Friday, April 10, 2015

Go On! Make a Bad Decision! Your Story Will Thank You

Still life.  A painting term for something captured in time.  Frozen, unmoving, maybe even perfect.  Looks pretty.  Gets a little boring after a while.  Is far from real life, isn't it?

Still life never makes a good story.

Bad decisions? They do.

Bad decisions is how your plot is furthered.  Whether you're writing memoir, fiction, or nonfiction, it's likely a bad decision brought the narrator or the reader to where they are right now.  Trouble is, most writers like to keep their characters out of trouble.  They like to stay safe.  

Staying Safe
Recently, a student in my classes was agonizing through a bout of writer's block. She had started the semester with chapters that just flowed onto the page.  Then, in the fifth week of our twelve-week class, she got really stuck.   Nothing worked:  freewrites, encouragement, feedback.  When I read her five weeks' worth of writing, I could see why.  The world she was writing about had gotten safer and safer, until she didn't know how to escape.

Still life.  So . . . I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters.   Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

Qualities of Risk
What you're after here are the qualities of risk.  Where is the edge in your chapter?  What might happen if you sharpened it, raising the stakes?

In my online classes we build a book from ideas laid out on a storyboard.   It's like an easy, visual map of where the story rises and falls.  I asked my student to go back to hers and review the major plot points.  When she did, she realized nothing big had happened yet.  She said she was saving the big stuff for later.

That's fine.  But then, why would a reader want to read on?  They may never get to the big stuff.  And neither was she.  All the bad decisions happening later means that there was little momentum to propel the plot now.

So we talked about it.  She explained that she is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.  Yes, eventually, everything would fall apart in their lives, but for now, she wanted things to be OK for them.  Easy, fun, with everyone getting along.  No risk.

Telling a White Lie
I like this writer.  Who wouldn't?   I also believe in that kind of pleasant world.  When I have a day like that, it's golden!

But it's not golden on paper.

Although I'm not suggesting nonstop murder and mayhem.  Just a few bad decisions.  Like telling a white lie, watching the consequences unfold.  Or withholding something.  Or avoiding someone.  Or . . . you know!  You've made them, haven't you?

Even this nice writer has.  I asked her if she'd ever told a white lie.  She didn't even flinch.  "Of course," she said, "who hasn't?"

"Remember how it felt?"  Yes, she did.  She got a little uneasy.  "Go back to it.  Find out why you told that little lie.  Find other bad decisions you've made.  Then list them, and transport one into your story."

We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.

Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.

Now look at your book draft.  Where are the bad decisions?  If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)  Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.

See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."

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