Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I thought about this a lot yesterday, about risk-taking and writing, after having read a handful of early chapters from unpublished manuscripts and a couple of books this week.
Some of the writers nailed it, that element that hooks a reader and pulls her in. Others hadn’t yet accomplished that feat. They hadn’t written in that compelling way that captures readers. They hadn’t yet taken the brakes off.
The writing was safe. Tame. Bland.
So . . . I got wondering.
What allows the writer to shrug off restraint and write without fear? With passion? What emboldens her to create characters and situations—create powerful phrases—that make a basic story one of danger or churning anxiety or obsession?
What can I do to encourage writers to write without an internal censor handicapping them, restricting not only their words but their imaginations?
I don’t know that I have an answer, but I certainly want to find one. I want to assure writers—assure you—that it’s okay to write boldly, that’s it’s all right to allow your characters to say and do and think things that you would never say, do, or think in your wildest imaginings.
I want to encourage you—compel you?—to put those wildest imaginings on the page.
I want to convince you that not only is it okay to write boldly, but that your writing will be stronger for it. More engaging. More intriguing.
Readers want different. They want something from fiction that they can’t get in their daily lives. Maybe what they want is too dangerous in the real world. Too costly in terms of relationships or maybe even in financial costs.
Maybe what they want is simply too hard for them on an emotional level.
In our real lives, we like peace. We seek equilibrium. We want balance.
In fiction we like friction and conflict and drama. We seek emotional highs and lows. We want extremes.
We crave problems and tension from fiction. We want to experience the good and the bad. We want to see the hero win and the antagonist not only lose, but we want him punished. We want justice and retribution.
But retribution is not bland. And friction and conflict aren’t easy.
So what the reader craves, the writer sometimes shies away from. Writing adversarial scenes is hard. Conflict pits characters against one another. It makes people we like do things we don’t like.
As writers, we want our readers to admire us. Yet we fear that they won’t, not after we do horrible things to characters we’ve made them love.
But they will like us and they’ll come back to read our works again and again if we give them what they want. That tension and drama and conflict. Those extremes. Those moments of emotional suffering that tear the character’s heart out and stir the reader to infuriation on the character’s behalf.
You can give readers what they crave. And you can make their pursuit of those cravings both safe and compelling. They can pursue in fiction what they can’t in their real lives, and the more dynamic the writing, the more enveloped in the story and in the emotions the readers will find themselves. The more satisfaction they’ll feel.
You have nothing to lose. The character you put into danger or in a bad light is just a character. He may seem real, but he isn’t. You won’t go to jail for torturing him or embarrassing him or making him fail at a time when he needs to succeed. You won’t face discipline for making him look like a fool.
Instead, making him look and feel foolish will make his ultimate vindication sweeter.
The worse off he is, the more satisfying his victory.
If you make your story engaging, you’ll draw the reader deep.
So, how can you do this, this writing without brakes? How about some suggestions.
1. Let your lead character get caught doing something she knows is wrong. Then give her no way to explain what she’s done without digging herself a deeper hole. Let the one person whose good opinion she values see what she’s done.
2. Put your lead character into a moral dilemma and force him to make a choice between something repugnant to him and something repugnant to the world.
3. Let your lead be overheard planning something that will hurt her lover. Next, let the lover overhear that it was only a ruse. Then, let the lover discover that the plot was no ruse at all, that his lover was so intent on solving her FBI case that she used even their relationship to do it.
4. Put a single cuss word in the mouth of one who doesn’t cuss.
5. Have your antagonist perform a true act of kindness.
6. Allow a character to be contrary, rude, or unpredictable. And don’t make him apologize.
7. Write a scene in which friends are in opposition and in which neither can back down.
8. Don’t fear making the reader uncomfortable.
9. Have a character discover an unpleasant truth about herself.
10. Let a brother or sister become disillusioned by the words or actions of an idolized older sibling.
11. Make your lead characters human. Give them flaws and weaknesses. A bad habit. Show the disappointment in a boy’s eyes when he discovers his dad isn’t Superman.
12. Show a dad’s disappointment when he realizes he can’t be Superman for his son.
13. Have a character betray a friend, her family, her company, or her country.
Have her betray her own ideals.
14. Play what would happen if . . . And then make the if happen.
15. Imagine dialogue your lead character would never say. And then give her an occasion to say it.
16. Allow bad things to happen to your characters. Don’t always save them.
Think both big and small in your boldness. Sometimes the key is in a single word. Other times you’ll use an exchange of dialogue to display your brashness.
A single look may signal a betrayal. An answering look may acknowledge disbelief at that betrayal. Or, you might need an entire scene to set best friends at odds.
Recognize different levels of boldness; think surprise, not only shock. (But don’t worry about shocking the readers.)
Think in terms of opposition, conflict, tension, adversarial opportunities, competition, and one-upmanship.
Don’t write nice characters; readers aren’t looking for nice and pleasant. Write complex characters with depths and layers and conflicting beliefs. A fictional character doesn’t need to be nice to be good or moral. And even a moral character will not be perfect.
A perfect character brings boring to fiction.
You’re in charge of your writing; take those self-imposed brakes off.
Go boldly where you’ve never gone before.
Write compelling fiction.