writing life

Avoiding Intensity

Apologies for skipping the Friday post. I found out Thursday evening that I had an appointment for my COVID vaccine Friday morning, so I spent Friday morning driving across the metro area, waiting in traffic, and then getting the shot before driving in heavy traffic back across the metro area and then promptly collapsing. The drive was far worse than the shot itself. I ended up just having some soreness on my arm for a couple of days. It didn’t occur to me until later that I’d totally forgotten to post a blog.

One issue I’ve run into in the past year or so is that I’ve become very conflict-averse. I always have been, to some extent. I’m the weirdo who doesn’t necessarily want an emotionally intense reading or viewing experience. I worry far too much about the characters and get way too invested for me to be able to cope when really bad things happen to them. When I had my “hide behind the sofa” moments as a kid, it wasn’t generally because I was scared, but rather because things were so intense I couldn’t bear it. I still will occasionally flip ahead in a book if things are getting to be too much so I can see how it works out, and then I can go back and read the intense part without so much worry.

It’s not the big action scenes that are the problem. It’s more the emotional low points, what they call in romance writing “the black moment,” when it seems absolutely impossible for things to work out. A lot of the time, that may even come before the big action scene in the superhero movies, when all seems lost, but then they rally and fight back. The things that really get me include injustice—when the main character is framed or falsely accused, and especially if the system is corrupt, so he has nowhere to turn for help—or betrayal—when the people the hero should be able to count on turn on him. Anything that feels unfair will get to me. Physical jeopardy may bother me, but it’s the emotional jeopardy I find hardest to deal with.

But it got even worse in the past year because there was so much stress in real life that fictional stress was more than I could take. I watched a lot of documentaries because there’s not a lot of suspense there if you know the subject, and it’s less immediate. I rewatched and reread a lot of things because I’d already know a book was “safe,” and knowing how it came out made it easier to get through the somewhat suspenseful parts that are even in “safe” things (since you don’t get fiction without some conflict). I catch myself getting distracted when things I’m watching get intense. That’s when I check e-mail, Twitter, or the movie’s IMDB page.

Being conflict-averse makes writing a bit of a challenge. While I’m sure there are other readers like me who might be okay with low-stress reads, generally the books that stick in readers’ minds are those that make them feel something. There needs to be some intensity. I had to rewrite Case of the Curious Crystals a few times because I was in the middle of that book when the pandemic hit and I guess I just shut down. The first draft read like a user manual. I went back in and added emotions. Then I realized that nothing was at stake, so that took another rewrite.

I caught myself doing the same thing this week with the book I’m currently working on. There’s something that one character has been worried about the other character learning about him. He’s held back on telling her, hoping he can ease into it gently, and he’s not sure how she’ll respond. His hand gets forced, and he has to reveal this information in order to save them. And the way I wrote it going, she’s curious and asks questions, but she’s generally pretty cool about it. In the middle of the night last night it struck me that this was probably pretty anticlimactic. I don’t think I want it to be a case of him worrying too much and it working out fine. Eventually it will work out okay, but there needs to be a bit more friction at first. So, I’m going to remind myself that I know how it works out, so it’s okay for there to be some tension now, and I’ll rewrite it to make it more intense.

It probably won’t be gut-wrenching and won’t leave readers sobbing. I don’t write that kind of book. But I do want readers to worry enough about whether it might work out that they’re compelled to keep turning pages, and I want them to feel a bit bad for the characters.

One Response to “Avoiding Intensity”

  1. Melissa

    This is a problem I have too. Only mine are the embarrassing moments and the total non-communication screw-up moments where it all goes off the rails. The book I’m re-reading now I’ll skip part of a chapter because it’s so painful to watch the character go through the moment again. The book with Ethelinda is full of those moments for me too. Even though it is absolutely spot on for the characters I cringe.
    I either re-read, read authors I trust or read murder mysteries right now.


Leave a Reply