Editing Challenge Day 25: Show Mercy

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

Like many readers, I was haunted by Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the awful tragedy of people leaving children locked in cars, resulting in their deaths. Weingarten explores many recent cases and comes to the thoughtful — and difficult — conclusion that this tragedy could happen to just about anyone, given the wrong collusion of certain circumstances. Smart, organized, loving parents can be guilty of this, just as lackadaisical and neglectful parents can. The article is absolutely heart-wrenching, so be prepared when you read.

Weingarten writes about how the introduction of a random element in life can result in some family’s world being shattered. If one day the other parent is taking a child to day care instead of according to the usual schedule, this can happen. And it got me thinking about all the near-misses that must occur as well. For every time a child is left to die in this horrible way, there are probably ten or a hundred times where it almost happens — and then it doesn’t. All of our lives are probably made up of these near-misses, and most of them we probably don’t even notice. When we do become aware of a near-miss, it’s a chance to reflect and to feel gratitude for how the universe has rolled the dice.

All this morbid talk today is a long way of saying that I think a near-miss in a story can be just as dramatic as a tragedy, and it might even feel more honest and real in your story. Many Alice Munro stories are built on this premise — a child falls into a pool, an animal escapes into the coyote-ridden forest, an aging father has a stroke. All of these stories could topple into the almost inevitable-seeming tragedy — and yet, they don’t always. The more realistic depiction of life is not this operatic bent toward tragedy, but rather that sometimes tragedies happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s our fault, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s our fault, and yet still, the universe is merciful.

So today, consider your ending, and consider showing mercy to your characters. It’s the compassionate choice, but it might also be the more emotionally honest choice. It lets both your character and your readers draw a breath and sigh with relief — but to also feel the wind of the near-miss on their necks.

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