Vagueness or: You Know, that…that…that…THING!

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!

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “Vagueness or: You Know, that…that…that…THING!

  1. I explore my characters’ past, their personal and family histories. I look for events that caused them to expereince great pain or joy or alienation or guilt or confusion and then I listen and look for the echoes of these events in my characters’ present and future lives.

    Like

    • beckylevine says:

      Hmm…interesting! Not somewhere I’d gone yet. Well, sort of–but with one character’s past onto another’s character. May have to play!

      Like

    • beckylevine says:

      I think that did help for my mystery, but I’m alone on this one in terms of my hero, I think. Trying to figure out what/if anything she and I share & see if I can understand things that way.

      Like

  2. I am done for now [half day at school] but I’ll keep it in mind for tomorrow.

    I just read a long piece on the difference between published and unpublished writers – thoroughly depressing.

    That said it did make me think that I should set up a think board of all the things I’m supposed to keep in my head whilst I write – might use it [possibly] for the NaMoWriMo [maybe] in November [perhaps] as I shouldn’t like to be pinned down : )

    Like

    • Kathleen says:

      Maddy – could you share that list when you’re done? I’m just entering the world of book-length fiction writing and I’d love to see it… I can check back here if you want to post it in the replies. 🙂

      Like

  3. KC Dobbs says:

    Since I’m writing a romance, my protaganist MC is struggling with her present life, and making a change to a much simpler life, with the man she’s fallen in love with. Her character’s experiences come from personal experience; therefore, it is easy for me to draw on that and give the woman a series of events and crises to resolve. These come to me during walks, while sleeping, and just “automatically”. A voice recorder helps to immediately “save”, and is a good source to listen to, and revise.

    Like

  4. What a fascinating way of looking at that speech. (A speech that thrills me every time I hear it — and I think you’re right, it’s partly because it’s so vivid and concret, and so rooted in his own experience.)

    Like

    • beckylevine says:

      It’s funny, Amy. When I hear it, I get kind of lost in King’s voice–a bit caught up in the beauty, but also (and this is only a reflection on the cynic in me, nothing to do with King) probably turned off a bit by the preacher/politician I hear in it. But when I looked at it this morning and READ it, boy, it really hit all over again!

      Like

  5. Dave LaRoche says:

    As in life, vagueness as well ambiguity have a place in our fiction (or our speeches). While I agree that some, maybe most, description needs a bright and colorful pallet, visually demanding of readers’ attention, there are some aspects of both character and plot that do well engaging the imagination. Some clarity is preachy, okay for MLK but not for most authors.

    I write about situaltional morality and conditional ethics, put my characters in puzzles that have no formulaic solution and here, vague and murkey rules big.

    Like

    • beckylevine says:

      Dave, I can kind of see your point, but I think there’s a big difference between ambiguity and vagueness. Things don’t have to be bright and colorful, but even to SHOW that ambiguity, I think they have to be sensory and solid. (You KNEW you were going to get an argument from me, right?!) 🙂

      Like

  6. Oooh…this post just gave me a good idea. I’m not sure if this is exactly what you were getting at, but the gist is the same, I think. I have a character who’s really eager to get himself a new best friend. I think the way I reveal this will be more vivid, and therefore more interesting, if I have him envisioning specific activities he’d be doing with this new friend.

    Like

  7. I loved rereading that speech – makes me feel as if I’ve lived through some amazing history. And I have.

    I don’t have a good strategy for getting to those concrete expressions of my character’s dreams. So much of it I discover along the way – it grows out of the research and some of it emerges out of living. My character walks around with me and whispers to me when something I overhear resonates with him or her. I am constantly amazed at how the things I am living and hearing on the news have parallels to the historical tale I am working on. Or how some random convo about cows feeds my story.

    Really great critiques help too. And yours rock!

    Like

    • beckylevine says:

      I’m working toward still writing it all out & figuring it as I go. I got closer to what some of the problems were that were bugging me this last week & did some brainstorming with my critique group. Still have no idea what will happen next, but have some ideas about how to get there! And boy was THIS comment vague!

      Like

  8. I think the idea of using MLK’s dream speech as an example here is brilliant.

    My thoughts go, I think, the opposite of what you are trying to do and that is that I come up with the concrete goals first and then the thematic goal seem to evolve from there. Because the concrete is coming from the specifics of the character want and the theme comes out of the the way the character tries to get what he wants.

    Many times I hear writers say that the thematic strands don’t appear until they have a first draft. I’m inclined to agree.

    Like

    • beckylevine says:

      Susan,that’s been very true for me up to this book–something about the history involved seems to be reversing the pattern.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s