Where I Shouldn’t Be

Shame can be a compelling way to ensure a reader’s rapt attention. When a character is engaged in activities that provoke embarrassment, or even only potential humiliation, the reader can’t bear to look away from the page. All you need is a situation in which you know the character is being outrageous or combative or prowling about in places he ought not to be.

For example, Andre Dubus III’s novella Listen Carefully features a husband who is trying to understand why his wife of many years would leave him for another man. As part of his off-kilter responses, he wanders through the home they used to share—and that the reader knows is forbidden to him. As a reader you almost want to shout, “Get out of there before she comes home!” But the character is going to do no such thing, because the author knows he has us right where he wants us.

How do you make this premise work? Part of the technique consists in setting up a social situation in which the character can be shamed. That context can be as slight as a teenage girl walking into a party filled with classmates that she knows look down on her, determined to confront a boy who has done her wrong. No matter what the circumstances, you stir interest simply by creating countering forces that make us cringe.

Another key factor in making such a sequence work is the character’s motivation. Why is that girl so determined to tell the boy off? What did he do to her? What type of person is she that she would brave the lions’ den? Does she normally flip people off, or has she been driven to extremes by what he did? You can see from just these possible variables how gripping the scene would be. 

If she regularly chews people out, then the embarrassment factor is lessened. She obviously has a thick skin. If she is shy, on the other hand, and she feels she must make her views known, now we’re starting to feel squeamish. Even better, the power of her motivation is driving not only the character but the entire plot forward. We are carried along by her desire. 

Finally, it is important to rub the reader’s face in the shame. That entails providing minutely observed details and interior monologues that overtake the reader thoroughly. You want to linger as long as possible. Drag it out, don’t let the reader escape. You may well find that the emotional tide you’ve created carries you to a higher plane throughout the rest of the story.

Exercise: Check your manuscript for scenes featuring confrontation. Is your protagonist confident, strident, sure of the rightness of his cause? If so, ask yourself if the circumstances might be altered so that his standing with the other person(s) is more tenuous. Could he be humiliated? Even if he is confident, is it possible to alter the other character’s response in an unexpected fashion that leaves the protagonist humiliated?

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