Writing Tips: The Controversial Aspects Of  Story Design 2
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Writing Tips: The Controversial Aspects Of Story Design 2

By Charles Opara


If you missed Part 1, Click To Read. Part 2 can be found HERE

Stories are powerful tools for teaching and correcting, for pointing out the wrongs in society, for addressing issues that are difficult to speak about. Writers are people who are able to look at subject matters from different shades, able to explore different themes or contexts of the same idea, sometimes with moralizing results.


A story’s moral argument and thematic statement may impress upon us positively. And even if it doesn’t—perhaps it’s an honest portrayal of a character written from his POV—we may see ourselves in such ‘nasties’ and want to change, like in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.


I once wrote a story that included a scene where a character made a racist remark about basketball to his son and posted it to my critique group. Two critiques I got expressed their displeasure with that aspect of the story; they thought the story would be better if I left that part out. But if I did, how was I supposed to teach that my character’s vocalized racist opinions was as a result of his frustrations with his own life? Putting successful people down made him feel good, made him feel like an authority on a subject.


You may get the impression I’m liberal-minded to have these opinions. Well, I consider myself a very traditional, very conservative person. But then again I can be brutally honest, even with myself. Yes, I’m open-minded, especially when it comes to artistic expression. The times I write are the only times I become another person, sort of like how actors do.


It’s expected that writers will write stories that reflect the times they live in, both the sunny and the seamy (unless their writing historical fiction). And if so, I don’t think they should shy away from topics perceived as divisive or characters seen as ‘unlikeable’ because there is something those stories and those characters can teach us. It is not necessarily a reflection of your opinion when write about a character who is nervous about sharing a plane with an Arab (no matter what your message is at the end of your story), but an honest portrayal of the world you live in. That makes you an artist.


Some of you may have read or listened to the Best American Short Stories of the Century 2000. Well, the stories were judiciously compiled to reflect the different times in America over the last century. I read some pretty old ones (post-1950), the ones written before I was born, before the internet and telecommunications turned the world into a global village, to get a sense of America during that period. I try to read every edition of the Best of American Short Stories since 2010. I love the realness in them (Short stories have a way of making me suspend my disbelief whenever I read them, and I love them for that). They tackle all subjects, all kinds of characters—nothing’s off-limits, like it is with literary fiction. But, you know what? I’m yet to read a story that truly reflects the age of terrorism, all the tension and divisions it created. I know I won’t get to see the Best American Short Stories of the Century 2100, but I’ll tell you this: if it doesn’t include stories about what it means to live in a post-9/11 world, a time when we were all wary of terrorists, it would be a shame.


True, there’ll be people who would much rather not read such stories, but don’t worry about them. They’ll still have the genre fiction, the comedies and the fairy tales they like to read. Think of the readership that is ready to assimilate the realest stories (with the realest characters), especially the generations yet unborn who would like to know about the times we lived in.


Don’t be afraid to offend senses and opinions with your honest portrayals. If this means getting ‘controversial’, well so be it. I believe history will not forget your contributions.


The biggest hindrances to these honest storytelling platforms are the literary agents and publishers: the people in the business of selling our works, the people who claim to know the market. Unfortunately, they all seem to be of the same mind, most times. (And I don’t mean that in an insulting way, like they all share the same brain, no. I mean, not too many of them are willing to take risks and go their own way.) But I think the times are changing and they’re beginning to understand that honesty and art produce literary treasures. It took a brave publisher to publish Nabokov’s Lollita (a story that put the reader in the head of a pedophile) and it paid off. It took a while, but today the novel is recognized as a masterpiece.

Please Note: The opinions expressed in this post are purely a reflection of the author’s personal views.

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