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Updated: Jun 16, 2023

During an editorial discussion with a client, I suggested a group of ‘good’ characters in her novel manuscript would be a lot more interesting for readers if one or two of them behaved badly towards the others. The group members were squeaky clean, not a one displayed any negative emotions or bad behaviours. No one was jealous, untrustworthy, or mean; no one was undermining or secretly plotting against their fellows. Was it time to throw a pebble, if not a rock, into their pond? What if one of them was holding a grudge and seeking revenge? Was another character pursuing his best friend’s girlfriend? Perhaps someone was playing a double game and betraying the other group members.

"Betrayal! Oh, no, no, I can't write that!” The very thought of one of her characters betraying the others caused my client to pull back and stare at me in mock horror. She declared, “I can’t write about friends betraying friends.”

I was curious and asked, “Why not?”

It’s happened to me more than once,” she replied with a frown.

“I’m sorry to hear it but look at it this way, you can tap into your own experience and feelings in your novel. You can turn it into fiction.”

For writers of fiction, nothing is wasted; it is all 'grist to our mills.'*

Another client was writing a psychological thriller featuring a serial killer. After his initial enthusiasm, he was having second thoughts which he expressed as, “Look, I don’t know if I can get inside the mind of a serial killer. How can I write about his sick fantasies and sadistic string of murders?” The obvious answer is if we are writing about someone or something on which we have insufficient knowledge (and hopefully no first hand experience) we need to research the topic of ‘serial killers.’ The Internet, libraries and bookshops have a huge amount of material on these criminal psychopaths. Time to dive in at the deep end and immerse ourselves in everything we wanted to know about serial killers but were afraid to ask.

For our writing to be gripping and real, we cannot 'play nice' and deliver the kind of novel our readers will buy, read and rave about. We cannot write on the safe sidelines of the story. Rather, we must find ways to put ourselves into the centre of our characters' minds and actions. Scenes such as the following ones will never be comfortable or easy to write:

  • A home invasion - an entire family is murdered

  • A vicious fight scene - a drunken husband punching his wife, pulling her down on the floor and kicking her

  • A desperately sad scene - a young mother is dying as her husband and children hold on to her, surrounding her in their circle of love

Have you ever baulked at writing a particular scene in your novel or short story? It may not have been a scene of betrayal or a gruesome murder. Writing any scene of high emotional intensity can bring up memories and emotions we would rather not revisit. While the following five tips will not remove the discomfort, I hope they help you get started:

  1. Consider what is going on in your own life at the time. If you are ill or grieving or depressed, postpone writing a horrific or tragic scene. You will be too caught up in your own emotional turmoil. At the same time, observe and absorb your thoughts and behaviours while it is happening for when you do return to your writing.

  2. Reinforce your commitment and program your brain for success. Say aloud and repeatedly: “Yes, I can write this scene.” Do not tell yourself, “I can’t write it.” If we keep thinking or saying, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ our brain believes it, and the reverse equally applies. Don’t stop writing because of a few ‘hard’ scenes – see point 3 hereunder.

  3. Sneak up on it. Write what you can even if it’s only a few words and brief points. Describe what you want to convey to the reader, tell yourself what might happen in the scene, jot down whatever scenarios come to mind. Insert a placeholder in the manuscript and write past the confronting scene. You will return to it with fresh perspectives and motivation.

  4. Research and read other writers who have handled similar scenes. Also examine scenes in movies and TV shows, observing the actors’ facial expressions and body language. What gestures are they making, where are they looking, what are their mannerisms? Write some notes to refer to later.

  5. Talk over the possible ways to write the scene with other writers who ideally are in the same or a similar genre. Chances are high they have had episodes of strong resistance, even repugnance, to writing some scenes in their fiction. What worked for them to push through?

Have you noticed how some things in life are hard to do before they become easy to do? But the ‘easy’ only happens after the struggle. From childhood onwards, we look back and wonder, ‘Why did I refuse to attend ‘Learn to Swim’ classes? My mother even had to bribe me with jelly beans to get me to go.’ Did I become a champion swimmer? No, but I did learn to swim.

What has worked for you to write those uncomfortably confronting scenes? Please share your tips and techniques in the comments below.

* grist to the mill - useful for a particular purpose

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Doing the write thing (and lovin' it!) : -)


Lynne Lloyd

Managing Editor and Publisher

LLOYD MOSS publishing

Telephone/Text 0421 998749

LLOYD MOSS publishing is an author services consultancy providing writing, editing and publishing services to writers around Australia. We work with writers at different levels of experience and who have a variety of objectives for their writing. Our services include manuscript assessment, development editing, copyediting, proofreading, and self-publishing, From a messy handwritten manuscript to a beautifully-produced book, we are in your corner, guiding, supporting and encouraging you all the way. How can we help you?

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