Thursday, March 21, 2013

Writing Bigger 14: Breaking the Chains

We all love dramatic, emotional stories with outsized characters and unexpected turns. These Bigger Stories capture our imagination and grow in the retelling. Picking these out of real life often comes naturally, but creating them requires boldness, courage, determination, and skill.

In fact, writers seem to dodge the biggest stories, avoiding worst cases for protagonists, limiting the stakes, and avoiding conflict. I saw this over and over again as I scored fiction contest entries recently. Stories with real potential were tentative and did not fulfill their promise. Many writers are held back by chains they've forged themselves. Let's explore four:

1. Believability  -- The most common sin I've seen in unpublished manuscripts is starting in the wrong place. Writers are obsessed with telling us "what we need to know" before they get into the story. Characters explain the past to each other. Big blocks of narration build worlds or explain rules. Some of this is throat clearing (the writer figuring things out) or conflict avoidance (see below), but a lot is there to build a case for what follows. But readers are willfully suspending disbelief. They will accept a lot -- if you tell a good story. Slow beginnings drag down a story. They reveal a lack of confidence in the writer.

I think part of the problem comes from teachers, critics, and writing group members who confuse debate style arguments with story logic. Storytellers need verisimilitude, not proofs. (Think of the  core concepts and the twists and turns of your favorite stories. Do you accept them because of facts or feelings?) If you, as a writer, believe it, others will, too. Facts and back story don't build a case, they create a clear context.

2. Conflict avoidance -- Norman Mailer was a pugnacious writer, but he's more the exception than the rule. Because they are practiced at seeing other points of view and skilled in articulating perspectives (including those they disagree with), writers are often peacemakers. They smooth over misstatements and faux pas and help people explore compromises. This is admirable in real life, but it can really wreck a story. Every scene should have a conflict. And it is best if it ends in the worst possible way. But I read story after story where a good conflict arises and the characters smooth it out. They part friends. Hmm.
3. Kindness -- You've gotta be cruel to be kind. Lessons come hard. The best characters only learn them when they get knocked around. They pay a price. Readers won't hate you if you're mean to your characters, they'll love you. Stop worrying about your characters (or what your readers will think of you) and get out your torture kit. You can’t remain removed and dignified and ace it." The bigger your ambition, the bigger the situation, and (mostly) the bigger the emotion, the more likely it is that you risk looking ridiculous. If you protect your dignity (and your heart), you are unlikely to move me.
4. Dignity -- In Susan Shapiro's article, "Make Me Worry You're Not Okay," she talks about how she has made the humiliation essay her signature assignment. "It encourages students to shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile, or naked.

We want to be trusted, kind, dignified peacemakers. What wrong with that? Nothing in real life. But in fiction, it's dull. It makes things too easy for your characters (and for you, as a writer). It chains stories to the mundane when they were meant to soar.

Want more? I've added upcoming talks and courses to my Web site.

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