

Good morning, ladies and gents. As you read this, I'm winging my way to New York City and from there to Europe, so I'm not around to deal with this blog personally today. Instead, I give you Jaden Terrell, author of the Jared McKean mysteries, and - yes - definitely a Southern author, Middle Tennessee born and bred. She's the president of the Middle Tennessee chapter of Sisters in Crime, the executive director of the Killer Nashville crime writers conference, and the nicest person you'll ever meet.

Put your hands together, folks, for the best writing advice Jaden Terrell ever got:

I had written the first draft of my first mystery, a private detective novel in which former homicide detective Jared McKean is framed for murder. I was struggling with the first scene, which required Jared to sleep with a woman he’d just met in a bar. He just wouldn’t do it. Or rather, he would do it (since I’d given him no choice), but no matter how I wrote it, it didn’t ring true. I came at the scene from various angles.

This isn’t me, he’d say.

I’d scowl at him and say, It has to be.

I was still wrangling with the problem as I drove to Florida for the SleuthFest writer’s conference, but I promptly forgot my troubles when I saw Daniel Keyes on the program. Daniel . . . Freakin’ . . . Keyes. The man who wrote “Flowers for Algernon,” one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read. I’ve always said if I could only write one thing in my life, I’d die happy if it were as good as To Kill a Mockingbird or “Flowers for Algernon.”

Keyes spoke on character—or, more specifically, on being true to your character. “Never make a character do anything he wouldn’t do,” he said. “And if he has to do that thing, you have to figure out a motivation that is powerful enough to make him do it.”

They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  I’d heard  the advice before, but it hadn’t resonated. Maybe I just hadn’t been ready to understand it before. Maybe it was because it was being said by a man I’d kept on a pedestal since I was a teenager. Whatever the reason, this time, it was like being struck by lightning.

I knew Jared wasn’t averse to having sex, or even to having sex with someone he hadn’t known that long, but he wasn’t one to pick up strangers in bars. So why did he do it this time? What would make him do it? His ex-wife was celebrating her first anniversary with another man, and Jared was lonely and grieving, but obviously that wasn’t enough. I asked myself, what’s his weakness? What would make him vulnerable to a stranger? Answer: his Galahad complex. His need to rescue others, be a hero. So if the stranger was in trouble . . . A jolt of excitement went through me. I was on the right track, but I wasn’t there yet. What kind of trouble is she in? A flat tire? How could she know he would be the first one to stop? What if . . . ? Then it hit me. What if she came in, all bruised and beaten up, and she asked him to protect her from an abusive boyfriend? It would push all his button and he’d be reeled in and tied off before he knew what was happening. Then she’d use her fear and her desire for comfort to seduce him. He’d be a sitting duck.

That was all it took to make that scene work.

Now whenever my plot stalls, I ask myself if it’s because I’m asking my characters to act against their natures. Sometimes it’s not; it’s a plot hole or a dead end, and I need to go back and fill in the gaps or go in a different direction. But often I realize that the plot calls for a character to do something that’s foreign to him—something he’d normally be opposed to or just not interested in. Then I either need to find an alternative, or I need to discover what would motivate that character to do what needs to be done.

That lecture has helped me through more plot problems than I can count.

Thank you, Daniel.


Real Exams said...

Just Great. You're a big expert.

Jenna said...

Hi, Jaden - thanks for visiting. Ignore Real Exams; apparently he's a comedian... and a spammer. I just can't get into the site right now to remove his comment. Some people just don't have anything better to do...

Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks, Jenna. Please don't remove it just for my benefit. In the absence of other evidence, I choose to believe Real Exams' praise is sincere, but that he doesn't understand that comments often "sound" different in cyberspace than they do in our heads.

I posit that I haven't claimed to be an expert, just a writer sharing something I learned from a REAL expert--the generous and talented Daniel Keyes.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Great advice. I'm sharing it now in hopes that many of us dealing with characters seeking motivation will be inspired. Sure sent me off thinking!

Jaden Terrell said...

Thank you, Augusta. It sure helped me through some sticky plot points.

By the way, I love your name. I had a beloved great-aunt named Augusta, who was the sainliest person I ever met.

Jaden Terrell said...

I meant "saintliest." Sorry.

And Jenna, I see what you mean about Real Exams being a spammer.

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