At the mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference last month, keynoter Han Nolan said, “When a story scares me so much that I want to give up, when it’s so dangerous I’m scared to sit at the page, that’s when I know that I’m onto something.”
She got me thinking. As a young writer, my stories were … nice. The characters were … nice. I suffered from classic middle-child-itis, the desire for everyone to get along. And just yesterday, I was doing it again. While writing a scene, a new character appeared, and within a few minutes he had hijacked the story. He was fun. Writing about him allowed me to avoid writing the confrontation-scene I’d spent chapters setting up.
So I’m glad I realized the mistake this time, but I know I’ll do it again. What can I say—middle child that I am—my tendency to avoid conflict is pretty strong. I hate having to assert myself. But sometimes telling the truth means being assertive. It’s an uncomfortable place, but if my characters don’t go into places that are uncomfortable or scary or dangerous—if they don’t go anywhere that really matters—why read about them?
Danger. Conflict. Tension. They take many forms. We writers need to ask what the stakes are for our characters. Then we need to raise the stakes. That idiom comes from gamblers: when they raise the stakes—the bet—anyone who wants to keep playing has to pay up or get out. It’s not the same as upping the stakes, as in pulling up tent poles and moving on. A writer needs to up the ante, demand a greater investment, increase the risk, make it dangerous to sit at the page. That’s the sort of danger that keeps readers turning pages. Thank you, Han Nolan.