Skip to main content

Writing Fiction: A Good Story Must Be Disturbing

Whether you're writing a literary novel, a psychological, medical, legal or spy thriller, or even a cozy mystery, for a novel to be engaging, it must center on human conflict and disturbance. Here's what you need to know.

As David Mamet once said to me, "If Hamlet comes home from school, and his dad asks him how school was, and Hamlet says, 'It was fine, Dad,' it's boring."

Whether you're writing a literary novel, a psychological, medical, legal, or spy thriller, or even a cozy mystery, for a novel to be engaging, it must center on human conflict and disturbance.

(5 moral dilemmas that make characters and stories better.)

Without chaos, there's very little story to tell.

If you think you’ve got a story worth telling, before you start to write, reflect upon what you’ve enjoyed when reading fiction, and also remember those books you just couldn’t plow through. Where did those writers go wrong?

The scintillating stories you favored most likely brimmed with conflict. An engaging novel is disturbing. It presents chaos and upheaval—either within the characters' minds or in their lives. These clashing interactions and relationships between people are at its core.

As readers, we crave disturbance and uncertainty. We live vicariously through the anguish, turmoil, and trouble the characters must endure in an attempt to reorder the chaos propelling the story.

This dynamic holds true no matter the genre.

a_good_story_must_be_disturbing_mark_rubinstein

And, it's as old as storytelling itself: consider The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Within their pages, we find incest, murder, kidnapping, wars, and nearly every other conceivable horror that can beset human beings.

When writing my own novels, I keep conflict center stage. And, with surgical precision, I use my expertise as a forensic psychiatrist to bolster that chaos.

(Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters)

For example, in The Lovers’ Tango, Bill Shaw, the protagonist, is not only on trial, accused of murdering his wife, but the reader is kept off-balance experiencing all that led up to the courtroom, and ultimately that which follows the jury's verdict.

Despite my years working as a forensic psychiatrist testifying in many trials, I avoided making the courtroom scenes an exposition of arcane language and legal concepts. Instead, I kept the focus on conflict and did so through dialogue, the engine driving this, and many other novels. I employed my knowledge of the courtroom and psychiatry in the service of heightening the tension but didn't allow my professional fund of knowledge to drown out the chaos and turmoil.

As for using any writer’s knowledge in a specific field or endeavor, be it medical, legal, military, financial, or otherwise, a balance must be struck so the expertise doesn’t burden the all-important role of pacing. It’s fine to employ that which you know well, but it must play only a supporting role to the tension and conflict driving the novel.

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow perfectly illustrates this maxim. Turow skillfully imbued his novel with legal expertise, but the tension in the story derived from the chaos of the characters’ lives. His legal knowledge added color, authenticity, and depth.

Jonathan Kellerman's latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, achieves this same goal, integrating his knowledge of psychology into a riveting tale about the death of an old, mysterious woman.

We read novels to experience vicariously something far different from our daily lives. We want to be titillated, frightened, angered, overjoyed, heartbroken, or moved in some kinetic way as we turn the pages.

(How Long Should Novel Chapters Be? Click here to find out.)

If we want to immerse ourselves in a field of study, there are many non-fiction books available to provide such information.

When you're ready to write, keep in mind those novels that kept you turning the pages as opposed to those you put down after a chapter or two.

“Write what you know” isn’t always the best advice.

Write to tell a story that captures the imagination and makes a human connection with the reader.

And one final but essential piece of advice: remember, dialogue isn't just what characters say to each other, it’s what they do to each other with words.

Make your dialogue count. It should be thrusting the tension and hence the storyline forward.

Most of all, aim to make the reader regret when the book is coming to its end.

No matter what your primary field of study had been, when you write a novel, your basic aim is to tell a good story.

Don't get lost in the weeds of expertise.

12 Weeks to a First Draft

Dive into the world of writing and learn all 12 steps needed to complete a first draft. In this writing workshop you will tackle the steps to writing a book, learn effective writing techniques along the way, and of course, begin writing your first draft.

Click to continue.

Hunter or Hunted?

Hunter or Hunted?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, we're in the middle of a hunt.

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory from Writer's Digest magazine, which includes advice from 41 agents, 39 debut authors, and 27 small presses.

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at The Idaho Review, a literary journal accepting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction submissions.

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using an abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Alison Hill breaks down the definition of investigative journalism, how good investigative journalism makes for sweeping societal change, and how the landscape of the work is evolving.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.