About 15 years ago, I attended a writers workshop where there were two pieces of advice that were repeated frequently, and which, to this day irritate and delight me. Those two sage learnings were:
- Write what you know; and
- Throw (metaphorical) rocks at your story’s hero, repeatedly, and don’t let up until your story is done.
Now as a writer of weird, fantasy/scifi, and horror I balk slightly when told to write what I know, mostly because my goal is to convincingly write exactly the opposite – a world that is alien, situations that most assuredly do NOT happen in REAL life. However, I also know that the reader is real, and for them to be able to “suspend their disbelief” there has to be something familiar in the world that I am creating; some baseline that can be absorbed and felt.
It is that part where writing what I know – how people react, or might feel when confronted with any situation real OR imagined – that helps the reader to ease into the unknown and come to accept the advanced science and/or magic of the story.
To get to the weird, there has to be a normal. To get to the fantasy/scifi, the rules of the world have to be established. To get to the horror, the mundane must be in existence. No shadows can be cast without a source of light.
Likewise, if there are no challenges, no obstacles – then there is no opportunity to overcome the odds or to triumph over evil or to escape some horror. The stories that stay with us longest, have hardships or tests that enable the main character(s) to grow and change.
If, for example, in The Hunger Games, the character Katniss simply mourned her sister Primrose being chosen for the games, the story would be short and tragic and not particularly memorable.
Katniss was established at the beginning as a caretaker; having taken over for a Mother bereft after losing her husband, Katniss and Primrose’s Father; she hunts to provide for her sister and her mother. She continues this caretaker role by volunteering in her young sister’s place in the Hunger Game. She is trying hard throughout the process of preparing for it, to focus on winning, but she can’t help caring about others like Peeta and then, Rue. Even once the game begins, her first encounter does not end with her killing someone, instead Katniss and the girl she runs into go in separate directions. The reader knows it is only a matter of time before Katniss will be forced to kill or be killed.
It has been years since I read the books or saw the movie and yet I can recount with great detail the travails of Katniss Everdeen.
So it is with many of the books and movies I’ve read where the character overcomes great odds to prevail in the end. Hence, the advice throw rocks at your hero until the end of the story.
And finding those rocks and writing them well enough to make it clear that the character is struggling to overcome them can be a big challenge. I have great admiration for those writers who not only do it successfully – but do it regularly in many different stories without repeating themselves or making it feel forced.
Such skill requires practice. And practicing means writing. Even writing trite and cliche stories is practice. And now that I’ve said that, I am going to put another pot of coffee on, and work on writing another chapter in one of the five projects I have “in process”.
Time to conquer the world…but first, coffee.