Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 6 - Fear and blasphemy

My intent is not to deliver you into temptation. I am not trying to break up your marriage or scandalize your congregation or attract the attention of analysts at the Department of Homeland Security. I'm all about stories. The best stories. The stories that challenge. The stories that are memorable.

So... what are you afraid of?

I mean this literally. (What you are looking for are opportunities to take risks with your drafts, so take notes, make lists.) Let's take my favorite route to surprising answers, a climb up Maslow's pyramid (or hierarchy).
By FireflySixtySeven - Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow's paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting from the bottom, what deaths are you most afraid of? Begin with the most likely ones. Heart disease, automobile accidents, cancer, Alzheimers, etc. ? Then, are there unlikely deaths that give you nightmares? Are there causes of death or moments/places of death that would mortify you?

You might want to imagine disabilities or diseases, as well. When I was a kid, there seemed to be a television genre for this -- disease of the week. I don't think the interest has gone away. What makes you squirm will make your characters squirm and engage readers.

Constant threats to safety can raise anxiety levels. I've been mugged a couple of times, so I avoid hidden spaces and shadowy alleys. I am keenly aware when traveling in some countries of the dangers of food poisoning, even in the best hotels (eat only if sealed or sizzling). What have been the worst threats to your safety? Getting separated from your parents? Riding in a car when a drunk was behind the wheel? Where would you never go? What would you never do? If something you imagine gives you chills, add it to your list.

Start easy, remembering embarrassments. Probing your social anxieties, from public speaking to secret traumas. Then move on. What could you do that would break the bonds of love? Or what could happen that would separate you from people you care for? Think in personal terms, exploring your real relationships and push to levels beyond forgiveness. I hope none of the worst things have happened to you, but if they did, they are there to be mined. And, if they didn't, your empathy has forced you to experience the horrors others have shared. These are key to strong stories, too.

From the time of Greek drama, the idea of bringing the most honored low has made good theater. Think of what you are most esteemed for or what you most value about yourself. Now imagine losing those things completely, a fall from grace. Punishment for hubris. Try the same thing for someone who is your model, your hero, or your heroine.

Feel free to explore the loss of self-actualization, if you wish. In all probability, people whom Maslow would have considered self-actualized have suffered in this way, and it might lead to good stories. However, since Maslow believed that less than one percent of humans achieve self-actualization, you might have difficulty getting readers to identify with the consequences of such a failure.

This is your fears list. All of these fears can catch fire in a good story, and you should try submitting your characters to these tortures, especially those that disturb you the most. Don't worry. Your characters will forgive you. And you don't have to include these in any drafts that others will read.

Now climb the pyramid again. This time, think of what might appeal to you -- but not just anything. Think about what attracts you that is unacceptable to others, weird, or even taboo. If it's something you'd never dare to do, even better. Make a list of these.

This is your blasphemy list. Again, try to work these into your stories. Then, as a test, imagine your distress if your kids or your lover(s) or your boss or your spouse's friends or government agents were to read these scenes. Out loud, in front of you. Imagine reading such scenes in different cultures or different times. Would any of them lead people into temptation? Break a marriage? Lead to shunning or exile? Put you in jail? Get you burned at the stake?

Good. Now you can write something that's off the leash. Perhaps something you'll need to dial back for safety's sake. Or destroy. That's success. That's testing your limits. That's finding options to write stories that break new ground and challenge the culture.

Too dark? Find the healing. Find the way home. Find the reconciliation. Find the happy ending. Take the trip from damnation to ecstasy. It will be unlike anything else. Never settle for the journey from discomfort to calm.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing. Words to write with. I am making my lists right now.