A Few Thoughts on the Nature of Earned Risk in Fiction

\      Sky diving in Dakar with Captain Jeannec Raphoz, 1976        © Dr Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons 

Let’s talk about risk.  Specifically, the lack of and misuse of risk in the construction of fiction.   When an editor rejects your work and sends you a note that says something like “The story is well put together, but it feels too neat” or “There’s something missing” or “I feel like I’ve read this story before,” they’re talking about a lack of risk.  In a successful story, readers sink down into the narrative and move moment to moment with the characters.  What compels them forward is often the frisson created by the unexpected.  Understand this: when a character behaves in a natural but unexpected way, that’s risky.  When you make a narrative decision that doesn’t conform to convention, that’s risky.  When you make stylistic or structural or voice decisions that feel fresh or that use an old technique in a new context, that’s damn risky.

These risks are the life-blood of fiction.  If you risk nothing, you bore your reader.  Every time you give your reader a little goose from the unexpected, you risk their abandoning your story because it doesn’t conform to expectations.  But readers don’t want you to conform.  They want you to hint at the conformity that makes them comfortable before abandoning it in favor of innovation that invests them in the world of your story.

Unearned risk is as bad as no risk at all. A story that takes risks that aren’t mandated by the core of the story irritates the reader.  Either way, you’re leaving your reader dissatisfied.  Stylistic, structural decisions have to be in service to the content of the story.  I don’t care about the voice trick you developed unless it leads to the heart of the narrative.  Characters who behave in risky ways just to be risky are marked with the heavy hand of a writer intent on shuffling characters around a board rather than letting them live organically within the world of the story.  Going to fracture your timeline?  Great, but you better have a reason for doing it.

The best way to learn how to earn the risks you take is to read the work of writers who take chances for a reason, and emulate them.  I’m not advocating the theft of their specific risks.  This leads to a world where there are a million uninteresting clones of David Foster Wallace.  I’m advocating copying the functionality of what they do.  I’m re-reading Adam Johnson’s masterful novel The Orphan Master’s Son. Halfway through the book, he changes the voice, structure, and focus of his narrative.  In the hands of a lesser writer, that shift would be hokey and distracting.  It would feel like Johnson broke the contract established by the first half of the book.  But the author earns that risk by making the shift reflect not just the thematic work he does in the novel but also the inner lives of the characters.

Great writers are honest to who their characters are and to the world they live in, and they take huge risks so that they can remain honest to those characters and to their stories because here’s the thing: in our real lives, we risk something everyday.  We hurtle around cities in little metal boxes, we flirt with strangers, we dance even though we don’t know how, we risk death and pain and embarrassment and loss and failure every single day of our lives.  Trying to be true to that basic truth of humanity isn’t the worst idea when sitting down to write a story.

— Christopher Lowe, assistant fiction editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal

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