Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the ninth chapter, “How to Tell a Thrilling Story Without Breaking Your Own Heart.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
How to Tell a Thrilling Story Without Breaking Your Own Heart
“Things get worse.”
That’s the closest there is to a formula for generating excitement in a story. It’s also a pretty good description of the world we’ve all been living in for the past few years.
Once you’ve got a plot that you’re feeling good about, with plot devices and some interesting turning points and all that good stuff, most writing advice will tell you to keep turning up the heat on your protagonist(s). Some shocking events, or some major setbacks, need to make the characters miserable. And yeah, it’s important to have a sense of “rising action” so that your story can reach some kind of peak before the conflict is resolved—but when you’re writing during a time when every solid object is melting (which is what this series is about, after all), then you might need to be a little more careful.
Somewhere in the middle, you might get to a point where you’re like, “Okay, at this point something really bad has to happen to the main character, to move the story forward.” That’s definitely not true—there are plenty of other ways to add urgency or momentum. Life can become more challenging for these figments of your imagination without you having to traumatize yourself (or your eventual reader) in the process.
I’m pretty sure this is one reason why so many of us have been having so much trouble with spinning our usual bullshit lately. Not only is it hard to escape from bad news, but everything bad that happens in fiction reminds us of the real world. Everyone is ridiculously traumatized—including you—so a lot of stuff is liable to cut close to home. Of course, writing scary stuff could be cathartic, the same way that eating spicy food cools you off during hot weather. But if you find it too upsetting to write atrocities, then…don’t.
Especially in a first draft, it’s pretty normal to feel like you’re pulling your punches, at the best of times. I often get to the middle of a draft and realize that things are too easy for the characters, or certain incidents could stand to be more hair-raising. It’s all good: in a first draft everything is still up for grabs, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time doubling down on a sequence that I might end up cutting. You can always go back in revisions and ramp up the body-count or intensity of a particular event—or add a whole new horrible event, if you decide that this part of the story needs an extra scare.
So if you find yourself in a rut, or writing is making you too sad or upset, then pull back and think about the characters, and what choices they have at this point in the story. Because you can get just as good a sense of rising action and increased stakes by having your characters make some questionable decisions, or try to do something that crashes and burns. Thinking about your characters’ options, and why they might do something to make matters worse, can be downright therapeutic. And paradoxically, even though this might be less scary to write, it’s a better gut-punch in the end.
You can put your characters through adversity without having to remind yourself of the high-pressure shitstorm we’re all living through, if you just look for more and better sources of misfortune.
Meanwhile, when you do write about horrific events, it’s important to think about trauma—both the causes and the consequences of it. Instead of just inflicting misery to add to the tension in the story, this is an opportunity to look at the reasons why abusive systems exist, and also the lasting ways that they affect people.
Raising the stakes without undercutting your characters
Pain and cruelty are just like any other story element: they’re tools. You use them to get the effect you want, and if they’re not helping then cast them aside, without a second thought.
In a few drafts of my novel The City in the Middle of the Night, Bianca visits the bandit city of Argelo and parties way too hard, until she passes out from booze, drugs, and sleep-deprivation—and then someone tries to rape her. Sophie rescues Bianca while this man is still taking her clothes off, and knocks him out cold. But Bianca soon realizes that this unconscious man is a leader of one of the city’s ruling families, and as soon as he wakes up, Sophie and Bianca will be put to death for hitting him in the head (however justified that might have been.) So the two women have no choice but to make sure this dude never wakes up again, and then they have to find a way to dispose of the body—by dragging him into the night.
This sequence raised the stakes and created a greater sense of menace, but I started to have 3 AM arguments with myself about using an attempted rape as a plot device. I didn’t want to trivialize rape, and I definitely didn’t want to include sexual assault if I wasn’t going to be able to deal thoughtfully with the aftermath. But just as important, I didn’t want to create the impression that the bad choices Bianca makes later in the story are a result of sexual assault, rather than her own personal shortcomings.
I struggled with this for a long time—longer than I should have, in retrospect. As soon as the assault was gone from the story, I could see clearly that the City in the Middle was better without it.
As traumas go, sexual assault is massively overused, and it’s too often used lazily, to give characters a reason for going off the rails. Its use as a plot device can re-traumatize survivors who are reading, throwing it into a story without paying attention to the ways it affects someone’s life afterward is also a toxic blunder. Fiction often presents sexual assault according to a single received narrative, in which it’s hyper-violent and only happens to cis women—though in real life, it happens in a million different ways, and to all sorts of people.
But I’m not just bringing up the example of Bianca because it’s about me narrowly avoiding a shitty trope. Bianca became more interesting to me, and her arc was clearer, when she was allowed to make mistakes without being pushed into them by outside forces.
Even when horrible things come down out of the sky and ruin a character’s life out of nowhere, we need to see them coming from a long way off. Even if the characters themselves ignore the signs of a growing crisis, we need to be aware of them before the nightmare arrives.
In general, before I unleash hell on a character, I ask myself: What am I hoping to get out of this? How is this going to advance the story, or this character’s arc? Is there a better way to get there, that can come out of the character’s own motivations?
When something good happens to a character, we all demand a high level of plausibility and believability. Happy events must be “earned.” Meanwhile, we require much less reason, or explanation, when the world goes pear-shaped. Because when bad things happen, that’s “realism.”
If we don’t feel it, it didn’t happen
Remember how I said that suspension of disbelief is just as important for the writer as for the reader? That goes double when you’re writing about unthinkable ordeals.
When something happens, we need to feel it as well as see it, and we need to believe in the consequences. In particular, we need to see how it affects the characters—since the whole point is to move the characters and their story forward, right?
My least favorite thing is when a character goes through something unspeakable, and seems totally fine afterward. This reduces my ability to believe in both the character and the event. (And sure, sometimes people repress their trauma, but there are ways to show that’s what’s happening.)
Plus, I’ve found over and over again that when I write about atrocities and then I don’t devote enough time and energy to showing how these things stay with people afterwards, this sometimes means that I didn’t need those atrocities in the first place. Though sometimes, it just means that I need to dig deeper and really capture the emotional and psychological aftershocks of a terrible experience.
When something truly unendurable happens, you have to find a way to integrate it into your overall story, as painful as that sounds. You have to do the work of constructing what was happening before, and how it unfolded, and putting the event in some kind of context. And then you have to do the work of understanding that you’re safe now, which is an ongoing process.
Different people deal with trauma in different ways, and it’s important not to present a one-size-fits-all healing process. In The City in the Middle of the Night, I was pretty careful to show Sophie, Mouth, and other characters having very different responses to the things they had gone through. I read Trauma and Recovery by Judith L. Herman, and a psychologist friend also recommended The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, which I found an invaluable resource for understanding how we carry trauma in our bodies as well as our minds. I tried to pay attention to the small physiological cues that show that someone is re-feeling a terrible event.
Traumatized people tend to be more hyper-vigilant, and sometimes engage in more risk-taking behavior. (I learned a lot about this from talking to Sarah Gailey, while working on City.) A character could feel depressed and unable to concentrate, or could throw themselves into work and push everything else to the side. How the character reacts to shitty experiences says something about who they are, and who they’re going to become.
And during a time of extreme viciousness in the real world, we need more than ever to understand the systems that turn people into predators. The institutions that enable and encourage widespread brutality. If you’re going to show us the worst things that can happen to people, then we need to see the reasons why they happen. We need fiction that interrogates the layers of privilege and dehumanization that make some people fair game for abuse.
But again, self-care is good writing practice. And you’re under no obligation to make yourself sick writing about horrors while living through a horror movie.
At some point, we all started to think of violence and misery as the point of storytelling, rather than as a means to an end. Many writers (myself very much included) gloated endlessly about how much we love to “torture” our characters. We all talked about Game of Thrones as if the Red Wedding was what made it great—rather than our love for the characters. Comics creators spent decades trying to steer long-running titles towards a “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic, while fantasy had to be “grimdark.” Prestige TV has pushed things to be weirder and more psychologically complex, and the failure mode has sometimes been gratuitous darkness. And so on.
We started to treat ugliness as a key signifier of quality, rather than just one totally valid creative choice among many.
Final thought: I increasingly find it helpful to think in terms of “options become constrained,” rather than “things get worse.” It’s not so much that the situation deteriorates—it’s more like, doors are slamming shut, and the protagonists have fewer and fewer courses of action open to them. The rising sense of desperation is the most important thing, and there are a million different ways to get there that don’t risk making you more upset during an upsetting time.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.