Monday, July 08, 2019

Plotting for the Thrill: Making the Most of the Worst That Can Happen

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist is the worst thing for the story, too.

"What's the worst thing that can happen? Do it," is good advice when plotting a novel. It adds conflict, escalates the stakes, and raises the tension.

The downside, though, is that sometimes letting our readers know what "the worst thing" is, is actually bad for the story.

I ran into this problem when I was drafting my fourth novelThe "worst thing" was something pretty darn terrible, so when my protagonist found out about it, she naturally tried to stop it (as protagonists are wont to do).

Unfortunately, this happened well before the third act and climax of the novel, so "the worst thing" was out there in the story and readers would know what it was. Knowing it would spoil a lot of the tension because the stakes could no longer escalate.

I had a choice to make--tell the reader and risk killing my tension or keep it a secret and risk not raising the stakes enough.

If you're facing this dilemma n your current project, here are some things to consider:

Option One: Tell Readers and Spill the Plot Beans

At first glance, this seems like the best option, because odd are whatever "worst thing" is will be exciting and shocking and probably something you've wanted to tell them all book.

But if you let readers know about the "worst thing" too early, it won't be a surprise when it happens. If you're relying on that shocking "Oh no!" reaction, revealing it early just killed it.

It also risks raising the stakes too far too fast, so there's nowhere else for then to go. No escalation in stakes, no new dangers to reveal, and the odds of the plot plodding along out of boredom go up dramatically.

In my case, when I told readers how bad it really was, my protagonist just went through the motions of plot afterward, even though she had goals and drive and all the good elements a story needed. Readers expected her to stop "the worst thing," they wanted to see how, so they no longer cared about the plot between that reveal and the actual climax.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Tricking Your Reader and Surprising Your Reader)

Option Two: Keep the Worst Thing a Secret

Not revealing the "worst thing" has its own share of troubles. If you don't say what the "worst thing" is, readers can easily feel like you're holding critical information back, and they'll be annoyed with you. This is especially true if the plot and motivation of the protagonist relies on understanding how bad things really are.

It can also be difficult to plausibly keep the protagonist from knowing what's going on without her looking like a total idiot. If readers guess it and she's still floundering around clueless as can be, she'll lose credibility with those readers. Not something you want when your protagonist needs to be super smart.

In my case, the tension in the story needed to come from my protagonist trying to solve and stop this "worst thing." Holding back what it was made the whole novel a set up to a big punchline, and that punchline didn't have any punch by the time readers got there, because I hadn't been building suspense or escalating the stakes. My protagonist had to solve her problems step by step and discover the larger, more horrible plan as she went. Not only is this good plotting, but it's essential in a spy novel (which this was).

(Here's more on Shh! It's a Secret: How to Raise Tension and Conflict in a Scene)

Then the solution hit me.

The worst I can do is different from the worst the antagonist can do.

The antagonist has a plan, and he'll be acting out that plan. What he (or she) can do will specific to that plan. So the "worst thing" that could happen will come from a different perspective than you as the writer. You see the bigger scope, and can craft a much nastier surprise, but the antagonist only has what's available to him.  You might see options there if you put yourself in his shoes.

Also, don't forget that antagonist can have bad days, too. He can make mistakes and bad choices. His plans can go haywire, he can mess up, and the "worst thing" can happen to him as well. Who knows what terrible things might happen if he messes up.

If the "worst thing" isn't going to work for your protagonist or antagonist, try looking at what terrible things can befall (or be caused by) the other characters in the story. Maybe the love interest gets slammed by tragedy, or the sidekick falls victim to an evil scheme, or someone with good intentions makes the worst choice ever that ends up having huge repercussions.

(Here's more on Tah-Dah! The Best Place to Reveal Your Story Secrets)

In my case, I revised so the antagonist had a plan, but the "worst thing" is going to be a surprise for them, too. The "worst thing" is not their end goal, but something that also goes wrong for them. That way, my delightful "worst thing" can still happen as I want, but I can keep it a secret because my protagonist will be trying to solve a problem that helps create that "worst thing." It's the combination of antagonist mistake and protagonist attempts to win that make everything worse.

It had the same escalating stakes snowball effect, but now, my antagonist was the one who got more than they bargained for. Just when readers think things can't possibly get any worse, they do. And it's a surprise.

(Here's more on Do You Have a Story with a Twist, or a Twist That Thinks it's a Story?)

If you have the "worst thing that can happen" happening in your story and it's not quite working right, see if you can raise the tension by having your protagonist deal with something one step back from the "worst thing," and then have the "worst thing" be the result of a failure--or better yet a success--to another problem. Use some literary sleight-of-hand to surprise and delight your readers.

The worst thing that can happen can happen to your bad guys as well as your good guys. And if the bad guys are trying to rob a bank and end up accidentally blowing up the whole block, well then, that's trouble for everyone in the story. Bad guys can mess up in ways that hurt the protagonist, same as their failures help them.

What's the worst thing that can happen in your current project? Who or what causes it?

**Originally published January 2011. Last updated July 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I love this analysis. As I was reading it, I thought about my antag, protag, and plot, comparing them to everything in your post. I found that a lot of my manuscript follows your ideas for the most part, but it varies here and there, which you mentioned near the end of your post. I'll be using this as a future guide for my next book as well.

  2. That's a great way of thinking about it. I had already run into the problem of how to raise the stakes without letting the entire cat out of the bag, but I never thought to make it a mistake on the antagonist's part.

    At the moment I have something like that, only the antagonist has another plan that no one knows about. So when they think they've won, it turns out they've lost. :D

    Thanks for the great post!

    I live in GA too, and I was wondering if you were snowed in as well?

  3. Sylestehwriter: Thanks! Good to hear you're following along the same lines.

    Elizabeth: We got about 6 inches and the streets are all iced over. We spent several hours outside with the neighbors and the neighborhood kids playing in the snow. We have a good slope in our backyard that worked great for sledding :) I only came in because my face was so numb I was slurring my words! LOL. Snow is still new to me (Florida gal) so I'm loving every minute of it.

  4. Ooo this is a great post - I'll have to really think about this one wrt my WIP. I kind of have the first situation going, I think. The reader knows what my protag has to do, but she doesn't know how she's going to do it and I tried to make that the driving force of the plot. I have it kind of set up that she's going to have to do the very thing that the male love interest is telling her not to do. I've asked my beta readers and they said that it's not obvious to them that it's going to turn out that way, but I don't know... so hard to tell. Haha, not sure if that made any sense. Anyway, I'll keep this in mind when I'm plotting my next WIP.

  5. 'The "worst" is not the antagonist's end goal, but something that also goes wrong for them.'

    I heart you for this post! You've given me a great idea for my ending, thank you!

  6. One of the funniest things to do (2nd funniest, after writing dialog) is to write with antagonist POV, pretend you're in the bad guy's boots >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  7. This is fun! I can't wait to see how it turns out.

  8. This is really brilliant. :) I'm going to have to add it to my bag of fox-tricks.

  9. Angie: If your betas are saying it's working, odds are it is. We see so much more in our own work than a reader who doesn't know it like we do.

    Girl Friday: Awesome!

    Cold As Heaven: I love bad guys, so this is always fun for me. Not that I've done it lately since I've been writing in first person! I need to do a third person book soon. One with a really great villain.

    Juliette: You and me both :)

    Chicory: Thanks!

  10. This is something I'm wondering about in my current manuscript. My main character is supposed to be a super genius, but at the same time, the antagonist needs to be one step ahead. So I've been trying to give him some correct assumptions as well as false leads, so he's doing his best to stops what he thinks is the worst that can happen, all while the full problem isn't discovered until too late.

  11. Sbibb, ooo that's a tough one. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty :) What if you gave your hero a blind spot? Something he's just bad at or doesn't see? And that's where the villain is really good?

  12. One of your better posts. Keeping suspense can be quite a paradox--

    But you're so right, the story's Worst Thing doesn't have to be the villain's goal, and in fact it probably shouldn't. A villain, or certainly an "antagonist", has his own reasons and he thinks he's the hero. Villains who want to blow up a block are cartoonish; ones that rob a bank but get careless with their explosives (just when the hero's mother and the busload of orphans drives up) make sense. That in itself makes the story about how crime is dangerous stuff and the specific ways it can escalate. That's a better story all around.

    1. Thanks! Great examples. I've always been a fan of smart and understandable villains, which would make this even easier.

  13. Having the antagonist make the mistake is fabulous. I also wonder if changing or adjusting that stakes, maybe as part of the story, would work too.

    1. It would. Escalating the stakes at key pinch points helps increase tension and quickens the pace. It also gives that sense of things snowballing and getting worse and worse. A common reason manuscripts get rejected is because the stakes don't escalate.