Stop Killing Your Story! Why Suffering is Essential for Great Fiction
Just finished watching Season 7 of Game of Thrones and, of course, now I’m in the post-GoT depression. I will have to wait who knows how long to GET ANSWERS! I NEED JUSTICE! WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN?
Though I do feel slightly robbed that any television season would be legally permitted to only have seven episodes, I must take the good with the bad. Thus, today I want to talk about what writers like George R.R. Martin do so freaking well and why the rest of us would be wise to pay attention and learn.
Even if you’ve never read or watched GoT, odds are you’ve probably read a book or watched a TV series that had your nerves wound so tightly you physically couldn’t stand the tension. I know there were times watching GoT that I literally had to get Hubby to pause so I could breathe, take Pippa outside for a moment and gather myself. Brace for more.
These are the kinds of stories that drive us mad, the times when Prudent Self will tiptoe up and whisper in our ear, “Hey, um it’s almost three in the morning and you need to be up for work in a couple hours.” And, though we know she’s wise, we will then threaten to water-board Prudent Self if she doesn’t go away and leave us alone.
We’ve all done it. We promised we’d go to bed at the end of the chapter, end of the episode, whatever. But, deep down, we knew we were a dirty rotten liar who had zero intention of stopping until we had some semblance of peace.
Problem is, if a writer is great? Peace will not come without a price. It will not come easily. Great writers will never give the audience what they want…until it is time to.
Think of Christmas
Yes, I know I will probably be the only blogger ever to slot Christmas in same post as GoT but work with me.
For those who celebrate Christmas or some version of the holiday, think back to when you were a kid. Why was Christmas such a big deal? Because it was ONE day out of 365.
***And frankly this is why we get pissy with Christmas stuff out in July because retailers are wrecking the “specialness” of it.
Oh there was a whole holiday season and we sang songs and nagged Mom to hurry with the grocery shopping because Frosty the Snowman was going to be on NBC at 7 and if we missed it? We had to wait a WHOLE year to see it again.
As kids we helped bake cookies and were allowed to maybe even eat some. We watched specials (that really were special because if we missed them, tough luck and see you next year, Kid). Though there was all this other revelry (parties, candy canes, pies) there….over there in the corner was a tree with shiny boxes of glorious mystery beneath it.
For those reading this post who are mere mortals like me, you likely had a year that you got the bright idea to peek. Maybe you eased open tape with the skill of Little Finger. Or perhaps you unearthed the stash of gifts hidden in the master closet before your parent(s) could wrap them.
In the beginning, for me, it seemed like the precise thing I wanted but in the end? All I did was spoil the singular day of surprise and joy. I got what I thought I wanted and, frankly? It sucked. Christmas morning wasn’t nearly as bright.
Back to Fiction
There is a lot to be said for delayed gratification. When we allow the audience so, so close they can almost taste what they want…then we snatch it away and say, “Uh uh *wags finger* you need to wait.” THAT is being a master storyteller. And the audience will hate and love us all in the same expanse of time.
Too often we are too easy on our readers. They beg to see what’s under the tree so instead of standing firm, we relent and give them A gift and let them unwrap it and reveal the mystery. Problem is, with every mystery we reveal, we diminish the KAPOW at the end.
What are some common ways we diminish the mystery and inadvertently wreck our own story?
Flashbacks are a literary device and are excellent when used properly. Problem is? More often than not, they’re simply there to explain. Perhaps we are writing a scene and feel ourselves tense up. Well, it is human nature to alleviate tension.
We feel tense, so we insert a flashback to explain why Such-and-Such is a certain way or is making a certain decision and we feel better. But, if you press your ear to your computer and listen closely? You can hear all the gut-wrenching tension leave your story like air from a balloon (and yes it is making a farting sound 😛 ).
Resist the Urge to Explain
Mr. Darcy has left generations of women swooning because Jane Austen just let Darcy be Darcy. She resisted the urge to unseal his therapy files for us to see. Oh there were hints and dribbles here and there but she left lots and lots of blank space for us to fill in the missing slices and that made Darcy all the more desirable.
When we explain with characters or story we wreck tension.
I have a saying:
The Force was better before it was explained.
Metachlorians? FRIGGING REALLY? The Force didn’t need explaining. We (audiences) accepted The Force. It was *sputters*…THE FORCE. It was mystical and magical and then…. *farting sound*. More on that here in What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels?
The same thing happened to one of the greatest villains (or anti-heroes) of the 20th century—Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal was already fascinating. We honestly didn’t need to go back in time and witness his childhood how and why he started snacking on people. The prequel movie Hannibal Rising bombed because it never needed to exist in the first place. We didn’t need to know WHY.
We wanted to, but just because we want something doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Telling us HOW Hannibal came to be a psychopath did nothing to make him a stronger character.
In fact, it did precisely the opposite. #YouveBeenMetachlorianed
Showing Your Hand Too Soon
Tonight I am teaching a class More than Gore for those who desire to write horror, though what I will teach in this class is actually highly useful for all genres.
Horror, in my POV, is one of the most challenging genres to write simply because we have a jaded audience that is tough to rattle. We no longer have access to the low hanging fruit (blood, guts, two-headed monsters) because they are tedious tropes that don’t even faze a modern six-year-old.
In horror, the fastest way to ruin the story is to reveal the monster too soon. Stephen King in Danse Macabre talks about this phenomenon, and why so often the ending of horror stories are such a letdown.
It is because of HOW the human mind works. When our imagination is left to run amok, we are terrified because what we are facing is UNKNOWN.
Once it the UNKNOWN becomes KNOWN, the audience lets out a collective scream of terror…and relief. See, if we are creeping up the stairs and something is bashing against a giant door with such force the hinges are loosening, our imaginations run wild. It’s terrifying.
The second we open the door and see the fifty-foot bug? We yell out, but our brains instantly go, “Whew! Okay a fifty-foot bug. I can deal with that. Thank GOD it wasn’t a hundred foot bug.”
If it was a hundred foot bug, brain would scream then go, “Thank goodness it wasn’t a thousand foot bug.” Y’all get the gist. Once we have the reveal? The tension instantly bleeds away. Thus, knowing this, we need to become excellent secret-keepers. Delay the gratification.
While some of y’all might believe this only holds for horror? Untrue. One word for the older folks… Moonlighting.
Audiences were riveted, dying for Dave and Maddie to get together. The show won all kinds of Emmys, broke records, and audiences were riveted until Episode 14 of Season 3 when their relationship finally was consummated. Though the show continued for a total of five seasons, that singular episode toward the end of Season 3 marked the decline in viewership.
Of course it did!
The audience had unwrapped the “gifts” and all that remained were leftovers and turkey sandwiches.
Beware of Low-Hanging Fruit
I’ve read romances where, by chapter four we know through POV that both guy and gal are mad for each other and the only thing keeping them from making out like teenagers on prom night are bad situations and inconvenient interruptions.
I’ve read other genres where the MC has more divine intervention than the Book of Acts. Journals, dreams, visions, letters, and plot puppets who conveniently appear and who have zero purpose for existing beyond babysitting the MC out of a mess.
Readers want the easy way, but they really don’t. It’s why I love Game of Thrones. I just about think the story is going to go one way then WHAMMO….George kills a character I love or tosses them under a pile of ice zombies, or throws them in prison or whatever. George R.R. Martin is a horrible sadistic, cruel, emotionless, psychopathic—sigh—genius storyteller.
In the end, remember the heart of fiction is the struggle. Build the anticipation and crush the urge to give over your mysteries too soon or too easily. The harder it is for audiences to get that satisfaction they so desire? THE BETTER.
What are your thoughts? What other shows can you think of that were awesome until the writer(s) made it too easy or gave up the mystery too soon? What shows make you CRAZY because you just can’t seem to get what you want? What books kept you up all night? What characters resonate with you because there is STILL mystery to them? They weren’t ever fully “explained.”
And yes this is likely the first blog to use GoT, Christmas, Moonlighting, Hannibal Lecter AND Star Wars 😛 . But I really hope it helps up your storytelling skills.
I love hearing from you!
For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Still time to sign up for tonight, and remember a FREE recording is included with purchase!
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $35.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: TUESDAY, September 5, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
Humans have always been fascinated with what scares them which is why horror fiction is a staple genre. It is also, quite possibly, the most challenging genre to write. Giant bugs and chainsaws just don’t get the screams they used to.
Blood, guts, gore and shock factor are low-hanging fruit (and always have been) and worse than that? They simply don’t have the impact they used to.
Audiences are too desensitized. This means we need to work harder to dig in and poke at what REALLY frightens/disturbs people.
Though this genre is extremely challenging to write well, there is an upside. The horror genre lends itself well to the short form (novellas and short stories).
Believe it or not, some of our staple horror movies–and the BEST horror movies—were actually adaptations of short stories and novellas (1408 by Stephen King and Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker being two examples).
Meaning, if you want to go Hollywood? Hollywood loooooves horror.
In this class we will cover:
- The science behind fear and why people crave it. Why fear is even healthy!
- Psychology of fear, thus how to locate the pain points.
- Why audiences are craving MORE horror (Yes, this actually does go in cycles).
- The different types of horror fiction.
- The importance of character in horror.
- How horror can actually resonate much like literary fiction.
- How to generate page-turning tension that will leave readers with a story they can’t stop thinking about…and that might even give them nightmares.
NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!
All classes come with a FREE recording!
We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!