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February 23, 2017

Are There Story Elements You Avoid Writing?

Red handprint covered with "NOPE!" and text: What Do You Avoid Writing About?

We’ve talked before about how the stories we write are affected by our worldview. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is reflected in our stories and themes.

In fact, we might not even be able to write against our worldview. If we’re drawn to strong heroines, we probably wouldn’t write a doormat type.  If we enjoy rooting for the underdogs in stories, it’s doubtful an idea to make a bully into a hero would appeal to us.  Or if we believe in the power of love, our muse is unlikely to nag us to start a story where everyone dies miserable and alone.

However, our worldview isn’t the only thing that might prevent us from writing about certain elements. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons we might have for avoiding particular elements so we can decide whether our avoidance makes sense or points out an opportunity to improve. *smile*

5 Reasons We Might Avoid Writing Certain Elements

#1: It Would Be Bad for Our Brand

Once we’ve starting making a name for ourselves, people form an impression of us:

  • who we are
  • what matters to us
  • what types of stories we tend to write (premise, voice, genre, etc.)
  • what readers can expect from our stories, etc.

That impression is essentially our brand. So if we were to suddenly change our writing style, readers might be disappointed.

For example, if readers have learned to expect sweet, YA-style stories of first love, they would likely be shocked (and maybe offended) if our next release was a hot-and-heavy romance filled with sex scenes and profanity.

That’s not to say that we can’t tweak our brand, but we’d have to be careful to give readers the heads-up so they’d know what to expect. I’ve seen romance authors writing outside the genre include a warning with their new release: “Not a romance. Happily Ever After not guaranteed.”

For some of us, we might decide the risk would be too great to start including elements our readers aren’t used to or expecting. Or if we’re traditionally published, we might run into issues with our publisher or editor (or might even have to find another publisher). In other words, this reason makes sense. *smile*

There’s no point in suddenly including edgy material into our sweet brand, religious material into our secular brand, romance material into our non-romance brand, supernatural material into our real-world brand, etc. unless we’ve consciously decided to adjust our brand and have a plan for communicating to readers.

#2: It Would Potentially Be Controversial

For a similar reason as “bad for branding,” we might want to avoid including controversial elements. In many cases, this can be a smart choice.

Just because our muse gives us a Nazi-Jewish romance story idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Or a story idea focused on a marginalized character’s journey (LGBTQ+ character coming out, a person of color’s struggle to escape racism, etc.) might be “outside our lane” and best to leave to those with personal experiences.

Avoiding controversial elements is often good for storytelling as well. I’ve mentioned before that in the first draft of my story Pure Sacrifice, a secondary character’s dialogue was so shocking that it interrupted the story flow for readers. Toning down the language improved the story.

That said, we wouldn’t want to avoid everything that might be controversial. “Potentially controversial” could apply to almost anything: profanity, violence, abuse, sexual content, LGBTQ+ characters, characters of color, drug use, etc. Heck, even first-person point of view or present tense can be “controversial.” *smile*

So for this reason, we’d have to dig deeper to see if our decision is sound. Making choices that respect marginalized communities is a good idea, but being so worried about potential issues that we play it safe rather than exploring human nature might mean that other reasons are influencing our decisions as well (as we’ll explore below).

#3: We Don’t Feel Confident Enough to Do It Well

Another reason we might avoid writing certain elements is that we lack the confidence to do it well. I know many writers who don’t write sex scenes because they feel too intimidated.

Or some writers don’t feel confident enough to write characters from marginalized communities. Others might avoid writing scenes that require specialized knowledge—anything from fight scenes to helicopter-flying scenes.

While it’s good to make sure our writing is accurate and not harmful (not to mention well-crafted), we have the ability to learn, ask for help, and gain confidence. So this is one justification that we might want to question and push back against.

Some knowledge can be gained by research. I’ve seen several posts with tips about writing fight scenes (even some specific by weapon or technique), and I wrote a post years ago to address the dread of writing sexy scenes. *smile* In other cases, we’d want an expert to double-check our writing for inaccuracies or harmful stereotypes, such as using sensitivity readers for marginalized characters.

Either way, unless we’re anti-research or don’t feel like doing that much work to get it right, we can work to overcome this issue if we want. So if we are interested in including those elements, we shouldn’t let our lack of confidence hold us back.

#4: It Would Be Too Much Work to Do It Well

As I mentioned above, we might choose not to include elements because it would be too much work to get it right. For example, while I love reading historical romance, I have no plans to write them because the amount of historical research necessary is too daunting for me to get excited about any story idea.

There’s nothing wrong with making a decision based on “too much work.” We don’t have unlimited time, so we’re allowed to prioritize our writing time on things other than research or time-and-energy sucks.

#5: We Don’t Enjoy Reading About It Either

The last reason I can think of for avoiding writing about certain elements is simply that we don’t care to include them. We often write stories that we’d like to read, so we’re unlikely to write stories that include our pet peeves or other disliked elements (unless we’re showing how to twist the element around).

As a reader, I’m not fond of the alpha-jerk *sshole “heroes” known as alpha-holes. So you can bet that I don’t write them either. *grin*

We’re allowed to have preferences—likes and dislikes, pet peeves and favorite tropes. Sometimes the answer to why we don’t include certain elements simply comes down to that we don’t want to, and that’s okay.

However, we want to make sure that we know and understand our reasons. Sometimes our avoidance is a sign that we can learn and improve our skills, and that’s always a good thing for us to do. *smile*

Have you ever decided against including certain elements in your story? Did one of these reasons apply, and if so, which one? Can you think of other reasons we might avoid elements in our writing? Do you agree with my take of whether these justifications are valid, or do you have other thoughts?

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What do you think?

13 Comments on "Are There Story Elements You Avoid Writing?"

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Mary Kate

I think you got all the reasons down. I tend to avoid any kind of sexual assault in my writing because 1) I’ve fortunately never experienced it and don’t think I could do justice to the experience and 2) I don’t like reading about it. I think it’s important to write about, to be clear, but I feel as though it’s best left to people who know how to do it better than I do.

In a similar vein, as a white, straight, cis woman, I’m not sure I’d write a protagonist who isn’t these things because I think #ownvoices is really important and obviously a person who’s lived through those experiences will have a far better and more realistic perspective than I do. Of course, I want to include all kinds of people in my stories but writing from where I am I think it’s best these people be other characters, not the protagonist.

And I agree about historical fiction. I know I *could* do all the research, but I’d rather just write the story, you know?

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

No romantic or parental relationships! I don’t like writing about either of them and I’m not really wild about reading about them either. I killed off my MC’s parents when she was a child and fortunately that’s highly relevant to the story!

In another book I have planned (vaguely) for the future, I realised that the storyline is a bit on the biblical side. As an atheist, I’m finding it a bit of an issue. There are points where the parallels are very marked and people may choose to interpret it as a commentary on Christianity which it isn’t. I’m not quite sure what to do about it and it bugs me, but it still just a fledgeling idea. There’s plenty of wiggle room!

Stina Lindenblatt

I used to just write angsty romances, but last year published a romantic comedy in a style and voice that was completely different to what I have written in before. I was nervous about it but it also felt right. Turns out it was the best thing I could have done when it came to my sales (it was my first self pubbed book). So now I’ve kind of got two brands going. I’m self publishing my rom com but continue to write contemporary romances for traditional publishing. I took a chance and went against #1 and I’m glad I did. 🙂

Rachelle Ayala
I suppose I’m a member of a marginalized community, but I don’t have any issue with anyone else writing about people who look like me. We are all different and have human experiences that are similar and different. A few years back, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk on the dangers of a single story. When there is only a single story about someone in a marginalized community, then everything is picked apart and held to a magnifying glass. Hence your fear of not making an Asian character the villain, or the LGBT character the spurned lover. You feel you have to make them sympathetic characters instead of just writing in a normal way, that there are people of all persuasions doing things bad or good, sympathetic or unsympathetic. The common solution it seems the majority of authors take is the safe road. Basically populating our entire story world with “mainstream” and “non-controversial” characters. On the one hand, no one can accuse us of any of the “isms”, but on the other hand, marginalized people [I hate this term], are even more marginalized and viewed as controversial. They don’t exist in our books and our stories because we’re writing to what we perceive as the mainstream market. The world, however, is changing, and guess what? That homogenized mainstream no longer exists in most of our urban areas. So, to write true to your life, you should include characters of different backgrounds and be bold enough to have them love,… Read more »
Althea Claire Duffy

Thank you for this wonderful, eloquent comment!

Althea Claire Duffy

My personal “nopes” range all over your categories, though I’m bad at branding and hate confining myself. I don’t think I’ll ever write mystery – I’m bad at intricate, puzzle-like plots, and I know little about criminal investigations and am not interested enough to research them thoroughly. There are lots of common romance elements that rarely interest me as a reader, let alone a writer – animal-type shifters, Navy SEALs, sports, Greek tycoons….

I do tend to play it safe, both when it comes to things I don’t know enough about and when it comes to some controversial elements – but there are some things that are often controversial that I don’t worry much about writing. One of my fantasy romance novellas, Dreamsnare, has a warning on the publisher’s site about how the deaths of children are depicted in flashback, including disturbing medical details – often cited as a taboo in romance. I wouldn’t be surprised if that hurt its sales.

Of course, sometimes we say “I don’t think I’ll ever write that” and then prove ourselves wrong. I used to say I couldn’t ever see myself writing contemporary romance – and I currently have a short one in revisions! Sometimes your plot bunnies jump over the fences you put up. (It contains zero billionaire Doms, a much firmer nope for me.)

Mark R Hunter

I was shocked when someone referred to the hero of my first romance as an alpha type. “No he’s not! I hate those guys!” But then I realized that’s exactly how Chance came off–he’s so overprotective and distrusting that he always leaves a first impression of being a jerk. My heroes since then have been a bit more B than A.

Sieran
Sieran

On diverse characters, haha, that’s why I think there’s a “privilege” to being a member of multiple marginalized groups. ^_^ I’m bisexual, nonbinary transgender (specifically a demiguy), on the aromantic and asexual spectra, and am Chinese. So that gives me the confidence to write about queer, trans, and non-white characters without the fear of people accusing me of perpetuating stereotypes.

Also, I like how you pointed out that it’s okay to avoid some topics because it would require too much work (research.) It doesn’t mean that we’re “lazy.” We truly do have extremely limited time and energy, so not going down a path that takes too much research AND isn’t our passion, is a reasonable justification.

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[…] Let’s be honest, sometimes we writers avoid the elements or parts of the process that we find hard. Roz Morris talks about conquering your fear of the blank page, and Jami Gold asks if there are story elements you avoid writing. […]

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