Unexpected Reactions to Stories

Some stories require a trigger warning. 

For those of you who haven’t run across the term yet, a trigger seems to be loosely defined as a topic in a story or an article that will trigger a strong emotional reaction from a reader based upon their life experiences.

For example, if you were going to write a post about rape or had a story with a violent rape scene, you might want to put a trigger warning at the top of the story to warn away readers whose memories of their own personal life experiences might be triggered by reading your story.  You don’t want to inadvertently retraumatize someone who has already been through a negative experience like that.

So, some stories require a trigger warning.  But some just rub a reader the wrong way.  (Say that five times fast…)

In general, I don’t think I write pieces that require a trigger warning.  There are some deaths/murders in my writing, but they’re not the focus of the story.  And I don’t dwell on gory details.  And suicide has cropped up in a few of my stories, but not in a way that should trigger someone. (I hope.)

(And the one time I thought it would, I warned the beta before I handed the story over.)

But what I’ve found really interesting is the reactions people have had to parts of my stories that had nothing to do with the story itself.

One of the stories I have out on submission right now is about handling the aftermath of a serious injury.  It’s really an exploration of prayer and illness, but I needed to injure the character before I could get there.  So I used a skydiving accident.  And I happen to know a number of people who are in long-term committed relationships that aren’t married, so I had the couple in question be unmarried but living together.

One of my beta readers had a violent reaction to that.  Basically along the lines of “if that woman is stupid enough to stay with some risk-taking schmuck who won’t marry her then she doesn’t have my sympathy at all.”

It floored me.  I’ve known this person for fifteen plus years.  This person is now married, but at one point had adamantly stated that they would never get married and found the whole concept a complete waste.  So it amazed me that they had such a strong reaction to the marital status of the characters, which was irrelevant to the story I was telling. 

And such a strong reaction to the skydiving bit.  So, what?  No sympathy for someone who marries a cop or a firefighter or a logger or a soldier or a…?

I didn’t remove the skydiving bit, but I did downplay the nature of their commitment in the final draft.

Another example.  I wrote a humorous piece poking fun at on-line dating and in the first line I included a misspelling.  (Which anyone who has ventured into the dark and dirty world of on-line dating will know is very, very common…)  One of my betas told me they almost stopped reading the story because of the misspelling. 

It’s addressed within a few lines, so the reader knows it was deliberate, but it just goes to show that you never really know what someone is going to react to in disliking your story.

Sometimes it’s not the core of the story that the person doesn’t like, but the peripheral bits that could be changed and not change the story.  I could’ve as easily made my prayer story about a car accident and a married couple.  It wouldn’t have affected the underlying themes.  Or I could’ve started that on-line dating story off with correct spelling.  The misspelling wasn’t the point of the story–it was just there to add flavor.

It’s hard sometimes, too, to judge whether it’s one individual’s issues or whether they’re expressing a more universal view.

Obviously, if I wrote it, I don’t have those same issues.  (Whatever form of relationship works for the parties in question is fine by me.  And if you can find someone to be happy with for an extended period of time then I don’t care what they do for a profession.)  But what if most of my audience does?  What if people stop reading after one page because of it?

It’s always a fine balance to strike between listening to your beta feedback and listening to your gut.  And as a newbie writer it’s even harder to do, because the temptation is to be swayed every which way by your betas or popular opinion.  But at the end of the day it’s your story and you have to own it.

Even if owning it means it might not get published.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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5 Responses to Unexpected Reactions to Stories

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I have struggled with the deliberate mistake myself; explaining it later never seems to rectify that first unconscious judgement. The only solution I have found is to make it obvious by having the surrounding prose slightly more formal and stylised than you otherwise might; this works better with an omniscient narrator.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Yeah, I suspect that with that story I may have to just edit the deliberate mistake out altogether. It especially doesn’t help when I’m an unknown author and someone reading slush might immediately assume I’m just that bad..

      • Dave Higgins says:

        What will or will not get a manuscript junked on any one day is a mystery to me (and I suspect most authors). I have the opposite worry about my last submission; that a major character’s adherence to correct grammar and such is too great.

        If it is just one error is possible to move the revelation up? Too much narrator opinion can seem trite but a quick aside noting it in-world immediately after would show you intended it.

      • mhleewriter says:

        It’s a balance, isn’t it? I had a friend write a teenage character who knows how to use “whom” correctly. I have no doubt the character would actually use whom correctly in real life, but my friend’s agent suggested removing it to make the character sound more like a teenager.

        The revelation of the error is almost immediate in my story. It’s the on-line dating story, so the character reads the misspelled word and then makes a comment about how creepy the comment was and how the person couldn’t even spell the word correctly.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        If it is flagged straight away then your reader is probably on an extreme outlier. I suspect a publisher would not slush it for that.

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