Storyville: Love Instead of Death—Writing With Heart
Now, I’ll be the first person to say that I quite often write about death. I kill off a lot of people in my stories and novels—mothers dying of heartbreak, fathers seeking revenge, children, animals—you name it. There is violence in a lot of my writing. But, does that mean it has to be there, do we have to kill to have impact? Can we replace death with love, tragedy with hope? We can. And I think if you take on the challenge that I also accepted, while in my MFA program, to not end with death, to not kill off people to garner sympathy, to get rid of the crutch of violence—then you might be surprised at what happens, how new doors (and markets) are opened.
My MFA Challenge
I got my MFA at Murray State University, and for the bulk of my time there, I studied under Pulitzer-nominated author, Dale Ray Phillips. We worked only on short stories. When I came to him, I was halfway done with my novel, Disintegration (out this May with Random House Alibi) but he wanted to focus on short fiction. He told me to stop relying on the crutches I had, the gimmicks I used. He said to ease up on the sex, to not have it be so dominant. He said no more twist endings. And he said, no more dead bodies. He issued a challenge, gave me an ultimatum, and you know what I did? I said yes. He was (and still is) an Encyclopedia of short story knowledge, and has published in The Atlantic, GQ, Ploughshares, and Harper’s as well as the Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South: The Year's Best anthologies. I thought I could learn a lot from him—and I did.
What I realized, ultimately, was that he was right. When I took out most of the hot sex, when I no longer relied upon twists, when I didn’t kill anybody, what was left? I had to reinvent myself, and study what really mattered about short story writing. I wrote about a father and his son, and how they disconnected after a divorce, how the boy built a rocket out of Tinkertoys, and somehow launched it, flying it to the moon (“Tinkering With the Moon,” in Gargoyle magazine). I wrote about a mother and son bonding over breaking the rules, camping out in their dining room, filling their living room with sand (“Garage Sales,” in Midwestern Gothic). I wrote about a husband and wife who thrived on paranoia, until the moment in time when they went too far, the games they played destroying their love, perception becoming reality (“Chasing Ghosts,” in Cemetery Dance). I wrote about a father who sees his daughter come of age, not so innocent any longer, realizing that he can’t control her, and never really could (“Sugar and Spice,” in the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography’s Weekender). And I wrote about a son realizing that his father isn’t as cold and distant as he once thought, and how he found a way to forgive him, to understand his father for who he was, and to accept him, warts and all (“Moving Heavy Objects,” which ended up online at storySouth).
It was tough, I won’t lie—I struggled to write without relying on violence and death, so often the drama of murder, suicide, and vengeance an easy faucet to tap. But when I came out the other side, I realized that I now had new tools on my belt, no longer simply a hammer, for bludgeoning, or a knife, for cutting, but more subtle weapons—like an adjustable socket wrench for increasing the tension, or a Kolinsky sable-hair brush, for painting fine details, and adding layers of depth.
I had to strip the story down to the bare bones and really look at my conflict and resolution, my plot, my characters and how they were revealed, the setting, the theme and mood—all of the aspects that I now teach in my classes. And in time, I think those lessons, applied to everything I write now—from gritty neo-noir to that violent horror I love to pen, from dark magical realism to thoughtful literary stories—benefits from that depth, that range of emotion, those nuances, hints, insights, and revelations.
And I can tell you that my two recent novels, Disintegration and The Breaker, both have more optimistic endings than originally written, not the devastation and bleakness that I might have once written. Even my most recent short story, “The Offering on the Hill,” it ends with tragedy, but also with a future, some hope.
Let me give you some examples of when and where you can tweak your writing.
Opening with Death
Look at how you open your stories. Obviously, if there’s a post-apocalyptic setting, there is going to be death, but what you choose to focus on, what you show, that will set the tone. I know we often start our stories in medias res (Latin for “into the middle”) but that doesn’t have to mean death. We often look at these inciting incidents, these tipping points, crossroads where a decision has to be made, a point in time after which things will never be the same, but it doesn’t have to be a suicidal son, a wife murdered, or revenge played out in a dark alley, the criminal caught and snuffed out. Yes, I understand in horror and crime quite often there is murder, there is death, but it doesn’t always have to be death—there are so many other shades of gray, places to sit and wonder, tensions to create. A new obsession that starts with love could turn into something darker. Reinventing oneself in a new world, on a new planet, that can all start with hope, not death. Instead of a child lost, through abortion or just chance, perhaps the idea of family, what that might look like, and how that might change an individual, for better or worse, could be entertaining.
Ending with Death
This is probably even more common, the end of the story, that climax we’re all looking for, the resolution, so often death. But what’s the saying, “a fate worse than death”? What could that look like? If you’ve seen the end of Stephen King’s film The Mist, then you know what I’m talking about. In my literary stories mentioned above, what were my endings? The boy launches a rocket to reunite with his father; a mother and son sit at a Ouija board and wonder if they’ll ever be happy; a couple makes a decision about how to move forward, or not; a father realizes he’s done all that he can do to raise his daughter right, and it’s up to her now, to make the right choices in life—or not; and a son sees his father for who he is, and realizes that’s okay—nobody’s perfect. The way these changes, these resolutions, these epiphanies come to light, they should have power and impact, but in this conversation—no death.
Another way to edit your writing is to see how many times you kill somebody as a way to solve a problem, to advance the plot, to move through a situation. Is it needed? Is it essential? I ask the same things about graphic sex. I write it, yes I do, and I enjoy it, but it has to be important, part of the story, the characters, and the plot. Don’t kill because it’s easy. I challenge YOU to go back through a story that isn’t working for you, and look for the death—what if it was something else, how would that change your story? What might that look like? It might take some strange turns.
Outside of my own writing, I wanted to list a few of my favorite novels and stories to show that it’s very possible to write compelling, dark fiction, and not resort to death.
SPOILER ALERT – Come Closer, “Puppy,” and “Lawns”
(I’ve linked to the stories, where possible, and the novel, so go read them first if you don’t want them to be spoiled here. I’ll try to give away as little as possible. For “Lawns,” it’s not online that I can find, but buy the Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories anthology anyway—it’s a MUST OWN collection.)
Come Closer by Sara Gran is a novel about possession, a demon, and I think you have to call it horror, although there is very little, if any, violence, and nobody dies. It’s such a subtle terror, this tale, told gently over time, the evil slipping in until it’s far too late to change anything. The way the story ends is with our protagonist not dead, but surrendering to the demon, becoming hers, and admitting to herself that it was all she ever wanted—to not be alone, to be loved. It’s chilling, powerful, and psychologically devastating.
“Puppy,” by George Saunders is one of my favorite stories ever. We see two different perspectives by two different mothers and how they raise their children, one rich, and one poor. The way that Saunders shows the two different parents, the way they raise their kids, and the love they show them (or don’t show them) is brilliantly told. We judge along with both women, both ways, and the final words, the final scene, about a boy with disabilities, chained to a tree, is hard to witness. But then again, you can almost understand why she does it, how much she loves her child, with the highway looming nearby, him running off all the time, certain death just waiting to descend. The boy is happy, and alive, and that’s all that matters to her. The final words: “Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”
“Lawns,” by Mona Simpson, it’s a devastating story of abuse, that catches you BAM in the middle of the story, you never see it coming. It’s about a girl who simply wants to fit in, and be like everyone else. She works in the mailroom, and has a boyfriend—but she steals. She lies. She has secrets, it seems. And how that plays out, it’s so powerful, without resorting to cheap tricks, vulgarities, and violence. There is hope at the end, and love left in the heart of a damaged girl, that can be shared at some point in the future.
What these three stories do—and hopefully my own stories as well, that I mentioned earlier—is echo after you’re done reading, continue to resonate out into the universe, for you to chew on, to digest, and consider long after the story is over.
There are many ways to write a short story, a dark story, a horror story, any fiction you like, without excessive violence, without death. Take a moment to challenge yourself, and see if you can write a story without those elements, replacing hate with love, death with birth (or rediscovery), violence with peace. Think about the colors you use, the emotions, the settings—where can you let the light in, where can you paint a brighter picture, while still retaining your voice? I don’t mean melodramatic, I mean real—true feelings on the page that gush forth from your own experiences, lay it all bare, expose yourself, take that chance, risk it, and tell the world you have a heart—that you love, and have lost; that you love, and have been ignored; that you love—and have been loved back. See what happens.
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