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August 30, 2016

4 Ways to Add Depth to Our Stories — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

Perspective of looking up through layers of stairs with text: Does Your Story Have Depth?

While literary fiction is often assumed to be Serious Literature (TM), genre fiction is often assumed to be frivolous—even though countless examples on both ends prove those assumptions false. Within certain genres, that frivolous reputation is so prevalent that most never question whether it’s the truth or not.

Believe me…as an author of romance stories with fantasy elements, I’ve seen the assumptions at double speed. *smile* But what does frivolous mean? And what makes a story not frivolous?

Lately, “gritty” and “dark” stories have been a popular style within many genres. A whole romance subgenre involving motorcycle clubs, MMA fighting, and mob and criminal organizations have turned antiheroes into romantic leads. Many would argue that Game of Thrones is a gritty version of fantasy, and other genres have similar niches of dark stories.

Some think those types of stories feel less frivolous, perhaps because they show the dark underbelly of civilization. But is that our only option if we want to write genre stories that feel deep and meaningful?

We’re not all capable of writing gritty and dark. We might have the wrong voice or worldview to make that style work.

We might enjoy writing humorous or optimistic stories and also want to write stories that resonate or feel deep, meaningful, or something readers can digest in their thoughts long after they close the book. Can a story be light and yet weighty at the same time?

I love thinking through these kinds of questions, and there’s no one better to explore this topic on a psychological level than Kassandra Lamb. She’s here today to share her insights on how we can add meaning to our stories—no matter how light the style. Please welcome Kassandra Lamb!

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Writing Light Doesn’t Have to Mean Fluffy

Today’s readers are busy people. They often prefer shorter and “lighter” stories that they can breeze through while riding the subway to work or waiting for their children to finish sports practice.

But how can we provide what this market wants and still come close to producing something we find satisfying as writers?

I have three goals with my writing:

  1. to do this thing called writing that I very much enjoy,
  2. to make money, and
  3. to educate people about psychological topics in a painless and pleasant way (my life’s calling, if you will).

When I discovered that I actually like writing shorter, lighter “cozy” mysteries (60K words) more than the full-length psychological suspense novels I had been producing (80-90K words), I thought, “But that’s so fluffy.” I felt I wasn’t being true to my more altruistic goal of raising consciousness about psychology.

But now that I’ve written and edited two cozies in my new series, I’m discovering that I can address deeper issues even in this “lighter” medium.

You may not share my particular goal of raising consciousness about certain issues, but your story will resonate louder and longer with readers if it has helped them understand themselves and/or the world better and has tapped into their interest in certain topics.

4 Methods to Add Meaning to Our Stories

Here are some hints for accomplishing this “light without fluff” result:

#1: What Are the “Hot Topics” in Society Today?

What are people talking about, what are they interested in? Are there ways to weave these topics into your story, perhaps via setting or minor characters?

Tony Hillerman wrote “lighter” mysteries (can’t call them cozies because the protagonists were police officers) that educated an entire generation of readers about life on the Navajo reservation. Cozy mystery writer, Teresa Trent, author of the Pecan Bayou series, has a secondary character who has Down’s syndrome.

#2: What Does Your Protagonist Do for a Living?

Unless their vocation is central to your plot (or maybe even if it is), you can have them do just about anything, and thus create subplots or just throw in interesting tidbits about one of these hot topics.

My protagonist, Marcia Banks, trains service dogs for combat veterans. The plot of each story is a mystery related to a particular veteran, but along the way I am informing people about the psychological challenges our veterans face and the benefits of service dogs for this population.

One could have one’s protagonist work for a not-for-profit that funds research into autism or make the protag a social worker who works with foster parents and kids.

(Warning: you need to be prepared to do the research into these fields.)

#3: Address Relationship Issues that Most People Can Relate to and Make Them Real

Too often I see romance handled too “lightly” in lighter fiction. I find myself asking:

  • Why have these people fallen in love?
  • What’s the attraction?
  • And are they really in love?

I’m left wondering this because the relationships don’t feel very deep. Often there has been too much telling me they are in love and not enough showing.

A “light” romantic novel or a cozy mystery is made “lighter” via exotic settings, the use of humor, a somewhat less complicated plot, but the relationships don’t have to be superficial or contrived.

In real life, relationships, especially in the early stages, are full of mine fields. Let some of those mines blow up in your characters’ faces.

In my new release, the protagonist and her new love interest are struggling with some significant scar tissue from previous failed marriages. It’s a subplot and I sometimes handle it with humor, but these are very real and all too common issues today.

Also, let your characters have real visceral sensations and conflicted feelings. There are ways to do this without getting too graphic or dwelling too long on the “heavy” stuff. Which brings us to…

#4: Describe the Deeper Issues and Feelings with a Lighter Touch

Hint and imply rather than paint the whole picture. Or touch on the topic briefly, then move on.

At one point, Marcia’s love interest “kisses her soundly” (which I admit is telling). His kiss causes “heat to shoot down her core” and her knees to “go all wobbly.” In one of my longer, “heavier” Kate Huntington novels, this would be followed by “tongues hungrily exploring mouths” and “tiny kisses trailing fire across her skin.”

Phew, is it just me, or is it getting hot in here?

But wobbly knees and heat shooting down her core are enough to get the idea across. She’s turned on by this guy.

I actually touch on some pretty “heavy” topics in this book, such as sexual assault in the military. But I don’t dwell on them; I mention aspects here and there and then move attention back to the plot. By the end of the book, the reader has a pretty clear picture of the impact of such an event on one’s life, without feeling like they’ve attended a psychotherapy marathon.

P.S. Today, I’m also over at the misterio press site (super cool how the Internet allows us to be in two places at once), talking about an awesome conference I went to a couple weeks ago, the Writer’s Police Academy. Please stop over and check it out!

*****

Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb has never been able to decide which she loves more, psychology or writing. In college, she realized that writers need a day job in order to eat, so she studied psychology. After a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she is now retired and can pursue her passion for writing.

She spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to this universe, aka her computer, is located in Florida, where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.

Kass loves hearing from readers! Find her on social media, her website, or check out her posts on psychological topics and other random things at the misterio press site.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest| Goodreads | Amazon

*****

Arsenic and Young Lacy
A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery, Book 2

Arsenic and Young Lacy coverHer savings dwindling, service dog trainer Marcia Banks is anxious to deliver Lacy and get paid. But the dog’s soon-to-be new owner, an ex-Army nurse, is being stalked, and both Lacy and Marcia end up caught in the stalker’s orbit. The training fee would make her solvent again, but how can Marcia put sweet Lacy at risk? And will the stalker decide to pay Marcia off in a very different way?

Available for Preorder now at $1.99!
(will be $3.99 after release day—9/5/2016)

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AUS | Apple | Kobo | Nook

*Psst!* The first book in this series is currently $0.99 through 9/3/16…
To Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. And when the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, she gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo | Apple | Nook

*****

Thank you, Kassandra! Although there’s nothing wrong with “frivolous” books (sometimes that’s what we’re in the mood for), it’s great to see how to write with deeper meaning if that’s what we want instead. As a romance author, I love this topic for very self-centered reasons. *grin*

Like Kass, when I started writing, I focused on a genre that felt more “meaty” (except in my case, that series hasn’t been published yet), and when I first came up with the idea for my debut, Treasured Claim, I thought romance would be too fluffy. However—as my ongoing Mythos Legacy romance series attests—I discovered that I loved writing those stories…and more importantly, that the genre didn’t have to be weightless or meaningless at all.

Any story—whether literary or genre, gritty or light—can say important things about the human condition. My romances can mix humor and a happy, fairytale-type ending with serious issues like child abuse, suicide, stalking, single parenthood, foster children, PTSD, etc.

As Kass points out in #3, in-depth explorations of relationships and relationship issues are meaningful. In a romance, I want to believe that a “happily ever after” will last, and handwaving over how a couple would reach compromises in the future because…love simply doesn’t cut it for me.

So I ensure my “light” stories still manage to focus on deeper emotional elements:

  • What makes a relationship healthy or unhealthy?
  • How can couples negotiate through distrust, vulnerability, and power struggles to form a partnership? (Especially in my genre—where one character is paranormal and the other is human—couples must confront and fix the natural imbalance of power.)
  • What place does sacrifice play in relationships? How much should each person give up their dreams to support the other? How much is too much?

Many of my stories continue for a chapter or two after the bad guy is vanquished because the couple still needs to overcome the last of their relationship issues. For example, they might need to decide where they’re going to live in the future and whether either of them needs to give up their job to make it work.

Many of us can probably relate to that conversation, which helps ground the story with meaning. Seeing how a healthy partnership deals with relatable issues might help us in our life as well, which is a win for everyone. And that’s just one example of how light definitely doesn’t need to mean fluffy. *smile*

What makes a story fluffy or frivolous to you? What makes a story deeper or more meaningful? What type of story do you tend to read or write? What type of meaning do you try to add to your stories? Do you disagree with the idea that a story can be light and meaningful?

And from Kassandra: “Romance and mystery are the genres I’m most familiar with. Any thoughts on writing “lighter” in other genres?”

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Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

What I want to write is something that challenges how you think. I should add, it’s not because I’m looking to be some great crusader trying to change the world sees things, it’s just that I love having my mind blown by endless questions that don’t have any real answers. I’m that strange type of person who’s kept awake by a maelstrom of thoughts about the meaning of life and the universe and actually ENJOYS it! You could say that it’s philosopical, but to be honest, I just want to write something weird that’ll mess with your head! When season six of Doctor Who was first shown, I was often kept awake trying to figure it out and loved every sleepless minute of it 🙂

Kassandra Lamb

You are not totally unique, Lara. Otherwise shows like Dr. Who, and before that, Twilight Zone, wouldn’t be so popular. Unexpected twists and events that challenge our way of thinking about things are definitely great ways to make a story resonate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Kassandra Lamb

Thanks so much for letting me hang out at your place today, Jami!

Glynis Jolly

Until recently, I was struggling with this part of the narration. I found it difficult to come up with what I needed in between the dialogues and and direct action. I hadn’t come up with your number one idea of hot topics, so thank you for the suggestion.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow, I LOVE this post! Well, one genre I spend a lot of time in is sci-fi, and I guess people consider this genre “less frivolous”? The current sci-fi book I’m working on is what I might call “high science fiction,” as a counterpart to “high fantasy.” It’s set in the very distant future, and though most of the characters are human, they live on a planet far from Earth in another galaxy. What’s fun is that this is a technological utopia, and many (but not all) social issues are pretty much solved on this planet too. For instance, there is total gender equality, as well as full acceptance of LGBT individuals (including nonbinary transgender people). My book talks a lot about aspects of this society and about their various technologies. I keep the sci-fi world-building info as short as possible, and just refer the readers to the glossary for things that aren’t necessary to understanding the plot. So that is one way I try to keep my novel lighter. Also, though there’s a lot of sci-fi stuff, I’m still most focused on the main characters, plot, character relationships, and character development. For example, there’s a kid who has relationship problems with his parents, a pair of half siblings who have a long-standing conflict with each other, and a sort of romance budding between a cis-gendered girl and a nonbinary individual. (I’m a member of the LGBT community as well as a nonbinary person myself, so I really like talking…  — Read More »

Tahlia Newland

I totally agree; writing light doesn’t have to mean frivolous. My latest books (‘Worlds Within Worlds’ and ‘The Locksmith’s Secret’) have a definite light touch but the themes ( cyber-bullying in the first and women’s abuse and emancipation in the second) give them depth along with the contemplative nature of the central character and the way she approaches dealing with her issues.

My first series (The Diamond Peak Series) was much heavier, but the books still had humour. It lightens the darkness. Books without a little bit of light are just too dark for me.

I’m presently writing a steampunk story (The Rise of the Aether Mages) and though it has all the drama one would expect, it won’t be one of the dark examples of the genre.

Clare O'Beara

I enjoy reading and writing SF, technothrillers, historicals and light crime, often with romance. These books contain plenty of opportunity to learn, to think, to experience the lives of others.
Good crime should always include social comment. This is more usually found in police procedurals. If your crime book only dwells on the disturbingly mad lone killer, it should better be classed as horror or ‘psychological chiller’ is the term now in use.
Modern writing is generally much deeper and better rounded than that of thirty years ago, so I have little patience with older books.
Historical romance and crime is often extremely well researched, depicting the lives and wishes of ordinary people and not just the rulers.

Recently I read and reviewed Carry Me Home (Paradise, Idaho, #1)
by Rosalind James. This shows a hydrogeologist transplanted from her native California to lecture in Idaho, where almost nobody believes her account of a stalker. The book is packed with conversations that discuss the issues surrounding women in higher education, at all levels. I strongly recommend the read.

Susan
Susan

Well, then it isn’t just me – there are other romance readers who wonder why certain couples fall in love! In some books I don’t feel a spark between the couple or they just don’t seem to belong together. It may be a fun read, but I quickly forget the book. And yes, sometimes a quick, fun read is just what I want, but I love the stories that resonate – the ones that stay with me. I want this to be the case with my stories, too, and using these four methods will help.
There is great advice in this post – thanks so much!

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[…] Lamb lays out 4 ways to add depth to your stories, even if you don’t write in a dark or gritty style or […]

Jennifer Jensen

This is a timely post for me, Kass and Jamie. As I’m getting ready to switch the genre I write in, from children’s to light romance, this is one of my concerns. I want a romance with a little “meat” to it, some problem that’s real-life, but not defending a corporate takeover or something. (I !refuse! to read/write a story where the whole problem is whether or not the two will get together, and could be solved if only they would talk to each other!) I want layered characters with challenges in life, but not to go into them as deeply as I would with Women’s Fiction.

I like the idea of a vocation that is more than just the background, and I especially like the idea of “what would he/she sacrifice for the other.” So thank you for some things to jot down – I’ll be using it as I play with ideas.

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