The Risk of Not Taking Risks

Writing journal

Writing journal (Photo credit: avrdreamer)

Last week I wrote about letting go and allowing your characters to take the wheel, and I’d like to expand on that this week.

You see, I understand the problem with giving control to someone else. It’s why my dad and husband both hate being in the passenger seat: when you’re not the one driving, there’s a whole trust and safety issue.

Now, the driving analogy can only go so far (and I don’t like driving, anyway). After all, while it would be foolish to let a thirteen-year-old take the wheel, your story’s thirteen-year-old character could do wondrous and unimaginable things if you let him loose on the page.

But characters of all ages and types – even the ones that may, at first glance, seem quite ordinary, even boring, have the chance of surprising us, if only we let them. Or for stories that aren’t as character-driven, maybe it’s the story itself that takes over and twists in unexpected ways.

But it’s scary to let go, I’ll be the first to admit.

Like so many other good students of composition and the tried-and-true formula college paper, I swallowed all that stuff about a beginning, middle, and end. I was really good at it, too. I often joke that I majored in writing papers, but it’s sadly true. I could write and edit like nobody’s business, and I was especially good at figuring out what my professors wanted to read and tailoring my papers to whatever persuasion was necessary to get me an A. Selling out? I suppose so. But it got me out quickly and unscathed, so I could get down to the serious work that I had little time for in college: writing fiction.

The problem is that writing an A+ college paper does not a good fiction author make. I think that’s why, for the longest time, I figured I would have to settle with being an editor. That I can do. I can tell writers all day long what they need to do to fix their stories because it’s easier to critique a story when you’re not in the midst of creating it. And although I’ve edited a bunch of crap, sometimes I get a real gem that makes me have hope all over again. And I sometimes wonder: what makes this author different than all the others? I mean, aside from the obvious being a good story-teller part.

I think that, in large part, it goes back to what Stephen King says in On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, and (I’m majorly paraphrasing here) it’s that following an outline, plotting an entire novel to the point that it can no longer breathe on its own, is the best way to create a stiff, author-driven piece of fiction. The point is that the author needs to get out of the way, and that simply can’t happen without taking risks. Like letting the story go where it will. Like sometimes giving your audience an unexpected ending.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that creating any kind of ending simply for the sake of making a statement is the most blatant form of author-interference, and it drives me nuts. Anyone remember when Ian Malcolm dies in Jurassic Park: A Novel, only to be resurrected in The Lost World: A Novel? Well, of course you don’t, if you’ve only seen the movies. That’s because he doesn’t die in the first movie. I can only assume that someone approached Michael Crichton and said, “Hey, we need a sequel, but we kind of need Ian Malcolm to be the main character.” Whoops. He’s dead. So he’s really not dead after all – what a miracle – and we can all forget those tears we shed when we read the first book. Right. (Notice how there’s no third book, but they went ahead with a third movie, anyway?)

I love Michael Crichton, and I actually like the first movie, too, although the whole “based on the novel” part is a very loose interpretation. The point is that risk-taking on his part wasn’t quite what Hollywood wanted. Maybe other authors are afraid of this, so they go ahead and remove the risk – write the ending that they think people will want instead of how the story is supposed to end. Other authors go the opposite direction and just start killing people willy-nilly for effect, making their readers mad for no reason.

But what would happen if we just let the stories be themselves?

It’s harder than you think, of course. Sometimes, a Hollywood director will come along and screw everything up. Or after you die, another author will write the sequel that they feel answers the questions you intentionally left. (I touched on this in a post late in 2012.)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephenie Meyers’s The Twilight Saga Collection. There are all kinds of twists and surprises, not to mention plenty of tension. But – spoiler alert – I’ve always felt a tiny bit cheated by the ending. I never did see the last movie because I was busy juggling a newborn baby and a preschooler at the time, but the previews told me enough: the big conflict that never really happens but just kind of fizzles out (at least in the book) had to be jazzed up a little for the movie. I mean, I’m glad that none of the good guys have to die, but at the same time, knowing how bad the bad guys are, it doesn’t quite seem realistic. (Okay, okay, what is realistic in a story full of vampires and werewolves? But I’m talking about suspending my disbelief to unbelievable proportions, here.) To me, it felt like Meyers actually interfered to keep something from hurting her characters, like she just missed something – maybe something monumental – at the end. I’m not saying to kill Edward or Jacob – or anyone. I’m just saying it’s a little too neat.

I faced the same thing with one of my own stories. I originally published “Stranded” when I was in college, and even back then, I fought with myself over the ending. The title being what it is, I could only do so much, unless I wanted to change that (and I didn’t). But one day, after a reader told me that she’d gotten to the end and wondered where the rest of it was, I considered following up with a sequel. Do people write sequels to short stories? Well, it’s a moot point because I haven’t done it and don’t think I ever will. That’s not to say I haven’t considered it, though. I have – a lot. I’ve read my story many times, trying to figure out what could possibly come next. But even though I created it, I could no more direct the next scene than I’ll be able to tell my children what they’re going to do for their livings when they’re adults.

Then in 2012, I decided to republish it. After all, the original publication was out of print, and I thought I could make a few tweaks to the text, which I did. I think the piece as a whole is improved, but… the ending remains the same. I still couldn’t change it. Why? Because I want to make readers unhappy? No. Because I want them to beg me to write more? No, and I won’t, even if they ask. Because the meat of the story is the same as it was in 2003 when I penned the first draft – that’s why. It just needed a little hair cut, some trimming of the fat. And it might have grown an inch or two since then. But it’s essentially the same story, and I’m glad that I let it be itself.

I took a risk once, and I am satisfied with the outcome. I only hope I can stick to my guns and keep taking those risks. After all, I owe it to the stories.

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2 thoughts on “The Risk of Not Taking Risks

  1. releaf1954 says:

    It’s hard to take risks with beloved characters. I almost couldn’t do it during NaNoWriMo, even as I was forcing myself to write 2000 words a day. I was afraid of what might happen to them if I allowed them to be in danger. Of course, when I finally did it, the story took off and the writing became a whole lot easier — and a whole lot more fun. Keep taking those risks. You’re on the right track.

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