Advancing the Story Without Traumatizing Your Characters

You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.

From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.

Conflict versus Trauma

We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.

So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:

Conflict is:

  • when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones

Trauma is:

  • a change that damages you
  • is harmful

Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.

Where Some People Draw The Line

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.

  • Explicit sexual abuse
  • Dismemberment
  • Kids shoved out of windows
  • Children soldiers
  • Explicit assault/violence
  • Killing the cat/dog

How To Raise the Stakes

Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?

  1. Family
    • Protecting/defending them
    • Handling with their expectations
    • Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
    • etc
  2. Survival
    • Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
    • Hunger
    • Illness
    • Injury
    • Weather
  3. Meaningful relationships
    • Trying not to disappoint people
    • Satisfying the needs of different people
    • Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
  4. Separation
    • Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom

If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?

It’s contentious.

On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!

On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.

Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.

However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.

Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.

Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.

Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.

When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.

Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.

Compounding Traumas

Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.

This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.

Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.

There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.

But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.

Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.

Moving Beyond Trauma

Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?

It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.

But without limits, there’s no conflict.

Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.

Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.

Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.

Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.

The panelists sitting at the table.

I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.


Let me know what you think!
Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel?

Do you have a better method in mind?
Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?

NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.

Make Endings Ring True – A Spoiler-Free Ode To Avengers: Endgame

Whether you’re writing a stand-alone novel, an 7 book/tv-season long show, or a 22 movies long franchise, you’ve got to get the ending right.

All the endings right.

Otherwise? Your readers or viewers will feel cheated.

So, every novel, episode, and season needs its own arc with a solid ending. But? The serieses that linger in people’s hearts and minds are often the ones in which the overarching themes and goals are wrapped up the right way in the last book.

Of course, that’s not saying you can’t set up a new story arc in that last book/episode/movie…

What type of ending you need depends on what sort of story you have, but you’re going to need at least 2 of these ingredients.

The 5 Ingredients Of A Satisfying Ending

Plot goals achieved

This is the easiest one to accomplish. You’ve set out to complete a mission, a goal, and you’ve achieved it.

We’re going to get that boy. We’re going to find out who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. We’re going to find out how to defeat whatever big-bad the universe has cooked up for us this time.

Sometimes, there’s a twist. Maybe you find what you thought you wanted isn’t satisfying. It’s okay to change goals in your story, as long as it makes sense for the world and the characters. It still counts.

Personal Growth

Remember that twist I just mentioned? Most stories have at least one character that’s going to grow and change. Sometimes they have to mature. Sometimes, they suffer traumas that they need to work through. And sometimes? They’ve got to accept themselves, before they can become the person they were always meant to be.

When we see a character learn the true extent of their capacity for compassion or greatness, it’s… it’s like a warm tasty pie. Delicious and warm and filling.

Relationship closure

Many stories keep us going with relationship issues. Be they friendships, rivals, family, or romantic issues. The ending doesn’t have to be a happy one, but it should have some sort of closure, even if it’s simply a character recognizing that they don’t need the other character any more.

But making amends, getting that happily-ever-after, or even, getting that nod of approval from a mentor, those are the things that can give us a solid ending.

Thematic

Getting more esoteric, let’s talk about themes. Many themes are relationship based — family, trust, love. But not all. Faith, justice, and freedom can be themes.

These endings have to be carefully done, or they can read like a morality play. But, like Sam on Mount Doom, loyalty and perseverance can pay off.

Sacrifice

It’s hard to find a good ending without some sort of sacrifice — or at least some solid compromise. The greater the odds, the more the characters have to suffer and pay to achieve the ending. If the success at the end comes too easily, the reader will feel cheated. Like the odds weren’t as tough as they were told. The challenges were too easy for the characters.

And sacrifice can be used as a symbol of … well, many things. When Gollum leaps into the lava, we lose Smeagol, who had been fighting so hard to do what’s right. When Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web passes, it’s her gracious way of accepting the inevitability, and nature’s way of bringing in the new generation.

Sacrifices should follow the theme and rise to the level of the stakes.


If you can weave together plot goals achievements, personal growth, relationship closure, thematic ties, and sacrifice, readers should be able to appreciate your ending. Even if it makes them cry.


Are there any other ingredients you appreciate at the end of your stories?

What story do you think has done it the best?

(Please, don’t give any Endgame spoilers or current Game Of Thrones spoilers until AFTER May)

My Technique For Dealing With Multiple Muses

If you’re a writer, you’ve usually had more than one idea. Different characters, premises, worlds, or what-have-you all fighting for your attention. Typically, the ideas pour in when you’re deep in the middle of writing another story, and dry up when you finish it.

It can be hard to figure out where you should focus.

For me? These tips are how I handle competing novel novel ideas. (all puns are good puns.)

1. Focus on writing one story at a time

There are tons of people who fight with multiple muses, and lose. They end up leaving the scattered remains of half-finished stories and novels behind them, in their pursuit of working only on the freshest and most compelling idea.

If this works for you, have at.

For most of us, though, I highly suggest picking one–the one with the clearest story concept.

Now, if you’ve lost the story thread or have given it your honest best-effort and feel like it’s not coming together, I’m not saying you can’t switch stories. You’re not committed to finish every story you start.

But. moving on, simply because your writing starts taking effort is, for most of us, going to mean that you never finish a story. The choice is up to you.

Personally, I like to switch it up after a draft, and explore a different story and world. Then again, we all know, I’m still hopelessly devoted to my first completed manuscript.

2. Write Down Your Story Ideas

I know, it’s a stereotypical writer image — scrambling for a napkin or bedside journal to write down some stray random thought or dream… BUT DO IT!

Dreams and stray thoughts are where most story ideas come from. That, and playing a game of ‘what if’, followed by rationalized consequences.

For me, I have a draft email, that I can access on my computer or phone at anytime (because I’m a bit attached to my phone. One might say I’m addicted) and I write down my thought or concept.

I find often, so long as I record the concept and imagery, such that I feel confident that looking back on these notes will remind me of the idea, that I can return to my current work in progress, knowing this idea is waiting for me.

And usually? My ideas are small snippets that need more exploration and growth before they can become a full-fledged story. That’s why I read them over every so often and see if I can add details to them.

Where do I read them over? That brings me to my next tip.

3 – Organize Your Idea Notes

The biggest problem with tip #2 is finding all those little ideas when you’re ready to start your next story. If they’re all on different scraps of paper, random pages in twenty journals, scattered throughout the places you go in your daily life, it’ll be hard to look them over and decide your next move.

So, consolidation is KEY.

For me? I have all of my story ideas in one email draft, so I can see them in one place. Plus, by being electronic, I can re-order the collected ideas, so that similarly-themed ones are grouped together. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes, I have ideas that overlap with ones I’ve had in the past. Probably because certain themes and concepts just appeal to me strongly and I like exploring them.

4 – Re-read and Build On Your Notes

I’ve already alluded to this, and I know it feels a lot like tip 3? But, when you organize your ideas, often times they grow and change.

When you revisit your idea notes, this is when you can see if any of them have been percolating in the back of your head, sprouting from a story seed. (Any more metaphors I can toss in there?)

Sometimes? I delete ideas. Either I’ve already used it, lost the thread, or realize the reason I haven’t done something with this idea is that the concept seemed novel, but doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve been known to write a page or so as a story sampler, trying to find a voice and setting for the concept. Just be sure to keep it someone searchable and label it!


Managing muses can be hard. It can be a struggle to focus on one, when there are so many ideas fighting for your attention. This is writing, not math, there is no definitive right answer. Only you can decide which story to focus on today.


How do you manage your story ideas?

Any tips of the trade that I missed? I love hearing from y’all.

2nd Book Problems

I know. My novel is, as of yet, unpublished. But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start studying up for the future and the problems I hope to conquer next!

I write fantasy. If you read fantasy novels, you’ve probably noticed a trend: books rarely stand alone (unlike the cheese). That doesn’t mean the story isn’t self-contained, but often, there are overlaying archs that are worked towards, independently of the novel’s internal story arch.

There are a lot of things to think about before starting your second book. If you’d like to avoid 2nd book problems, there’s only way way to do that.

Refuse to write them!

But for the rest of us, there are some questions we need to ask.

When is too soon to start plotting your sequel?

Before you get started?

Some say that no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy– or at least that plans and outlines should be seen more as guidelines than rules.

Get A General Idea First?

Some say it never hurts to know where you’re starting and where you’re hoping to end up.

Pantsers!

Some like to follow the story and see where it goes, flying by the seat of their pants.

Should You Change Point-Of-View?

In Romance series, it’s often expected. You typically branch off and pair off all the friends of all the brides and grooms.

It can be done well. Personally, I’d suggest:

  • If your first book was single POV, to add no more than two new ones.
  • No matter your POV (or POVs), you need to grant some continuity. Either:
    • keep at least one main character.
    • have the new main characters as the tertiary characters from the first.
    • have the new main characters as ancestors/descendants of the main characters from the first.

How Much To Reintroduce!

You want new readers to know enough about what’s going on, old readers to be tactfully reminded of what happened in the previous book(s), and readers speeding through the series to not get bored!

It’s a tough tightrope to walk!

As always, with background info, an eyedropper is better than a dump truck.

Techniques to try:

  • Flashbacks to a previous book
  • Prologue or scenes replayed — from a new character’s point-of-view

Giving too much information in the beginning of a story is a standard error. Says Jo Lindsay Walton:

Bad books are often not a bad read–if you start in the middle, [after all that exposition]! – Jo Lindsay Walton

Problems With Cannon!

When you’re writing a sequel–especially one you’d never expected to write, the story may take you in new directions, where you find yourself painted into a corner.

You may have missed the opportunity to hint at someone turning into the bad guy, the new story arch that should have been underlying the first one, or given characters traits that are now plot-stumbling blocks.

But! You can also find the limitations help give the book direction you might have otherwise floundered at.

When To Start Thinking About Series Themed Titles!

The time to think about series titles is right about the time you’re ready to publish book one, if you have ANY notion of ever playing in that same world again. Don’t worry about it before you have a final title for the novel!

And remember. The series name itself must be STRONG.

A Song of Ice and Fire, while whimsical and a hint at later plot developments, never caught on as strongly as Game of Thrones

The title names can be themed, alliterative, story/plot derived, etc. Whatever you (or the publisher) thinks will sell.

What To Do When You’d Never Intended A Sequel But Reader Demand Is Strong!?

Brainstorm when you’re writing your novels where else you can go. Leave threads open! Life isn’t nice and neat, you shouldn’t have everything wrapped up with a bow when the reader hits: “THE END.”

  • Are there things the main character wanted or needed to do next?
  • Are there secondary characters who deserve their own book?
  • Would a prequel novel make sense?
  • Would a generation-skip-ahead novel make sense?

What Is The Hardest Part of Book Two?

Hands down: making the story’s plot and emotional arch strong enough to stand alone.

You still need an inciting incident.

You still need struggles and nearly un-surmountable odds.

You still need that false victory.

And that crushing blow, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, that makes the main character (and the reader) feel that hope might be lost.

And you still need that climax – that restores hope, gives a sense of accomplishment.

Plus–even if there’s another sequel coming–you need a denouement. The falling action that grants the character time to take a deep breath and reassess and make plans.


If you’re working on that sequel – best of luck. If you’re dreaming about the day when it’s your turn? The best way to make that happen is to finish book one!

 

These notes are taken from the titular panel. The panelists were Annie Bellet, Jo Lindsay Walton, Katri Alatals, and Laura Lam. The panel was moderated by NS Dolkart.

Vlog: 2nd Book Problems

There are a lot of things to think about before starting your second book. If you’d like to avoid 2nd book problems, there’s only one way to do that.

Refuse to write them!

But for the rest of us, there are some questions we need to ask.