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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Explosive Writing

As I was making my rounds of a handful of industry blogs this morning (and hey--pat me on the back, I have successfully pared down the amount of time I spent reading blogs.  I limited myself to 16 minutes this morning! Good thing too, as I woke up late.), I noticed the theme of fireworks has been...well, ok, overused in so many blogs.

Obviously it's Fourth of July week so there's a good reason, but I'll be glad when the week is over so everyone can move on to other analogies.

However, since Donald Maass wrote probably my favorite book on craft (Writing the Breakout Novel), I'll always take time to read one of his posts.  And today was his turn to post at Writer Unboxed.  You can view the post here:

Making your stories pop has, of course, always been one of the leading things he has taught.  But I wanted to zero in on one thing in particular.  He and others who teach about what makes good writing, will sometimes say something like: "Go to a scene in your manuscript and look at your protagonist.  What is the worst thing that can happen to the character in that scene?  Make it happen."

This is meant to be an exercise to help you push the envelope in your writing.  Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I find an exercise like this un-scintillating.  Perhaps I am just too pragmatic for my own good.  Because if you ask me something like "What is the worst thing that could happen to that character?" my instant answer is going to be "they could be dead."

Yes, yes, I know.  You could argue in some situations there are some things worse than being dead.  But still, that is typically my stock answer, particularly since I write historicals with a leaning toward the west, where life and death are precarious.  So this type of exercise simply isn't that helpful for me.

I think I need to learn to re-frame the question.  Maybe I should ask myself, "In such and such a scene, what could happen that would kill the character on the inside," and see what kind of results I might get.


hopeofglory said...

It's the "conflict on every page thing, every sentence". Give me a break. If you're writing a thriller, okay. Maybe. I get the message of what they're suggesting, but really it's overblown. It depends on the genre. Putting your protagonist in constant conflict can be just aa boring as having zero conflict. JMO.


B.K. Jackson said...

That's true, Nicole. There are occasions where the constant conflict can make your eyes glaze over.

Although in my reading experience, most authors tend to have a pretty good balance on this and know instinctively where to relax things and let a reader breathe.

Patti Shene said...

Brenda, I once heard, "think of the one thing your character would never do, then put him/her in a situation where he/she is forded to do it." Kind of a little twist on the 'worst that can happen" scenario.

B.K. Jackson said...

Yeah, Patti, "the one thing your character would never do" feels more workable to me--that's more like being asked an open-ended question vs. a yes/no type feel.