Quite some time ago, in a post entitled To Swear Or Not To Swear, I brought up the idea of the work-around, or what I’ll now call the write-around. In that case the idea was to avoid using either real-world “swear words” that might not be audience-appropriate, or that can sound anachronistic in certain fantasy settings, and rather than make up goofy new curse words, just deal with it in description: the venerable: He cursed savagely then said, “. . . that hurt!”

I think that’s a useful tool, and one any author should keep in his or her back pocket. But like all the best tools, it can do more than one job. There can be all sorts of things you may want to avoid saying outright, and all sorts of reasons for that.

What brought this to mind was, apropos of nothing, I was mulling over this story idea in which some rich Wall Street type bribes a psychologist to create a fake psychological disorder called “chronological intolerance” that he could use to get out of boring meetings under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I know, this is the way my brain works. If yours works like this too, my friend, you are a writer.

But then I started thinking: How much would this kind of thing cost me? How much would it take to get a respected scientist to do something patently unethical? Of course, that depends on the scientist in question. Is the scientist in financial trouble? Does she owe this Wall Street guy a favor, or money? Is there some kind of extortion either overt or implied at play here? Or is this just a straight-up financial transaction?

I started leaning toward the latter, to make it more of a morality play, but that really leaves me with the same unanswered question? A million dollars? A hundred thousand? Fifty thousand?

Then it hit me:

He scribbled something on the back of a business card, flipped it over, then slid it across the desk. “I wrote a number on here,” he said with that leering, awful grin. “That much up front, and that much again when the study is published.”

I shook my head, but that just made him smile all the more.

“Come on,” he said, his voice low, almost a whisper, “you’re not even the least bit curious?”

I started to shake my head again, but didn’t. I was curious.

“Go ahead,” he whispered, nodding at the business card.

I flipped it over without thinking, my hand shaking, my lip trembling, and gasped at the number he’d written there. Then I felt my face go hot and knew I must be turning red. Hand still shaking, I turned the card over again and slid it back to him. I cleared my throat, my mouth dry.

“Double it,” I said without breathing, “and we have a deal.”

I’d never in my life seen such a self-satisfied smile when he said, “Done.”

He probably would have gone for three times that, maybe four.

This still leaves us with that same question: How much are we talking about? But in the end it really isn’t about the money, which would tend to have the story ask, “Would you do this for X dollars?” If you start that then you have to keep asking, with different values for X, until you got to the right figure, however outlandish. And you’d get a different end value for X from everyone you asked, based on their financial situation and ethical flexibility. So in this case, I submit, it’s better your reader not know how much our psychologist is taking to trash her professional reputation. If every reader brings in a different sense of what that figure would have to be, you’ll end up with some readers who think, No way would she do what he’s asking for so little money. And still others of your readers thinking, No way would this guy spend that kind of money just to get out of some meetings.

That last one is a good question and goes to the all-important question of plausible villain motivation, but still, that write-around works.

That having been said, though, please use this tool, like all your other tools, responsibly. This is not a ready-made excuse to never do research or to be lazy in your writing. Chances are I put as much thought just now into why not to give a specific figure in this case as I might have actually trying to figure out what that figure might be. A quick Google search revealed a whole paper on how much someone might be willing to do for a certain amount of bribe money, and I now know that Sierra Leone has the highest percentage (84%) of people who admit to having paid a bribe. Information is out there, but knowing when to apply it and when to withhold it is a creative decision you have to make.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to WRITE-AROUNDS

  1. Joanne Eddy says:

    I don’t know if you are actually planning to use this scenario, or it was just an off the top of your head example for “write arounds.” If if is the latter, it helped make the point. And with another scenario I can see the logic of using this write around. But, if you have have some idea of using this specific example in actuality, let me tell you what is wrong with it. Premise Problem #1 – I am a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Psychiatric Disorders are studied and categorized into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) currently version five (DSM-5). It is produced by the American Psychiatric Association, so no one doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist could do what you are proposing because they alone cannot create a disorder without review. Knowing the APA and the ‘Beta Testers’ who give feedback on any proposed revision to the DSM, I personally believe what you proposed would be impossible at any price. Premise Problem #2 – a Wall Street type may have money but does business based on contacts. Contacts require meetings. No meetings, no contacts, no money. (I always count on other writers who have practical knowledge to help me remain credible, so just trying to help.)

    • Philip Athans says:

      Yeah, this was just an off-the-cuff example for purposes of illustrating the writing technique and not meant to be a fully formed or even remotely plausible premise.

  2. Sean Durity says:

    Clever – a great way for a “modern” story to not feel dated as inflation changes things. As you say, this is useful for other situations, too.

  3. rsjeffrey says:

    Great tip to add to the tool box! I think this goes a lot to leaving room for your readers imagination as well. As the old saying goes, sometimes less is more. Describing a blood curdling scream can be more terrifying than saying what actually caused it, because everyone immediately inserts their own personal fears into the situation and believes it 100%.

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