Writing for the web, I find it difficult to return to long form storytelling. Maintaining an online presence, my short stories always feel more relevant to hot button issues of the day. Working on a novel, I don’t have the instant gratification of ‘Likes’ and comments.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends churning out a draft in three months. He says, if you wait any longer you’ll lose momentum. For writer’s trying to woo an audience on social media, this time frame is tough to maintain. Blog entries and short stories are speed bumps on our novel’s journey.
Returning to my work in progress, I’m often stumped. The characters aren’t as fresh in my mind. I know where the story is supposed to go, but the direction doesn’t seem as interesting. There’s a writer’s blockade around my inspiration. King’s curse comes true.
Usually I’d just give up and move onto the next bright shiny idea, that was before I’d stumbled onto a method to revive my manuscript. Now, rather than stick to my original outline, I give myself something new to look forward to. Not a crowd pleasing triumph, but a problem in need of solving, a plague on my characters’ houses. A big terrible event on par with George R.R. Martin’s infamous red wedding.
This new tragic twist wouldn’t betray the story, but it would be shocking enough to jump start my interest.
Make a Bad Situation Worse
Rereading works in progress, I look for seismic activity. These tremors take the shape of character traits, details I’d put out there to make the character seem more real.
In The Book of Mirrors, I made Austin, the hero, a troubled teen who’d grown up into a successful author. For flavor, I mentioned that she used to have a compulsion to pluck out her hair. I wasn’t planting anything in the grand scheme of things, but when I got stuck something about that character detail became appealing.
In the story, Austin is brought on to ghost write a draft of a forged diary. The diary is supposed to be a cautionary tale to scare teenage girls away from sex, drugs, and the occult. The problem is it’s been stitched together from the real experiences of a dozen other contributors, each one with a background similar to Austin’s. This Frankenstein’s monster journal is so effective at drawing out the reader’s empathy, it gets under the skin of anyone who works on it.
I got stuck trying to figure out the best way to visualize Austin’s descent into madness. She’d spent the story writing in a mirrored room, a place her benefactor said would help Austin reflect on her life. I figured, he’d return to find she’d broken the mirrors and cut herself with the shards, but as I got closer to the scene, I felt like it was a copout, a cheap horror gag I’d seen several times before.
I was about to put the piece on the back-burner when a little voice inside of me said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if the benefactor returned to discover Austin had plucked herself bald?”
My initial reaction was, “That somehow seems more insane than more traditional forms of self mutilation. If she’s that far gone, how will she come back from that?”
The little voice whispered, “Are you really sure you want her to come back from that?”
Those signs of seismic activity, I’d written subconsciously, steered me toward the emotional volcano at the heart of the story. All I had to do, was listen for the tremors and let it flow.
Don’t be Conflicted about Conflict
In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, screenwriter David Mamet says, “Every scene should be able to answer three questions: “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?”
Mamet’s statement breaks down into three concepts: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. If every character is motivated to act on their goals, there should be conflict, especially if their goal isn’t compatible with anyone else’s. This is how scenes reveal characters, advance the plot, and tip the scales of hope and dread
If the scale is tipped too far toward hope for too long, not only will the audience lose interest, so will you. If it’s tipped too far toward dread the story will be emotionally exhausting, to read and to write. The trick is finding the right balance, to create just enough tension to keep you and your audience engaged until the end.
Not everything that can go wrong in your hero’s life should go wrong, but your reader ought to think it’s a possibility. They need to believe you are a cruel God and that yours is a harsh reality.
I don’t use every tragic outcome that comes to mind, but I foreshadow as many of them as I can. This way, a happy ending feels like a well earned surprise. Trick your audience into thinking you’re telling a tragedy, then give them a victory.
God might forgive people in the moment, but writers should wait until the third act to decide their character’s fate.
I can come back to stories that I’ve sat on because I write with a loose plan, leaving space for bad shit to happen. Just as stories are born from “What if?” questions, so are plot developments. I ask myself, “What if this terrible development upset my hero’s plan?” If I decide the idea is too harsh, I dial it back and it becomes, “What if I allude to the possibility of this terrible development? Now, how do I prevent it from happening?” Either way, I add to the tension.
For me, so much of writing is tricking myself to press on. If I can keep myself at the edge of my seat I’ll keep going, if only to find out what happens.
12 thoughts on “Be Evil: Why Writers Should be Cruel Gods”
Found this really interesting Drew. It definitely takes me longer than 3 months to write a draft of a novel. This latest one has been about 16 months so far and I’m only half way through. The first was 14 months! I’m getting slower (it’s all those damn shorts and flash I’ve taken to writing!) But, i never feel like I lose momentum (probably because I go at snail’s pace as it is so there is no momentum to lose!) However I think I don’t lose interest because I do write in ‘scenes’ so to speak. Although I have the main story arc to aim at, my characters do go through mini escapades and adventures where sometimes bad shit happens and sometimes it doesn’t and I hope in doing this I find that balance you talk about of not tipping hope too far forward for too long or tipping too far to dread.
I loved your idea for Austin to pluck himself bald! Wow! Insane!
Another great post to get my brain whirring! I think your posts actually help keep me going back to my novel when the shiny short stories seem more enticing at times. Oddly enough my next blog post is going to be about writing a novel vs writing shorts. (Well the next one I write; I have about 5 already written in drafts!)
I’m glad these posts urge you to dive into your longer work in progress. If I can somehow make the novel seem more enticing then I’ve done my job.
Yeah, I also have 4 blog posts already scheduled. I thought I’d by myself some time…then I recorded a bunch of audio blogs. Now I’m finding myself posting 3 pieces a week (not a great strategy, but I want people to hear what I’m working on). Anyway, I’m rambling.
As always thank you so much for reading and commenting. I have a slew of blogs to read when I get out later.
Reblogged this on Scribing English and commented:
This was a really helpful post especially for me whose trying to keep up the momentum of writing creatively while juggling everything else. Thanks Drew Chial!
I’m still juggling. Every time I start sharing things on a new social network, that’s another plate to spin. We all get overwhelmed in this new era of multitasking.
I know what you mean about returning to WIPs. With my current WIP, I love the beginning, the middle, and the end, just not the climatic scenes. I feel they were forced and whenever I go to work on it, I’m having trouble figuring out what to do with it. I like the ideas in this post, I think they’ll come in handy when I go back to edit again.
I like this idea of searching for seismic activity. I watched a documentary about a girl with a compulsive disorder who couldn’t stop pulling out her hair. Sounds like Austin overcame this…or had overcome it. I’m interested to know how you execute the use of this character trait and what it means to her and how it had affected her life before and why when she goes mad, it comes back.
A mirrored room…that is intriguing, I’m curious as to why her benefactor has this room, what Austin found in her reflection, what effect it has on her, and if she does go mad (which it sounds like she does) what it is about her reflection that drives her to insanity. Would we all go insane if we were left in a room where we couldn’t escape gazing upon ourselves?
“All I had to do was listen for the tremors and let it flow.” In the end, that always seems to work best for me. Whenever I try to force it or control it, I know it’s not as good as if I would just let it happen, just let my subconscious take over.
Love, love, love this: “Not everything that can go wrong in your hero’s life should go wrong, but your reader ought to think it’s a possibility. They need to believe you are a cruel God and that yours is a harsh reality. I don’t use every tragic outcome that comes to mind, but I foreshadow as many of them as I can. This way, a happy ending feels like a well earned surprise. Trick your audience into thinking you’re telling a tragedy, then give them a victory.”
And, of course, I love the pics. I like your use of electricity. I was just thinking this past weekend about how the conscious mind might exist as energy (separate from the brain). And my blog post I was working on for this week goes into that briefly. I had a dream about a galaxy that was a doorway to…well, I guess wherever souls go, which got me writing about the soul as the conscious mind and if it is possible it has matter/energy separate from the body. I’m researching more about what’s out there on this…hence the lack of a blog, my thoughts have been everywhere the past few days. I’m discombobulated and I’ve been too busy studying to even sort my brains out.
Clive Barker once said that an urban legend about the maddening effects of a fully mirrored room (including mirrors on the floor and ceiling) inspired his story The Hellbound Heart, which became Hellraiser. Barker liked to imagine the inside of the puzzle box was coated in reflective surfaces.
I couldn’t get around the idea of the mirrored room. In my story, The Book of Mirrors, the benefactor puts Austin in a mirrored room to hasten the madness brought on by the text she’s editing. He has her believing she’s laboring on a forged journal, a cautionary tale. She isn’t. Austin is revising a curse that’s cost the lives of every author that came before her. Once completed, the fabled Book of Mirrors will draw out the empathy in the reader, causing them to kill themselves.
I’ve had a draft for several years. I’ve had friends give me lots of feedback… It’s difficult to explain, but the story makes me feel dirty, more so than many of my other pieces, which is kind of why I like it.
You have me looking forward to your next blog entry. I like the idea of cosmic soul stories. Knowing you, you’ll knock it out of the park. Take your time. Your blog will still be there after all of your studying is done.
As always, thanks so much for commenting.
Thank you 🙂 And your story sounds very interesting.
Totally agree with you. As writers, it’s our job to make our characters real. We can do that by twisting the proverbial knife. Excellent post!
Thanks for checking it out.
I think one of the problems of writing in general is most of us don’t have 8 hours a day to just sit and write. Not an excuse, but an observation. So we keep going back and rethink and rewrite until we’ve squeezed all originality out of our story. Plus, you can only read your story as a newbie once, so after a dozen (or a hundred) re-reads, the surprise, the pop, is gone. You can’t see if the plot really twists or turns when it should, or if the character is developing in an identifiable way anymore. You have to hope your first inkling was right, and keep the story real. Thanks for the post.
Reblogged this on Rose's Road and commented:
As this pregnancy gets closer to its conclusions I find myself thinking about my plot outline for I Killed Them, Mama. This post has set my mind to wondering how I could make it even More suspenseful. (cue evil laugh 🙂 )
Once again you have sent my mind spinning into a quagmire of what ifs.
Too much fun. 🙂
I reblogged this, by the way. It clicked with another thought about one of my moves in the making a little too well to Not share.