Friday, June 9, 2023

It's All Too Much! (Risk, That Is): Recognizing and Balancing the Risk Quotient in Your Writing (and Your Life)

Long ago, I wrote a book called How to Master Change in Your Life, which is, as you probably guessed, about how different people view and react to change of all kinds. One of the more fascinating parts of my research for that book was what I began to call the risk quotient of each person. Including myself.

Evidently, there can be a vast difference between how we deal with external risk (driving across Europe alone) and internal risk (telling a friend that we can’t be friends anymore).

Since the book was published, I’ve kept that fascination with risk. I use it to weigh my characters’ effectiveness in a story. I evaluate how much external risk I’ve put in the plot—how many dramatic moments, how intense or low-key they are. I’ve studied my own tendencies towards different kinds of risk. Is it a male-female thing? Is it influenced by location? Or class or education or race?

When I taught writing, I sometimes asked students about their tendencies to allow risk into their stories. I noticed a real difference in the answers when I taught, say, in Minnesota versus New York.

I began wondering if the place we live reflect or instructs our tendency to bring risk into our creative work. Does a mountainous, storm-ridden region make a writer more able to write terrifically intense scenes with a lot of external tension? Does the flatland do the opposite, perhaps bringing out more internal risk in characters or narrator?

Because I’d lived all over the country I could examine this idea with equanimity, not dissing anyone—or myself—for their tendencies, just noticing them.

Because once we notice, we become conscious and able to compensate, if we want to.

Case in point: my current novel, which is being published this fall, was drafted when I lived in the Midwest. Feedback from kind readers in those early days told me, basically, that not enough happened. In my early fifties, when I divorced and moved to the East Coast to go back to grad school, I saw my writing change. Of course, it was influenced heavily by my MFA teachers, who told me I had to externalize more of the internal conflict, get the characters out of their heads. (Translated: Not enough happened.)

But it was also my life then, suddenly living in a landscape that was not far-seeing but carved from hills and valleys, mountains and gorges. It felt, surprisingly, easier to write external drama here. I had to work harder to write about a character’s internal risk, but luckily I’d accumulated lots of pages on that already.

Eventually, I found another agent (mine had retired) and got represented for this new novel. One of her first comments was There’s too much going on. I had to laugh! I’d learned my earlier lesson of Not enough risk and now I had to tone down Too much risk. You can’t have so many traumas, she told me. Choose one or two, max.

I don’t know if all writers (or agents) would agree. But I did tone the external risk down. The novel was in its umpteenth revision now, and I was exhausted. My life was reflecting Too much risk as well—I’d remarried, begun parenting a stepson, started teaching at three new schools, and moved to an area of New England where I knew no one outside my immediate family.

I needed to find a risk balance in my writing, for sure, and my life as well.

So, I thought, life really does reflect writing and vice versa. Especially in the case of risk.

It has taken me a while to get this, and although I don’t agree with it all the time—plenty of drama also happened in my years in the Midwest, but it was nothing like my life now—it’s an interesting guideline, and I keep in the back of my mind as I draft and revise.

Internal and External Risk

A good balance of tension in a story begins with choosing what the character or narrator will risk. Risk sets up a dilemma—because risk implies moving out of comfort into the unknown. The risk can exist either internally or externally—the car trip across Europe or the frank conversation with a friend—or toggle between both (the car trip happens at the same time as the difficult confrontation).

Most times, one of the kinds of risk will bring the other forth. The conversation with the friend goes south, so the narrator decides to hit the road. Internal risk perpetuates external risk. After a while the external risk gets handled (or not—it can also launch new external risk). The narrator gets ancy, creates more risk. And so on.

In my view, good story is all about this sine wave of risk. Just like I found fascination in examining each individual reaction to risk in people I interviewed, knew, loved, I am fascinated by examining the wave of risk events in a story. Often, if I can step back and do this, I find there are dead spots (Not enough risk) or passages that simply blur for the reader (Too much risk).

One way to analyze the movement of risk is to ask, for each chapter, these two questions:
What’s the question this chapter asks and answers?
What’s the quest that’s happening?

The question is the way I chart the internal risk as manifested in the chapter. If nothing is asked, if no one is wondering anything inside, there’s less chance of growth or internal change. Less internal risk.

The quest charts the external drama, the external risk. The outer event that causes a reaction, which causes change.

It does appear differently in the various genres, and it helps to know what to look for, depending on what you’re writing. Here’s a very general way to break it down, although there are many exceptions.

With nonfiction, the risk often circles around learning information or a new method or idea. What’s the best method of growing a bonsai garden? What should a concerned citizen do about classism?

With memoir, the risk is in the narrator’s growth, or internal journey. Often there’s an element of identity shift. What’s my identity as a parent now that my child is an addict? What do I have to do to forgive my ex—if I even can? How do I survive a trauma or serious illness? Think of the challenge of figuring out a new identity after a great loss. This kind of risk, stepping into the unknown, forms the path your reader travels through your story.

With fiction, I find the risk has to exist externally or the book has no dramatic arc. (Memoir has become like this as well.) So the risk often takes the form of a quest to discover something about a situation. Who killed the victim in a murder mystery? How will we get across France into Germany in that car?

Without risk in any genre, to me there’s no story.

A great way of looking at this, often used in writing classes: What's at stake? What can be lost? And is that loss primarily external or internal?

Here’s an example from one of my past students, a beginning memoirist.

Chris was writing the story of her grandmother’s life, but she wasn’t happy with the slow pace of her story. Not enough was happening (Not enough risk) but she didn’t know how to bring it into a true story that seemed, to her, almost risk-free. She’d loved her grandma precisely because of this serene aura that surrounded the older woman’s life. When she came to my storyboarding class and got a chance to both brainstorm the ideas she had and refine them, it mostly showed the many lovely moments in her grandmother's life. A good tribute to her. Not a publishable story, in my view.

Absolutely, her grandmother lived an interesting life, well worth writing about. But her story, mostly preserved in family letters, seemed too perfect to Chris.

A technique I love and often teach along with the storyboard (see my short storyboard video on YouTube) is the image board. Many published writers use image boards, maybe the most famous being Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees. For that novel, Kidd started an image board with one picture of a jar of honey. An entire story evolved from it. Although Chris wasn’t writing fiction, I knew the image board could trigger memories and feelings that were valuable but hidden from the conscious mind. So I suggested Chris create an image board of her grandmother’s life, what she knew of it. Her grandmother died when Chris was nine, but she’d been Chris’s primary caretaker until then.

Chris went through the letters again and old family photos. Then she put these documents aside and turned to her intuition.

She gathered a stack of magazines and spent an hour tearing out any images that spoke to her of her grandmother’s life. Then she arranged them on a large sheet of paper. This is when the central risk began to reveal itself.

For some reason Chris pasted a beautiful garden next to a car accident, then a fallen bird near a sunny kitchen. Why the opposing images? She tried to recall conversations about her grandmother’s past, before her marriage. Were there secrets she didn’t know about?

Chris decided to call up an elderly aunt and interview her. Chris learned that her grandmother had given birth to an illegitimate child when she was very young, and that child was given up for adoption. This explained the persistent sadness Chris always felt from her grandmother, and the disjointed collage images suddenly made sense. Chris now knew the central risk of her grandmother’s life and how she could write her book around this risk.

Chris’s grandmother was forced to give up her baby—an external dilemma that Chris learned about from her elderly aunt. Chris believed it brought on the persistent sadness and colored her grandmother’s every day. Unresolved conflict always festered beneath all the gardening, cooking, and bird-watching that her grandmother described in her letters.

I thought about Chris’s story for many months after the class ended. I wondered if the grandmother's life-long sorrow was a feeling she faced daily. Did it color her life beneath the serene exterior? A question I might imagine this woman asking herself is: How much do I share, how much do I keep secret, how do I live with either choice?

No one knows. But now, it made a good story.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: Make a list of potential risks in your book. What are all the different kinds of trouble that your people could get themselves into? If you’re writing fiction or memoir, you can begin with a list of unmet desires (which foster internal risk) or external challenges for one of your least-known characters. For nonfiction (such as how-to books), think of your reader’s risks. What problems bring them to your book? Then pick one problem and free write about it for 20 minutes. Allow the nonlinear side of your creative self to explore it.

And, if you want, follow the directions above in Chris’s example to create an image board with pictures from the internet or print media that might tap into the less conscious risks in your story.

Then, draft a scene or section in your book where someone faces this risk. Don’t keep them (or you) safe from it, if possible. Let it fly.

Sometimes, it's hard for writers to bring risk to the page because they have to experience it themselves en route. And after these past years, who needs more? But to me, risk, in the right balance, continues to be an essential part of storytelling.

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