So many manuscripts achieve less than they could. Published novels too. As I read I often wonder what the author is afraid of. Do deadlines (real or self-inflicted) cut short the creative journey or are there paths in the woods that the storyteller fears to walk?
No question, the rush to deliver leaves many novels malnourished. It’s sad to see hurried third volumes in trilogies, say, shoved into production by overworked editors. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. After all, novels are built day by day in writing sessions that can be either comfortable or courageous.
I’m in favor of sending characters down fearful paths. Stories pushed beyond the limits of comfort stick in readers’ imaginations. That’s an effect most novelists want to have. But that means living with worry. What if you’ve gone too far? What if your editor—worse still readers—are turned off?
Consider this: When other novelists unsettle us we praise them, yet when in our writing we unsettle ourselves we worry. Hmm. Can we turn that around? Can we turn our fears to our advantage?
What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes the author’s own fears. Try these ways to use yours…
What is your main character’s deepest fear? What’s the greatest length to which she goes to avoid it? From whence does it spring? Play with that. Triple the magnitude of that originating event. How does your character try—and twice fail—to overcome that fear? Now take a deep breath. Bring about your character’s worst fear. Make it happen. Doesn’t fit your story? Aw, too bad. Do it anyway.
Other ideas: What is it that your protagonist least wants to see about himself? What does she not want to admit? What’s the worst thing he ever did wrong? Make it worse than that. Now bring that event into the present, or that secret to light. Whom can it hurt? Make it hurt worse.
Squirming? Go deeper. What are you most afraid of? What is your deepest shame? Why are you a fraud? What are you powerless to change? What cover up do you most regret? What have you ruined? What will you never recover? Give any of that to your protagonist. Our worst fears are not hiding out there in the dark, they’re the darkness inside ourselves.
Are you uncomfortable? Was that too self-revealing? Do you feel a little sick inside? Wait until you get my bill.
Seriously, you are a storyteller. Fear is your friend. Open your door. Invite fear in. Smoke cigars. Have a chat. What you’re afraid of may be just what you need for your novel to achieve its highest impact.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s curran.kelleher