How to Make Small Talk (In Fiction) Interesting

Most writers could attest to associating small talk with pulling teeth (or any other painful experience). This is because we as writers are attuned to the sole fact that good stories are jam packed with meaningful and life changing conversations between characters. The kinds of conversations people rarely have in real life, but if were to summon the courage and honesty they require, their lives could also be drastically changed.

In turn, this is one of the biggest reasons why I think people gravitate toward fiction. The Very Heart and Soul of Fiction is the relationships between characters and readers love to live vicariously through them to experience what it’s like to speak from the bottom their hearts.

So it’s no wonder that small talk and in real life are painfully boring to sit through. Imagine the following passage to be from a novel and then tell me if you would keep on reading.

“Hey, how have you been?” Martin asked.

“I’ve been okay,” Sonya replied. “How about you?”

“I’ve been good.”

“That’s good. What did you do today?”

“I just worked and studied, how about you?”

“Me too.”

*snore*

Next!


Now normally I think such a conversation in real life and in fiction would be incredibly boring, but I’ve come to step down from my high horse of the Meaningful Conversations Only or Go Away mentality and have come to understand the importance of small talk. And yes it is actally important.

Why you ask?

It’s because small talk is how we gauge each other’s level of engagement with life and with others. When people talk to each other, what’s more important than what they talk about is how they talk to each other. Or put more succinctly, how they can make each other feel as they talk.

So my proposal is that if you have a work in progress that has a scene you fear might suffer from too much small talk, here are some ways you can beef it up to make it interesting:

1. Add Meaningful Action

“Hey, how have you been?” Martin asked offering his hand to shake.

2. Add Meaningful Re-Action

“I’ve been okay,” Sonya replied, resting her hand in Martin’s. “How about you?”

“I’ve been good, too.” Martin stroked the back of Sonya’s soft hand with his thumb.

3. Add Context and Tension

It has been a few days since they last spoke. Even though Martin and Sonya had only met a couple weeks ago, speaking every night and day for two weeks straight–only to suddenly and have weekend of non-existant correspondance felt like an eternity for them.

Martin and Sonya, at this moment, both felt the urge to note the individual voids they respectively felt over the weekend without each other. But Martin did not want to come across as too desperate for her affections, while Sonya held her tongue back because she had been taught by her parents to not be too inviting toward men.

And so an awkward, yet comforting silence passed as they held hands and stared into each other’s eyes.

4. Express Emotions Through Action

“That’s good.” Sonya wiggled her hand free from Martin’s grip and giggled. She pursed her lips and looked away. “What did you do today?”

Martin scratched the back of his head and looked around, pretending to be curious as to what caught Sonya’s eye. “I just worked and studied,” he said. He clenched his fists and bit his lip a bit, shoulders rising to his neck.

5. Add Suspsense

Sonya watched as Martin’s eyes darted around the room. His normally calm demeanour had transformed into a jittering mess of ticks and stutters today. A part of her worried what could possibly be wrong with him. Did she say something wrong the last time they spoke? Did something happen to him? Or is he actually a strange and unstable man and that she should find a way to get away from him immediately.

As she continued to stare at him as if he was having a stroke, Martin fought the urge to mention that he’s been thinking about her all day. No matter how much he had invested his time and energy on his job and on his studies, Sonya came to mind, and he wishes he could just tell her that mere fact.

Martin cleared his throat. “How about you?” He finally asked, trying to ignore how bland and boring it was to say that all he did was work and study.

“Me too,” Sonya said, grabbing his trembling hand.


Well I hope you enjoyed my cheesy attempt at writing a romantic scene between star crossed lovers (never have I ever claimed that romance was my forte)!

Let’s recap why this scene was so much better by adding these five ingredients.

Meaningful action adds to small talk to show that what is not being said is more important than what is being said. A meaningful reaction from the other character(s) will show the level of their awareness toward the current vibe and situation. Adding context and tension will make some of the discomfort more bearable to the reader because then their curiousity will be piqued about why small talk between these characters is so much more uncomfortable than everyday small talk.

Once all these things have been established, you have the opportunity to express each character’s emotions through the non-verbal cues they provide to each other and to your readers. This makes them more susceptible to holding their breath and wanting to know how it will all turn out if you also add suspense to see if the discomfort will dissipate or detonate.

So that is how you make small talk in fiction more interesting.

As for real life?

I have no damn clue.

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Write What You Like

It’s so bloody obvious and simple, yet it’s hardly ever uttered: Write What You Like.

A lot of writers, especially myself, often contend with the creative process like it’s a wild dragon to tame. We get so obsessed with deliberating our ideas that we forget to experience our own creations in the shoes of our potential audience.

Write what you know is common advice, even better advice is write what you don’t know as it would give you a reason to explore an idea you’ve yet to educate yourself on. After all, what is a story but an educational experience disguised as entertainment?

To complete the trifecta you should also write what you like.

That means writing in such a way that if you were not the creator of your story, but a customer in a bookstore looking for the next best read, you need to consider what it would take for this other you to bring that book to check out counter.

Sounds easy, but how do you actually do this?

You start by becoming acutely aware as to why you love the other stories you love; from books, video games, and movies/TV shows. It’s easy to know that you simply like it, but it’s actually quite difficult for people to define their reasons as to why a story resonates with them.

Then on the flip side you also need to understand why you have certain dislikes in other stories, if not things you outright hate (like Mary Sue characters or forced love triangles for me). Whatever your dislikes are just don’t put them in your work unless you’re putting a unique twist on a dislike to transform it into something likeable.

The last thing I would suggest is being as objective as possible about your work as if it’s somebody else’s. Be hyper critical about what you know is not working and kill it off, and in the same vain milk all you can from things that are working in your story during the editing process.

So write what you like, and only then can you tame the dragon and ride it to leave a blazing trail in your wake.

The Glass Ceiling in Fiction

Can we please have some actual gender equality in fiction?

I am really sick and tired of how so many stories elevate one gender at the expense of the other and call that empowerment.

I don’t want to spend too much time tackling the well known and obvious issue with male centric stories featuring one dimensional female characters–but real quick, I want to introduce you to a famous idea called the Bechdel test.

Acing the Bechdel Test

It’s basically a test to see if female characters have any more importance in a story other than being a man’s love interest or the friend of said love interest. If you’ve got two women talking about anything but a man, then you’ve got yourself some potentially multi-dimensional female characters.

And that’s great! All the power to them!

A lot of the stories I choose to experience often feature strong female leads and I love them. Being Erica and Age of Youth, just to name a couple, serve as perfect examples of women that ACE the Bechdel test. Being a man who will never truly understand the plight of women, I love seeing their experiences depicted as realistically and empathically as possible.

Faux Femme Fatales

Now with that said, here’s the true crux of this post: I am sick and tired of Faux Femme Fatales.

Now first the obvious case; over powered female characters like Scarlett Johannson’s Lucy and the even more popular Rey from the new Star Wars films. They both have unearned skills that make them overpowered in dessimating the hordes of men they fight in their respective films. They face little to no challenge leading up to their mastery, yet Rey is meant to serve as a positive role model for girls to get into Star Wars. Simply put, it’s a bad message to send to young girls.

Yes, girls can do anything. Anything boys can do, too!

But it requires hard work and dedication. Especially in the realm of martial arts. Take a look at the women’s division of the UFC. They are not muscular and skilled in mixed martial arts just because they are women, or take some drug (Lucy), or touch some weapon (Rey). They dedicate themselves to eating right, working out, and training in the various fighting styles they need to know to survive in the octagon.

The way Lucy and Rey were written insults these real life women who not only train to develop skill and competence, but also face actual challenges. And worst of all, the men who surround Lucy and Rey from their respective films all happen to be incredibly incompetent and serve as no match to their strength and intellect.

Now let’s plunge deeper into a more subtle way in which men are kicked to the curb all for the sake of “girl power.”

How to Discourage Women From Getting into STEM

A little while ago I watched Project MC² on Netflix and thought the idea was pretty cool. It’s about a team of teenage spies who share their scientific skills to “covertly” protect the world. Cool! Love the idea! It reminds me of Totally Spies, which I loved watching as a kid.

Furthermore, there’s this huge issue these days about the shortage of women getting into the STEM field in college and university, and apparently this show aims to inspire girls to garner an interest in science. More power to that as well! Science is awesome. Girls are awesome, too. Why not have more girls into science?

Well I hate to say that this show, in the end, does not at all seem like it can accomplish that goal. I mean if you are a young girl, or a parent of a young girl who has gained interest in science thanks to Project MC², then please let me know if it actually has had the intended effect. Otherwise I personally would not let my God daughter anywhere near this god awful show.

First of all, the girls are portrayed as walking talking Tumblr memes. They talk in the most stereotypically annoying teen style that no actual teen talks like. Then second of all, there always tends to be some typical douche guy character who undermines the girls because they’re girls, and then gets showed up by her within the same scene.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so forgive me if I get the details wrong, though even if I am inaccurate in my remembering of the following scenes, the core principle of how anti-male they are still holds.

In the first season there’s a scene where these four pre-teen girls have little to no problem infiltrating a government facility. The security is a joke. You’re supposed to believe that pre-teen girls–half the size of fully grown middle aged men, who have been trained to serve as security officers at a classified facility–easily beat these guys up by way of a foot stomping, purse bashing, and for some stupid reason, kicking a fire alarm that easily opens a sealed door they need to get through.

All the while, adrenaline pumping rock music plays as the girl kicks the fire alarm in slow motion as if it’s so cool and bad ass. It’s so bad ass that she somehow ran past a pudgy security officer who made the laziest attempt to stop her, right?

Wrong!

What could have been better is if these girls actually acted like spies who would use their supposed intelligence to outsmart government security. And I’m talking security of not only the middle aged type, but technological kind as well. They could have hacked into their systems to bypass them and show a montage of these girls cracking complex computer codes. That actually would have been way more believable and logical given the premise of the show. Not to metion, way more entertaining than this poorly choreographed travesty of an action scene.

I mean look at this shit! Try not to cringe.

Then I believe in the first episode of the second season, it opens up with the girls hanging out at the front of their high school when a soccer ball happens to stumble into their presence. It’s from the boys playing in the distance and they’re asking for the ball back. One of the girls asks “hey can I play, too?” And one of the boys in full childish douche mode says something along the lines of “but you’re a giiiirl. Girls can’t play soccer.”

His equally half brained friends start laughing like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. I’m pretty sure you know where this is going, but in case you didn’t, what happens next is that the girl kicks the ball so hard that it bashes the boy’s head in, and all the girls jump and cheer. Like, “yay violence! And no consequences because we’re girls!” She should have been suspended or sent to detention for that, dude could suffer even more brain damage than he already has.

Boys: 0 – Schoolyard Violence: 1

Girls rule! Boys drool!

Fuck off.

How to Shatter the Glass Ceiling For Real, For Once

I can probably write a whole series taking the infinite examples where men need to be “put in their place” in Faux Femme Fatale stories, but I’m going to stop right there before my piss is brought to a boil.

The point is this: I am all for gender equality in fiction and in real life (like, no shit, of course I am). Many of my favourite stories feature equally equipped characters of both genders. Again, Being Erica and Age of Youth come to mind. What made them powerful characters were their individuality, not how much they can prove the other sex wrong.

So for the love of god, established writers and new writers alike, please avoid this trope. It’s old, dead, and tired, and it sets our progress back by several centuries.

If you want strong female leads, then have them actually face hardship and get them to earn their mastery, whether that mastery is in super powers and/or the strength to navigate their existential and relational crises.

Show young girls some Being Erica to learn from Erica’s adventures in time traveling therapy. She gets to relive her regrets in attempt to change them, only to complicate her past in other ways, and then ultimately learn a lesson that helps her with a relevant issue in her present life.

Hooray for self-knowledge!

Show young girls some Age of Youth to learn the value of sisterhood from the Belle Epoque crew. It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve seen in a long time featuring young Korean women who go to college and share a house together–often also sharing their personal problems with each other. Whether it’s problems from their individual lives or personal issues they have with their fellow roommates, they all get to learn how to live with each other and understand each other through their shared experiences.

Hooray for healthy female relationships!

If more stories followed in their example, we would have many more female leads that could actually serve as positive role models for young girls. Show women overcoming realistic and relatable struggles. Show them getting knocked down and then getting back up. Now that’s true empowerment.

If more stories incorporated these writing techniques, maybe then female audiences both young and seasoned can feel empowered to take on all of life’s challenges. Be it in a fantasy setting, sci-fi setting, or a contemporary setting, it would be nice to see female characters get their due diligence.

And all of this can be achieved without having to castrate men in the process. Especially men who are written to represent the most unrealistic and stereotypical mysogonists. Because much like their over powered and flawless female counterparts, they simply do not exist, and do nothing but create a false sense of gender inequality.

 

Sprouting Symbols in Stories

Planting the Symbolic Seeds

We’re all pattern recognition machines. Whenever we experience repetition through objects, places, and actions, they implant an impression in our minds to create future expectations. And within getting those expectations met, the reward system in our brains releases dopamine, making us feel not only a sense of joy, but also a sense of comfort and familiarity.

This is why babies love when you play Peek-A-Boo with them. When you cover your face with your hands or hide behind the couch, they expect you to “pop up out of nowhere” and make a silly face that gets them giggling their cute little baby laughs.

In fiction, you want to do the same thing. You want to play a literary form of Peek-A-Boo through Symbolic Action. A reoccuring object, place, or action engages your audience’s sense of familiarity and by letting them feel safe from an expected routine, you are given the opportunity to also trigger the part of the human brain that thrives on novelty.

Or simply put; you want to mix the new with the old.

What this does is symbolize how an aspect of your story is progresses over time. This can range from how an important plot item is used throughout the story, the state of a physical location your characters frequent, or how characters relate to each other through repetitive actions.


Papa Can You Hear Me?

Today we’ll focus on reoccuring actions and how they symbolize ever changing relationships between characters. In particular, I will be using the father and daughter combo from my work in progress It Starts at Home; Antonio and Johanna Pascual.

The story starts off with Antonio blasting his heavy metal music as he drives Johanna to her first day of high school. He just wants to drop her off and go to work, unaware of how nervous she is, and thanks to the rockin’ tunes he’s so used to pumping on every car ride, he’s even more oblivious to how reluctant she is to start this new chapter in her life.

She wishes she could say something. That she’s not ready yet and wants to stay home for the day. Or worse, that she actually feels sick to her stomach and is unsure if she can physically manage herself in this new environment.

Johanna tries to speak up, but her tiny voice is buried beneath pounding drums and distorted guitars, and all that Antonio can offer her is yelling “you’ll be fine,” before returning to his mini headbanging session. She keeps trying to complain and his solution is to remind her to not be afraid and be sure to make new friends.

Needless to say, Johanna ends up feeling ignored and down right invisible.

What this symbolizes is the distance between father and daughter, even though Antonio drives Johanna around quite often. The fact that Antonio chooses to listen to the noisy music of his own teen days over the soft tiny voice of his teenage daughter comes to show their giant lack of communication between each other.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Throughout the book, similar car rides occur where Johanna has a desire to communicate with her father, but the metal music continues to serve as a point of contention between them. He uses it to drown out the nagging voice of his wife and the whiny voice of his daughter, both of which have valid things to say to him, but tension rises the more he attempts to ignore them.

Furthermore, his wife Miranda is actually offended by his choice in music. Because she immigrated to Canada from a traditional Filipino family, and that she met Antonio at a youth church group, she feels that Antonio is listening to “the devil’s music” which clashes with their Christian values.

Over time though, Antonio gradually learns to put the volume down when the ladies in his family are speaking to him. Most of the time it’s much to his detriment, but it’s a hard pill of pride to swallow to actually start listening to his family. And even on the flip side, for his family to respect his preferences because Johanna and Miranda spend a huge chunk of the novel judging him for everything he likes.


Reaping What You Sow With Symbols

Along with my favourite aspect of fiction being character, I have recently fallen in love with recognizing symbols and how they can serve as tools to further describe the progress of a story. It greatly reflects how our lives change over time despite some of the routines we engage in from childhood up into our adult lives.

Think about how you celebrate your birthday compared to how you used to when you were a child. Sure, cake and candles are the staple of every birthday celebration, but as you depart from your childhood you outgrow the need for face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles. (Unless you still do face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles well into your 20’s, I won’t judge!)

To celebrate and symbolize your ongoing maturity you begin to add different elements to your birthday parties like alcohol, expensive vacations, or whatever else floats your boat.

Likewise in fiction, you want to use symbols to implant familiarity in your audience and take them on a ride toward growth by letting your symbols sprout.

Are there any symbols that you appreciate in your favourite stories?

Have you used symbols before? Upon reflection, were consciously or unconsciously planted?

With expanded knowledge on symbols, do you plan to employ them in your work? If so, how so? Let me know in the comments below!

(Stay tuned for more on symbols in the future…)

Putting the “I” in “Interests”

Photo Credit: http://www.tinyme.com

What are your favourite books to read right now? What are your favourite shows to binge? And what have been your favourite movies in recent memory?

Now compare all those things to your favourite stuff from just five years ago.

How does it feel and what do you notice about your interests?

I ask this because today is the day I decided to visit my young adult novel, It Starts: at Home, for the fourth time and fourth year in a row.  And whenever I buckle down to rewrite this book for the first time in each respective draft, I get all sentimental over how I conceived the idea for it.

This is mainly because my world was completely different before I ever got invested in YA literature. Long story short, I was into fantasy and sci-fi before I fell madly in love with the complexities of interpersonal relationships.

Much like my novel’s Philipino protagonist, Johanna Pascual, along with her friends and family–I have also grown into a more muti-dimensional version of myself over the years. This has allowed me to bleed my own personal insights into the characters I’ve created for this drama that tackles the day to day conflicts of being in a dysfunctional family and equally dysfunctional high school environment.

As I said, I was into fantasy which meant magic and epic battles, along with sci-fi and advanced technopoly that all served as but an abstract symbolization of human ability.

I am not here to say that fantastyand science fiction are devoid of interpersonal complexity amongst their respective casts of characters, but over the years I have outgrown them and prefer to experience stories with a more clear cut representation of our reality as it is right now.

Not before, not the future. Just this eternal present we all share in our daily lives.

Obviously art cannot exactly replicate reality, but it can come pretty close while also showing us–as all fiction is meant to do–what we are also possibly capable of if we’re willing to grow as human beings.

The things we’re interested in either grow with us or we out grow them if they no longer serve any significant personal benefits.

For the things that stay with us, our reasoning for our continued interests evolve.

For the new things that enter our lives, they are a representation of how we’re growing.


I Am Vengeance, I Am the Night, I Am Batman!

Now let me stop being abstract and get a bit more concrete here.

Taking a simple example, Batman has been my all time favourite superhero for my whole life. The character and all his reiterations have stayed with me since I was a child, ranging from Adam West’s campy and corny Batman, to Christian Bale’s dark, broody, and realistic Batman.

As a kid I just liked watching The Caped Crusader beat up bad guys. Whether it had the POW! WHAM! and KABLAMO! sound effects or had the slightly more ironically realistic fight choreography of Batman: the Animated Series.

But then I remember watching Batman Returns, directed by Tim Burton starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, and Danny DeVito as The Penguin. I can’t remember exactly what scene it was that made me feel this way, but I do specifically remember feeling sorry for The Penguin.

Batman Returns’ take on The Penguin was my first experience of ever empathizing over a villain rather than hoping that he would just get beaten to a bloody pulp.

So that stuck with me for years I have come to accept that in the Batman world, especially when done right, the villains are meant to have tragic backstories that reveal these bad guys are just sad guys, expressing their pain and torment in a way that’s more psychologically unhealthy as Batman expresses his. (At least he beats people up for a good cause right?)

This is an example of how my continued interest in Batman evolved in terms of my reasons for liking the character. With so many reiterations to represent different eras of time in my life, there was a Batman for every age!


Dungeons and Daughters

Now throughout my teens I was into Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, and to some degree Lord of the Rings. I thought it was pretty bad ass for characters to have special races and skillsets based on their character class to make them different from each other.

Excuse me while I geek out too hard. *Pushes invisible glasses up the bridge of his nose*

Futhermore, just like with Batman, I liked how they beat up bad guys all in their own unique abilities, whether they were proficient with swords or magic. But as time went on, and I began reading Dungeons and Dragons novels, all the combat and fantastical voodoo became more of a spice sprinkled into stories about interpersonal relationships between characters with very different personalities from each other.

Soon I found myself intrigued by the ideological differences between knights and thieves, assassins and priests, and so on and so forth. The black and white nature of their characterization made it obvious what they stood for.

Though after an over consumption of fantasy, especially including being part of two Dungeons and Dragons campaigns–one with my friends, and the other with my family–I started to get tired of the genre. I outgrew it and no longer had interest in this idea of an unlikely band of warriors, mages, and hobbits coming together to stop some evil being from stealing all the crystals or whatever sought after magical relic that provided infinite power.

What remained was my interest in how characters relate to each other, and nowadays I can say I do love stripping away the abstraction of magic and technology to cut down to the bone of human relationships. I now prefer contemporary stories with the kind of people you can run into in your daily life who face pretty much the same, relatable issues they you may face in your life.

Existential woes of what to do with your life: finding the right career, the ideal romantic mate, or finding your tribe to name a few.

Interestingly enough, my introduction to contemporary fiction involved strong female lead characters who did not have to have superpowers to be admirable. In fact, they just had to be vulnerable, open, and honest, coupled with the desire to grow themselves personally in order to survive and thrive in their environments.

Where I once loved the story of an assassin turned priest, trying to find peace in a land that only knows blood (Diran from the Blade of the Flame Trilogy by Tim Waggoner)–I became fascinated with the deeply personal story of a middle aged mother of two struggling with early onset alzheimer’s (Ruby from Island Girl by Lynda Simmons).

Both equally incredible characters, both experiencing things I hopefully never have to, but get the privilege of thanks to them taking me on their journey through their respective books.

But when it came to Island Girl, I felt much more invested and centered than I have ever been because it was the first book I read where there was no need for magic or advanced technopoly to wow me. Just plain out, regular human being with her flawed personality and relationships with her daughters, and the incredible human determination to make sense of her life and personal relationships.

Again, I am not bashing on fantasy or sci-fi, but personally for me, I really want to cut away from the abstraction and just relate to everyday people being fictionalized and their psyches explored through realistic drama. It makes it easier this way to explore the concept of interpersonal relationships because I don’t have to spend energy compehending how magic spells work or what the stallactites in a dungeon smell like.

This is how I have outgrown fantasy and moved on to enjoying contemporary works of fiction. I’ve gravitated towards the feels and away from the epic fighting. In fact, there are some pretty epic arguments between contemporary characters that have intrigued me infinitely more than large scale battles involving orcs, mercenaries, and good ol’ medieval weaponry and magic.

I still like it, but I don’t love it like I love arguments between seemingly real human beings whose goals and motivations I can relate to much easier.


Values, Variables, and Virtues…Oh My!

So while I have rambled about my favourite stuff and how I relate to them, I hope you’ve kept in mind the stuff that you value and favour. After all, if you think about why you gravitate towards different types of stories and media, it really does serve as a reflection of what you virtues you value in humanity.

Maybe you like politically charged punk rock.

Maybe you like lovey dovey pop ballads.

Maybe you like both and everything else in between!

Whatever your interests may be, please feel free to share how you put the I…in Interests.

 

Progress is Progress

If there’s a big goal you want to achieve, there is definitely an even bigger picture where it belongs.

It’s easy to be blinded by the bigger picture and feel lost in the tapestry of it all.

One way to break it down into tinier, more managable pieces, is to appreciate the progress you’ve made thus far.

This is something I need to remind myself of quite often because I constantly find myself getting lost in my journey. It has been a year since I quit my last job and decided to go full time with writing. Reminding myself that progress is progress has been the only refuge I’ve had available to me because although I may be poor financially compared to last year, at least nowadays I’m not as spiritually poor as I was when I was stuck building someone else’s dream.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to me, but surprise surprise, starting your own business is incredibly difficult. And quite often it is hard to see any tangible results of my hard work other than my own self assurance that I try to keep as objective as possible (because let’s face it, I do want to keep my spirits up, but I don’t want to delude myself into thinking I’m succeeding more than I think).

Throwing away the steady and predictable paycheck is the cost entrepeneurs need to pay, and all the security that comes with it is something all of us need to deal with before making our big breaks. Some entrepeneurs are able to take off and create a steady income early on, while most of us, more often than not, need to work harder than we ever have working a 9-5 job in order to simply make a decent buck for ourselves.

Now despite all these challenges, and I am not deterred.

I am proud of what I have done so far.

I am happy with the choices I’ve made.

The choice to focus on finishing the third draft of It Starts at Home, and the much scarier choice of hosting creative writing workshops, have gleaned more spiritual, intellectual, and emotional “income” than I have ever generated working 9-5 jobs. I am not so flippant to dismiss the value of money as I do appreciate making the money I’ve made, since I spent the past 10 years buying books to educate myself at my own pace based on my own individual interests.

All I’m saying is that as good as it felt to made all that money, it feels a lot better to be creating value and giving of myself to the world. Sharing my gift and inspiring others. Whether they were coaching clients who I spoke to one hour a week to give them the space to geek out about their works in progress, or people who have attended to my writing workshops.

Rest assured, I finally feel I’m doing what I was meant to do with my life.

Hosting writing workshops has been a desire of mine for two, three, or even more years now, and to finally have done it feels like a nice big checkmark off the bucket list.

Before every single one, I’m a nervous wreck.

I wonder if people will even care about what I have to say.

I fear if no one’s going to show up.

Early on I had to remind myself to prepare for the best case scenario so I could stop driving myself crazy. The energy I carried with that allowed me to promote my events and present my work with confidence and it sure as hell felt good to have had amazing turn outs with several people coming to some workshops, and equally as good to have only a few people coming to other workshops.

Sometimes it felt too good to be true that this was happening. That people were coming and showing their interest in what I had to say, and it took everything in my power to not self sabotage.

To make a very long story short, the past three months have allowed me to feel incredible success as well as horrible failure. I had many fears about people not caring about what I had to say, tripping over my words, and the worst one of all; no one showing up to my workshops.

All of these things happened; I experienced what it was like to see someone show that they were losing interest in the workshop as the night went on. I tripped over my words, lost my breath, and had to take a moment to recollect myself. And even worse, there was one workshop where I had 0 attendance.

And you know what?

I survived.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt disappointed, maybe a little angry, but not as much as I thought I would when I ran those disaster scenarios in my head beforehand.

The way I see it is that this was my chance to work out the kinks of an ongoing process. Now that I’ve gotten used to the flow of creation, promotion, and presentation, I think I am better equipped next year to bring the Four Pillars of Fiction series back and try to reach a wider audience than I already have this year.

My numbers may not be as big as I first hoped in terms of income, attendance, and clients signing up for sessions, but it’s definitely a lot more than the resounding 0 I would have to face had I not tried.

At the end of the day, I am proud that I at least created my first batch of workshop presentations and don’t have to worry about making anything from scratch in the next go round. I am proud that I reached some people and got some noggins nodding whenever something clicked with them if I made a valid point about writing they hadn’t considered before.

To me that’s worth it.

To me that’s progress.

It may not be much in a conventional sense, but progress is progress.

Now enough about me, how about for yourself? In what ways can you acknowledge yourself and your progress? If your goal is still very far from reach, what accomplishments can you celebrate today to motivate yourself to continue tomorrow?

 

Tension and Intensity

As much as characters are the very heart and soul of fiction, none of them really matter unless they come across conflict. After all, without conflict there is no story, you would just be reading about people’s everyday lives. And why would you want to read that unless there were significant moments explored where these people took up the challenge of overcoming insurmountable challenges?

Whenever we experience a story, we put ourselves in a voluntary state of tension. It may sound a little masochistic at first, but when you really stop and think about it, you really are taking on the emotions of the characters. This of course allows us to empathize with them because we may have been in similar situations or have feared being in them, and getting to watch or read characters overcome obstacles inspires the hope that we can one day do the same.

Here is how you can inject meaningful conflict in you writing:

1. Opposing Opinions

Give your characters strong opinions about something, and then pit them against characters who are in the absolute opposite spectrum of the same thing. For instance, if you have a character who believes in animal rights and wants to stop the distribution of meat, their logical antagonist could be a butcher shop owner. One wants to end animal cruelty, while the other’s entire livelihood depends on this job they actually genuinely love.

2. Personal Philosophies

Now that you’ve got opinions established, it’s time to give these characters some motivations behind their opinions, along with names while we’re at it. Let’s call the animal rights activist Wendy, and the butcher shop owner Joe. Now it could be pretty easy to paint Joe as a horrible guy and make him the clear cut bad guy of this story, but I think if you gave him some redeeming and empathetic qualities, his conflict with Wendy could be more meaningful and insightful to your audience.

Perhaps Wendy wants to stop animal cruelty because she lived on a farm and she witnessed the slaughter of cows and chickens she grew fond of. Then on the other spectrum we got Joe who is just fascinated with the whole process of butchering animals, and serving them to happy customers in order to provide food for his children, and a roof over their heads.

In this story, Wendy’s goal would be to put Joe out of business possibly because her vegan restaurant is losing business due to Butcher Joe’s higher customer rate. And couple that of course with her moral stance on animal cruelty, you got yourself some grade A tension!

Point is: give characters believable and empathetic reasons for their beliefs so that you can understand them all, but make them so contrary to each other that it creates conflict due to those opposing opinions.

3. Secrets

Harboring dark secrets could also create tension in a story, especially if you reveal them after you’ve spent a good amount of time endearing the audience to your characters. There’s a weird feeling I personally get when I come to admire a character, only to find out about a secret of theirs that almost feel like a betrayal. Though it is a reminder that nobody is perfect and we’ve all got skeletons in the closet.

Secrets, and the threat of them being revealed, create tension the closer and close other characters come to discover them.

Maybe Wendy once ate her childhood pets and feels guilty for enjoying how they tasted, all despite the love she had for them when they were alive. If people found out about that, her activism in animal rights could be compromised and she’d be seen as a hypocrite!

Then maybe Joe, despite being a good family man and salesman to his customers, could secretly be an animal abuser. His endearing personality can make it forgivable to a degree that he cuts up animals for a living, but if it’s revealed that he takes a dark seated pleasure in murdering animals, rather than being stoic about it for the sake of the job, this could skew his public persona.

And maybe even in this case, the pleasure he gets is his way of coping with a traumatic event in his childhood where a dog attacked him. Who knows? I certainly don’t, I’m just making all this up as I go along!

4. Limited Choices

And lastly, to create some serious tension in a story, you could limit the choices available to characters. Situations where characters are forced to sacrifice their dignity or act against their own moral principles–sometimes for the sake of a greater good, other times with no clear benefit other than mere survival–these are the situations where we get to learn what truly matters to these characters.

We’ve all been in situations where we had to make tough choices and it wasn’t clear which one was the right one. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, rather there only exists the most sensible choice over the others where we lose the least of what we have. So then…

PLOT TWIST!

What if Joe and Wendy, amidst this public battle to reign supreme as the hot shot business of a sub-urban plaza, actually begin to fall in love with each other?

Yeah this just got weird, but bear with me here.

If there’s a turf war between a vegan restaurant and a butcher shop, there would obviously be customers who rally behind each respective business getting caught up in the crossfire.

Wendy ends up with the choices of either continuing the attempt to shut down Joe’s business, or give it up so that she can marry him and be the new mother to his kids because they’ve taken a liking to her.

Joe would then have to give up his life long passion and his stable income if he really wants to be with Wendy. Or he could just reject her, leave his kids without a mother figure, but at least keep his business going.

In Conclusion

Alright, so thank you for dealing with my craziness in this post. I hope you can forgive that and glean the value I’m trying to provide in exploring how you can amplify the conflict in your story, to not only make your story more entertaining, but also more meaningful and thought provoking.

If you have other tips of your own on how to amplify the conflict in fiction, feel free to leave a comment below!

Otherwise any other questions and feedback on this post are also welcome!