April 1st, 2016

“Is The Music Bad, Mommy?”

James Preston

Tips for doing Bad Things to Your Characters.

As I write this I am watching an old episode of CSI. Ray Langston, (Laurence Fishburn) is testifying in the trial of a psychotic who stabbed him. It is an excruciating series of scenes, definitely not for the faint of heart.

As a child when my mother took me to the movies I would watch out for bad things happening to characters I liked. I used to whisper, “Is the music bad, mommy?” (Side note: I do not remember this but she told the story frequently.)

As writers, we need to be brave, for we must first create characters we like, and then send them into situations where the music is very bad indeed, and watch as they struggle, as they grapple with issues that are life- or love- threatening and as they succeed or fail because that stress is what makes a story work. It is the engine that drives the writing bulldozer that Steven King talks about.

But I am a softie. With few exceptions, I like the characters I write about — they are my friends — and I don’t like to see them hurt. (Side note number two: I used to be reluctant to talk about this aspect of my writing, the fact that for me the characters are real. Then I read the essay by Thomas Harris at the beginning of Red Dragon in which he describes how he did a lot of the writing in an old farmhouse miles from a town. And he thought Hannibal Lecter might very well be watching him. Can you imagine?)

So, given that if I were in high school I’d take Pollyanna to the prom instead of one of the Heathers, how do I put my characters through very difficult situations? It ain’t easy. In my most recent novella, Buzzkill, my heroine is kidnapped and handcuffed to a chair with a black cloth bag over her head. One of her captors fondles her breast. This is the first scene of this sort that I have ever written. It was not part of the early drafts of the novella. It made me uncomfortable to write, and it’s uncomfortable to talk about now. But I did it. Here’s how I handled it, which leads to

Tip Number One:  Write the Horror Separately

photo credit: horrifying via photopin (license)

photo credit: horrifying via photopin (license)

I actually came up with that scene during the second draft, and it bothered me. So I wrote it “sidestream,” not as part of the manuscript. The scene where she’s handcuffed and molested as well as the resolution at the end where the creepy guy gets his (heh heh) existed first as separate documents. This allowed me to do two things. First, I could look at those events separately and decide if I wanted this dark piece as a part of my story’s mosaic. Second, if I decided that I didn’t want it, there was no cutting involved; the scenes were not part of the manuscript; there were no transitions to undo. (Raise your hands if you have a hard time cutting. I do.)

Tip Number Two:  Make the Horror Mean Something

Let horrific events force your characters to grow. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Did Nietzsche know what he was talking about? Maybe. Let’s get back to Ray Langston on CSI. The writers put him through hell. Did he grow and learn? It would be a spoiler for me to answer that, but I will say he should have. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes goes through hell, lives for revenge, and at the end he actually learns and grows as a person.

Tip Number Three:  Make Sure the Bad Things are an Organic Part of the Story

Always remember your readers are smart and they watch for plot devices. When the music gets bad, they know. For example, one reviewer talking about the first cycle of Spider Man movies, complained, “Peter Parker and his girlfriend break up just so they can get back together.” A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, when Han Solo took the money and ran, it worked, sort of. Today, it would not. Do not include bad stuff just to make it seem real.” In my case, when my heroine was trapped in that warehouse I set it aside and talked to the bad guy. It became clear that he would, indeed, molest her. (Yeah, I talked to him and this is the one audience where I can say that and you, gentle reader, will nod and not call for the men in white coats.)

Tip Number Four:  Include Bad Things Even When You Don’t Want To

photo credit: Scream via photopin (license)

photo credit: Scream via photopin (license)

And now that I have said all that, remember that conflict is what drives a story. This tip is simple: you gotta have it. Just as your hero or heroine must succeed by their own efforts they must have something to succeed against.

While I’m talking about bad things happening, let me moderate this discussion a bit with a word on happy endings. As I’ve said, like ‘em. But I also think they are important for another reason. Bad things do happen to people. Rizzo in Grease feels like a defective typewriter when she misses a period, and isn’t that a great line? Marty McFly in Back to the Future cannot overcome his fear of sending out his band’s audition tape and isn’t that something all writers can relate to? Bad things reflect reality — and so do solutions and happy endings.

In high school I was forced to read a novel that mercifully I have forgotten most of. Hero and heroine fall in love but have a terrible, terrible time because of a misunderstanding. She figures it out. Ta Da! So she writes it all down in a letter and slips it under his door. Ta Da again!

It slides under the carpet in his room; he never sees the letter and their lives are ruined. Oh, well.

Is life like that? Sure, things like that happen all the time. There is a large part of reality as we experience it that is random. But that does not give us a reason for scribbling, “They all were miserable for the rest of their lives. The End.” Part of what we do is provide structure to our world, to layer meaning over the chaos.

Of course this doesn’t mean that Hamlet isn’t a great story and you should only watch reruns of Happy Days. But Hamlet’s problems are driven by reasons, mistakes.

So where does that leave us? How do you handle making bad things happen to good people in your stories?

—        Try writing it outside of the main narrative, as a separate document. See if it works.

—        Make the horror mean something. My wife and I were reading one evening when suddenly she threw her book across the room. “In the last chapter there was a nuclear war and they all died.”

—        Make sure the horror is an organic part of the story. Much as I love Game of Thrones, they do throw in an extra beheading once in a while.

—        And despite all this, remember that bad things are what makes the story work. They must be in there. Hey, nobody said what we do is easy.

Finally, remember that you’re in charge. The music may be scary, but you can either fix it, or provide meaning to the pain. You can also take your revenge on bad characters, just as I do with my kidnapper. And it’s fun!

Now for the quiz.

Does anybody know the letter-under-the carpet novel? I cannot remember.

How do you handle hurting your characters? I’m sure many of you have struggled with this and found solutions. Please share!

*  *  *  *  *  *

James R. Preston


Mark your calendars for Wednesday, April 6, our first anniversary celebration of Write Up A Storm. Get ready for a day of writing and word counts! Details on Monday.


36 comments to “Is The Music Bad, Mommy?”

  • Excellent advice! I’m with you, I am good friends with my characters (particularly the main characters) and I wince when I put them ‘through the wringer,’ so to speak. I’ll follow your suggestions here. (Is the music bad, mommy? So sweet….)

    • jamesr403

      Hi, Rough — thanks for the kind words! I find it more difficult to put main characters through the wringer (I like that) than minor ones. But — are you doing a series? — in a series you spend enough time with minor characters that you feel their pain, too. Thanks again and I’m glad you liked the blog.

      • In both my books, I have bad guys who I don’t mind torturing in the end. But you’re right, I grow fond of the minor characters too.

        • jamesr403

          Interesting. I took a minor character from my mysteries and wrote a novella called Crashpad about him. It’s set in the sixties when he was at Cal State Long Beach. I had a good time and got to know him better. Do you think you will ever give these minor characters their own stories?

          • I think we SHOULD. I’m doing that right now. Had a minor character (who, granted, is very close to the two major characters in my book The Right Wrong Man). I’m halfway through writing my next book with that minor character, Gregory, as the major. I love letting him go for his own ride.

            • jamesr403

              My wife is a huge Jayne Ann Krentz fan (and how on earth is that woman so prolific? Is she twins? Does she ever sleep? Sorry. I digress.) Anyway, my wife has mentioned at least twice that Krentz has done that — given a minor character their own story and how much she likes it. I think you are on the right track.

        • Fae Rowen

          Yes, I can get very, uh, inventive with torturing my bad guys.

  • Fae Rowen

    Yes, James, my characters usually start out like they just fell from heaven. Then they get hit with those nasty flaws and plot twists that can’t be stopped. It’s easier to do all that mean stuff to them when you know they will eventually triumph in the end. Thanks for another insightful post!

    • jamesr403

      Now that’s interesting, Fae. In both my most recent WIP (finished a week ago hooray!!) and in my Surf City Mysteries, my characters start out very troubled. At least they think they’re troubled. They don’t know what problems are. That might be a good WITS topic — start your electronic pals inn a good place or messed up? Thanks!

      • Fae Rowen

        We used to have a throwdown every once in a while when we discovered we were on opposite ends of the spectrum about a technique or idea. They were fun to do. Let me see if I can get someone here to throw down with me. Of course, I’ll be on the “start in a good place” side! What do you say, Laura? Orly? Jenny?

        • jamesr403

          I have been trying to think of fiction where the hero is happy, little birds are singing and so on. I don’t think I’ve done that. Something to think about . . . Um, showing my ignorance — what’s a throwdown? Sounds like gangbangers throw signs and then throw down.

        • I’ve done it 3 ways, James and Fae (great post, James). My characters always have major flaws, but they might have just paid for them, Like the heroine in Nothing Sweeter, who just got out of prison, or in the middle of them or Her Road Home, where she’s running from them. Or in the middle of them, as in Days Made of Glass and Twice in a Blue Moon. Or just before they start, as in the rest of them.

          Interesting – I never plan that, and had never thought about it. Cool! Thanks!

          • jamesr403

            Wow, Laura, very interesting. I think there’s a blog in there. I know I’d like to hear more about your starting points, in particular “just paid for them.” BTW, those are great titles! Thanks.

  • I felt horrible when I put a female teenage Syrian refugee through a violent struggle and now have her in a position where she’s being groomed into a sex trafficking operation. I feel even more creepy sharing it with a beta reader. Ugh. But justice will prevail, and the protagonist will save her in the nick of time. So thanks, Mr. Preston, for alleviating my pain.

  • jamesr403

    Rick, I think you are a brave soul to tackle topics like that. And wow, talk about putting your characters into unpleasant situation!! I think you have uncovered another way to get past the difficulty — think about the happy (or satisfying in some other way) ending, which is not the same as thinking about revenge on your antagonists. I’m glad the essay helped.

  • jamesr403

    Oops. Sorry, Rick. Of course I meant, “brave soul.” Do you think about revenge on the people who are doing this to your heroine?

  • Do I think of revenge? The working title of my second book was Vengeance Burns Hot…although now that I’m marketing it to agents, it has the more innocuous title of Snoqualmie Pass.

    • jamesr403

      Rick, I like the first title, but the second one is good, too. When you find a publisher they may want a new one anyway.. And good luck finding an agent!

  • Gill

    A timely post for me. I really like the idea of having the bad stuff happen as a side note and separate document somewhere. . Having created a world over the course of a sequence of novels, I am approaching the time where it all comes unraveled, barbarians at the gates, olive groves and villages in flames, potentially the world they know coming to an end for my characters. Unfortunately I have been approaching this particular chapter for some time. I have no problem with the chapters that follow, just this particular one. I keep throwing words at the piece, just to stop the bad stuff happening, a kind of delaying tactic. I hate having to write the bad stuff and there is an element of self censorship involved. It almost seems unethical to invent horrors when human history is full of them. Currently I’m taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo, which has always worked very well for me, hoping that this will take me over this hurdle and down the final straight.

    • jamesr403

      Gill, you have my sympathies. The only thoughts I have are unpleasant — remember the stakes must be high in order to make the story important. and that means a certain amount of bad stuff. Doing the first shot as a separate document sounds like it will work for you (it did for me). I suggest making that document mild in the first draft, and then racheting up the action. Is the work first -person, or multiple POV? That will make a difference. Good luck! And pound those keys are NaNo WriMo!

  • great post…giving me some ideas…will be sharing some of your thoughts on my monday muse post tomorrow…
    thanks for this!

  • kathyelbinger

    The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe? The police inspector comes into the room, and the murderer hears his victim’s heart beat louder and louder until he goes crazy and rips up the carpet? May not have been a damning letter under the carpet. The Purloined Letter was in plain sight.

    • jamesr403

      Ooooh, Kathy, one of my favorite stories, but wrong! Thank you for playing (only kidding). “It was the beating of his heart . . ” Love it. The novel is Tess of the Dur’bervilles by Thomas Hardy. There’s no doubt that Hardy can write; it;’s his world view I have issues with. (21st-century polite-speak for “I don’t like it at all.)

  • Boy, could I relate to this one! I just had to (read that as “made myself”) write out a traumatic scene to make meaning to my character’s motivations and actions – and it was the force that would’ve caused her to be exactly where she was in life. I had to leave it out (I mean I just left a big empty section) and come back to it much later, after I had reconciled her issues, to be able to write it – just to assure myself that everything worked out okay in the end. I didn’t sleep well the night before or after I wrote that segment. Thanks for assuring me that I’m not the only one who terrorizes myself that way. 😉 -jody

    • jamesr403

      Jody, if the response to this essay is any indication, you are in good company. I did that with my heroine — wrote the traumatic scene separately — and then stopped and thought about it. I ended up distancing myself, and her, from it by revealing it in flashbacks and dreams. Reading what I just said, it sounds far more planned and thought out than it really was. It sort of just happened and there were times when I was not entirely sure that i could pull this off. And i lost sleep, too. Which caused me to fall asleep that afternoon, which meant I was up late that night, and so on, Pat yourself on the back for getting that scene done. Good luck and type faster!

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