You’re driving down a local highway when up ahead of you, you see a car at the intersection preparing to make a U-turn. On the opposite side, the guy with the red light is preparing to turn right. It seems inevitable – they’re going to crash. You hit the brakes, honk your horn… and the guy making the U-turn gets the message. He holds back and watches the other car take over the space where he would have been. Accident averted. Crisis contained.
In real life, this is good news. We want to avoid accidents, minimize confrontations, remain unscathed and have a good day. And as writers, naturally we want this for our characters. We love them. We created them. They live inside our heads, like best friends who would never, ever, make out with our boyfriends underneath the bleachers while we’re in the marching band Homecoming parade.
But in fiction, the accidents happen. They have to. The best friend and boyfriend hook up. The two cars collide. The teenage girl’s pregnancy test is positive. The hurricane hits. The worst happens. It has to.
In too many unpublished manuscripts I read, however, the writer does an excellent job setting up the calamity – but then fails to follow through. The test is negative; the hurricane veers out to sea. The characters are relieved, of course… but the reader is let down. The writer has pulled her punches – set up the reader to anticipate this great clash, and then yanked away the football. The rifle stayed safely over the fireplace for the entire play.
Why do writers do this? There are two obvious reasons. The first is easiest to rectify:
One, the author had never intended for her book to be about how a town recovers from being hit by a tornado. She just wanted a reason for her hero and heroine to fight about whether to try to outrun the storm or hide in the basement. It was never supposed to be about the tornado!
I had a similar issue in an earlier draft of my book, KEEPING SCORE. I had a subplot in which my protagonist Shannon is faced with either losing her job or having to work fulltime. Either she’d be broke or she’d have to hire someone to drive her son all around. It was an interesting dilemma, but not what I wanted to write about. I’d also worked pretty hard setting up Shannon’s office environment and giving her an office crush, and I didn’t want to have to give that up. So Shannon found the solution of having a friend do a job share with her, so she was able to remain part time at the job that suddenly needed a fulltime worker.
It was a great solution, but it took up too much space in the book without essentially changing anything for Shannon. It was a waste of time and words. I cut the entire subplot (I did keep her job-share partner to give her more work conflict, though.).
In other words, if you’re not willing to let the hurricane hit – just like I was unwilling to write the story that would have resulted had Shannon lost her job or gone fulltime – you have to get rid of the hurricane. Your story might not need a hurricane at all, or it might just need a backstabbing best friend. Either way, the rule is the same – your set-ups need pay-offs. They don’t need to be pay-offs that neatly balance your set-ups, but something of the same weight needs to happen.
The second reason writers do this is a little more difficult to confront. That’s because the writer doesn’t want to. In real life, most of us shy away from confrontation – we apologize when we’re the ones who’ve been wronged, we pretend we’re not mad when we are. People who enjoy confrontation are called bullies. It’s the glue that keeps the social niceties moving along. In real life, it serves us well. In fiction, it causes us to pull our punches.
Bluntly stated, we make that pregnancy test negative because we just don’t want to deal with the consequences that plus sign would mean. We don’t want to destroy that nice town we created. We don’t want to break up that cute couple. We shy away from big confrontations in real life, and we shy away from them in our writing, too.
Is there a way to break this habit, other than years of extensive therapy? Frankly, I don’t know. But as a blocked writer, I was once told by a writing instructor to imagine the worst thing that could happen to my character – and then make it happen. Perhaps that exercise is a good place to start.
Being aware of the problem is the first step to solving it. Take a look at your current work in progress. Do you set up disasters, only to let your protagonist avoid them at the last minute? Think about how the story would play out if she ran into that wall at full speed. How much more engrossing would that be?
For the past several years, “The Good Wife” has been my favorite show. Now in its 5th season, the show – which was always well-reviewed – is receiving unprecedented accolades for its decision to have Alicia leave the law firm she’d called home -- and the ex-lover who’d hired her -- to start her own firm. More conservative writers might have had Alicia flirt with the idea to leave, only to stay at the end and avoid the fall-out. But that wouldn’t have given us this story.
Writers in any genre or medium cannot pull their punches. Rather, they need to leave their readers punch drunk, as blow after blow land for a direct hit. That’s the kind of work that keeps readers up all night, rather than letting them put down the book after a few chapters.