When I critique, I make a lot of notes asking for an author to be more specific, more concrete, to come up with a tangible image or object or action to take place of a vague word or phrase. And when I revise my own work, frankly, I love the magic that happens when I manage to find those vagueness in my writing and replace them with something a reader can touch, hear, see, taste, or smell.
This week I’ve been trying to work on my characters, because as I write my first draft, they’re driving me a bit nuts with their current state of vagueness. I’m finally, DEEPLY realizing the distinction between an action-driven plot and a character-driven plot. Every book, I think, has to have both, but in a mystery–for example–the need to find clues, investigate secrets, and interrogate suspects can drive the big events and actions that move that story forward. Yes, the protagonist had better have a personal goal, as well, but it’s not usually the top-level plot that the reader is following. That’s pretty much the kind of plot I’ve written before. In this WIP, the plot has to be driven by what my MC wants. Yes, of course, external events and actions by other characters will impact her big time, but when I’m looking for what she herself is going to do, or try to do, next, it’s got to be based on her personal goal. Her concrete, specific, tangible goal.
To keep with the theme, I’m going to give you a specific, concrete example. We all know bits and pieces of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We know what it’s about…his dream. Nice and vague. Except he doesn’t let it be. Look at these lines:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with the little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Look at the specificity of what King wants and dreams–his goal. Yes, he uses words like freedom and oppression, but he makes you see the concrete meaning of those dreams in his imagery of the governor, of his own four children, of those red hills of Georgia. You see the tangible, reach-out-and-touch solidity of what this man wants. You see things you could create serious plot points around, and from which he drove his own actions and the actions of millions of other people.
Because they knew what he wanted.
I have the dream part of my MC’s character. I’m still working on those concrete details, those specific things she is driven to go after. So today, with a BIG mug of tea and some good music, I’m asking her more questions. Today and tomorrow, I’ve slotted out for this. I know I won’t get all the way there. I know I’ll still, by Friday, be left with a lot of questions. But they’re getting me closer–they’re showing me what’s missing and will, hopefully, sit in my brain as I go back to writing scenes–pushing me toward something solid.
How do you get to the tangible objects, events, moments your hero wants? How do you take her from that thematic goal to the concrete quest? Share any tips and tricks in the comments–we’ll all benefit!