This has been on my mind lately, as my latest WIP (okay…ALL my WIPs) combats a pretty tough topic. How do I define tough topics? Well, to me it’s all the things we don’t like to think about, but hear about on a daily basis. Abuse, rape, childhood obesity, incest, a child’s passing (particularly if foul play is involved), mass shootings, murder/suicides, bullying, and whatever else makes you uncomfortable.
Even if we don’t like to think about them, these things happen. For us as writers, they can make for some intense plots and intriguing characters when presented the right way. But it’s a risky move that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here are some tips on how to walk the line between inappropriate and thought-provoking.
Know the boundaries of your genre and your audience.
Not everything goes in every genre, and what is acceptable today may not be acceptable tomorrow. I was once rejected by a romance publisher because my heroine was involved in an extramarital affair. Call it women’s fiction, and you’re more likely to get some bites. The same goes for your target audience. It wasn’t so long ago that having sex or drug use in a book intended for teens was taboo, so know your limits and re-evaluate them often.
Lighten it up, but don’t be too light.
Some topics are pretty heavy, so be sure to relieve your readers’ emotions at points throughout your story. One way is to add a secondary character that’s a little corky (some writers call this the jester). His/her main purpose in the novel is to lighten the mood, but this character can also play a role in the plot.
Be careful not to make it too airy, however. Jokes and silliness can easily look like poking fun if you’re not careful. I walked that line in my last manuscript with a mentally ill main character. His sickness, by nature, made him corky, so I had to be sure I wasn’t discrediting the seriousness of it with his actions.
Go All In
Don’t breeze past the hard stuff. If you’re going to tackle a tough topic, then do it. All in. No holds barred. Otherwise, your reader may feel cheated, and your character won’t feel real.
The hardest scene I’ve ever had to write was a flashback to when my M.C. found his young infant dead. As a mom, it KILLED me to write this. But I knew I had to and I knew I had to do it well, otherwise the gravity of the situation wouldn’t be felt.
“Happy” is a relative term.
This, to me, is the problem with happily-ever-afters. Sometimes, things just don’t end happily. Sometimes, redemption and growth is all you can hope to get from a story. It’s never going to be rosy and perfect for a mother who has lost a child, because she doesn’t have her child. The goal shouldn’t be to make her happy…the goal should be to grow her into a person that can live her life despite her incredible loss.
Let your readers decide how they feel about the topic.
This one can be hard, particularly if you feel strongly about an issue. Readers don’t want to be told how they should feel. They want to see all the sides and form their own opinion. You can certainly lead them to a path, but make sure they’re the ones who choose to step on it. Otherwise, you may lose them.
Remember, no matter how careful you are or how hard you try, someone is still bound to get offended or decide not to buy your book.
Same goes for agents and editors. I once queried an agent who rejected me because she couldn’t bring herself to read about a child dying. Doesn’t mean I didn’t present it right, or that it wasn’t a great book. It just meant that this particular agent, for whatever reason, couldn’t read about that topic. Perhaps she had been through something similar, or was pregnant at the time. On the flip side, maybe your book will convince a parent to spend less time at work and more time with their child.
Bottom line, tough topics are harder to write and harder to get published, but the payoff can be huge if it’s done right. Hopefully these suggestions will get you on the path to making it great.
What are some other strategies that have worked for you?