Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to write: tragedy is the secret...

Thanks for stopping by once again, everyone. I still can't believe that hundreds of you are visiting my blog daily. Please know I really do appreciate it.
What follows is writing advise coming from a guy as suspect as the rest. In every single case, please trust your own judgment, instinct and voice. But maybe the following will give you something to think about.
Today, I got an interesting request from a nice person who wants to be a professional author. To clarify, "professional author” probably means something different to everyone, so for the sake of our discussion, I mean this person wants to make his living as a writer, wants to be paid strictly and solely for stringing words together on a regular basis. In short, he wants to be like me. I write for corporations, and over a quarter million of my fiction books have been downloaded in the last 18 months. I work from my home, surrounded by 7 acres of lawn, a pond, a brook and a few hundred ducks that hang around this time of year. When I need a break from the keyboard, I lean over the rail of my sixty-foot porch and feed a dozen loaves of bread to my feathered friends. It's hard to believe, but I can actually exist for days, even a week at a time here with my family, without leaving my property. And, in large part, I owe that to you, my many readers. Thank you.
So this very nice person with the goal of making a living as a novelist forwarded a manuscript via email earlier today. I took thirty minutes to review two chapters that may well have taken months to create, and each subsequent page made me sadder than the one before. Not because the work was total crap. No. I was sad because the writing was actually pretty good. Strong logic, great descriptions, realistic dialog. Honestly, this author has a lot going for him...except the ability to recognize or create interesting story.
I sent an apologetic email explaining the problem and was surprised when the author asked if I could blog my answer so more writers could benefit. Though he gave his permission, I’ve opted not to include his name. I figure he deserves a chance to be known for his polished, corrected work, not for his early naivety. So, what exactly was the problem?
It’s short.
It’s simple.
And too many of us never get it.
Fiction writers are paid to torture their characters.
And I don't mean the antagonists, though it's okay to beat on them, too. No, the protagonists are the ones who need to be stomped on, spit on, beaten up and then left for dead. In the old days, the Brady Bunch had a few challenges, but modern fiction cries for pain a thousand fold from those innocent days. The sooner something terrible happens in your story, the sooner readers will be hooked. Consequently, the longer you take to create tragedy for your character(s), the longer it will take to hook readers...and if you don't hook them early, they might just close their book or shut off their e-reader.
You have to catch them before that happens!
So what did I read? I can only describe it as two days in the life of one of the most boring men I ever met. And I do feel like I met, let’s call him Bob Mackswell. Bob had a good job, a sweet family and no financial problems that I could discern. He also slept pretty well, seemed to get along with his coworkers and had an uncanny knack for noticing poetic landscapes on his way to and from work. I can even assure you that Bob ate a satisfying breakfast of three pancakes topped with patties of real butter on the last page I read…before shooting my e-reader across the room!
Okay, that was a dramatic exaggeration, but I did want to throw it.
From the first page, you MUST throw your protagonist(s) into the deep water and make sure they do not know how to swim. The more you abuse your main characters, the more your readers will love you for it. They want to live through a crisis with their fictional friends. They want to feel the pain, the anguish and the hopelessness of these characters. And, from my school of thought, only after a long and uncertain battle, they want their fictional friends to succeed.
What about the writers who say, “but I have to introduce their normal life first; I have to make my readers like them first; I have to…I have to…I have to…”
Not true. Wrong really. There is a reason that everyone stands in the street when a violent crime has happened. It’s the same reason that news channels focus 90% on wars, murders and injustice. We want tension. We want tragedy. And if we don’t get it on one channel/in one book, we will find it on or in another.
Am I suggesting that every writer should toss out their breathtaking sunsets and beautiful cloud scenery at the opening of every book?
Absolutely, yes!
Unless that sunset signals the end of a life or those clouds are hovering over a murder scene, those flowery openings should be gone. I would also suggest you get rid of small talk, coffee breaks, long uneventful car rides and family banter. A few words is all it takes to invoke everyday life. The rest of your work should be focused on the systematic and unyielding destruction of your main character(s).
So what happens then? What happens after you’ve beaten these wonderful characters into a fictional mush?
I’m not sure, but send me the manuscript because I’d love to read about it.


  1. Excellent post. You're right, less is more and flowery descriptions keep our attention as much as watching paint dry or grass grow. For some reason, it's not very suspenseful.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jeff. You must have figured out a way to read this post as I was writing it. Having read your "Occupation" WWII vampire novel, I already know you get it. I don't even want to recollect how many years it took me to edit out my darling "paint dryings." It was heartbreaking but necessary. Thanks again! :-)

  2. Great post. One reader said about one of my books, "I hate the way they tortured Abby." High praise indeed because Abby is the heroine.
    Darlene Jones

    1. Thanks for visiting, Darlene. Sounds like your treatment of Abby is exactly what needed to be done. I just took a peek at the description for "Embraced," which for our readers is: "Against all logic, Abby believes the clicking she hears in the fillings of her teeth are messages from aliens. To decipher them, she enlists the help of one of her students.
      What Abby and Curtis discover threatens to take Abby down the road to madness.
      Two men love her. Can either of them save her?" A fascinating sci-fi tie in :-)

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  4. Great post, Tim. Your blog looks great, BTW. Love the tag line at the top. :)

    And you are so right. I’m reminded of Downtown Abby. Everytime anyone gets the slightest bit of happiness, any time a beloved character has a big, contented smile cross their face… you know it’s coming. Car crash, death in childbirth…

    Also what made DareDevil a great comic book in the early 80’s. Poor, poor Matt Murdock.

    1. Thanks for poking around, Stephen. I haven't tried Downtown Abby yet...but all the long-lasting shows did the same thing. Contentment is merely a signal that the sky is about to fall :-) I just checked out your blog and became a member. Looking forward to sharing ideas. By the way, how do I make Blogspot show the comments on the first page rather than on a separate screen? Any idea?

  5. Great advice, Tim. We put our main characters in a tub of boiling oil, and they are on their own till the oil boils dry.

  6. Caleb, sounds to me like you're on the right track there. The more cruel we are to our characters, the kinder we are to our audience :-)

  7. Now I don't feel guilty for putting my characters through such misery. Good post to remind us that any happy ending and victory must be hard won.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rachelle. Signing onto my blog membership was also very kind. I look forward to researching your work a little more this afternoon :-)

  8. first novella is out there. I hope I did it right.

    1. Christina: congrats on your first novella. That's a huge step and can never be a mistake. Wishing you all the success! :-)

  9. Hello!!
    I find your article very interesting, your advice dead on. I was wondering if you could tip me on how to write tragedy, not drama. the difference through the writing, i mean. The ending as well. I'm attempting to write a modern tragedy through college. It's like an assignment, not a novel, not as long nor as time consuming. But i can't decide if the plot will be strong enough to be considered tragedy, not drama, so i'm blocking, still haven't written a line, still looking for a suitable idea for the plot. That'd be very helpful if you could answer. thank you!

    1. Nawal, thanks for popping in. It's great to cyber meet you.

      Before I answer your question, we should clarify that "tragedy" in the sense of a literary or theatrical genre has a very specific meaning, which is not the same as the generic "disaster" definition I was shooting for with this blog.

      Whereas a drama is simply a fictional "challenge" and can be most anything and can end most any way, a literary tragedy always saddles the protagonist with a fatal flaw that ultimately becomes his or her undoing. This type of story has two basic requirements: the personal fatal flaw we just talked about is central to the story, and the protagonist's ultimate failure is a requirement.

      As for ideas, my immediate thoughts are endless. Your character could be prideful and because of that ultimately miss important preparations or facts that become his doom. She could be cynical and therefore misjudge an event or person, ultimately ruining a central relationship that means everything to her. He could be deceitful and have his behavior turned and used against him. She could be too inquisitive and ultimately create a disaster by involving herself too deeply in other people's affairs...and so on.

      The final thing that I would mention, Nawal, is that the ultimate failure has to be HUGE, at least to your character. A tragedy, in the literary sense, means that your protagonist loses everything. Death is most common, but certainly the loss of all relationships and worldly standing is the typical price paid in a classical tragedy.

      The modern twist on "tragedy" is when the final earth-shaking loss is followed by a tiny hint of hope. I would not, however, introduce any such hint unless you're certain your professor is modern minded. Otherwise, he or she could label your tragedy as incomplete, deserving of only a midland or lower grade.

      'Hope the thoughts are of help :-)


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