Writing Challenge #5: The Parsnip

This parsnip from the local farmer's market measures 20 inches long. How can you supersize an element in your novel?

This is a giant parsnip.

Sometimes writers get timid on the page. Unsure. We let our anxieties, or our fear about what people might think, get in the way of the work we’re trying to do. This can make certain scenes or characters or objects smaller than they should be.

Today’s challenge is a reminder to raise the stakes in your writing.

Look at your work in progress. Pick an element and make it bigger. More intense. Flashier or darker. More beautiful. Stinkier (as in the case of Clare Clark’s fantastically odiferous historical novel THE GREAT STINK). Just grab your mental tape measure and increase the size of something.

Then think about the scene you’ve just changed. Has your choice made things more difficult for your protagonist? If so, you’ve successfully raised the stakes. If not, try enlarging a different element. Such tinkering will give you a better idea of how your story is working–and hopefully that’ll lead you to rich new territory.

Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments!

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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15 Responses to Writing Challenge #5: The Parsnip

  1. This has been on my mind, in a way, since I just read a review in the New York Review of Books of the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and the reviewer points out that Lisbeth Salander never actually kills anybody. She tortures, she humiliates, she allows people to die when she could save them, and she arranges for people to be killed by others, but she never actually pulls the trigger herself.

    Salander is so involved with violence and vengeance that it never even occurred to me that she doesn’t kill anybody. The reviewer says that this is clearly manipulated by the author in order to keep the readers on her side, and I think this is a correct analysis. There is no evidence in the text that Salander has any moral compunctions against killing (quite the opposite), so it’s the author stacking the deck.

    There is no moral advantage to having Salander be non-lethal (nailing somebody’s foot to the floor with a nail gun and then calling his other enemies to come kill him while he’s immobilized is about the same as killing him, really), so it’s just to placate the readers, to stack the deck.

    I say, go for it, don’t fudge. I have a character who has killed a lot of people. She’s better now, though still armed and capable of violence, but I never downplay the fact that she’s done what she’s done. I think she is a sympathetic character in some ways, but in any case she is what she is, not a watered-down PG version.

    • Fascinating point, Anthony. I never noticed that about Salander, either, and I wonder very much whether Larsson originally chose that route–to allow her to be a killer but keep any actual murders invisible to the reader–or if he revised that into the trilogy after being told Salander wasn’t sympathetic enough.

      Love that your character “is better now”–perhaps that’s why she’s sympathetic? She’s capable of violence but less prone to indulging in it, and therefore, readers understand where she has been and that she has been growing as a person. Anyone trying to change for the better can earn more sympathy than, say, a killer who continues to kill.

      • Good question about Larsson. I would guess (and it’s just a guess) that it was his idea to make her non-lethal, given that Blomkvist (who is Larsson’s stand-in in the novel) deplores her tactics (let alone how he Blomkvist would feel if she actually killed somebody — that might be the one thing that would make him turn away from her).

        starling is getting better now (as you say, growing as a person), but she is not better when we first see her. And we do see her in full-on rage at one point — I thought it was very important to show that, not just talk about it. The tricky thing about writing this is that she is not the sort of person who would ever talk about what she’s going through. She never makes speeches. So, everything really has to be shown through her actions.

        • Smart guess about Larsson’s motivations. Your Starling sounds quite complicated. Preferring action to speeches fits for someone who uses violence as self-expression. Does she ever consider the consequences of her actions or is that another topic she avoids?

          • She does think about them, but there were times when she suffered from uncontrollable rages, and during those times she didn’t consider consequences at all.

            If you’d like to read about her, this mystery story illustrates some of the points we’ve been talking about.

            It’s in the middle of a series, so some characters are already familiar to the regular reader, but I think enough explanation is included as you go along.

            I’d be interested in your reactions.

  2. I expanded on this a bit on my blog (and linked to your post, of course).

  3. Jody Moller says:

    Of course Salander does swing an axe into someones head with the intention of killing him (oh and of course she also sets the same character on fire). Isn’t intention enough? I do agree though she is violent enough and intrinsically linked to enough death that you don’t actually notice that she doesn’t ‘pull the trigger’.

    • Good points, Jody. Are those examples both in self-defense? If so, that might also be a way to keep us rooting for someone who operates within a world of death and violence.

  4. Scott Morgan says:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever come across a better metaphor for trying new and improved things than a giant parsnip. Stretch, push, pull, beat, or slingshot your creativity into new and bigger areas, and now make sure you make it eat its vegetables too!

  5. Pingback: Prostitution, Or Writing What I Don’t Know | Laura Stanfill

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