It is a question that has mystified the ages – what on earth do they mean by digging deep? Well, giving you a giant hint here: it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with mining. Or drain laying. 🙂
Now, in my journeying through the murky, disgusting swamp they call conflict, I received some valuable advice from a fellow traveller that really prompted a fantastic lightbulb moment for me about the whole digging deep thing. This may be painfully obvious to some of you but I gotta tell you, it wasn’t something I had ever thought of objectively until a couple of months ago.
Right so, digging deep. What does it mean in terms of your characters? It really means examining their emotional reactions and not just the surface emotion. It’s all about what’s going on underneath the surface. Like an iceberg you may see the tip of it sticking out of the water but there’s a giant continent sized lump of ice going on beneath the water that you may not have noticed.
For example, let’s say our hero makes our heroine some toast but he burns it. Let’s do some digging into his reaction to this. How does he feel about burning the toast? Maybe he’s a perfectionist and feels angry that he burned it. Dig a little deeper – why is he a perfectionist? He’s a perfectionist because his father was careless, broke things, lost money, didn’t seem to care etc. So the hero has decided he’s never going to be his Dad and he’s going to make sure he does things right. But he’s burned the toast which means he’s been careless like his Dad, something he’s sworn never to be, hence he’s angry. Do some more digging – maybe he also feels guilty that by burning the toast he let the heroine down and that is also a part of his anger. Dig some more – why does he feel guilty about letting the heroine down? Perhaps because his father was so careless he let the hero down often and so the hero knows what it feels like to be let down and he doesn’t want the heroine to experience that too. Deeper – why does he not want to be careless like his father? How did having a careless father make him feel? Well, it made him feel bad and he doesn’t want to feel bad. We can go deeper – why did it make him feel bad? Perhaps he felt bad because he’s secretly afraid that his father was careless and let him down because he just didn’t care enough about the hero. And if that’s true, then how does that make the hero feel about himself? Is the truth, the hero’s deepest, most secret fear, really that because his father didn’t seem to care about him, he’s not worth loving?
Okay, so that’s pretty much as deep as it gets: how does the character view themselves? Now obviously this hero doesn’t going around thinking he’s unlovable. That’s what he’s afraid of. So he’ll do anything and everything to avoid having to test that fear, to make himself feel good about himself. And – in this example – he does that by being a perfectionist. In his mind, if he does everything right, takes care with everything he does, no one will ever have cause to think he’s unlovable. Until he burns the toast of course.
Right, so the toast example may be a little silly. I have another example from one of my WIPs. One I just had a brainwave on due to the whole digging deep thing. I have a heroine who is in love with her best friend and has been for years. So far, her black moment has consisted of her realising he will never love her back so she tells him to get lost because it’s easier than being rejected. But I’m missing one vital thing that will make this black moment even more emotional. Why does she think he’ll reject her? Okay, so he doesn’t want a relationship and has made that very clear. But still, what stops her from saying it? Why is rejection so hard? The answer is really very simple. She scared of being rejected because if he rejects her, it’ll confirm what’s she’s always been afraid of facing – that she’s not good enough for him. And that’s at the heart of her conflict: she’s afraid she’s not worthy of love.
Now doesn’t that pack way more of an emotional punch than simply being scared of rejection?
So, next time you’re puzzling out about digging deep, think about your conflict and go right to the heart of the character first. Ask yourself how they view themselves. Not the ‘hey, I’m a hugely successful billionaire, there’s nothing wrong with me’ surface. That’s the tip of the iceberg. What’s going on beneath that surface? What are they secretly afraid of finding out about themselves? And if they’re not scared, then either you haven’t gone deep enough or you need to give them some more conflict.
Anyone have any other thoughts on this? I’m still figuring this stuff out so if anyone has anymore lightbulbs, do share!
BTW, sometimes burnt toast is just burnt toast. 😉