Beware the Ides of March

By nature, I’m not a plotter. When I try to outline, I get bored writing. I like approaching fiction with a general idea of where to start, who I’m puppeteering, and where they’re going to end up. How they get there, in my humble opinion, should be a damn difficult road that’s run through with a bunch of land mines, some really indelible pokey thorns to jab at exposed patches of flesh and hearts, and a bunch of forks that force them deeper into a dark forest where seeing what’s in front of them (much less what’s coming up behind, though they might feel it breathing down their backs) is near impossible. Oh, and I’ll take away their flashlight, their cellphone, and anything to defend themselves with just for giggles.

Then I let the characters react. I write it down, watching attentively as they dig themselves a few feet deeper; sometimes into their own graves. Don’t get me wrong. I love these characters, but the reason I do is because of their beauty and their suffering. Because at the end of the day you don’t only want to worry that they won’t make it, you want the gratification at the end when they do. Unless, of course, you believe the adage that “darkness prevails” when writing dark fiction; in which case, all bets are off.

Kids Aren’t Dumb

The really heroic ones find a way through whatever you throw at them, despite collecting mistakes like Foursquare badges. I should add that the characters I deal with, the teenagers especially, are remarkably self-aware to add another layer of difficulty — a level up. Smartphones. Google. Immediate access to information where a web search finds its way into the vocabulary as a verb. I’m sick to death of dumb kids fumbling around a dark house, popping open closets and walking straight into a psycho’s arms unaware. Change the rules. Let them think. Mess with them anyway.

They know the rules, afterall: you don’t split up, you don’t say “Hello?” or “Who’s there?” You do the smart thing. You back the hell out of the creepy house. You don’t look in the closet. You don’t open the glass casing that contains the allegedly demonic dolly.

You just put them in a situation where there are no other choices left, and you let the darkness come to them.

A Few Hard Truths

The result of this particular method is birthed from a couple of hard truths I like to resurrect from time to time when approaching the who and the how in the equation. I have four staples to build of off:

[one_sixth centered_text=”true” animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″][icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”large-2″ image=”icon-eye-open”] [/one_sixth] [five_sixths_last animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″]

Not everything is as it seems

People are fraught with problems. Characters moreso. There is a life sitting behind the story of every man, woman, and monster that extends beyond the pages of a book that influences how they act. Why they do the things they do. They’re a clockwork of issues. They lie. They are unreliable. They are indifferent or accepting or ignore the things in front of them. And you, dear writer, can orchestrate how everyone else responds because you know their backstories too. [/five_sixths_last] [one_sixth centered_text=”true” animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″][icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”large-2″ image=”icon-group”] [/one_sixth] [five_sixths_last animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″]

Trust No One

As above, there are the truths you can keep pressed against your chest like a deck of cards, laying out the hand one at a time. You will always know more than the reader, so feed them slowly, and don’t be afraid to bluff from time to time.[/five_sixths_last] [one_sixth centered_text=”true” animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″][icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”large-2″ image=”icon-tint”][/one_sixth] [five_sixths_last animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″]

Don’t pull your punches

If you’re going to splatter some blood, then you better know how it falls. I’m not huge on gore, usually. I like my horror low key; nice and subtle and unassuming, though if I need to talk about body decomposition in a pool of stagnant water, I will not shirk the details on what it’s like to grab that corpse’s hand to dredge them from the swamp; the skin slides right off the muscle. (It’s called “gloving.”) Do your homework, then leave some stains on the page that the reader can feel. Likewise, if you’re breaking hearts, give me desolation and despair. Gouge out the vital organ, and let me see how it breaks them down. People respond fabulously when subjected to severe trauma — emotional or otherwise. You’re doing it wrong if you’re not plumbing the depths to find that seed of darkness that takes root in the person reading.[/five_sixths_last] [one_sixth centered_text=”true” animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″][icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”large-2″ image=”icon-thumbs-down”] [/one_sixth] [five_sixths_last animation=”Fade In” delay=”150″]

Kill Your Darlings

Be brave, dear writer. This might hurt a bit, but sometimes, to appease the reading gods, you need to shed a little blood. Sometimes you need to let your children go (and sometimes, they come back.)[/five_sixths_last]

When the story starts to drag for some reason, the only formula that really seems to work for me is the following: Fuck something up.

Add a little conflict — internal, external, imagined — and you can get things rolling again. No one wants to read about characters who are dilly dallying around waiting for the tea to be poured. Someone needs to poison Aunt Gertrude’s teacup and then roll the body up in the carpet afterwards.

All this to say, on this day in particular, when the Ides come, you must realize that until they end, they’ve not gone.

How are you celebrating the Ides of March today? Do you have a strategy on setting up conflict? Let’s get tactical. Let me know in the comments.

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Swearing in Teen FictionIllustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.
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