Storyville: Love Instead of Death—Writing With Heart

9 comments

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 I’m still shopping).

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...

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.

Killing Throughout

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.

Other Examples

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Image of Come Closer
Author: Sara Gran
Price: $12.80
Publisher: Soho Press (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 176 pages
Image of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $13.56
Publisher: Vintage (1994)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of The Mist
Director: Frank Darabont
Starring: William Sadler, Chris Owen, Andre Braugher, Nathan Gamble, Toby Jones
Rating: R (Restricted)
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Christina Daumer's picture
Christina Daumer from Colorado, USA is reading Books to my son February 5, 2015 - 6:57am

Great point. Thank you for reminding me. I had just mentioed last month that I resolved to have no one die in my next piece.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 5, 2015 - 9:07am

right on.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault February 5, 2015 - 10:04am

Really interesting. Death is a big, universal thing, so it can become an easy theme. Pretty sure a lot of my ideas involve death. Great food for thought.

I guess Love is also a big, universal thing. At least the desire for it is. Maybe it's just harder to punch the reader in the stomach with love. 

Repo Kempt's picture
Repo Kempt from Halifax, Canada is reading Night Shift by Stephen King February 5, 2015 - 11:27am

I always look forward to a new Storyville column. This one made me chuckle because my novel-in-progress has death at the beginning and at the end. But no sex, so maybe it balances out! Hehe. I'll definitely take up this challenge next time I tackle some short fiction. Thanks, Richard!

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb February 5, 2015 - 11:41am

Authorial range is the name of the game! Great post.

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.

Honestly, I think I'd get the writing-DT's after trying a challenge like that. I do remember a friend of mine challenging me to write a story without swearing. I did it for my Arrest Us submission. I was twitching a little by the end of it, but it did make me think differently.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 5, 2015 - 2:10pm

lol...thanks everyone. it's difficult for sure.

JonathanC's picture
JonathanC from Ireland is reading a whole lot of stuff! always. February 6, 2015 - 4:56am

It's so strange, today I was talking to one of my friends about, admittedly a film and not a book, but in the end of it there was a death and I was saying that it could have been so much more powerful if they had written a different sort of ending. " A fate worse than death", as you say.

Cool point to highlight!

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 6, 2015 - 7:16pm

thanks, JA! for sure.

Brian Dunn's picture
Brian Dunn from Phoenix, AZ is reading multiple things February 25, 2015 - 3:28pm

Richard, thanks for tackling this topic.

I appreciate authors who aren't afraid to appear soft or sentimental. My own stories that deal primarily with feelings rather than sex or violence are the ones I'm most proud of.