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The Upside of Anxiety

Lately here on WU, there have been a number of generous and uplifting posts designed to keep us busy, boost our spirits and relieve our worry.  I greatly appreciate those posts, don’t get me wrong, but let me ask you this: Doesn’t that strike you as ironic?

The fiction that we write, edit, represent and publish is designed to do exactly the opposite; that is, to fill protagonists—and readers—with many forms of anxiety.  Indeed, anxiety is the essential fuel of plot, scene and micro-tension.  It is the elemental state of main characters.  Even theme can be expressed as questions needing answers or issues that oppress.

Alarm, fright, terror, horror, uneasiness, apprehension, disquiet, dismay, distress, panic, stress, agony, foreboding, misery, suspense, shivers, wariness, worry, doubt, misgiving, mistrust, suspicion, shock, confusion, disillusionment, upset, letdown, fear, consternation, trembling, revulsion, concern, pain, unhappiness, alienation, abhorrence, agitation, phobia, obsession, bad vibes, sinking feeling, cold sweats, quaking, dolefulness, hopelessness, surrender, nervousness, fearfulness, hatefulness, trauma, pity…and, hey now, my all-time favorite existential dread…are all desirable conditions.  In fiction, I mean.

To be sure, the intent of fiction is not always so dire.  We may wish the fiction that we write to delight, uplift and inspire.  However, you cannot get to those positive effects without first putting protagonists and readers in a negative state.  What causes delight, uplift and inspiration is emerging from fear, the relief of anxiety.

Thus, there is an upside to anxiety.  It’s good to feel bad…in writing, and reading, fiction that is.  Which, in turn, makes this period a boom time for us, right?  I mean, worldwide contagion?  Do the conditions for writing fiction get any better?  During wartime, maybe?  Okay, seriously, when the stress and worry in our lives is unbearable, we of course need to counteract it.  We need to whistle in the dark, laugh at ourselves, toast to small pleasures, pray, appreciate every day, and draw together in mutual support as we do here on WU.  All of that is psychologically and spiritually sound, but today I’m not talking about keeping ourselves together but taking our protagonists apart.

And really, for fiction writers what is more fun than that?

Anxiety comes in two basic forms: 1) the anxiety brought about by circumstances, and 2) the anxiety inside us.  The first basis for producing anxiety is what plot is all about.  The second basis for producing anxiety is what people are all about.  And it is finding, pinning down and expressing that second basic form of anxiety that I want to look at today.

Being anxious isn’t necessarily bad.  High functioning individuals with general anxiety disorder can be quite successful.  They can get to work early, dress well, and arrive on time for appointments.  They can be organized, focused, passionate, tidy, detail oriented, helpful, and they can appear outwardly calm.  They are enviable.

On the negative side, high functioning anxiety types can be nervous, overthinking, repetitive talkers, procrastinators, or cold.  They can be subject to insomnia, racing minds, overscheduling, and fatigue.  They can avoid eye contact even while needing constant reassurance.  They can be reclusive even while comparing themselves to others too much.  They can fail to see a future for themselves even while being unable to live in the moment.

Basically, I’m describing many protagonists.  Perhaps many writers too?

Now, while anxiety in life isn’t in all respects bad, in composing a page, realize that anxiety can become static.  It puts us on alert, sure, but doesn’t necessarily propel us somewhere.  Poorly handled, it can do nothing but turn a character in circles.  In manuscripts, I see that in churning exposition; that is, in passages that do nothing but express already-obvious worry.  What did it mean that…?  What would happen if…?  Exposition that merely restates worries is only looping around.

In contrast, dynamic anxiety is a condition of uncertainty.  It leads not back into itself but forward to new possibilities.  Think about fear.  It is focused on a specific danger.  Something can be done about it.  Likewise, foreboding gets us ready.  Suspicion puts us on the defensive.  Suspense gets us moving.  Concern makes us act.

Even existential dread—the hopeless awareness of death—can be motivating.  We must do something with that most dire of feelings; meaning, we must make peace with our human condition, perhaps meeting it with strength and resolve.  If you can’t do anything about dying, you can make the most of living.

Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor.  You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.  If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life…We’ll always have Paris….I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world…Here’s looking at you kid.

Nothing against Camus, but for me you can’t beat the existential acceptance that Rick Blaine achieves at the end of CasablancaI’m no good at being noble?  Come on.  Anxiety isn’t only for black-and-white movies and noir novels, of course.  Every type of narrative, including comedy, is actually rooted in dread.  Anxiety is motivation.  It is drive.  It is the challenge.  It is what we need to face and what we conquer through story.

Ben Lerner’s highly-praised novel The Topeka School (2019), is a study in anxiety that makes us not want to give up, but to keep reading.  While it shifts POV’s and timeframes, it is largely about a boy who would seem to have no problems, Adam Gordon.  He’s popular and a champion debater.  His parents are successes too: his father a renowned psychiatrist for “lost boys”, his mother a famous feminist author.

For all that, Adam is adrift…at the beginning of the novel quite literally.  He wakes in a small motorboat in a man-made lake, believing that his girlfriend has jumped over and drowned.  He motors to shore and goes to look for her, but because the large tract houses all look alike, he goes into the wrong house.  It takes him a while to realize that and when he does, he experiences a profound sense of dislocation:

Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house, with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts.  In each house she or someone like her was in her bed, sleeping or pretending to sleep; legal guardians were farther down the hall, large men snoring; the faces and poses in the family photographs on the mantel might change, but would all belong to the same grammar of faces and poses; the elements of the painted scenes might vary, but not the level of familiarity and flatness; if you opened any of the giant stainless-steel refrigerators or surveyed the faux-marble islands, you would encounter matching, modular products in slightly different configurations.

He was in all the houses but, precisely because he was no longer bound to a discrete body, he could also float above them; it was like looking at the miniature train set Klaus, his dad’s friend, had given him as a child; he didn’t care about the trains, could barely make them run, but he loved the scenery, the green static flocking spread over the board, the tiny yet towering pines and hardwoods.  When he looked at the impossibly detailed trees, he occupied two vantages at once: he pictured himself beneath their branches and also considered them from above; he was looking up at himself and looking down.  Then he could toggle rapidly between these perspectives, those scales, in a relay that unfixed him from his body.

Yikes!  Adam is experiencing dislocation, an almost out-of-body alienation, a detachment that is the first stage of existential dread.  Pretty heavy stuff for a privileged teen, but rather than stopping the story dead in its tracks, this moment pushes us forward for two reasons, plot and person.  First, the plot point: what happened to his girlfriend?  (She hasn’t drowned in the shallows, she’s just shallow.)  Second, what has happened to Adam to put him into such a condition?  Adam’s attempt to alleviate his malady and connect leads him to befriend a loner, Darren Eberheart, a patient of his father’s, with unintended and disastrous consequences.

Anxiety, then, is not simply static, it is dynamic.  True, there are dark moments of helpless despair, terror, horror, of being lost, no way back or forward, left only with one’s reflection in the mirror and with questions.  How did this happen?  What am I supposed to do now?

But notice: the questions that capture despair also demand unpacking.  How did this happen?  (Answer: take a look back.)  What am I supposed to do now?  (Answer: go forward.)  There is tension in anxiety and tension is exactly what we want to create on the page.  From big plot problems to line-by-line micro-tension, it is what keeps readers reading.

The best anxiety, of course, is yours.  What you fear is what we will respond to.  The particular way in which it’s experienced by you can be given to your protagonist.  If it’s an anxiety born of an experience that you personally haven’t had, well, isn’t that what research is for?

Whatever your type of story, the anxiety of your protagonist will anchor us.  We’ll all go through it together and can there be a more real-world affirmation of that principle than our world right now?

In what way is the protagonist of your WIP anxious?  And where does that lead?


About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].