Monday, May 25, 2015

What Makes the Best Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There’s a comedian who says doing whatever makes the best story is the secret to life. In writing, it works in a similar way. Whatever provides the best story is usually the way to go.

The TV show Nashville, recently had a good example of this (Minor spoilers if you haven’t seen the season finale yet). We can apply the same technique to our own stories to develop stronger plots and bring out the inherent tension our stories already have.

All season, one of the main characters (Deacon) has been battling cancer. His only chance to survive is to receive a liver transplant, but his estranged sister (Beverly) refuses to help. Finally, in the season finale, she’s pushed into agreeing by Deacon’s fiancĂ© (Rayna) and they go in for surgery.

All episode, Deacon has been dreaming about dying. It’s so prophetic that events from his dream even occur as he’s being prepped and put under. The foreshadowing has been heavy and viewers are expecting him to die. It helps that a series-long romance between him and Rayna has finally worked out, so he now has so much to live for (so taking it away would provide conflict for the show).

The episode ends with the doctor coming out and telling Rayna that there’s a problem. Fade to black, season ends.

Now, obviously I have no idea what the writers are going to do when the show comes back in the fall, but I know what I’d do if this were my story.

Go for the sister. That would provide the most plot and story options for the series going forward.

Let's brainstorm on what could happen and explore possible plotting options in this scenario:

Deacon dies: Tragic yes, but this would only make people sad for a few episodes, then it’s back to business as usual. His death doesn’t affect anything beyond the emotions of a few other characters, and there’s only so much story you can pull out of “we’re so sad Deacon’s dead” angle. Killing a beloved character just for the shock of it doesn't create strong plots in most cases.

Beverly dies: She isn’t the nicest person and is estranged from not only her brother Deacon, but her daughter Scarlett, and even Rayna. Rayna tried to bribe Beverly with a million dollar check to save her brother’s life, which she tore up and mailed back before giving in to do the right thing. But her reasons weren’t noble, she was doing it so she could be the hero and prove everyone else wrong. If she dies you have potential story fodder with:

Rayna: She's the one who pushed Beverly to donate part of her liver when she didn’t want to. She got her fiancĂ©'s sister killed, and that’s likely to cause problems between them and major guilt on her part. Beverly even mentioned wanting to stay in Nashville after the surgery and become part of their lives again, which Rayna doesn’t want, so her being relieved about that adds even more guilt.

Deacon: He'll no doubt blame himself for killing his sister, and he already feels guilty about events in their past. This guilt can send him into all kinds of possible messes (he’s a recovering alcoholic). He’ll likely blame Rayna for it as well, even if he doesn’t mean to and knows she was only trying to save his life.

Scarlett: She would be devastated if her mother dies trying to save her uncle. She already has major relationship issues with her mother (who was not the best mom), and her death would only compound those problems. Even worse, she’s dating (and just moved it with) Deacon’s oncologist, so Beverly’s death will probably cause trouble there.

Maddie: Deacon and Rayna’s daughter, she just met her Aunt Beverly for the first time and feels part of the family (lots of history there), and her death will likely send Maddie down all kinds of bad roads as an emotional teen tries to deal with very adult situations she’s not ready for. She's already on this path from other events, so giving her a push fits right in.

Beverly lives, but is incapacitated in some way: She survives, but something happens that will make her dependent on the others. Deacon is grateful for the liver, but he really doesn't want his sister to stay because she’s a terrible person who causes pain in everyone she claims to love. If they’re obligated to care for her, she can milk it for all it’s worth and you’d get the conflict depths of both issues—she moves there, and there’s something to feel incredibly guilty over that will lead to additional problems.

Beverly's liver isn't going to work and Deacon doesn't get his transplant:
This would have all the effects of the "you owe me" guilt from Beverly without actually getting the liver and living. However, the writers already played this card with a donor liver, so doing it again would feel repetitious. On the other hand, this is his only chance to survive, and his 15-year-old daughter could get pulled into this and face a tough choice. It was mentioned that Maddie was "too young to donate part of her liver."

Based on this quick story study, Beverly makes the best choice to create the most possible storylines going forward. She's probably toast.

Using this in our own stories: While we don’t want to cause trouble just to cause trouble, consider what outcomes would create the most issues between the characters. Look at the consequences and find the resolutions that offer the deepest story well to draw from.

What would you do if you were Nashville’s writers? How would you write what happens next?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Looks like Beverly dying would be a great way for the writers to get the most bang for the death (that seemed a little less callous when I thought this up lol!)

    1. LOL, writers talking is always funny like that. I've gotten some weird looks when out with friends talking about killing people.

  2. I agree. I'd off the sister. Besides, I can't stand her!

    1. She is a tough one. The actress plays her so well.

  3. This post opened my eyes: I will kill another character, a character that will affect the main character.
    Thanks and... dahell! I need watch this show!

    1. It's a lot of fun and they do a lot of interesting things storywise.

  4. Love how you present the options for the continuing story depending on which character survives. It's a good reminder when writing our own stories--who can I kill off or gravely injure for the greatest collateral damage.

    1. We have control in our stories, and sometimes it's a good idea to take a step back and think about all the options. I once had an idea be the perfect solution, but I'd discarded it earlier because I'd thought, "well I can't do that, it changes too many things."

  5. OR, maybe the ending turns out to be no biggie, like they usually are anyway. Everything seems worse than what it really is. They both survive and the liver xplant is good. Now his sister thinks that everyone owes her one and milks it for all it's worth! They foreshadowed that she wants to move/stay there. She could really be a 'bitchy' character that adds a lot of strife to the other characters.

    1. It's possible. They have a few of those characters already, but I'm hoping one has hit rock bottom and they start to softer her some. So they'd need a new one to take her place in that role. It could all just be a season ender smoke and mirrors show.

      But that doesn't make for a very good story (grin).