The Hate Barrier at the End of the Universe

You can’t be all things to all people. A strength in one area becomes, almost by default, a weakness in another. So it is with stories.

The great guru of story, Robert McKee, talks about the story triangle. The relationship between plot, character and idea which means that the more you have of any two the less you have of the third. (And attempting to have a balance of all three means having not enough of any). Stories are imperfect creations, that can at best please some of the people, some of the time.

So when starting to write a new story, our passions run high for what the story IS. A detailed character portrait. A high octane adventure. A sophisticated and original high concept. Words leave the imagination and hit the page like high energy particles after the big bang.

An hour, or a day, or a month (depending on the writer’s endurance) later and the universe of your imagination has hit a slow heat death. Every word that comes out is dark matter, part of a story caught in a decaying orbit around it’s own limitations. The high octane adventure has no space for detailed character study. The detailed character study is a high concept free zone. The high concept is unfolding so slowly it is barely diesel driven, let alone high octane. We hate our story not for what it IS, but for what it IS NOT.

(Which is why I hate my current fantasy adventure story for not being an experimental literary masterpiece!)

Such is the hate barrier. A tough (but not impenetrable) crust of self loathing that forms around the the molten story as it pours from the imagination and solidifies into the solid shape it will take in reality. As writers we train ourselves to joy in the limitless possibilities of the imagination, but we also have to train ourselves to accept and work with the limited possibilities of a story as it nears completion.

There are as many ways to tackle the hate barrier as there are writers. I am learning to work quickly and form the story whilst it is still hot from the imagination, and developing the mental strength to charge through the hate barrier if and when it emerges. I’d like to hear how other writers overcome the Great Wall of Hate!

(Which I am now going to attack again. Face the Hate! Grr!)

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

3 thoughts on “The Hate Barrier at the End of the Universe

  1. My biggest problem with the hate barrier is, if I plow on through, when I come back to redraft it I hate it even more. Usually it restricts itself to a single chapter though. A chapter I need, but which doesn’t excite me, leading to leaden word-stodge.

    I tend to finish it as fast as I can, which will give me a fully formed model of exactly what I DON’T want. I’ll read it through once, without editing, then delete the entire thing and write it completely anew.

    If it continued beyond a single chapter I’d know I’d got some serious issues with the story. I’d have a long hard think and a brainstorm about how it can be revived and revitalised, because if it’s boring me writing it, that’s exactly where people are likely to stop reading it, at which point I may lose a reader for good.


  2. Iain Banks recommends writing the first draft so fast you don’t have time to get hung up on it. Good advice, though not always easy to achieve. i think the tripartite balance you describe is very hard to nail with the first draft. Maybe impossible. It’s only during the subsequent reshaping that you start to see it, I think. But by then you may very well be sick of the sight of the whole thing.

    Putting the story aside for a couple of weeks works wonders. Fresh eyes and all that. The hatred we experience in the meantime is just part of the process, unfortunately. We just have to punch through it. So your ‘Grr’ approach is hard to fault!


    1. Hi Graham,

      I’m certainly discovering that my own writing process requires deadlines and pressure. Without them projects just sprial ad infinitum. So the first draft has to happen quickly. I’ll tackle second draft in a couple of weeks with, as you say, fresh eyes.



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