Fürchte dich nicht

That’s German for “don’t be afraid,” as sung by the inimitable Mary Margaret O’Hara right here.

It’s also, in my opinion, one of the most valuable pieces of advice for writers. And I mean in regards to what you’re doing to your characters; the way you describe it; the stakes you introduce.

Don’t be afraid to go ape. Be disgusting. Be heartrending. Be repellant. Be difficult. In short: be original.

I do some beta reading from time to time, to see what other budding writers are coming up with and to coax them into beta reading for me. More than once, in these readings, I have thought something fabulously interesting had just happened … and turned out to be wrong.

Frexample: a man is trudging through the snow and comes across an unconscious girl, her wrists and ankles all bloody.

I think: ye Gods! She’s had her hands and feet cut off!

I keep reading: no, she’s just been tied up and had her wrists and ankles scratched by the rope.


Or again: a young woman is coerced into being adopted by a pair of rich muckety-mucks. I mistakenly think the muckety-mucks are her True Love’s parents, which will create a problem for their budding romance.

I re-read: no, I got my names mixed up. She’s being adopted by different muckety-mucks and her romance is still full speed ahead.


Here’s one more: a Water Elemental who hasn’t learned to control her powers is on the run. Under cover of night she slips into a village and sits by … the village well. It’s a large well. There’s a lot of water in it. It must sit on a big aquifer. -AND THEN- the evil emperor’s soldiers show up to drag her away!

I think: I cannot WAIT to see what sort of water monster she inadvertently summons from that well!

I keep reading: nope. She runs away.

Double drat.

Now listen: all these authors had other places their stories needed to go. The woman in the snow needed her hands. The young woman’s romance wasn’t her only fish to fry, not by a long shot, and the romance is the touch of human relief in the story. The Water Elemental’s story couldn’t afford for her to attract attention at that point (so the well was removed from the scene). All the outcomes I imagined are only things I wanted to see, and it’s no skin off the writers’ noses that they had other visions for their stories.

But you understand that all those awful, incredible, dramatic things would have made damn good reading? That’s because they would have Upped Stakes, and Upping Stakes is what you have to do. You have to stop being afraid of being TOO exciting, TOO problematic. You have to suck it up, buttercup, and make the bad thing happen, and deal with the fallout. That’s how great stories are written. I’ve written five books at this point, and I can promise you, pinky promise you, that the best ones are the ones that, when I realized what had to happen, made me say “oh, no. OH no,” and make a special trip to the liquor store.

Whereas some of the least interesting stories I’ve read are the ones where the author said, “but I don’t want to hurt my characters” or “I really don’t want to go there.” WHY NOT?!?!?!?! Why are we here?

My daughter is five years old. Just at the age when picture books are losing their charm, but finding a chapter book to hold her attention is a dicey proposition. I tried lots of old favorites–I won’t go through the list–but which book has finally enchanted her?

The Witches by Roald Dahl.

It’s a children’s book, of course. But it opens with an exhortation to children to BE CAREFUL, because the world is full of REAL WITCHES who will SQUELCH CHILDREN. This isn’t made up! This is real!

It goes on to describe bizarre disappearances, open sores on scalps, the smell of dog’s droppings, and missing thumbs. As I read, I wondered if I wasn’t setting myself up for a long night of comforting a distressed child.

But I wasn’t. She was rapt the whole time, and when I put the book down, she squealed for more. I told her we could read more tomorrow–so she’d better go to sleep to make tomorrow come faster.

And she did.

Up stakes, people. Help a parent get her kid to sleep. And strengthen your story in the process.


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