Skip to content

On Dramatic Action: Pulling My Punches

This month I’ve been talking about the books I read and the lessons I learned during a Category Fiction class last fall. One of the things I admire most about the structure of the course is the way the professor managed to turn profoundly bad books into brilliant educational opportunities.

So far I’ve had a lot to say about things I learned from books I really didn’t like, and it only gets worse. The next two books I want to discuss are the books I liked least out of the entire course.

Go Big, Or Go Home

They weren’t just technically flawed, stuttering or stumbling in pursuit of a compelling storyline. These two were awful. They were unpleasant to read. They made me hate the authors.

And yet, even as I was despising these books, they were actively pointing out to me what my own writing is missing. Along with the rest of the books in the course, these books helped teach me one of the most surprising and most valuable lessons I’ve learned this semester.

That lesson is (to borrow terminology popular among sports pundits):

Go big, or go home.

I have a bad habit in my writing of pulling my punches — whether they’re emotional, physical, or just narrative. I know why, too.

Tame Storytelling

I started out writing fantasy when I was ten years old, and then at some point when I was in college I found myself standing in front of a room full of engineers and business majors giving a class presentation about my semester project — a market analysis and submission package for my world of wizards and elves and dragons.

I made it about thirty seconds into my presentation before I began suffering an intense feeling of humiliation, and the following eighteen months of blind submissions and (perfectly merited, I now know) rejection letters only confirmed to me that I was writing about silly things.

So I abandoned fantasy, and switched to writing mainstream literature. It was grown-up, it was philosophical, and it was intensely believable. Everything that happened on the page made perfect sense. None of it was silly. None of it was melodramatic. None of it was big. (And, incidentally, none of it really got read, even by friends and family.)

I’ve left that series behind and moved on to better narratives, but I still shy away from intense drama. Not so these authors!

I suppose this goes right back to my first point, but just reading again reminded me what stories are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be big. They’re supposed to be filled with remarkable events. They’re supposed to startle and astonish and impress.

Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you about two books that have the nerve to do just that (even as they make you want to claw your eyeballs out with their miserable storytelling). Should be a fun read.

2 Responses to “On Dramatic Action: Pulling My Punches”

  1. Gods Tomorrow startles and astonishes and impresses. Apparently, you started learning not to pull your punches even before this Category Fiction class. 🙂

  2. Josh Unruh says:

    If you talk to me long enough, and it probably won’t be that long, you’ll hear me insist that I prefer spectacular failures (mine and other artists’) over bland successes.

    In other words, YES YES YES!!