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Why Write Screwed Up Stuff?

30 January, 2013


I like reading quotes about writing. Another writer’s view can work magic, providing a new perspective.

Nancy Kress describes the cornerstone for writing fiction as—

Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.

What does she mean?

When you’re drafting, it’s easy to feel you are drowning in details—the arc of the story, beats, characters, scenes.  Kress’s quote reminds us that the basis of most stories is a problem, and writing choices flow from that.

A problem means something is awry and there are consequences in putting it right. The Slap, a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, begins with friends enjoying a barbecue. The screw-up event—an adult guest slapping a  misbehaving three-year-old—changes the characters’ lives forever.

Genre fiction standardises the problem and how it is resolved:

  • Crime fiction works because a  complicated crime keeps the sleuth hunting for information to solve it.
  • Romance lit relies on a misunderstanding between two main characters, which starts them on a rocky path. The screw-up, usually a misperception, is resolved and the two characters are united.
  • Fairy tales often start with a problem that reverses at the story’s end.  Cinderella’s problem is a cruel stepmother, who gets her comeuppance. Hunger leads Jack to market, where the magic beans he gets lead to his becoming rich,  never to be hungry again.
  • Fantasy fiction often focuses on a mega screw-up, which sets the characters on a major quest to save a people, a world.

There are degrees of screw-up. The problem can be monumental, e.g.,  murder or international intrigue or crime. Or, it can be minor, closer to home—an obstructive person, a bad choice, a personality defect.  In the hands of a skilled writer, even a minor problem as the basis of a story makes compelling reading.

Even if  the screw-up is ignored by the characters, the important fact is that it disturbs the balance of life in some way. Readers perceive this and want resolution.

When I read for pleasure,  I use the Page 100 Test. If I reach page 100 and am not engaged with the story, I bail out. Sometimes I  stop reading because I don’t care about the characters or because the writer’s style doesn’t connect with me.  But mainly I don’t continue when I cannot work out what  is driving the story. Nothing and no one appears to be at risk; nothing is imbalanced.

When you are drafting, at some point it can help  to ask yourself, ‘What’s screwed up in my story?’ Your answer can help you decide what to highlight, in terms of what happens, how and when, and what to delete as inconsequential.

Identifying the foundation problem can also help you assess elements to do with the ending. How will things pan out? Is the ending going to be positive or negative—what works best?  Do all the loose threads need to be tied up? Or is there an advantage to leaving some story elements unresolved?


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