Tuesday, January 11
Making the Most of the Worst That Can Happen: Plotting for the Thrill
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?