Writing Right with Dmitri: What Are the Monsters About? Part 4

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Writing Right with Dmitri: What Are the Monsters About? Part 4

Editor at work.

So, maybe we're the monsters. Here comes the tricky part. You can get your characters to make messes. You can let them get swallowed up in their own consequences, or let them learn better. That's all up to you. But first, you've got to make the dilemma clear. How do you tell about that, and what do you do about it?

At this point, you're in serious danger of overthinking. Trust me: I've been there. Do we tend to…

  • …take our own reasoning for granted? If we do, we risk losing our audiences, who may not think the way we do.
  • …fail to make it clear what we and our characters (fictional or fact) think is important? If we slide past questions of personal priorities, we may find ourselves and the people we're describing lost in a sea of imponderables.
  • …try to take shortcuts to change? Characters, like real-life people, don't change direction easily. If they experience a change of heart, you've got to show why. And yes, show, not tell.
  • …insert too much wishful thinking into our writing? That's the easiest trap in the world to fall into. That blank page is so inviting: you may want to fill it with stalwart heroes and dewy-eyed princesses, or upwardly-mobile figures climbing the ladder of whatever you regard as success. Resist the temptation, and you'll find the writing a lot more rewarding, both for you and your readers.

If you think you can skip this step in your writing, please reflect: what I've been saying about self-revelation is true. If you don't motivate the people in your stories on purpose, you'll do it by default. Remember Jurassic Park? (Huh? I hear you saying, read on.) The 'scientists' didn't have complete dinosaur DNA. So they filled in with frog DNA. Whatever you don't write with care, thought, and deliberation, is gonna be frog DNA. Where will you get that frog DNA? Bingo. There's going to be a lot of you in there. People are going to notice – particularly if they don't happen to agree with your point of view.

Years ago, a professor gave me a B on a paper in graduate school. A B isn't a good grade to get in graduate school. He told me that he believed my premise was sound and my reasoning solid. But he pointed out that my thesis was original, and would possibly be unpopular.

'When you're saying something unusual, you've got to sell it harder,' he said. He was right: the further you venture into terra incognita, the harder you've got to work to sell the idea. It will pay off, though.

I once heard Isaac Asimov tell that when he was a young writer, his friends said, 'There goes Asimov, the nut.' As time passed and some of the things he'd predicted in his stories came true, they changed their tune. 'Now,' he laughed, 'They say, "There goes Asimov, the clear-eyed seeker of truth."' So it goes.

So don't…

  • …be afraid to explore the less admirable sides of your characters. You and the audience will learn. Maybe the character will learn.
  • …fail to examine their motivations, whether they admit these to themselves or not. Often, these will provide you, the writer, with the clue to a really good plot twist or ending.
  • …hesitate to put those characters in uncomfortable situations, even if they don't emerge victorious. Let them learn from their mistakes – or not. Either way, it's a win for you and the reader.
  • …forget that as a writer, you aren't necessarily on the side of the characters. You're on the side of the reader. You and the reader are a team, searching for truth, rather like Asimov. Asimov wasn't content with frog DNA. His story, 'The Caves of Steel', was about people who lived underground all their lives. When readers congratulated him on creating such a horrible, claustrophobic dystopia, he admitted that the 'caves of steel' were his idea of a nice place to live. He didn't like the outdoors at all – in fact, he closed his office windows against the one sliver of sunlight that made its way in between the New York highrises every afternoon. The fact that he had to tell us that is a measure of how cleverly he avoided frog DNA in his stories.

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