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Tuesday, January 11

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I love the "what's the worst that can happen?" approach to writing. It's helped me craft so many fun scenes and great stories. But as I was working on the new novel, I ran into an interesting snag. If you're struggling with a "worst that can happen" issue, maybe this will help.

The "worst" is something pretty bad in the story. Problem is, at some point my protagonist is going to find out about "the antagonist's plan" and have to try and stop it. When that happens, the "worst" is going to be out there and readers are going to know what it is. This is going to spoil some of the tension. So, I can either tell the reader, or keep it a secret. There are problems with both of these.

Telling the Reader
If I let the reader know about the "worst," it won't be a surprise when it happens. The big bad problem will be clear early on, and there won't be anything left for the reader to discover. It'll be a boring plot. My protagonist will be going through the motions, even though she'll have goals and drive and all the good stuff a story needs. Readers will expect her to stop it, and they'll want to see how, but in this particular case, I don't think it'll be enough. The "worst" is just too big to work as a personal motivator here. And it's so bad, there's nowhere to go to raise the stakes even further.

Keeping it a Secret
This has its own share of troubles. If I don't say what the "worst" is, the reader is going to feel like I'm holding back, and they'll be annoyed with me. It's also going to be impossible to plausibly keep my protagonist from knowing what's going on without her looking like a total idiot. Not something I want when my protagonist needs to be super smart. The tension of this story needs to come from her trying to solve and stop this "worst." Holding back would be making the whole novel a set up to a big punchline, and that punchline won't have any punch by the time you get there because I haven't been building suspense or escalating the stakes. My protagonist has to be solving things step by step and discovering the larger more horrible plan as she goes. Not only is that good plotting, but it's essential in a spy novel.

Then it hit me.

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

My antagonist is going to have a plan, but the "worst" is going to be a surprise for them, too. The "worst" is not their end goal, but something that also goes wrong for them. That way, my delightful "worst" 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." It's the same escalating stakes snowball effect, but here, my antagonist is the one who gets more than they bargained for. So if it works right, just when you think things can't possibly get any worse, they will.

And that's awesome, because no one will see it coming, and no one will believe I just did something that bad.

Naturally, I'll have to leave a little groundwork so this "worst" is plausible and not out of the blue, but it'll work off misdirection because the protagonist won't be trying to deal with the "worst," she'll be trying to deal with the antagonist's plan. And misdirection is another core element of a spy novel, so it works on multiple levels.

This is a trick that can be applied to all kinds of fun circumstances. If you have the worst that can happen happening in your story, take a peek and see if you can up the tension by having your protagonist trying to deal with something one step back from the worst, and then having the worst be the result of a failure--or better yet a success--to another problem. Use some literary sleight-of-hand to surprise and delight you readers.

The worst 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 protag, same as their failures help them.

What's the worst that can happen in your current project? 


  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. Anonymous12:12 AM EDT

    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?