Monday, September 27, 2010

PLOT DEVELOPMENT: Things Must Get Worse

When I first read Donald Maass' workbook Writing The Breakout Novel, I knew I needed to reiterate that reading his book is a necessary step for all fiction writers. Even as an author there's no guarantee I'll continue to have my books bought by publishers. I'm in the same boat as everyone. I need to write stories that standout. And if doing the exercises from Mr. Maass' book help, then I'll continue.

While I'm on the subject: Never assume that because you acknowledge an author in your post that you have permission to duplicate anything they've copyrighted. Obtaining their written permission will save you possible future lawsuits. It takes little effort on the part of the author to discover if his work is being aired where it's not suppose to be.

Now for today's exercise: public stakes. To break that down, "public stakes" are problems imposed on your characters by outside forces that leave the reader identifying with the characters. Few people escape trouble. Bad things happen to good people. And that is even more essential in novels. The worse things get, the better the story. Sounds ridiculous, but conflict creates excitement and removes the yawn factor.

i.e., Let's say I write a book about Eve who loves the son of her father's boss, a man who her father despises. Tanner's father owns the business that keeps their town alive. He's rich and powerful and inclined to do whatever it takes to keep what's his. Eve and Tanner fall in love, but keep their relationship secret because of their fathers. As their love deepens, they become careless and get caught. Tanner's father sends him off to the Army. Tanner, powerless to do much, finishes basic training and deploys to Iraq and then Afghanistan with the hope that once things settle down, he can return for Eve. His second problem: all his letters come back unopened.

Can the situation get worse? Oh yes.

Unaware that Tanner is in the Army, Eve finds herself pregnant and unwanted. Her father, furious over her predicament, sends her to a distant maternal aunt clear across the country. Eve has no way of contacting Tanner, nor does she know for certain if he still cares about her. 

Can things get worse? You bet.

Eve gives birth to a baby girl with heart problems. She never hears from Tanner, and no one back home seems to know where he is. After a year, Tanner returns to find Eve gone, and no one will tell him where she is either. His father expects him to now take over the family business. Tanner says no and reenlists. He's immediately shipped off to war-torn Kandahar. Meanwhile Eve's baby girl has two  heart operations. The doctors tell her the baby will require many more. Eve is penniless. To save her daughter, she thinks of putting her up for adoption. A sympathetic lawyer tells her that nobody wants a sick child. Eve is desperate and takes a job at a strip club.

A year later, the small community where Eve and Tanner grew up is hit by the worst hurricane in seventy five years. The town is almost flattened. Tanner's family business is close to ruin. His father begs him to come home and fix things. Tanner says he will if they'll tell him where Eve is. Tanner's father makes an attempt by approaching Eve's family, but her father refuses to cooperate. His hatred for the other man runs too deep.

Not only are both families ruined, but the town suffers. People are forced to uproot. Tanner's father blames Eve. He hires thugs to beat the information out of Eve's father. When he learns where she is, he sends someone to kill her. He wants revenge for losing his empire. Tanner finds out what his father is up to, and knows he hasn't got much time. Can he reach Eve before the hired gun does? Will Eve's father survive the beating? What will happen to her mother and her siblings if her father dies? Can Tanner save the business and in return their town?

Raising public stakes adds universal appeal to your story. But it needs to be a public that your reader recognizes. Yes, it's terrible to hear of the atrocities of racial cleansing in South Africa, but it's not a life that most North American's can relate to. Bad stuff from outside forces must happen to good people that we connect to on a daily level. These characters could be our neighbours, relatives or friends. Their lives could mirror our own. Eve and Tanner's problems are problems that neither one of them brought on themselves. Because although your reader may not have served in Iraq or given birth to a baby girl with a heart defect, they will very much relate to Eve and Tanner's dilemmas because of the law of six degrees. Someone knows someone who knows someone.

High conflict, emotional turmoil happen to real people every single moment of every single day. How these endearing characters cope and grow and survive will become the heart of your story and the hook for your readers.

You're fed up with all those rejection letters, correct? Or tired of getting no response at all? Or maybe your last book didn't blow them away on Amazon. Then the question remains: How can you make the problems in your next story worse?

Does your hero love his job? Then he needs to lose it. Does your character depend on the encouragement of family and friends to cope with life's problems? Then she needs to find herself suddenly very alone. Does Tanner need to find Eve so that together they can save their daughter's life? Then Eve needs to marry the rich doctor whom she thinks will be a good father and provider. After they're married and she realizes she made a mistake, Tanner needs to show up so Eve can now redirect her rage upon him. I'm not actually going to write their story, but ... you get the idea.

Things must and can get worse.

--Happy Editing.


  1. Excellent advice, but in the context of my little children's stories, and as it is very late at night here, I'm smiling in a silly way and thinking, hmmm, get worse? Now shall I have the dragon eat her after all?

  2. (laughing) No, maybe getting eaten by a dragon would be a bit too extreme. I'm thinking about Alice in Wonderland. Things definitely escalated nicely there. In The Wizard of Oz, I remember feeling so nervous the first time I saw it. I just wanted Judy Garland to get back home safely. As for you, young lady -- I've also read enough of your writing to know you no doubt have everything under control.

    Thanks for stopping by, Carole. Happy editing.

  3. I remember Don once saying at a conference workshop that you have to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to a character, and then make it happen to him. And when you're sure things couldn't get any worse, make them get worse. I remember wondering at what point the story would cross the credibility line, but, as Carole Anne's comment suggests, I think our common sense tells us when we've reached the limit. One of the main problems in some of the novels I've read has been not enough conflict. That doesn't sound like it would be a problem for Eve and Tanner... but I do wonder why Eve couldn't have located Tanner's regiment/troup with a little effort, even if the story took place prior to the accessibility of internet and e-mail. ;)

    Sounds like an interesting story. Maybe you should write it!

  4. Hi Joylene,
    You have posted up some superb advice.
    The concept that, 'things must and can get worse', is a fascinating angle. I think it would have been really neat if 'Dorothy' clicked her red shoes three times , and instead of ending up back in Kansas, ended up in the reduced price section of a local supermarket in a small English town where the outraged locals tie her to a shopping cart and parade her through the town centre where even more irate citizens throw reduced priced tomatoes at her and her dog 'Toto'. When I say, 'Toto', this must not be confused with the band Toto, who were, at one time, the back up band to Boz Scaggs...
    Sorry Joylene, obviously I'm still suffering from a bout of the flu.
    Have a peaceful day. In kindness and confusion, Gary:-)

  5. Hi Carol. I agree there must be a credible balance as to just how bad things can get. Actually, I know in the past I've set a book aside or if it's a movie, switched the channel because the conflict seem contrived. But maybe what Don is trying to say is use talent and great prose to contribute to a terrific conflict-ridden story. And let's not forget that he's talking about commercial fiction, not literary. On the opposite end, I found The Rainmaker lacked conflict. Things seemed a bit too easy for Damon's character.

    As for Eve, I made up the plot line on the spot, so I'm going to say that she doesn't know Tanner enlisted. IOWs, I'd adjust the plot accordingly. Hopefully. LOL.

  6. LOL -- Gary -- your scenario made my day. Dorothy needed the excitement, I'm sure. LOL!

  7. Joylene --
    I received excellent advice along these lines from my writing partner on my current work in progress and consequently added a couple of disasters for my main character.

    And I Love the example you used. Where can I buy the book?

  8. I keep re-writing the ending of RECKLESS. Think it's a bad thing to end on a seemingly bad note? Of course it's the lead in to the sequel.... or should I say threequel. Good example but I think Tanner should have manned up.

  9. Hi Margaret. Thanks for stopping by. Isn't it amazing how fast characters show up in our heads. Until yesterday morning there was no Eve or Tanner. Now readers are actually thinking about them. That is remarkable.

    Hi Dave. Yes, I think somebody should kick Tanner in the butt. But in his defense, he did save Eve from his father's hired gun. LOL. Have fun writing that ending. Your books sound awesome.

  10. Hey Martha, thanks for stopping by!


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