Lately, whenever I feel the need to write I get a headache—like, immediately. And more often than not that stops me in my tracks and I do something else instead. Preferably, something manual like the dishes, laundry, caring for my plants. Or I take my mind off things by reading and watching films with other writers’ stories. Which then gets me excited to work on my own projects… and the headache makes a comeback.
So today I dug a little deeper into why this was happening. What I came up with was a startling insight: I am afraid to go any further with the story. Not just one story. I have five manuscripts—novel projects—lying around, and they all have one thing in common: I stepped away when things were about to get dark.
Into the abyss
The prevailing opinion among writers is that stories need conflict, the more, the better. As a matter of fact I find myself drawn to stories with a lot of conflict myself. It is also common understanding that stories work best, if conflict intensifies throughout the plot until it becomes almost unbearable to finally culminate in a great big firework which relieves all the tension.
Needless to say, to achieve such an outcome you need to put your heroes through growing misery, making life harder on them every step of their way. I’ve heard writers say they delight in the dynamics of such scenes as the momentum gets their imagination to speed and releases all those endorphins when the excitement peaks.
Too bad, it doesn’t work that way for me. The more the plot thickens and the more the heroes get hurt and betrayed until they stand with their backs to the wall, the more I relate and find myself in a fight or flight state of mind. Don’t come too close now, I might bite!
So how am I supposed to put myself (and my readers) through such misery? What makes matters worse, in my own stories I don’t get to sit back and watch someone else build up the stress and finally unravel the mess. It is I who must further intensify the hardship and come up with a clever solution. And that’s where the headache sets in.
Making things ever worse is one thing. But finding a way out when everything should really be lost is on a whole different level.
Never trust an easy answer to a complex problem
As the saying goes, ask two lawyers get three opinions. Because if it were easy, there wouldn’t be controversy in the first place.
In real life, what’s good for one person might be bad for another and that’s not even taking into account the needs of third parties, the environment, future generations… In a globalized world things get really complicated really fast, and to demand a simple solution is probably going to add to the problem. Profound solutions come from constructive debate, taking into account as many conflicting aspects and points of view as possible with a sincere interest in the well-being of everyone and everything.
Unless of course your goal is world dominance and to hell with everyone else.
Now, in fiction we take real-life scenarios and blow them out of proportion for the sake of emphasizing a point. We don’t want fairness, we don’t want good-will on all sides, or else there wouldn’t be a story. We want our heroes to suffer and struggle with their decisions—in order to drive home the importance of the choices they make. The choices we make in real life.
Knowing good from bad
In their own life story, people tend to regard themselves as the hero, not the villain. The way they perceive the world, they are in the right. Which is why some may be hell-bent on shaping the world how they see fit, no matter the resistance they meet with.
A “good” story-book villain is never evil just because. Maybe he is evil because he can, but there should always be a reasoning, however ill-conceived it may seem to others.
On the other hand, modern literature and films prefer rather ambiguous figures for heroes. Flawed characters that allow for great inner and outer conflict and could drive a story on that alone. They desire one thing and know they shouldn’t. They hate what they need to use to get things done. What’s good for someone they love would spell disaster for someone they feel responsible for. An evil deed seems to be the only way to prevent an even greater evil. Who decides what’s good or bad?
As writers it is our privilege, to think moral or ethic dilemmas through from all different angles before we must reach a conclusion. One that preferably opens an unexpected and all the more relieving and gratifying way out, for our heroes as well as our audience.
Unless of course you’re writing horror and to hell with everyone.
In real life however, situations tend to be far more complicated than fictional worlds could ever be. With many more interests involved than we know of and dilemmas that can’t be solved without causing some parties severe damage. As individuals and even as larger communities we just can’t see all of what’s at stake.
When you begin a story, you take a real life scenario and transition it into a contrived world where you can safely explore any extremes your mind can conjure up. Now, the difficulty is how to transition back into real life at the end of the story. Personally, I find an ending most satisfying if I can take away an idea how to deal with real-life struggles. No matter how far-fetched the story world, we are probably going to take away something. So, as writers we better choose the resolve to our story’s dilemma carefully.
Be careful what you wish for
How do we determine which course our heroes should adopt? Which actions they should take? Which outcome do we even hope for? Finding an answer becomes increasingly difficult the more interests you need to take into account.
In real life, a single-minded course of action might well bring about the opposite of what we hoped to achieve in the long run. Because more factors are at play than we can know, and there is no such thing as control over all the details. Not even for the most powerful among us. So which path to choose?
When writing my heroes out of disaster, I usually find myself in need of an ethical compass. Now, everyone’s ethics is different, but for me there is one major indication to look for: from a range of possible paths to go down I ask myself which one is built on love. If I let my heroes take that route in the end, I can be sure that no matter the outcome it will feel satisfying because they gave it their best. And I believe that’s all anyone can ask.
There and back again
So this is my conclusion today. It started with a headache, but it’s gone now. I wrote a whole blog post about it—take that, writer’s block!
What I learned today may again become shrouded tomorrow, and I suspect this thought process never really ends. But there is always hope for another day. I can write with a headache and change my story later if I don’t like it. And if I let my headaches beat me down, and don’t get any writing done that day at all? Well, whatever, try again tomorrow.
One day I will understand why my head hurt, and I’ll be a little bit wiser for it. I may have never reached that point if my writing were smooth sailing all the time.
So maybe it’s all worth it?
What is your experience with writer’s block? Does it hit you hard? Is it something you’ve only heard rumors of?
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7 responses to “Give me a headache”
Wow…loved this treatise, confession, well thought out post on writing, writers , your dilemmas and the art and thought that goes into moving a story through conflict to a satisfying confusion. I found this fascinating Joey! and I love how you clearly explained, your process as well as your doubts and the trials of being true to your characters and story-line.. Your headache makes sense to me now; just when you are at this critical junction you feel the weight of the world you created riding on your shoulders..having to subject characters your have loved and developed to the tortures of conflict and the abyss.. I really enjoyed this and yes…*winks I read it to the end:)❤️
Oh my, thank you so much, Karima, I feel so comforted by your kind words! Yes, it is a struggle, and maybe it should be. Wouldn’t be fair to make my characters go through all that I throw at them and leave the scene unscathed, would it? Thank you for all your encouragement over the years. It really means a lot!
Hugs, Joey <3
My pleasure Joey and your are a very talented writer.. I look forward to reading your latest Hugs!!
Now you made me giddy with joy :)) Thank you <3
P.S. Your photo image is gorgeous!