Plot: Making things difficult

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 17 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

I used to run long distances, and I often did it first thing in the morning.*  Sometimes I used the time to meditate and become peaceful, and the rest of the time I told stories to myself.

Now, they weren’t deliberate stories; they were involuntary fantasies, often about work, school, or family.  I would imagine a situation, conjure up the most pleasant or unpleasant possible events that could happen in that situation, and play out what would happen next. 

For instance, if I was running a little late, I would imagine getting to work so late that my boss said something (or glared, or slammed the door on me) and go on from there.  Everything I did to fix the situation would be countered by even worse behavior from my boss.  By the time I finished my run, I had often worked myself into a cathartic state of rage, dismay, fear, vengeful delight, or sorrow, and as I slowed to a stop and went back into the house, I would realize I had been transported somewhere else entirely.

Stories are like that.  They escalate.  It’s a recipe for a compelling story, whether you’re writing fiction, memoir, or news articles.  §

Make it worse

In the January 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest, Elizabeth Sims talks about pivot points – points of no return.  In order to tell a story, your characters must face real consequences.  You want to introduce events that are not just hurdles in the track but rock-falls covering the road.  Your character has lied, made a mistake, said  something she shouldn’t, or had a house fall on her out of the sky.  There is no turning back.  What happens next?

Your story doesn’t have to be about the end of the world, either.  But there should be a real threat to make it plausible.  Jane K. Cleland writes “cozy” mysteries, and she says that in order to raise the stakes, you have to make it personal.  Your character’s dilemma might be whether to talk back to her mother at Thanksgiving dinner, whether to stand up to oppression or injustice, or whether to steal the nuclear secrets, but either way, something bad is likely to happen.

We sometimes shy away from letting bad things happen to our characters.  We want to protect our protagonist, who is a nice person.  We dread watching things go wrong. That makes for a placid life but an uninteresting story.

Take a moment.  Look at your story so far.  Where could you make things worse?  Can you take today’s scene and have its results be even more dire?  Go ahead and worsen things for your protagonist.  And then see what happens.

It is in the worst situations that we find out what is worth doing, and that makes for good writing.

Tomorrow:  Selective memory and memoirs

*I more like jogged.  Trotted.  Ambled.  It was more of a shuffle.  I am not built to go fast.  I’m also not designed to be conscious first thing in the morning.
† I think the term is paranoid fantasies, not stories.
‡ It was a kind of meditation.  One in which I sometimes found myself crying, or gritting my teeth.  My heart was often pounding far more than warranted by my exercise intensity.
§ Oh, yes, news is story.  That is part of the reason the last election was such a mess.  People didn’t realize the various media outlets (whether reputable or disreputable) were telling stories. If you want to be well informed, you need to know that.

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