Dangerous Writing

At the end of last year, I read Diane Cook’s speculative novel, The New Wilderness.

Don’t worry, this blog isn’t going to contain any spoilers, and I’m not ‘reviewing’ the book, instead I’m bouncing off a realisation I had while reading Cook’s work.

I was about one-third of the way through the novel when something happened that completely took me by surprise. The event made sense, but it was also dramatic … and dangerous.

As a reader I was thrilled and as a writer I was terrified.

The first thing I thought was, I would never have done that–not because it was a bad narrative choice, but because I would have been too scared that making that decision would derail the novel.

But here’s the thing, Cook didn’t derail her novel, she just upped the stakes.

She rode the car off a cliff Thelma and Louise style, only to have it safely land on the other side.

The story didn’t fall apart, it just got better.

And THIS made me realise how safe my own writing had become, how I had made certain decisions regarding the plot that were controllable and comfortable for me. I wasn’t taking any risks or challenging myself or the story. I wasn’t pushing the narrative to the edge to see what would happen if…

For the most part, I think it is sound advice to not drive your narrative off a cliff, but it is important that we up the stakes, include plenty of conflict, and give our characters hell.

Why? Because then we know what they are made of.

Plus, a story about a couple who are trying to frame one another for murder is much more interesting than one about a functional relationship based on respect, love, and mutual autonomy.

It is so easy to become attached to our characters. We want them to have a happy ending, but for the book to be interesting, we have to make them earn that ending.

We need our characters to encounter legitimately challenging obstacles, whether they be external, like getting stuck in time, or an internal, like battling mental illness or intense self-doubt.

It is through overcoming, or relenting to, these obstacles that the character grows.

But it’s not only the characters that should be growing, you, as the author, should be too.

Sometimes, we keep our stories small because we doubt our ability to ‘pull off’ a more ambitious version of our novel–remember, there are multiple ways to tell any story.

We need to look at our work critically and really reflect on whether or not we are developing as a writer.

You can ask yourself questions like:

  • Where in the plot am I taking it easy?
  • Am I posing a question in every scene, something that entices the reader to continue on?

Remember, our brains a hard-wired for problem solving, if you present an issue or a mystery, however big or small, the reader will want to find out how it gets resolved.

Analyse your character arcs:

  • Are they growing and changing over the course of the novel?
  • Are they encountering events that ignite this change?
  • Are you making these obstacles difficult enough?
  • What is at stake?

Also, double check your use of language and sentence structure.

As Roy Peter Clark says, ‘All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond.’

This is an issue many aspiring writers struggling with, fortunately, I have a few easy remedies.

In terms of sentence structure, try to use short sharp sentences during action scene or moments of high tension. Concentrating your sentences in this way will naturally cause the reader to speed up which simultaneously increases the sense of pace.

Conversely, you can use longer, more lyrical sentences for when you want to stretch a moment in time, like when you introduce the love interest or when a character is reflecting on a moment from their past.

There are four types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard these terms before because Google has and she’s happy to help.

If you aren’t super confident with semi-colons, colons, or hyphens, check out some of the free videos at Khan Academy.

There is more than one way to write dangerously, and one of the best ways to assess if you are challenging yourself and your characters enough is to simply pay attention to how you feel while writing.

Feeling nervous, excited, uncertain, like you’re on the edge of your seat, or you want to cover your eyes–that’s what you’re aiming for!

A hint of dread may be appropriate.

A sense that everything just got a little bit … wobbly.

But how do you know when you’ve gone too far?

  • The plot hits a brick wall.
  • You avoid writing.
  • The story makes no logical sense.
  • You’ve broken an established ‘law’ in your world.
  • All your beta readers say, ‘yeah… that didn’t really work.’

Remember, dangerous writing is worth the risk and all stories can be fixed. It is better to be bold and then have to tweak an ambition telling than to write a safe and predictable narrative.

Here’s a handy hint: if you struggling to get words on the page, then there is a chance you’re not including much conflict.

Conflict is the heart of story, and when you have plenty of conflict, then it’s easy to write because you have something to write about.

When the river of your narrative runs low, crack open the dam wall, throw in some salmon, and pray for a storm because chaos = action.

Now I’d love to hear from you. Do you feel that you play it too safe with your writing? Are there areas of craft you know you need to develop or improve upon? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.

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