Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't Play It Safe

I’ve been working on a scene for a week or so. One of those pivotal ones, one of the big ones. A major turning point type of scene, in which my main character, Dr Isabel Knight, comes across the body of one of my villain’s victims, for the very first time.

I sweated bullets writing this scene. And when I was done, I sat back and discovered I’d totally wimped out.

In essence (and skipping a few spoilerish nuances) all my character did was the standard find the body, react (which boiled down to her freaking out), the police appear and she’s suspected of the murder.


So I’ve mulled it over. And realised I went with the easy, top-of-my-head option with this scene. Why? Partly because I’m very squeezed for writing time at the moment, so I spend my teensy bits of free time working on my revisions, forgoing the thinking and pondering time necessary to let the subconscious work its magic.

Silly me.

But I think the real reason I wrote what is essentially a very safe-option scene is plain old fear. See, I always had a bit of an inkling in the back of my mind about what my main character just might actually do – an inkling that grew into a full-blown, slap-in-the-face, realisation once I did step away from the keyboard and think about it.

So, I now know exactly what my MC would and should do in this scene (and no, sorry, I’m not going to tell you what it is, or why she does it, because (a) I’m sure a ten page post on the inner workings of my character’s mind (and my mind!) is not what you’re here to read, and (b) I think every lady needs to be a little mysterious, don’t you? LOL)

But for a day now, I’ve still been too scared to write it.

The scene I have envisioned is … well, a little disturbing. And what’s twisting my gut in a knot is worry – if I do this, will I have gone too far? What if readers are turned off by my character and what she does? Should I not write it, and stay with the safer option?

After another round of pondering and navel gazing, I think I have the answer.


Stories pushed over and beyond the limits stick in readers' minds. Think of those who regularly venture where others don’t – Stephen King and Thomas Harris, yes, they push both the fear and the ick factors, but my goodness, do I remember those books. And then the likes of Isabelle Allende and Louis de Bernieres, or Joanne Harris, and the supernatural and just plain “out there” elements of their books that, for me, make their stories so memorable. Books by authors who strike out into dangerous or uncharted territory stick in my mind long after the cover is closed for being amazingly creative and original, for going off the beaten path and surprising me, for unsettling me. And aren’t these the reactions we novelists want our readers to experience?

Why, then, are we (I) afraid to write like that?

So I’ll be rewriting that scene. My little life-rope, if indeed I have gone too far, is that I can always change it. Phew.

How about you? Do you worry you play it too safe? Or do you quite happily play with the matches?


  1. I love to play with matches, as you know (insert evil grin.)

    But I do have a tendency to cling a little hard to that life rope, and more often than not I convince myself that the risks are too great and I don't use what I've written. Then again, there have also been times when I've convinced myself that the light struck by my risk-taking match is more brilliant than anything I've ever done before- and given a bit of time and perspective, I've seen that I've been wrong about it.

    Overall, though, I'm coming to see exactly what you are- the unexpected is what sticks in my head as a reader; the unique response, the crazy situation, the unpredictable character operating under great stress and responding in believable but very individual ways. Done well, it's the mark of a brilliant author.

    And on that, I can't wait to see Isabel's new reaction to this particular challenge :)

  2. >Why, then, are we (I) afraid to write like that?

    Because writing from the gut is more exhibitionist than stripping naked in Grand Central Station?

    Or to pose it as a riddle: how is a writer's group like a nudist colony? :)

  3. Oh do I know this fear! Like when my Samantha grabbed a gun and shot someone in my WIP. I was shocked, afraid, and thrilled once I let myself think about it. ; )

  4. Darn it. Jen, and now you? You guys are going to be drumming in my head as I edit the last scenes of Rosa's story. Don't play it safe. Make it explosive. Take the worst that could happen and double it. Eek!

  5. I think it has to do with fear of repercussions.

    It's easy to have a scene where a character skirts death. It's much harder to write a scene where the character stares it in the face (and, for example, is scared senseless by it) and yet lives another day.

    Danger changes characters. It has lasting effects, depending upon the character's personality. It's a shift, and it doesn't go away immediately.

    I think part of the hesitation to really dig deep and get into your character's reality IS the fear of seeing exactly how that reality changes. Wanting them to develop and changing them are two different things. But I think the latter can give momentum to the former.

    In the earliest drafts of my WIP, my MC got through some life-threatening trauma nearly unscathed. It took me a while to realize that this wouldn't be true to character at all -- what she sees and what she goes through essentially takes her gentle worldview and kicks it in the nuts. [cough] But learning about how she'd process and react to her experiences taught me worlds about the character and gave a completely different dimension to the rest of the story. It was scary to approach, and even scarier to write -- I'm still doing that, and can't do it for long at each stretch, because I want to look away, really! -- but it's worth it.

  6. @ Claire - it's a delicate balancing act, isn't it? Too much melodrama or gore, or plain old "WTF - ery?", can leave your reader as cold as if you'd stuck with the safer, more boring, version of your scenes. I hope - HOPE - that making these judgment calls becomes a little easier with time ...

  7. @ L. - ah, you make a very good point. Digging deep into the truth of your characters and your stories can dredge up some not very palatable stuff, and putting it on the page for everyone to see ... yeah, walking out the house stark naked is easier. Fear of exposing yourself is a very real killer of creativity.

    So ... how *is* a writers group like a nudist colony? ;-)

  8. @ Zan Marie - ah, I think I remember when that happened! And you're exactly right with the flow of emotions - shock, to fear, and then thrilled. I think I'm nearly at the last one of those three ...

  9. @ Jill - You've nailed it with your comment, you know? (g)

    I totally agree. I've been writing the new version of this scene and find I can't do it for long stretches either, that I have to walk away and go do something else and then come back to it. Partly because what my MC does is so vastly out of the realms of what I would ever do and it freaks me out; partly because it is, as you say, changing her, and that's pretty intense to process and make sure I get exactly right.

    All part of the learning curve, isn't it?

  10. @ Deniz - LOL! I've seen that you're powering on through the edits of your story ... very exciting! Keep up the good work, and I hope I don't yammer too loudly! (g)

  11. Rachel,

    I think you'll do just fine. [g] I hope you talk about how it turns out -- I'm curious!

    Glad to know I'm not the only one that squirms when approaching this kind of stuff with my character. But to me, now that I've really looked at her, it seems inevitable, so I know I have to do it. Good luck with Isabel! Don't be scared; she's got the chops to overcome, otherwise why would she be your MC? [g]

    And while we're on the topic, not all blog readers may be interested in 10-page discourses on characters'/authors' minds, but personally? I love that stuff. I can't put it down. LOL. Go figure.

    Last week, just for kicks, I went to Amazon and looked at the reviews for Outlander. I don't know why. I didn't go straight for the five-star reviews, though; I went to go read the one-stars.

    Disturbing, they said. Horrifying, primarily because of the Wentworth chapters as well as Claire's beating at Jamie's hands. Actually, one review describes the ending of the book as -- I quote directly here -- "brutal, horrible, vile, violent, repulsive and quite frankly disturbing."

    But you know what? There are less than 150 one-star reviews. There are almost 1,500 five-star reviews.

    So some readers _might_ have their delicate sensibilities offended by what you write, but in Outlander's case, it was 10% or less.

    There are always going to be people that saw the show but missed the message. But look at the huge positive response from the people that 'got it' -- it was real to them, it hit home, and Diana's risk was worthwhile.

    Makes me feel a little better about torturing my own characters. [g] Whether or not I do it *well*...er, we'll see; no guarantees!

    Ahem. Pardon the wall of text. I'm unaccountably chatty lately. [g]

  12. Spot on Rachel... I'm standing on the verge of a big revelation about one of my characters and i'm pulling right back because _I_ can't do that to her (and to everyone's perception of her). It would change _everything_ you think you know about her. But oh if I could... what a story it would be. So somewhere I'm going to have to bite the bullet and make it happen (for her).

    and that comment from L - yes to that.