All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Finding the Pain Point

Any semi-regular reader of these posts will know that often I recommend writing about things to which you are emotionally sensitive. I have mentioned before some of the techniques I use to approach those subjects in my own writing as well. In, "Poking the Painful Places," I introduced everyone to my alter-ego, Tom, who is my stand-in when I want to write about horrible things that I've experienced but just can't talk about directly. Tom's taken a beating in the past, and likely has more beatings coming his way. However, he can handle it - he is literally written to handle it. He feels the pain, and I continue to write.

This time, though, I am going to approach this from a different angle. Instead of writing about the things that hurt us, what happens when we write about things that the reader might be sensitive to? How do we address something so sensitive - other peoples' pain? This kind of writing is difficult, mostly because even if we put poor old Tom through that wringer, it's the reader who could really be shaken. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, so let's look at it a little deeper.

Now, any writing about basically any deadly sin or major social taboo is going to be offensive to some people - that's the price of writing about these subjects. American Psycho went very aggressively into the mind of a psychopath, and the ensuing mayhem in that book was quite disturbing to some. Stephen King touches upon many, many horrifying subjects in his works, and in that regard, certain people avoid his writing. However, from a writing point of view (rather than genre perspective), this is strong, effective writing. So is there really a way to be too offensive for the mainstream reader?

Well, let's clear away a few givens. If you read a horror novel, you will likely experience fear. Ghost stories are meant to scare you, stories about atrocities should horrify you. What usually makes this work is when the writer doesn't throw around a bunch of shock events, but rather focuses on points that will discomfort the reader on a personal level. The writer seeks to bring in enough reality and relatability to the character or situation to make the fictitious seems plausible, even a little too possible. The writing should find those little details and shroud the reader with them, leaving them no other alternative but to live in that world.

Think of it this way. Let's look at a typical horror story about a serial killer terrorizing a town. Easy enough - you have suspects, victims, investigation, etc. Now, the easy scare would be to get into vivid, brutal detail about the victims, their torture, and their brutalized bodies. That's gross horror, but does that touch the reader's sensitive spot? Maybe if they're squeamish about blood, but it's probably not too effective for a 300-page book. What strikes closer to the heart could be the kinds of victims. The child-killer is a commonly-used idea because that pokes at a reader's worst fears. For other factors, maybe there is evidence suggesting the killer could be someone well-known in town - a teacher, a beloved crossing guard, or that nice guy down the street who gives out the big candy bars during Halloween. Uncertainty and suspicion become the pressure points there. What if things get really scary because the evidence starts pointing at the character the readers really care about. That fear that the nicest person around could be such a monster - that gets the reader edgy, and an edgy reader will keep on reading.

In well-written scary novels, most of the violence is implied, inferred, or only referenced indirectly, because that vagueness plays upon the imagination of the reader, which is far more imaginative than just a package of words. A writer doesn't have to be excessively violent or graphic if they have control of the reader's fears. They just need to poke the pain points, and the reader does the rest.              

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