I will never forget when my daughter, author Amanda L. Davis, once told me that she had come to a halt in her writing. She wasn’t sure where to take the story next. I said, “Make your hero suffer.” That simple advice broke the logjam and allowed her to continue. It also helped her make her story more gripping for readers and difficult to put down.
This piece of advice came to mind recently while I was watching a series called Extinct on BYU-TV. I turned it on because I was told that the story promotes solid family values and is free of sex and profanity. This much is certainly true. I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the series. It is wholesome and uplifting.
Yet, the story is not gripping.
Why? The writers allowed the main characters to overcome obstacles with too much ease. They encountered problems, to be sure, but they overcame them quickly. Simply put, the characters didn’t suffer enough.
For example, whenever the heroic characters became injured, they had water creatures called sparks that could repair any injury, so viewers never worried when any injury occurred. Whenever the characters needed help or to find someone, that help was always nearby or the person was easily found. On one occasion, two characters had to search for a settlement and hoped to find a little girl who might guide them. Lo and behold, they found the girl hiding in a cave in the midst of a vast territory. They didn’t follow a trail or a sound or smoke rising from a fire. They just stumbled upon her. How convenient is that?
I also watched a Netflix series called Stranger Things. In contrast, that series is filled with sexual immorality and excessive profanity, making it hard to enjoy. I cannot recommend it because it is so morally compromised.
Yet, the story is truly gripping.
Why? Because the characters suffer greatly, and their problems are much more difficult to solve. The obstacles are often pure torture and extend over several episodes, allowing viewers to worry about the characters. There are no easy answers, which strengthens the heroic and sacrificial aspects of the story.
A gripping story allows characters to suffer horrific pain, both physical and emotional. Solutions are not right around the corner. Readers need to worry. Anxiety is crucial. And when children suffer, as they do in Stranger Things, anxiety is heightened to the heavens. Anyone who has a shred of empathy will surely worry about these characters and hope for their escape from their tortures.
The bottom line: We need writers who can create a gripping story through empathetic suffering while maintaining wholesome content that will support moral foundations. That is certainly what I strive to do. Unfortunately, this combination is, for the most part, lacking in both mainstream and religious-oriented media.
Edit to add:
In a comment, one person asked about adding suffering too soon. And wouldn’t too much suffering frustrate readers? Great questions.
If you add suffering too soon, readers might not yet care about the character enough to find the events gripping. Start with situation ordeals that are more passive, such as a character stuck in a prison cell or always alone at home. This provokes sympathy for nearly anyone. Then give readers a reason to cheer for the character by showing positive attributes or a goal that is praiseworthy.
Once you have readers emotionally connected to the character, then you can heighten the suffering in more active ways that include both physical and emotional suffering.
Allow characters to have some victories over strife to show that escape is possible. Also show by maiming or killing off other characters that disaster is also possible, that the author isn’t afraid to inflict a character with permanent harm.
Readers need to hope for escape but also feel the danger.
What do you think? (I am not interested in a debate on the morality of Stranger Things, though I welcome comments on how this program makes its content gripping.)
Categories: Writing Tips