Monday, 29 November 2010

Put the hero through hell, not the reader

Presumably, like me, you write in the hope that somebody somewhere will read and enjoy what you've written. Preferably a handful. More preferably a multitude who'll pay for the privilege.

Spend any time reading advice on writing and it won't be long before you're told to put your characters through hell; define the most precious thing they have and take it away from them; devastate them mentally, physically and emotional – this will make your story visceral, emotive and gripping.

Except it takes a little more than that. If you do these things without purpose, reason or effect your reader will end up going somewhere else. Why? Because it's narrative progression that grips readers, not watching characters get persecuted. Without movement or change repeated hellish scenes are just that – repeated hellish scenes. It's like making a point, then making it again, and again, and then shouting it just to make sure. Trust me, we got it the first time.

But I want my reader to really understand what my character is suffering, says the bone-headed writer. Sorry, buddy, which reader is that exactly?

You see, it's not the physical, sexual or emotional hell that makes the story interesting, it's what the character does about it that's interesting – it's the dramatic question that such scenes generate that create the propulsion, the urge in the reader to read on. How will she cope with that? How will he get out of this hell-hole? If the reader turns over to find those questions not answered, just more hell, then unless he's a sicko, he'll move on.

But if you're determined to make your story a hell-trail, here's how to do it - there must be some hope, some suggestion that this can change or stop. Either the hero must be able to help themselves or someone else can.

Progress the hero from one hellish scene to another – think of the character Butch played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction – a masterclass in story-telling as a character tries to get himself out of a situation only to find himself in repeatedly worse ones, culminating in a dramatic turn-around between protagonist and antagonist.

Torture or abuse a character by all means – make the reader understand the jeopardy they are in – remind us throughout the narrative – but continue it without narrative movement, hope, or redemption and I'll go wake up the gimp.


  1. Not only that, but as we become attached to the character, we want the author to cut them some slack. Give us a breather. We like this person. So it can't be all doom and gloom or it's no fun.

  2. Humor can sometimes be a great defense mechanism against the gloom and doom. Even in the final installment of Harry Potter, when there's a ton of doom and gloom, there are still moments of light that shine through, which help the reader cope with all the bad stuff going on.

  3. This post makes me wonder what you've recently read (hopefully not my pages!). Or maybe not so much since the trend to put characters through hell, simply for the sake of hellish situations does seem to be rampant and frankly, encouraged by many agents. I've been told to send my MS back if I choose to go this route by more than a handful of them...

    As always James, you understand the true significance of storytelling...that the reader come away from the experience changed, hopefully for the better. A hell-trail alone will never make that happen.

  4. @Tamara - good point. Thanks for commenting, Tamara. Hope you're getting those Amazon reviews you need.

    @Jeffrey - good to hear from you again, Jeffrey - great to see your blog is going strong and I hope the writing is going well too.

    @becca - hey Bec - I did think about naming the writer who prompted this post but I thought it would then make it about that particular writer - who is in fact a writer I admire - rather than the point I wanted to make. Thanks for commenting btw, I do like it when a post of mine prompts you to respond.

  5. YOu make a good point. I think the same applies to anything - action scenes, funny scenes - they need to move the story forward!