Post by Elisabeth TenBrink Kelley, co-founder
Everyone has heard it. No doubt you've been told that you need to challenge yourself as a writer. Heck, even those who aren't writers are told that! That's what my mom tells me when she says I need to read different genre's than I normally do. So, I won't talk about that. We don't need another post about how you need to do things that are hard to make your writing great. We get it, get out of your comfort zone. No, when I mean "challenge yourself", I mean it in a different way, not a literary way.
When you read a book, there are a couple of things that make it great. Characters you love, villains that cause some large amount of emotion (it could be any kind), a plot that is unpredictable, and what else? Learning something is one. A good book often edifies, teaches, challenges.
Think Lord of the Rings. It doesn't challenge a particular view or belief, specifically. But it does teach us something about the nature of war, and the nature of ourselves. That is one kind, the subtle kind of lesson.
Now think The Hunger Games. As with everything in them, their lesson is stark. It challenges our perception of humanity, what we are capable of, and not in a good way. If you were in the Games, would you be like Peeta? Foxface? Or perhaps Katniss? This is another kind of challenge, but much stronger. It forces us to come face-to-face with our own darkness, and keeps us reading by putting our own doubt of what we would do into Katniss. Would we kill a friend to save our life and family? Will Katniss kill Peeta? They become the same question.
The last kind is harder to find, because it can be harder to do well. This is the kind where you literally ask the question, through some means or another. What question? It could be anything. This kind is the most effective if used right, but can never escape a backlash. But hey, we're writers. Isn't an emotional response what we want? Perhaps a good example would be from The Help. Skeeter's book was a direct contradiction of what the people believed, and it's shock and power freed minds from the cultural belief that the way they treated blacks was okay.
So, what is my point here? Well, at times we have something that needs to be said, something from the third degree of lessons, that we believe and few others do, or at least a large portion don't. But you aren't likely to have more than one or two of those lessons in you, and that may not be what you want to write. So generally, you will be sticking to the first two degrees. Because the first two degrees do not depend on the beliefs that others have, they are more broad. They also can be used more than once. For example, The Giver has the same thing as The Hunger Games, but that doesn't make The Hunger Games's lesson any less compelling.
To find a good lesson, something that will challenge your reader, you will need to challenge yourself. If we don't find it challenging, how will we know it will challenge others? Is it really something worth learning, or do we already know it, like that we should respect the soldiers for their service? Some things are obvious to our society. That doesn't mean you can't show those truths, in fact if you removed all the obvious truths from your writing you would end up with a very unrealistic book. But, the important truths, the ones that we don't know at first glance, or don't think about, or don't want to think about.
That last one is one of the reasons The Hunger Games did so well. We don't want to think about whether or not we would kill another for our own lives, yet it's something that, when asked, interests us intensely. So the book asks it for us, and we follow to see the answer. Whatever Katniss had done, we wouldn't be able to condemn her, because we would always think "Would I do the same thing?" It is a better question than "Would I do the right thing?", because both things are positive, and negative. The question, instead, is "What is the right thing?" or "Which evil would I choose?".
It is questions like these that really challenge us to think beyond the normal, beyond our comfort zone. And to push the reader out of their comfort zone, you must push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Elisabeth TenBrink Kelley is an aspiring author and poet. To learn more about her, see our About Us page. You can follow her on Twitter here: @ElisabethGTK. You know you've got the right one if the picture is of a dragon holding a crystal ball.