Writing: Is enough “worse” enough?

Every writer’s heard the advice, “Things can always get worse.”  But every once in a while, for me, enough is enough.  I don’t need to have my protagonist bloodied to a pulp before I turn the last page of a book.  Sure, he has to work to fix whatever problem whacked him out of kilter in the book’s first chapter.  He has to try and fail a few times, or else his problem only deserves a few pages.  But there are lots of ways to build tension in a story. If you don’t believe me, check out this article by Elizabeth Sims:  21 Fast Hacks to Fuel Your Story With Suspense.  http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/21-fast-hacks-to-fuel-your-story-with-suspense

Antagonists, opponents, competitors, and arguing love interests can add tension in scenes. Heck, even weather or nature can add stress.  The stakes can rise in more than one area of the protagonist’s life, so that he’s buried under an accumulation of problems, and he has to dig his way out before he can finally solve the book’s big problem.  Lately, some authors I admire have gone one step further, though. In their series, the protagonist has to get beat up, hurt, or bludgeoned more with each book.

I’ll use a mystery writer whom I enjoy as an example.  I won’t name names, but I read her because I enjoy her humor.  Okay, she has to kill somebody to make the story’s stakes serious enough, and then she has to hunt down the murderer, but she fills her books with eccentric characters and offbeat situations, and I chuckle as I read them.  Until I get near the end. And then she raises the stakes so that the almost amateur sleuth has to suffer enough to make readers feel like they got their money’s worth.  It’s been a while since I read the first book in the series, but I think the protagonist got roughed up a little before someone showed up, and she could save herself.  In the second book, she got beat up pretty badly at the end, and in the third book, she got shot.  I stopped reading.  What’s next?  Torture?

Who says that a protagonist has to suffer more at the end of each book in a series? Because I don’t like it. Some of my favorite urban fantasies do the same thing.  There’s always a big battle at the end of those books.  Two of my favorite heroines (in two separate series) got pounded pretty good before they won hard-fought victories at the end of their book ones. In books two,  they ended up in hospitals. In books three, bones got broken.  And they almost didn’t survive books four.  How much worse are things going to get?  I don’t need that kind of drama, but obviously, most readers must want it.  Not me.

What’s your opinion?  Does a trip to the ER or a near-death experience make for a better ending?  I know the protagonist has to face near impossible odds, but those can build as the story progresses.  I don’t need my protagonists crippled at the end of the book.  What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Writing: Is enough “worse” enough?

  1. I agree. I don’t always want to see the characters beaten to a pulp. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a straight-forward and enjoyable story unfold. I don’t know-call me simple but I don’t always want to go through angst with the characters. Real life can be hard enough so it can be refreshing to escape in an enjoyable read. Great post.

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  2. Escalting violence/injury on a protag with every book makes no sense. At some point, the only outcome is killing off the character. Guess it’s an easier solution that figuring out a BBM that works.

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  3. Hi Judith, I’m glad you found my article helpful, and thanks for sharing it with your followers. I write amateur-sleuth novels (and am hoping you’re not talking about my books here..) Both of my protagonists (Lillian Byrd and Rita Farmer) survive minor gunshot wounds as well as some other physical trauma, but I try to avoid gratuitous violence. I think you’re trying to get at the fact that inflicting pain on your protagonist can be, when overdone, a cheap attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

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    1. Sorry, I haven’t read your books, but I followed a link on twitter and read your post. Thought it was great, so shared it. Hope lots of people read it. It was great information. And you’re right. Every book needs tension and a big, black moment. I think lots of readers must like it when the big, black moment escalates from one book to the next, but I don’t need that. It can get to be too much for me.

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