Breaking Out The Hard Stuff: Writing The Parts You Really Don’t Want To

No one ever promised you ‘easy’.

It’s a myth that writing always feels good. Sometimes it’s hard, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is of course not knowing what to write next, or not knowing how. But I’m here today to address the lesser-known but still powerful type of hard: emotionally difficult.

Case in point: the other day I was working on a scene that honestly made me uncomfortable. It was about a rapist justifying his own actions to himself. The whole thing left me feeling like I’d just taken a running leap into an open sewage pit.

I didn’t want to write it. I don’t even know if that particular scene will make it into the final cut. But I needed to know how he would see it, because of course very few people ever see themselves as the Bad Guy*, so that I knew how he would act later. Because how he acts later is instrumental to how the main character sees him, and makes a decision regarding him. There are serious consequences to his action, and I needed to know how he would accept—or, in this case, not accept—these consequences.

Still, that was a hard 1,000 words. It took me damn near all afternoon, when normally I’d crank out that many words in an hour and then get a cookie. I wanted to stop, not because the words weren’t coming, but because when they were I didn’t want them to. I spent half the afternoon writing a couple of sentences, getting weirded out, and walking away for ten minutes or so before coming back. Because, distasteful as I found it, it needed to be written.

So I wrote it, and felt dirty all over when I was done.

But yesterday I opened it up again and read it over, and it turns out that scene is exactly what it needs to be. Anyone else reading it will come away feeling the same way I did. Which, considering what we’re discussing, is the idea.

This comes back to that old Stephen King quotation that I bandy about every now and then:

“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

You can’t leave the hard stuff out and write only the pieces you want. Because there’s gold in them there hills, if you’ve got the guts to make the climb and dig it out. It won’t be nice, and it won’t be easy. But whoever said art has to be either was a fucking liar.

*Though he is. No worries about that.

The Power Of Hate: Making Monsters

You wanna get a drink after we’re done burning this place down?

The opposite of the hero is not the villain*. It is the monster.

The hero and the villain are often flip sides of the same coin. One dark and one light, they nevertheless have a connection. A common background, a common cause, a shared set of ideals…the villain has something of the hero’s, just twisted.

The monster, however, is a different beast altogether. They can sometimes be the villain, but not always; sometimes they’re an associate or a secondary villain, sometimes they’re a henchman** who lurks in the corner, exuding menace like Axe Body Spray at a junior high dance. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they are the one who does the unthinkable: sets fire to the house with the kids still inside, butchers the village even after they collected the taxes, lets the virulent toxin loose in the air recycling systems of the old folk’s space station. The monster goes toward evil—and then goes a step further.

If you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie where there was a bad guy…and then the guy that you really hated, you’ve met the monster.

Sometimes the villain and the monster are the same person. One memorable Stephen King book I read had the villain, very early on in the book, beat a dog to death because it tore his pants. It was a horrifying act, clearly defining that man as both the villain and a monster. Heroes are often said to have a ‘Save the Cat’ moment—the point in the story where they, literally or figuratively, save a cat from a burning building because they’re the hero, god damn it. Monsters can have the opposite: a ‘Kick the Cat’ moment. Or, in this case, kick the dog. The point where they hurt someone because they can.

To take a pop culture reference: in the Harry Potter series***, Voldemort is the villain, hands down. But Bellatrix Lestrange is the monster. [Spoilers coming, though if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies by now, I doubt you’re going to, so quit your fucking complaining.] She kills Sirius, tortures Hermione, and is not only responsible for the worst crime of the entire series, but gloats about it. The characters fear Voldemort; they hate Bellatrix.

And that’s the point of the monster: to make us hate. It’s an emotional investment in the story. Just like the characters we love, the ones we hate draw us in. Some villains we can understand, or even empathize with, despite their actions. But not these guys. We just want them to die. Or, at the very least, be confined to the deepest, darkest prison imaginable with no hope of parole. They become the lightning rod for our desire for revenge and we want to see them go the fuck down.

Even better: because of their nature, we can safely hate them. They have no hope of redemption. There is no saving the monsters.

Nor does there need to be. Because there’s nothing that gets your audience going like the character they love to hate.

*Or not always. Read the rest of the post, ding bat.
**Women are significantly underrepresented in the henching fields.
***Using this one because I’m reading it again.