Guest Post: Wronging the Write

UZ’s guest posts continue.
My background in fantasy and the weird means that I often write about upsetting things; I’ve discussed some of these in the past with our illustrious host. When we write about wondrous things – that’s really our mandate in fantasy – often we write about scale. The fifty meter wingspan, the mile-high tower, the silence of a hundred million years. These are good things, and when we write fantasy and weird stuff, scale is important to express that *this*, whatever it may be, is something that people should really care about.
But I specialize in something else, things that are wrong, and unease has a scale all its own. It’s small, almost absent sometimes. The things that people don’t say, the quiet that is too quiet, the thing that’s in a different place and you’re not sure why. These are the little things that signify the big things when we’re implying.
Here is a quick exercise for the reader: Press your thumb and forefinger together, hard. Then, rock the two of them against each other. Bring your fingers near your ear as you do this, and listen to the grunchy sound that your flesh makes as it squashes back and forth. Here is a tiny thing, an ugly visceral detail of your life that you can enjoy at any time. It’s entertainingly unpleasant.
These are the kind of details we need to give the idea that something is wrong – small, uncomfortable and close to our hearts. The milk that smells weird, like something that it shouldn’t, even though it doesn’t smell bad exactly. The awkward hug, a slight misposition of the arms that feels like failure. The parent who stumbles over your name, when they’ve known you your entire life. Doubt, ambivalence, paralysis, guilt; paint a picture with these colours and it will linger painfully in the reader’s mind long after the ringing swords and atomic explosions fade away, because these are things that we’ve actually felt.
Often we read in a book that one character is betrayed by another, and this betrayal hurts “more than a sword cut”. As readers we can reasonably think to ourselves that being cut with a sword may well kill you, where emotional betrayal generally just upsets us, and so – even not having been cut with a sword ourselves – we would guess that the sword would probably hurt more in reality. The language is of limited use because we find ourselves wondering, and so the lie of it was insufficient.
Instead, we have to speak to the reader in a language they actually get, the small discomforts and confused feelings and lingering paralysis of real life, the awful little sound their flesh makes when something presses on it. Think of times when you hurt, a pain you can actually describe. Notice your own suffering when you are sick or injured, or when people hurt you. It doesn’t have to be big pain because the big pains are alien to many people. The little pains and doubts, the tiny agonies of everyday life are the ones that speak to everyone, because everyone hurts and everyone doubts.
So try this! Write about small ugly things that make you feel bad. These are the little ways that we tell the reader that something is terribly wrong – with a relationship, with the world, with a glass of milk. My suggestion would be the following:
Take a conversation that you have already written, or one that someone else has written. Make sure it is a normal, urbane conversation. Then, imagine that one of the people talking knows that something horrible is going to happen to them right after the conversation, but they can’t tell anyone. I leave the details up to the individual writer. Then, rewrite the conversation so that you communicate to the reader that the horrible thing is going to happen, without actually telling them. (Minor differences from the original in dialogue and word choice are of course allowed.)

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