Editing Challenge Day 15: Touch the Bear

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

I’ve made it my business to study one of my favorite writers of short stories, the incomparable Alice Munro. Rather than just sink into the stories with simple enjoyment, I’ve tried to examine them and wonder what makes them work. After all, Munro’s writing is not the flashiest or the most innovative; the events of her stories are often quiet; and the emotional drama going on is subtle. So why am I so utterly engrossed and delighted by her storytelling?

Munro has a number of cards in her hand, but one thing I’ve noticed again and again is that she is willing to make her character do the thing that we normally wouldn’t do. She often sets up situations in which a character comes right up to the edge of an uncomfortable moment. They are the kinds of events we do encounter in our own lives — whether to accept a marriage proposal, choosing to stay in school, choosing to parent or not, whether to be kind or not, whether to keep a secret or not. But whereas in real life, many of us would do the polite thing, the discrete thing, the prudent thing, and move on, Munro is willing to push her character into the discomfort. She has her character blurt out the thing no one will say, or get in the car with the stranger, or get off the train instead of riding on the way she is supposed to. These dangerous, uncomfortable choices are the stuff of great drama and riveting fiction.

So today, look back through your story and make sure you aren’t missing any opportunities for your character to take the risky choice. I think of this as my “touch the bear” advice ever since I wrote a story myself involving a character encountering a bear. In my first draft, I had the character look at the bear in the road, reflect a little on his relationship with his mother, and then move on. But in draft two, I suddenly realized that that wasn’t enough: I had to make my character go up and touch the bear. The bear was representing his longing for a powerful mother relationship in his life, and whereas I knew it was irrational and foolish to try to touch a wild animal, my character wasn’t me. He had to go up and touch that bear.

So what bear will you make your characters touch today?

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