Digging Deep – What the $@&! Does That Mean??

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. πŸ™‚
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. πŸ˜‰

29 thoughts on “Digging Deep – What the $@&! Does That Mean??”

  1. Thought provoking as always!

    I also like to think of the answer to the questions
    1) why is this person the WORST person in the world for them to fall in love with
    2) why are they the very best?


  2. Becca – oh yes, those questions are GREAT ones to ask. And usually the answers will be because 1) something about that person will cause them to confront their deepest fear and 2) that same something (or another quality or experience) will also enable them to overcome that fear.
    Ah character…

  3. Nicole – digging deep is always necessary for category – especially Modern Heat because that’s primarily where the action comes from. Sometimes wish I could throw in a car chase or a random werewolf or something! πŸ˜‰

  4. Fabulous post as usual! We’re so lucky to have you. Now I’m thinking about my current rogue chap two and maybe thinking that the prob is I’m already NOT digging deep. ARGH!

    And good answers to Becca’s fabulous questions too πŸ™‚

  5. Rach – cheers lovie! Don’t forget that all of this stuff comes out gradually. It doesn’t have to be instantly there in the first few chapters. You dig a little more every chapter so that by the time you get to the black moment, you’re at the heart of things. Man, that sounds good. Why I can’t I do that myself?? πŸ˜‰

  6. Fantastic post, Jackie! Your blog posts really make me think. Man, as writers we really have to be like psychotherapists.

    Maybe this is what’s missing in my current WIP – well, something’s missing…hmmm, off to go and analyse. I’m all for the car chase, BTW. Also like a car being blown up a la Janet Evanovich, LOL.

  7. Janette – I don’t know about being sage. I wish I could make it work in my own mss. It’s taken me two years to get this far!

    Angie – glad it helped! Funny what you said about psychotherapists – that’s exactly what the editor told me. We have to be amateur psychologists when it comes to working out conflict. Who said that writing romance was easy? Oh, that’s right, people who have NO idea what they’re talking about. πŸ˜‰

  8. Another fab post! I love the sound of your heroine in the WIP. The poor hero with the burnt toast could use a hug though ;).

    Actually I need a super productive Jackie update, because I’ve lost track (bad Lacey). How many WIPs do you have? How many completed and waiting sub? How many subbed?

    Brag girl, brag πŸ˜‰ x

  9. Hi,

    Clever analogy of digging deep!

    And, with billionaire’s there is one inner fear they are all afflicted with and quite an obvious one at that. That same fear can be utilised to create tension, conflict, resistance to overwhelming desires etc. Basically intent on giving a heroine a hard time (pardon the pun) without committing!

    Many, in reality, fall victim to their worst fear and often as not pay heavily for ignoring all the warning signs.

    ha ha, word verification is taute!
    I just knew it was going to be one of those days – sex scene coming up in my wip.

    BTW: have you had a go at the writing blogfests. They’re great fun to participate in, and another way of getting comments from unknowns!

  10. Lacey – I like that WIP actually. It’s my heart story if you like. I’ve rewritten it about 5 times and I think I’ve finally made a half decent fist of it. No burnt toast in sight!
    Jackie update? Okay, I’ve got one with the ed – she liked chapter 1, now I’m waiting for her to like chapters 2 and 3. Very much hoping she’ll want the rest. So I’m editing that now just in case. Next sub will be my best-friends/lovers story, then I’ve got two wips I’m currently in the process of rewriting, plus one brand new story. Oh and the frenchman is complete but he needs tonnes of work so I’m pushing him to the side at the moment. So there you go. πŸ™‚

    Francine – true re the billionaire. They don’t want commitment. But the real question is why don’t they want it? πŸ˜‰ But they do indeed pay heavily for ignoring the warning signs. Hehe. Love hero torture. Blogfests eh? Shall look into them. What an appropriate word verfication! Lol!

  11. Jax, the picture and the toast example are fab !

    Ultimately, for a simple burnt toast, there is such a deep insight?

    Man.. I wonder if I ever did analyze my own actions and relate them to “why’s”..

    I guess I am better off digging deep into my character’s background than “self” !

  12. Ju – best not to go there with oneself! I am simplyfing of course, no one is as easy to work out as the burnt toast hero. We’re all more complicated than that, but with category there ain’t room for complicated. Anyway, as to the burnt toast, you don’t have to go into every action as deep as that. It’s just an example of how a simple act might set off the black moment or some other moment of conflict.

  13. In WW 2 there was a phrase that I think quite appropriate for us newbies. It was “Dig for Victory”. Yay. Caroline x

  14. Lacey – Yeah, but only three complete ones remember. Thanks for the luck! And the radioactive spider? Do you mean Hoo the knitted blue octopus?? I’ve still got ‘im if that’s what you’re talking about. πŸ™‚

  15. Lacey – Ooooh, i see! Lol!! Yes, everytime I write, I hop into my spidey suit and I magically write 10k in two minutes. It doesn’t work for getting conflict right though – dammit! πŸ˜‰

  16. Great post, Jackie! I think the fact that your character doesn’t want to have her worst fears confirmed, and is subconciously avoiding the pain of being proved right is great. Internal confict within the character. Dying to buy this one when its accepted!

  17. I love the toast example. Once you find the character’s fear I think it’s also good to turn that fear into a deep need. (Instead of What does she want to avoid? ask What does she want? Fear of rejection could translate into to a desire for security.

    If we can turn that fear around then it gives us a clear motivation/need she can pursue in other ways apart from her avoidance of rejection. What else is she doing in her life that shows her desire?

  18. Hey, Jackie, I’m late to the party it seems! You’re dead on right. With category, there does have to be something deeper in most everything, because we don’t have a lot of time to tell the story!

    Each scene needs to move the central relationship forward…or back, as the case may be. And while, obviously, our alpha male wouldn’t really get bent out of shape over burnt toast, that’s a prime example of making the most of a moment.

    nah, you wouldn’t put ALL of that in the paragraph where he burned the toast, but you’d show his horrible disappointment in himself over the hypothetical toast, and later it could be explored more thoroughly. Like leaving clues to his character. Bread crumbs…if you will.

    Now I’ve lost the plot altogether…

  19. Sally – thanks! I feel very pleased I’ve managed to dig into her conflict like that. Oh and I’m dying for you to read it. Only one small problem – have to sell it first. πŸ™‚

    Janet – yes!! That’s it exactly. They have a fear, they want to hide it, make themselves feel better about it. So they turn this into motivation. For my burned toast hero, his motivation is doing everything perfectly. For my unrequited love heroine, she tries to be the best friend she can be to him. In fact, I may need to explore this more, just thinking about it. Hmmmm…great point! I feel another craft post coming up…

    Lacey – no, you cannot have the spidey suit. Though bribes…I’ll have to consult with Hoo. His needs are very specific. He likes blue wool obviously but only the very best is good enough. From Himalayan mountain goats collected at a full moon and spun by 100 yr old dwarves. Find any of that and you’re in.

    Maisey – lol! No, he wouldn’t worry too much about the toast. It was just an example of how a little thing can be the starting point for an exploration of a character’s fears etc. And yep, if you put all that in one paragraph that would be making him too self aware. You’d take the whole book to get right down to the nub of it.
    Bread crumbs. Like it!

    Jane – so true! I just like to write too. I’ve got too much craft in my head at the moment. I need to forget it and just write. But I do think that knowing how it works is important. Especially if you’re writing category and need to write so many books a year. Knowing a bit of craft has certainly made the writing subsequent books easier and hopefully less subject to rejections! πŸ™‚

  20. Hi Jackie,
    This is so interesting.
    I’m taking motivation to mean the same as inner need.

    “They have a fear, they want to hide it, make themselves feel better about it. So they turn this into motivation. For my burned toast hero, his motivation is doing everything perfectly.”

    I wonder if attempting to do everything perfectly is a flawed strategy for coping with the lack of the need rather than his core motivation/inner need?

    I see the need as being something he must embrace to move past his fear and once he has this he’ll be able to be happy. (Maybe he needs self worth because he fears he’s not worth loving) and trying to be perfect is his misguided attempt to gain it.

  21. This is brilliant, Jackie. I’ve read a gazillion ‘how to write’ books in my time, and I’ve never seen diggin deep explained better.


  22. Janet – yeah, sorry, I’m getting mucked up with terminology. Need/motivation kind of gets a bit twisted up for me. πŸ˜‰ Anyway, he needs self worth. The way he gains self worth is to do everything perfectly (motivation?). And then what he needs to learn over the course of the book is that he can fail at doing everything perfectly but still be lovable. Teaching him that is the heroine’s job.
    It IS interesting eh?

    Suzanne – Really? Thanks! *blushes*. Who’d have thought burnt toast could be a teaching aid? πŸ˜‰

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