Columns > Published on May 29th, 2019

How to Write Edgy Fiction Without Being Obnoxious

The first time you read an edgy piece of fiction, I mean actually edgy, in the way that it makes you think of humanity/the world/yourself in a new light — it changes you on the molecular level. It adds new neural connections in your brain. I mean, everything does, but you know after reading this fiction that nothing will ever be the same again. These are the kind of books that make you walk around in an excited crush for days afterward. It's like falling in love. You see things differently now, and the understanding of what is possible has changed. And if you're a writer too, the thought of you being able to write something that changes someone else so profoundly makes you excited.

You probably want to write things to make people feel the way that book made you feel.

Maybe you could even devote your entire writing career to that.  Some people love comfort food — the book equivalent of mashed potatoes and macaroni. But you want to be the culinary equivalent of ghost peppers, fried snickers, or the larva in the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal. You want to create new dishes that nobody has ever seen before. You want to excite the palette in a way that previously was not thought possible.

You want to be edgy.

Without becoming an Edgelord, of course, which is performative edginess. Faux edginess. You want to be a real, genuine, expander of consciousness. Builder of possibility mazes.

But edginess is difficult to pull off — and requires a depth and understanding of history, literature, and yourself. It's not about repeating what's been done before. It's about expanding it. By definition, edginess means going right to the edge. The edge of what?

The edge of our understanding. The abyss.

It means tipping your head forward so that you can actually feel the cold wind from the dark chasm blowing your hair back.

So how do you get right up to the edge of the abyss? I'll show you.

Be Well Read and Understand History

If you're going to go right to the edge in your fiction, you have to know where the edge is. That means understanding what's come before. We all build upon our influences so that we can construct something better. If you just rely on mainstream culture and popular movies to inform you of the world, you'll only be absorbing the most popular and cliche ideas, many that have already been written about hundreds of times.

You will have to read. A lot.

Edginess is difficult to pull off — and requires a depth and understanding of history, literature, and yourself.

Not just fiction, but history. Poetry. Philosophy. Science. Fiction does not just build upon the legacy of other fiction. In order to bring something fresh to the table, you need to pull not only from your favorite writers, but from the entire history and knowledge of humanity. Best to get started reading now, as you'll never catch up.

People think we are living in some of the weirdest, most brutal times in history right now, but they often lack context. It's estimated that 1 in 10 people died by murder in prehistoric times, compared to the 6 in 100,000 in modern America. There are things in the bible that make the Saw movies look tame, like when the Hebrews would smash the brains of babies out on rocks. Nero, a Roman emperor, killed his own mother, burned Christians alive, and among other things, castrated and married a young boy. The Marquis De Sade explored the depths of cruelty in sexual domination, both in reality and fiction. Dostoevsky explored the failings of the idea of the ubermench and nihilism itself in Crime and Punishment. Henrietta Lacks was a woman who had immortal cells. MK Ultra was a project conducted by the government to test acid on unwitting subjects for mind control. The Tuskegee Experiment was a horrific program of eugenics conducted in the United States.

You have to know where we came from to understand where we're going.

I would suggest at first reading widely. Reading impulsively. Reading in and outside of your favorite genres. Reading things that are both difficult and dense, and things that are easy for your eyes. But it is not enough to just read. You must trace the lineage of who we are as a species. It's not about reading as many books as possible for some kind of brownie points in the writing community. It's about building a map of humanity. And the more you read, the more you add to your map, and the better equipped you will be to write something that adds to the map, instead of repeating it.

Understand What You're Trying to Say

You have to understand what your edgy fiction is trying to say in order to get it to say anything. It's okay to start from the base premise of "I want to write transgressive/edgy fiction." Maybe you just want to write something as good as your favorite author. It's normal to want to do something visionary without really understanding what that is yet. But when you begin to write a story, you need to focus in on what your goals are. This will also inform your reading habits while you're writing said thing, and how you think about the world. It will also let you know if you've given yourself enough of a challenge and what your intended audience might look like.

In order to understand what you're trying to say, you need to ask yourself questions. And then you need to ask yourself questions about the questions. We're trying to get to the edge of human understanding here, so you'll have to Socratic-method yourself until you're sick to death of your own brain-voice. That means you keep asking yourself questions until you get to a question you can't answer right away.

That's when you know you've hit something real, or the beginning of it.

Do you want to shock people and frighten them? It's easy to do that in general. But if you want to write shocking and frightening fiction, you're competing with a huge canon, and your audience probably won't be your great aunt or the kid next door — it'll be seasoned horror and gore fans who are daring you to make them flinch. Are you up for the challenge, and have you read enough of the canon to know what's been done before?

Do you want to comment on the state of your country? Many famous books have been commentary on America and American culture, for instance, but what can you add that hasn't been said before? There are plenty of takes on how consumerism is bad, for instance, or how repressed the working class is. It's not that you can't tackle these topics, but it'll be more difficult to say something original.

Do you think it'd be really cool to write a book about say, serial killers? What interests you about them? What are you trying to say about serial killers? Are you trying to say that being a serial killer is good or bad? Are we supposed to empathize with the killer, or be disgusted with them?

And so on, and so forth. Continue on with this line of reasoning and questioning and wherever the implications may take you, until you have a cogent vision. You may not understand what you'll write exactly until you write it, but having at least a guideline and a path will help you keep your voice fresh, and not merely imitative.

Trust and Listen to your Subconscious

If the edge is the abyss, what is the abyss? The abyss is everything we don't understand. It is the limit of human understanding. As we learn, we build bridges that extend outward into the abyss. Once, we didn't understand how diseases worked. The origin of disease existed in the abyss. Now, we do understand. Our understanding expanded outwards. Fiction works in the same way. It can function as part of the bridge into the abyss, and oftentimes fiction can inform how we choose to act in reality.

Fiction changes the world often and every day. In many small ways. And sometimes, in very big ways,

But the abyss isn't just "out there." It's also inside of you. It's your subconsciousness. And it's from the subconsciousness that all ideas come from. In order to build a city, somebody had to dream it first. Everything that you see around you — every modern comfort, every street, every book, every movie — first originated in the human mind.

A perfectly crafted piece with beautiful style and elegant plot points and no real characters is not fiction. It is a landscape painting.

I once heard it explained that intellect cannot write a book. You could absorb whole libraries of knowledge and meticulously plot out your book using a "How to Plot a Bestseller" guide and it still might not be good. So what is missing in that equation? It is your essence. Your spirit. The conduit to the subconsciousness.

I said we had to touch the abyss. Luckily, it's easily accessible from anywhere if you know how to do it.

It might sound like mystical pseudo-nonsense, but have you ever sat there and tried to "force" yourself to come up with an idea? And how successful were you? Probably not very.

When did the ideas come to you? Suddenly, and often without warning? In the shower? While taking a walk? In the bus on the way to work?

That's because your subconscious takes input and is at work even when your intellect is not engaged. Intellect can point the way for your subconscious, but it can't do the work for it.  The subconsciousness is infinitely smarter than your conscious mind. It is calculating processes and data at high rates that would be impossible for your conscious mind to collate.

With practice, you can turn this game of waiting into more of a refined process. It takes time to learn how to listen to your own mind and connect with your subconsciousness. Start with a quiet place. Watch the thoughts that float up out of the murky dark. Practice targeted boredom — where you give yourself time in the shower or in bed without a phone. You can form a better relationship with your subconsciousness while writing, and start to trust your own instincts and impulses. Once you connect with your subconsciousness, the essence and uniqueness of you, you have a chance at writing something different.

Go Beyond the First Level Of Your Imagination

Think of your thoughts like the layers of water on a very deep pond. When trying to think of ideas for a story or solutions to a problem you have, the first thought you often have will be like the scum floating on the top layer of the pond, exposed to sunlight and dirt. Generally, if it takes you about twenty seconds to come up with something, it's been done before.  There's a good chance that out of the seven billion people on Earth, you were not the only one to think about this particular idea.

So you have to discard the first layer of thought, while working with your subconscious. Like peeling off the scum of the pond.

Then you get to the second layer. You're getting closer, but still working on that basic level.

It is on the fourth, fifth, or even sixth layer of ideas, in the cool dark water where  you begin to get to the edge. This is the space where new things exist, and your own unique essence can shine through the layers of cultural and social cliches.

Create Real Characters

Sure, this is probably a talking point in every "Writing 101" article or book you've ever seen. But I'm going to explain why this is particular to edgy fiction.

The abyss exists in relation to humanity. It is not an actual physical thing, but a reference point for our understanding. So if you're going to write edgy fiction, understanding the characters in relation to that is paramount. It is ultimately the only thing that matters. A perfectly crafted piece with beautiful style and elegant plot points and no real characters is not fiction. It is a landscape painting.

When you're trying to be transgressive, it can be easy to make characters who just go through the motions. If you want to shock people, you can easily have your protagonist pick up a knife out of nowhere and start stabbing his grandmother. But if the characters wasn't developed, and there was no prior set-up for such an action, it will ring cheap and hollow. Every time something like this happens, I can practically see the writer winking and grinning in the background. Yawn.

In order for the motion to matter, the character has to matter. They have to have a heart, dreams, goals, ambitions, and a personality that aligns with the events in the book. This will also keep people anchored in the story, even when terrible or shocking things happen. They may not be likable or sympathetic, but you still have to fully understand them and their actions.

By making characters that people can connect with, you really grind the knife into their hearts,. Metaphorically, I mean.

Don't Rely on Cultural Signifiers of Taboo Behavior

One last, quick tip. We have a lot of cultural signifiers for what's considered cool, edgy, or rebellious. This is often drinking, smoking, doing drugs, having sex, and certain types of criminal behavior. Someone who wants to appear rebellious will automatically be attracted to these things because they exist in our cultural schema of rebellion. But in that sense, they're not really rebellious, because they're expected of people who want to appear rebellious. (Makes sense?) If you want to show someone who is edgy, don't be lazy and rely on shortcuts like drinking whiskey or smoking cigarettes to do all the work for you. This has been done to death, by many excellent writers in time periods when this was actually shocking, and these days is probably the biggest tell of an amateur. Don't just write a sex scene and expect people who aren't as Puritanical to feel like it's shocking. Or even worse: open the book with a masturbation scene or someone pissing into a toilet. Everyone masturbates and urinates. You will have to go deeper than the accepted schema of rebellion to find true transgression.

Edgy fiction is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things to write. Not only must you create a great story, with style, great characters, and an engaging narrative — but you have to give people something they've probably never seen before. It requires practice, time, and knowledge to write edgy with elegance. Have fun with it, trust your brain, keep reading, and keep writing.

About the author

Autumn Christian is the author of Ecstatic Inferno, We are Wormwood, and The Crooked God Machine.

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