Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Today's lesson, taken from Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, is about piling on disaster after disaster upon our unsuspecting protagonists. 

Have you ever woke to the feeling that things weren't right and there was an invisible black cloud hanging over your head? And by noon you're thinking, Could it get any worse?  Which means ... Yes, of course it can. 

In fiction, raising the stakes can help a manuscript escape the slush-pile. Things should and can get worse. In fact, they must. Even if you're writing a cozy Romance, or a coming-of-age, or a character-driven non-action/non-thriller, you need to continually raise the stakes so your reader keeps reading.

Mine is not to reason why readers need to read about a character experiencing one bad thing after another; we'll leave that for the psychologists. Nor do I believe it has something to do with the lack of focus or weak attention span of today's reader. I'm not convinced that's the case. Sure we have to compete with video games, stellar special effects and Ipod apps. But it's about understanding what your reader wants. Conflict. Disaster. Life.

Readers relate to this: Life is tough and sometimes bad things happen to good people over and over again.  You know the feeling. Just when things are going great....

Awhile back I did a story breakdown for Collateral, the movie starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise? (Another reason to study movie breakdowns: if you understand the breakdown of a good story, you've got a better chance of developing the story pieces needed for a good plot)

Bad things keep happening to Jamie Foxx' character, taxi driver Max. He meets the girl of his dreams, drops her off at her destination, the exact spot where Vincent (Tom Cruise) hails his cab. Seventeen minutes into the movie, Max parks his cab, Vincent goes inside, and two minutes later, a dead man lands on top of Max' cab. End of Act One. Now the journey into the frightening unknown. Max knows he has a hitman in his cab. Could things get worse? Oh yes. The police stop them. With the situation critical, they're called away and Max is tied to his own steering wheel while Vincent goes off to take care of his 2nd hit. During this time Max is robbed and thugs steal Vincent's valise. Vincent returns, kills the thugs, then takes Max inside a jazz club where he appears to relax. He, Max and a musician sit together. The musician turns out to be Vincents 3rd hit and Max ends up covered in blood splatter. And that's just the beginning of Max' troubles. 

Lately some of your critique partners are hinting that your story is lagging. What do you do?

I can't recommend movie dissection enough. Stick your favourite movie into the DVD and grab a paper and pen. What's the main character's biggest obstacle? What's his problem? What makes this problem worse? Have you seen No Country For Old Men? Does there seem any end to the conflict James Brolin's character faces? Just when things are as bad as we think they can get, something even worse happens to him. 

As Donald Maass says in his workbook, "A common failure in novels is that we can see the ending coming." 

Did you see the ending to No Country For Old Men coming? I think not. And I believe if you keep asking yourself what can happen to make your protagonist fail at solving his problems, then you can turn your lagging story into a winner. Remember, things can and must always get worse.

Being an old-fool-of-a-romantic (definition: one who won't admit they're a romantic, but cries during Walt Disney movies and little kid commercials) I'm here to admit that I do love happy endings. However -- I don't need to know in advance that there will be a happy ending. What I want is for you to pile on enough disasters, conflicts and problems to keep me wondering if a happy ending is even possible.

--happy revising.


  1. I wish you had a Share This or Tweet button so I could easily share your posts, Joylene. Hint! Hint! :-)

    Great post.

    Cheryl Kaye Tardif,
    Canadian suspense author

  2. Hey Cheryl, how's it going? Thanks for stopping by. My share button is further down. Good point. I'll pull it up.

  3. "And by noon you're thinking, Could it get any worse? Which means..."

    That thought has been crossing my mind by 7AM every day for the past 8 weeks. Now I'll go read your post.

    (I'm not totally MIA just really @#$%^&&^%$)

  4. Disaster, my little people are lucky if they live to the end of the book! Hugs... :0)

  5. Hi Carole. LOL. Hugs back at ya!

  6. Dave, ooh, that doesn't sound good. Okay, well, just stick them disasters into your books and get them the heck out of your life!

  7. Great post, Joylene! Sometimes I worry that my character's journey from one disaster to another will be too unrealistic and unbelievable... that nobody's life is that chaotic. And then I remember that readers don't want a replay of their ordinary days, but an escape from them into someone's extraordinary days. And I love your comment about "wondering if a happy ending is even possible". :)

  8. You make a good point, Carol. When I'm watching a movie and one bad thing after another happens, I find myself cringing after awhile. I think there needs to be a balance between bad stuff happening and there still being a sense of hope.

  9. Dear Joylene: This is truly a mind-opener. Action movies thrive on worse-worse case scenario. This is what is to be expected in Action works. Very good advice, thank-you. I guess I like action, but since I am slowing down now I many less a fan of action and more a fan of a plot that makes sense. Call me old-fashioned. There are probably scores if not millions of people who only want Action. That's ok with me. I guess I like the more ephemeral movies; where there is more than just action; there's some thinking going on; and subtle emotions. These block busters do make one rich however, and since there is this fast-food need out there for action movies of thin substance I suppose that is how it is to be; if you want to make money. And we all want to make money. Isnt that funny? www.chiccoreal@blogspot.com

  10. Dear Chiccoreal, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It's always great to hear from you literary folks. LOL. Seriously, there's action and there's action. The kind of action in books like "The Blind Side" is more than appreciated. But I think sometimes we lose sight over what's even more important. Our "readers".

  11. Amazing! Thank you for this post. I am writing my first novel ever and this helped. THANK YOU AGAIN.

    I want to see more tips and tricks or just general advice like the topic above!

    Make a facebook page so that we know when post are made...

  12. Thanks, Michael. I do have a facebook page. You can access it at the bottom of my blog. Or if you like, subscribe at the bottom of this window. Thanks again for stopping by.


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