For a year, I’ve been stymied on my most recent book. I just couldn’t get past a certain point. I’ve written around it, embellished it, taken time away from it, gotten closer and closer to it, but I couldn’t get past it.
Last night I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and knew what the problem was: Someone absolutely must get dissolved in a vat of acid.
I realized that I was afraid to torture my characters. I like them. They’re my children. How could I dissolve one of them in a vat of acid?
For me, that’s the most difficult part of writing — being fearless. It’s hard for me to write unpleasant things. I shy away from really controversial things, or painful things, or ugly things. I don’t like to write really sad things. I tend to write comic stuff. But if everything is pleasant, all laughter and fun-and-games, where’s the drama?
The fact is, without crazy stuff happening, you might as well be listening to Aunt Edna describe her hernia operation. I mean, it was very dramatic for her, earth-shaking even. But it’s not going to change your world. A book has to change your world, or you won’t read it. And that means the plot has to be something otherworldly, not like aliens, but like outside of the norm. Stuff has to happen that just doesn’t normally happen in an average person’s life, so that the reader can live vicariously through the characters. And where is most of the growth in life, the good parts or the bad? When do you appreciate life the most, when you’re happy, or about to die? Or just cheated death? We don’t get to feel these things normally, but books can give us an inkling of what that would feel like. Unless the author wimps out.
Think about it this way: You’ve been working up to a crazy-intense climax. The tension has built to an unbearable level, and something horrible is about to happen — and then you choke. You let the characters off easy. The god in the machine floats down and makes it all better. You are going to have some P.O.’ed readers. They aren’t going to think, “Oh, thank God. I was really getting worried there!” They’re going to feel cheated. They were about to finally find out what it feels like to [get eaten by a shark? fall from a building? get murdered by the mafia?] have something truly life-altering happen, and that satisfaction, horrible as it may be, has been yanked away.
Don’t cheat your readers, like I’ve been tempted to do. Let them really experience something from your book. If you’ve been steering for a cliff, don’t yank the wheel aside at the last minute — go over the edge. Torture those characters and make your readers happy!