Rote (n): routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure.
It’s been years since I’ve thought of what letters I’m hitting. For those of you who can speed type, you get this. You think of the word. It pops up on the screen. You need to delete a word? Poof. It disappears. There was a time you thought, “Alright, ctrl+delete, and bingo!” There was a time you had to cheat. “Shoot. Is my finger on y or u?”
How many of you turn on your computers and instinctively pull up the tabs in your browser, your emails, and any other programs you start up immediately? Within five seconds I have WordPress, Google mail, and Facebook up and running. Might not even be that long.
I’m sure there are those of you who cook like this. You bring out the food, you chop it up, throw it in, and you’re done. Very little thought. That lasagna has been cooked a hundred times. It is a routine.
Lately I’ve been playing a game called Paragon. It’s a moba. Basically two teams of five clash in epic battle. You purchase skills as you level, and you develop a routine on how you purchase those skills. When I was playing today, after I purchased my first ability, I thought, “Shoot, was that the right one?” Even though I didn’t remember purchasing the skill, I bought my starter skill.
This list goes on. Driving. Swimming. Mechanical work. Those who are masters do the same thing over and over in often times boring repetition. Do you know how many horrible things I said about my keyboard class? But I kept at it. Because mom said so.
Combat is rote memorization. Your body is trained to respond through repetitive exercises. In the same way I think “word” and it appears on the screen, they think “parry,” and their body instinctively blocks the blade. They think “shoot,” and they immediately aim at center mass, compensate for recoil, find cover.
But why do our heroes master these skills in months, sometimes not even?
For your characters to become good at something, they have to be prodigies (I do understand these exist and they learn select skills very quickly), or they have to train for a long time intensely.
This doesn’t just go for combat. Pick up the book Blink. It’s basically all about training your instinct through mastering a subject. By making it rote. Someone bought a counterfeit piece of art. A bunch of experts looked at it and instantly said the buyer, a museum, was making a mistake. They couldn’t say why. Years of training their brain, years of seeing real and counterfeit art, and they knew that art was fake. It’s rote. They made looking at art rote memorization.
Basically I’m just pleading with you to make your characters learn things in a realistic manner. I know there are books which do a great job. But others cheat, and it makes the book feel fake. As for prodigies, just make sure it’s important. Otherwise you’re dangerously close to a Mary Sue character.
I have been playing The Division a lot lately. The game is based on you being a sleeper agent who is to bring order to NYC after a designer virus wipes out about 90% of the population.
NYC is broken up into districts, and each district has a coordinator. This coordinator gives missions. For the most part, you hang out with them for about five minutes of dialogue throughout a couple hours of clearing their district of evil. Then you move on.
In any line of fiction, these people would be forgotten quickly as nearly anonymous NPCs. The characters would all blend together, basically be the same person, and we would all move on and forget them.
However, Ubisoft and the dozen developers and publisher who were involved in this game made a very smart move. They played off stereotypes to create slightly over the top personas that I still remember.
The first coordinator was a soccer mom. “I think this is going to be dangerous, hun, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Then just amplify the worrying about you but believing you’ll do your best by 100%. You could hear the “I owned a minivan and went to soccer games for my kids” in her tone.
Then there was an action movie actor. “Dude, when this thing blows over, you’ll have to talk to my agent. I mean, if he’s still alive. He probably isn’t. So I guess we’ll have to make our own movie without help. But you would be so awesome to act beside.” He was such a tool.
Let’s not forget the zen master. “There is imbalance and a disconnect. Actually literally a disconnect. Someone took down one of our communication relays. Go spread some karma.”
Each coordinator was an over the top stereotype, and that made the character stick. It made it so I could immediately create a concept in my head of who that person was, and though there may have been some deviation at times, overall I knew what I was getting. And it was hilarious.
In your own writing, how many bartenders (or ultimately the role of information broker) do you have? Whether they’re at a space station, in a wooden tavern, or in a downtown bar, how often are those bartenders interchangeable? I try to distinguish them, but it’s difficult. By making them over the top, Ubisoft succeeded in making each of these otherwise anonymous characters pop.
Let’s look at Song of Ice and Fire. Catelyn Stark goes into a tavern where there’s a woman that she remembers as a child. The woman ate a fruit that made her teeth red. Always red. She was an obnoxiously nosy woman. I remember her. She lasted a full ten pages. She was a stereotype of the nosy neighbor.
Stereotypes often exist because of some truth. The soccer mom exists. I get they each have nuances, not all soccer moms are the same, but in five minutes of dialogue you don’t have time for nuances. In ten pages you don’t have time for nuances.
Now don’t take this as me saying everyone fits in those stereotypes. I’m simply stating that if you have a character who will not show up often and will be easy to forget, find a mold, cast him, change a couple things, and plop that person onto a page.
What I am saying is we understand stereotypes. We can create a full image with very little information. Use it. It’s an excellent way to convey a lot of information about a character in a very short period of time.
Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.
Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)
The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”
And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?
It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.
I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.
In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farmbecause I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.
But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.
To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.
I was watching Psych. It was season six or seven. Shawn, our fake psychic protagonist, and Juliette, his police officer lover, were at a wedding enjoying a touching moment of alone time. The officer who got married was the happiest he had ever been. Shawn’s friend, Gus, received the long awaited phone call from his long distance girlfriend. Everyone was happy, a crime was just solved, we had five minutes left in the show, nothing bad could happen. There was nothing out there on the plate. We were happy. We were safe.
Then Shawn walked away after giving Jules his suit coat, and she had a look of consternation as she reached into a pocket. The camera panned panned away from her, to Shawn at the bar. Did she find the ring he was going to use to propose? It would be a tense moment, a moment of truth, but a happy moment. At that time, it was the only possible thing I could think of at the end of the episode.
For over a minute or so we were stuck at the bar, wondering what she found, wondering how this would change Shawn’s life. Meanwhile, Shawn sat at the bar, admiring how good life was. He was in a safe scene, where his world could not be rocked and he was going to get laid that evening.
When he returns to Jules with the drinks, she looks like an injured doe. There was a ticket stub from earlier in the show, where she realized he was not psychic, but immensely perceptive and a great guesser. My world was shattered. Things deteriorated, and soon he had wine thrown in his face. We were faced with one of the forms of death, the death of a relationship, and at a time we thought everything was gold.
For whatever reason this made me comprehend the tactic of interrupting the safe scene more than all the GRRM weddings in the world. A part of me died, and I was just thankful I had it on Netflix and could stay up until 2am watching through until some sort of resolution for the act occurred. I don’t know how you cable people live through those moments without weeping for the next week.
Having the safe scene finally clicked, I took to analyzing it.
There are three parts to the interrupted safe scene. You have a scene where the reader or viewer feels safe, alongside the characters who are likely destressing. After that is a tell. The audience, and perhaps protagonist, is tipped off that not all is right in the state of Denmark. Finally, the interruption, or hammer, which shatters the glass state of safety. Something horrible happens that we should have seen coming, there were hints, but we lost sight of what was in front of us.
First, a safe scene is a scene after something stressful, which had a happy resolution. Everyone is having a good time, everyone is happy, any wronged parties have been rectified. In the episode of Psych, they helped catch a mob boss to help a detective’s wedding go smoothly, Shawn had recently went through a lie detector and passed as a psychic, and he was considering proposing some time soon to his girlfriend. We were in the last two minutes of the show. Everyone was happy and there were no hints towards a hard crash.
In Game of Thrones, this is the Red Wedding. Waldor seems content, someone is marrying one of his daughters. He compliments Robb’s wife. Everyone is happy, all wrongs between the two parties are seemingly mended.
The next part is the tell. A sign something is wrong. I think Psych did the better job. In the Red Wedding, Catelyn sees the chain mail on Roose, and seconds later everyone dies. Shawn doesn’t even notice that Jules went into his pocket. He didn’t see the look of perplexity. We knew for a good minute that something was amiss, and our minds were allowed to wallow in the mists of uncertainty. But it was a safe moment, so it couldn’t be bad.
After the tell is the hammer. To create tension in a story you need the threat of death. Maybe I didn’t click as well with Game of Thrones because it was literal death. There are other kinds of deaths, whether relationships, jobs, research, or so on. In Psych, we suddenly have the death of a relationship thrust upon us. I was able to see death in a more abstract manner.
With the hammer, what you have to ensure, is it’s something that is always looming overhead, but we think it’s a nonissue. While there were signs, there were no signs immediately. Though you set it up perfectly, in that final moment, surprise us. “Remember how I put the ticket in the pocket? No? Well now it’s important, because it’s going to unravel everything.” And it only happened twenty minutes earlier.
So spend all your time planting the seeds. Create the tension, seemingly solve or push the tension aside, create happiness, and then slap the reader in the face. And there you have it, interrupting the safe scenes.
One thing that really brings a story to life are the details. These can be pub songs, pipe smoking habits, religious factions, and other small tidbits that aren’t required, are certainly not center stage, but most certainly allow readers to live in the world. It is that touch you put on something where you wrote more than required, show less than you created, but the reader respects that, whether or not they realize it. Why do you want details? Because otherwise everything is a two dimensional way to display ideas, instead of an immersive portrayal of a world in your head.
Before we delve into this, however, a reminder. Despite the fact you’re creating all these neat details, info dumps are evil. Seriously. If there is a villain in your story, it’s three pages of detail delivered with all the grace of a two by four upside the head. Have characters notice little things, or simply state there was a statue for some guy who did something long ago. You don’t need to tell us more, as your characters would find it natural. Now on with the show.
For any world building, history is the foundation of all that is and was. It’s why an empire was created, why ruins exist, why a planet is now an asteroid field, and so on. It’s really easy to start at the point in history where your story begins, and leave everything else out. Your readers won’t even notice. They will notice, however, if you include history.
When I create history, I have a story concept. I let it ferment in my head for months to years. There is daydreaming, I may write a scene or character sketch here or there, but most of this will end up in the garbage. Orson Scott Card backs up the idea that any good idea should be allowed to sit in your head, with a few physical manifestations, for six months or more. It allows the ideas to form more fully, and you can ensure a higher chance you even have a story to write.
So the brew of imagination is ready to boil over and you need to sample the goods. Sometimes I will jot down random ideas, but it all eventually comes around to the history. I sit down for an hour or two in order to complete the task. Any more time than that and I’m wasting time.
I come up with dates and why the calendar system exists. Why is this important? There are countless calendars in our world, and each one is based on major events, the edicts of emperors and kings, or other reasons. The reason for how your people tell time is very showing of who they are. I’ve never created full week calendars, only seasons or years. From there I start to insert major events.
In the past six months, I’ve already figured out most of the events even if I haven’t assigned them years. Now and then I’ll throw in something random, especially if I go a thousand years without something note worthy. Most are blanket and very general, but give enough information it makes sense and creates a sense of setting.
Viola, you have a brief history. It can lead to short stories when you want to pop out something quick as a distraction. It’s also great for hooks. It can create festivals when you need a celebration. Perhaps a fallen tower destroyed a century ago becomes the perfect place for your MacGuffin plot line where the protagonist needs to find an ancient spell or artifact.
Before you get too carried away, there are three major points to keep in mind when creating history. First, your original vision of the culture for your story needs to be malleable. Creating the history may enrich what you already created, and don’t fear that.
Next, your history is malleable. If you find you need to revise it for the plot to function, whether adding or removing, do it. Your timeline is in the background and no one actually knows how it flows.
Finally, do not over share your history. It took you an hour or two. Use one or two tidbits and it’s time well spent. Do not, for all that is benevolent, share your entire history. The only exception is if your history is of the utmost importance, you become ridiculously famous, or you share your short stories about those moments on your blog for publicity. Otherwise, in the novel, do not share.
With that, go forth and make history.
There are several more of these detail oriented posts to come! Do you make histories? If so how do you incorporate them? If you write science fiction, do you make them for each planet? That would be maddening, but aren’t we all a little mad? Have a fantastic holiday season!
There is a reeling against NaNo, and I was smacked repeatedly with it yesterday. Instead of firing back at them on Facebook, I decided to blog about it to all of you. I’ve went over why you should do NaNo, but they were ultimately superficial reasons. What I want to talk about now are the NaNo writers, habits, and bad practices which come out of this.
This all came to pass yesterday when someone bemoaned the horrible critique she received from an organization willing to look over NaNo drafts. For this next part, if you take bad news poorly find someone to hold you. I’ll wait.
Alright, now that we’re all cozy, the truth is your first draft is nearly unreadable. It is going to receive a generic “What a nice premise” from the kindest of critics. You keep your first draft in a drawer of shame somewhere, after you edit, only to go back and laugh at it while drinking heavily. By. Your. Self.
It has typos, grammar issues, plot holes that could swallow a super nova, the same character called by three different names, and at least one deus ex machina that the Greek’s would be ashamed to use in their plays. When December hits, or whenever you finish, throw it aside, let it breathe for a week, preferably a month, and then get down to editing. Trust me.
NaNo is also not harming or scaring away future authors. The majority of people who start with NaNo have been saying, “I’m going to write a novel” for the better part of their life. Some of us since we became enamored with Big Friendly Giant fan fictions in second grade, moving on to Jurassic Park in fourth. By fifteen I had a firmer grasp on intellectual property, but just barely.
Most of the people writing for it would still be staring at a blank screen. Or a TV. Or a video game. Or…. Of those who do write, some get no further than 5,000 words. The lowest on my buddy list currently is almost at 150. That’s around 150 more words than they wrote in the past 40 years.
I feel we all fail to remember your average NaNo author is a hobbyist. This isn’t bad. Hobbies are great. Tons of guys play basketball, football, and other sports on the weekend without any hope of getting into the most basic of paid leagues. They aren’t trying to get published, they won’t get past a first draft, they feel no shame and that is excellent.
When I did Tough Mudder, by the end I was a broken rag doll. I looked like crap while many others were running as if they just started. Getting through with grace and making a start in my athletic career were not my goals. Finishing was, and I achieved that. We aren’t instilling future authors with bad habits. We’re giving people something to be proud of, even if it’s a one shot gig.
For those wanting to get beyond hobbyist, here are some of the good habits.
Write. The first few pages are difficult. I’m pretty sure I had less pain and anxiety getting my cavity filled two weeks ago. The bill for that filling is another story.
Once you get rolling, keep rolling. Like Juggernaut, what you leave behind may not be pretty, but you’ll have a path and your momentum will often times carry you. You can always pave and beautify later. If you stop, it takes a lot of effort to get going again.
Don’t edit until you’re done. Maybe you’re rare and can do this, but I’ve never heard of a single person capable of making any substantial forward progress when editing while they write. They may edit the last paragraph or two as they read what they wrote last night to remember where they were going. The people I know who edited the first chapter after they finished have been on chapter one for the better part of two years. The rest finally quit.
Set deadlines. Sure you can break them, but the guilt of failure eating away at us has a tendency to make us strive for more. Or go catatonic. From what I can tell, however, if you’re going catatonic because of guilt, you’re definitely not going to survive the critics. Try to stand firm on your deadlines. If you miss, adjust.
Here are the bad habits. No one cares about your progress. At least they don’t three times a day. Or once a day. Pick a day, like Friday. Release an update around 3pm, when everyone at work is bored and looking for a distraction. Brief, to the point, and add some humor. If you’re just updating word count, put up a counter or use Twitter.
November is the only time you break this rule. People are there to help you and everyone shares. You don’t want it to be the norm, but it sure does feel good for 30 days.
Edit your work. Not after finishing chapter one. After you write “The End.” As stated above, draft one is not up for public consumption. A rough draft is like a road: until it’s finally paved, you don’t want to drive over it. This includes excerpts. Put up those “road closed” signs.
Don’t ask for our opinion on passages. On ideas. On really finely detailed minutia. You have friends. If you need literary friends, go make some. It’s easy to talk to us through a computer screen. In real life we’ll likely stab you repeatedly. It’s just good business practice to get rid of competition.
A final word. People are under the assumption you plan for 11 months, and write for one. I usually write for three, edit for the rest of the year, and start planning in mid September. If November doesn’t work out as your novel writing month, don’t sweat it. Make it work on your schedule. I find the deadlines and excitement get me moving and catapult me well through November.
This is something we can all benefit from, from those who do NaNo to those who disdain it. While I know we all write in our own way, NaNo can teach a lot of great habits. The bad, more often than not, are incidental, not directly taught by the event. Find what works for you. Cut out what obviously doesn’t. If you do it as a hobby, sweet. If you want something more, there are plenty of resources to help you get past the first step.
I write this in defiance of a friend of mine. She says “Paul, you and I have different levels of tolerance for horror. I like far scarier things than you do.”
She lies. She likes a certain type of horror. If it’s not thrashing about, blood everywhere, heads turning and vomiting, it’s not her type of horror. I do not appreciate this type of horror. It also relies on a level of shock and awe. Anyone can shock and awe. It takes little effort. A monster jumps out of the shadows and eats someone we liked. Or, you know, King Joffrey orders someone loses their head at whim and GRRM has stolen another beloved character from us. I rank the little brat right up there with Aliens vs Predator. But GRRM, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and anyone else who does suspense well, the other form of horror, approaches it very differently.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
I bring this up because of the game Don’t Starve. It’s an indie game that was released for free on the PS4 for PS Plus members. My friend laughed at it when the darkness killed her, after day one, and said it’s not scary to her. Well if I watch the first ten minutes of a horror flick, it’s generally a soft core porn. So no, day one isn’t that scary.
How the game scares you after day one, along with all those writers mentioned, is the unknown. In the below clip there was strange music in the dead of night. I had played over 100 days and never heard it. What could it mean? What horror was coming? I convinced myself more and more this was normal. Everything was okay with the world. But I was wrong, and in the darkness, far off in the recesses of my mind, shadows formed and took shape. They stole the light of my sanity along with my campfire.
Dear friends, those hands were a terror unbeknownst to me. When they first appeared, I pondered if they were reaching for my small, delicious, cartoon flesh. Were those outstretched claws trying to claim me into the night? I would rather brave the farthest reaches of my campfire’s light then get close to those obfuscating digits, stealing the very soul of all I am and was on this alien planet full of frightening delights: fire and light. Light made the known, even late in the evening, and these tore that knowing from me.
Obviously horror writers use this all the time. The greatest horror movies, long ago when they were black and white, were entirely based on the unknown. Even when we knew, it was kept at the edge of our perception. We wondered if there was something else, something benign. Maybe we were wrong about the malice crawling up our spine. For the sake of the character, we hoped. But we were wrong.
What about other writing such as fantasy, science fiction, and romance?
A Game of Thrones spoiler, when Ned was taken in front of the crowd, weren’t we all wondering what would happen? Weren’t we all terrified? We had a good idea of how it ended, but it couldn’t. Not to him. After GRRM proved he would kill anyone, every time we turned the page was a moment of heart stopping suspense. In an interview, GRRM says that was his goal, and he accomplished it by showing anyone can die or be maimed in any manner of ignoble ways.
You’re still wondering about how romance novels use this. I reached page fifty or so in such a novel when I put it down and stated I learned what I could from the book. I learned a lot. There was a woman who debated putting on her sexiest underwear, in the moment of incredible heartbreak, and lay upon a man’s bed, waiting for him to walk in. It was a page of her thinking this, and suddenly she does it. The entire time you’re thinking, “No, she’s too sensible for this!” She wasn’t.
Another page or two of her traveling to his house, breaking in, and laying in his bed, wondering what would happen. Was she going to regret this in the morning? What would happen when he walked through that door? Would there be sex!? It’s a romance novel. There had to be sex!
She’s about to leave out of shame when the light turned on. The next fifteen to twenty pages went into how they looked at each other, what they were thinking, their little nuances and physical interactions. All the while you’re thinking, “When do I get to the good stuff?!” Or even if they’ll get to the good stuff. Sexual tension is an incredible unknown. In the end, they didn’t have sex. They would later, but I learned more than I thought I would from the book and didn’t want to cheapen it.
Think about sexual tension as suspense, though. Think about the unknown of dating. I’m in the midst of it right now. It’s scary. Is she playing with her hair because she likes me or is bored? She touched me, that’s good, right? Did she just check out that other guy? Do I go in for a kiss on the first date, or is that rushing it? What’s she going to think when the only furniture in my apartment is a bed? I so should not have asked her over. It’s not the same, terror inducing suspense we think of. But trust me, your reader is on edge. We’ve all been there. Dates never go how you think they’re going to. The woman you thought was uninterested could just as easily end up waking up next to you. Or the interested one can just as easily slap you.
What I’m getting at is explore the unknown. This world is terrifying because we make it that way. Our imagination is a minefield of insecurities. Stop filling in every detail, stop thinking it needs to be in the horror genre. Give sparse details, make us realize anything is possible, and let the reader fill in the holes with their greatest fears. The audience will do most of the writing for you.
I know. Villainize isn’t a word. Stay with me on this.
The other day I was conjuring a story based on my own wishes to find a woman. A very specific woman. You haven’t done wish fulfillment in your writing? Stop judging. It started with the prince dismissing all the other women in court and longingly looking over the horizon, where she was coming up the path. He made all the arrangements for a happily-ever-after and the couple got married. She was soon after locked up and the prince became a tyrant, keeping an eye on all she did.
What? Prince Charming doesn’t lock away Sleeping Beauty! I was horrified. I would never do that. But it’s amazing what those feelings of fear, loss, despair, and even desperation bring to the forefront when thinking up a neat (fantasy) story that went from romantic wedding to domestic abuse. I had become a villain in my story and it made me very uncomfortable.
These people exist in the world, the ones who actually go through it. Stories are all over about the guy who is charming, gets his wife to marry him, and then is the slob on the couch that smacks her around in front of the kids. Sometimes you’ll think that or some other horrible plot. You won’t act on it (I hope), but you might imagine it. I had a friend who wanted to rip out a guy’s nipple piercings and gouge his eyes out with it. He would never do it, and if you ever met him he’s the nicest guy in the world.
And when you think it, that’s one thing. But when you write it, you’re making it real. You’re making an alternate you real, and that can be very disconcerting because it’s so personal, instead of far flung and fictional.
Backtracking to my story, once I was beyond the initial revulsion, I realized something about that inner thought, about my dark garden blossoming forbidden (and felony level) fruit. It’s okay to write about it. It’s okay to portray me in that manner. Because we are all gray, neither good nor bad, and we will write best what we understand and feel. We will write best when it’s something we desire, whether or not our morals and societal norms stop us. It’s okay for you to conjure up your dark thoughts. It is much easier emotionally to pick up a newspaper and hit the freakish things others do in those pages than to reflect on what we would do if our conscious didn’t get in the way, but it won’t be nearly as true when you commit words to paper.
What I’m trying to tell you is delve into your inner bad guy. Release your Hyde, and let him roam the streets. Would she sleep around? Would he urinate on pets as they walked by? Would she do experiments on people to see what it takes to break bone? Would he become a serial killer, curious how long he can remain ahead of the police? Maybe I’m just exposing my psyche for all of you to judge, but I’m fairly confident we all have our dark thoughts. Those thoughts we hide deep in the shadows of our mind, hoping we don’t have to face them. Well face them and profit off them. Writing is from your brain, so use it all.
That got dark. I need a shower. And I’m going to write a story about a man urinating on pets being walked in the park. Have you had characters make you squeamish because they hit close to your less than flattering attributes? How do you use yourself in your stories? Do you think I’m entirely wrong on this, and why?