Thanks for weighing in on the changed blog! If you have more thoughts, please post them. By the way, what used to be called labels are now categories.
Now a little pre-post before the main event:
Without being specific, a writer recently asked on my website about advancing controversial opinions in stories that might offend some readers. This has come up before, and I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject. Basically, I’ve said that we shouldn’t stifle ourselves, and we don’t know whom we’re going to offend or not offend, anyway. The most seemingly bland scenario may trouble someone.
A fresh idea has occurred to me, however. I still don’t think we should worry about our readers. There is literature in the world putting forth every take on every topic in the universe. But we may want to protect ourselves.
Something like this was addressed not long ago in my poetry school in a master class about writing about actual people in one’s life (which I’ve also written about here). One of the poets teaching the class had published a collection that revealed troubling family history. The response from his relatives was less than positive. I think he had every right to publish, but he also had the right to not publish and shield himself if he felt that he wouldn’t be able to deal with the hurt.
This doesn’t apply just to life experiences. If we put forward an unpopular position, whether our readership is broad or narrow, we need to be prepared to accept the response. I’m not saying not to do it–maybe we should do it–but we should brace ourselves. If we’re not ready for criticism or even anger, we can hold off and wait for a better moment.
Now for the regular post. On January 15, 2015, KLC wrote, I had been writing short books that had good ideas, but were not suspenseful at all and leaving me with absolutely no reason to turn the page. Then I started planning for other books and as I started to write them, I realized that the only way I knew to make my books suspenseful was to add in lots of drama and people dying. The problem is that that’s not how I want my books to be like, so how do I make a good, suspenseful book without making it a blood-and-gore horror story. (Perhaps I have been taking your advice “make your characters suffer” a bit far…)
At the time I wrote, I’m adding your question to my list, but it will be a while before I get to it. In the meanwhile, readers will be in suspense if they care about your main character and if he or she needs something or wants something or is in trouble. No one has to die.
And this is what I’m writing now: I love to walk but not in the rain. On most Tuesdays I commute to New York City and while I’m there I like to get in a long walk of about three miles, because I especially enjoy striding through the bustle and along the interesting architecture. The endorphins kick in after a while, and I feel like the healthiest old lady on the planet. Starting on the previous Wednesday, I anxiously watch the weather predictions. It’s silly. My health won’t be damaged if I miss a walk or two, and it’s not my only form of exercise. Usually I’m lucky and get sun, but I worry that I’m wasting my wishes on weather, and when something really important comes along, they’ll all be used up. Still, I care a lot. If I were a character, and the reader sympathized with me, he would want the sun to shine whenever I wanted it to.
Could this desire for a sunny day be a suspenseful part of an interesting story? I think so. Let’s make me a lot younger than I am and let’s call our MC Abigail, since no modern young person is named Gail, alas. Abigail is an outdoorsy person, and things haven’t been going well for her lately. Let’s say her Geology teacher seems to have it in for her and she’s failing, even though she loves the subject. Her best friend has texted her with accusations that make her feel awful, even make her feel that their friendship since they were toddlers may have been a sham. Oh, and let’s top it off: The friend’s accusations are true, because the most misery comes when we are guilty (and, I think, the most reader sympathy).
Abigail needs a break, so she plans one for the next day, because today is shot. It’s spring. The dogwoods are in bloom and she hasn’t seen them yet in her city neighborhood. She packs a picnic lunch the night before and decides to leave early for the big park a mile from her house. If the day is clear, she’ll be able to outstrip her unhappiness or walk into it and figure out some strategies. She goes to sleep visualizing sunshine.
If our story has been very tense up to now we may give her a break and blue skies. If not, we make it pour. She’s cooped up at home because it’s the weekend. What does she do? She obsesses about her friend. She composes an answer, then thinks it won’t do, tries again, gives up. Next, she picks up her geology textbook, reads a paragraph without comprehension, shuts the book with a thud. Desperate to do something positive, she decides to cook dinner for her parents and make her favorite recipe, which they also like, but it turns out that a crucial ingredient is missing, and the deluge is still going on. We’ve set it up that she doesn’t deal well with frustration. So far she’s been cautious and positive, but we know that isn’t going to last. She starts curling her hair around her finger, always a bad sign. The reader wonders in what way she’d going to go off the rails–and keeps reading.
So what have we done? We’ve taken a trivial wish and surrounded it with unhappiness, because we do need to make our characters suffer, even if the suffering is unlikely to kill or maim them or anyone they love. I don’t think I’ve made Abigail sympathetic enough in just this summary, but we need to do that, too, to persuade the reader to turn the page. One possibility for that would be to put her in the presence of her friend, who’s ignoring her. We reveal her thoughts, as she wonders about the right approach, as her friend smiles and talks with other people, maybe even glancing in Abigail’s direction and looking away.
A great example of all of this is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Nothing more violent happens than Anne cracking Gilbert Blythe over the head with her school slate. There’s death, but it’s not the focus of the story, and a baby gets the croup, but Anne saves her. What draws us in is how unloved Anne feels herself to be, with some reason, her ardent desire for whatever she wants at any point in the story, her wry self-awareness, and maybe five other things I can’t think of. Certainly the voice of the narrator is engaging. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. You don’t have to be eight years old; it’s worth studying.
Although no lives are at stake, the themes can and should still be big. In my example of Abigail and the sunny day it may be friendship, self-worth, self-understanding, empathy, personal growth, honesty. That we touch these grand motifs will also keep readers reading.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Make the reader care about your character’s wish for one of these: a melted cheese sandwich, eyeglasses, quiet, a single good idea, a set of watercolors. Write a scene or the whole story.
∙ Show Abigail at home after receiving the hurtful text. Make her sympathetic through her thoughts and her preparations for the longed-for sunny day.
∙ Write the argument between Abigail and her friend when it finally comes. Make the emotional wounds deep, as if this were a battlefield and the words were swords. If you like, then bring about a reconciliation. If you don’t like, use the argument and the injuries sustained to launch your plot, in which the pain is never physical. You can end finally with renewed friendship or separation and growth, or, tragically, just separation.
Have fun, and save what you write!