Furry Writers' Guild Forum

A tough read

We all know that stories need conflict. Characters have to overcome obstacles and difficulties and deal with unfairness. Bad things happen to good characters. Other characters are unreasonable, manipulative, and evil. These things are important elements in making a story a satisfying read. And as a writer, sometimes you have to be willing to put your favorite protagonists through the wringer.

But is this true only to a point? Is it possible to have too much? People read for relaxation and enjoyment, as an escape from other things, and if what they’re reading is too difficult on them, too gut-wrenching, hard to get through. I would term such a story a “tough read”.

One such book for me was Dark Nadir, the fifth installment of the Sholan Alliance series. I had nearly forgotten how that book left me feeling until I recently finished another book fitting that description. I’m not sure if I should mention the title or the author since he is a guild member who likely follows these forums.

As with all things, the level of conflict a reader wants in a story very much depends on, well, that reader. It also, at least for me, depends greatly on what i’m feeling like at that particular point… For example, the political situation we find ourselves in at the moment means that my needs for conflict in what i read is… rather drastically lowered compared to what it might sometimes be.

So, one person’s gut-wrenchingly terrible put-down-the-book situation is another person’s terribly exciting edge of the seat can’t-stop-reading situation, and conversely one person’s falling asleep level boredom is another person’s page turning flow of loveliness. In other words, i think that if you think something was as terrifyingly horrible as Dark Nadir, and bad enough that you had trouble getting through it, this may well be a shining endorsement to some people. It would not be entirely surprising if the person who wrote this unnamed piece that you refer to were to be thrilled to hear themselves being compared to something like that.

My grandfather once told me that the factories paint some cars red and some green for a reason. They’re functionally identical, but there are people out there who won’t be caught dead in a green car, and vice-versa, for no intellectually-justifiable reason at all.

In other words, there just ain’t no accounting for taste; people like what they like, and they themselves often don’t understand why. Me, I lean about 90% towards the “grind 'em up” end of the spectrum, and usually can’t even maintain interest in material that doesn’t go there. Then, you also have to consider that in Real Life I’ve–

  1. Had a large knife held to my throat by a madman

  2. Watched a fireman weep his eyes out just after failing to talk a young woman out of jumping from a very nasty bridge.

  3. Had a coworker earnestly explain to me that if he brought a gun to work, I’d be fine. Just walk out out quietly, he said. I was one of the few he wasn’t in the least angry with.

  4. Had another coworker give me what was meant to be her last message on earth after taking a bottle of pills. And then was yelled at by a supervisor immediately after for shutting down production so that I could hear her slurred words over a static-filled line while trying to persuade her to call an ambulance. (He got the biggest earful I’ve ever given anyone in my life. I nearly attacked him.)

  5. Was kidnapped at the age of four-- there was a high-speed chase, shots were fired, and I remember it.

  6. Listened to an eleven year old boy beg for his mother after being soaked with gasoline and deliberately lit on fire by a “friend”.

After living through all this stuff-- and considerably more I’m not going into-- well… Boyfriend problems and the like seem pretty tame nowadays. Indeed, “lightweight” stuff has great difficulty (unless exceptionally well-written) even holding my attention anymore. I haven’t been able to sit through a thirty-minute sit-com in decades without grimacing and wriggling in my seat, and it’s no wonder that my fave films include The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Cowboys. What I write tends to be even darker than those.

This isn’t to say that I think my tortured tastes are in any way superior. Just that I’ve led an “interesting” life, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the scarring shows. Stephen King, I understand, has led an “interesting” life as well. Red cars for some, green for others. It takes all kinds to make a world.

I think what readers dislike is what we see as cheating or a lack of fair play: a sudden change in mood, or an event that’s out of character with the tone of the book so far. If we know it’s gonna be a tough read, we roll with it; if it’s all light comedy and suddenly there’s an appalling event, we’ve had the rug pulled from under us. (I would name names, but that would be massive spoiler territory).

There’s a sense, also, that if a character has suffered THAT much, we ought to see them at peace. There’s a point at which you know they will make it because it just wouldn’t be fair otherwise, given the amount of detail we’ve had of their awful pain and predicament.