Monday, October 03, 2022

Why “The Worst That Can Happen” Is Terrible Writing Advice

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The worst that can happen isn’t always the best thing for the plot.

For many stories, the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist is that they die. The threat of death looms over them throughout the novel, they face it time and time again, and in the end—surprise surprise—they don’t die.

Which is the problem with death as a stake.

With a few rare exceptions (looking at you Orson Scott Card and George R.R Martin), authors aren’t going to kill off a main character, let along their protagonist. The kinda defeats the purpose of the novel.

The “worst thing that can happen” is often an empty threat.

This holds true in most “worst that can happen” scenarios. Death, total disaster, irreconcilable differences—whatever the horrible, terrible thing your protagonist might face that will utterly devastate them and prevent the story from happening. The “worst” encompasses so many things, and most of them aren’t personal enough to the protagonist and characters to really, truly, matter.

Yet we see this advice all the time (even from me). Sure, in concept, it’s great advice, because the more trouble we heap onto our characters the better the book tends to be, but “the worst” should be used carefully. Death isn’t the only option available to you, and neither is the end of the world.

The “worst” is subjective to the story itself, and it’s up to the writer to figure out what terrible thing can happen that works with the story they’re trying to tell.

Here are three reasons to avoid doing “the worst thing that can happen” in a story:

It usually stops the plot cold.

It’s hard to come back from the “worst” thing, since the worst is actually pretty awful. There’s probably at least one death of a known character, or a big number of lives ruined, or something that fundamentally changes something about the story or world for the, um, worse.

First, there’s nowhere for the plot to go after that without it feeling a bit contrived. Once the worst happens, what’s next? Isn’t failing to resolve the final conflict the point of the novel, and thus the worst thing? Shouldn’t failing there be the worst thing that could happen?

Second, there’s a good chance your characters are going to feel like cold, heartless people if the worst happens and they can soldier on like it didn’t just shred them physically or emotionally. The trauma of experiencing that should sideline them for weeks, but odds are they have a page or two of sadness and grief and then it’s back to business as usual. That’s just unrealistic.

Third, where do you go from a stakes perspective? Unless the worst happens in the climax, you can no longer escalate the stakes, and the tension will drop like a rock. It’s even worse if the characters all survive it, because now readers know they can handle whatever is thrown at them during the story.

Yes, you want your story problems to be bad, but not so bad they cut your plot off at the knees.

(Here’s more with 5 Places in Your Novel That Probably Aren’t Terrible Enough)

It’s often so big readers don’t care if it happens.

The bigger an issue gets, the harder it is to relate to it and care about it. All over the world, millions of people are in terrible situations this second, yet we go on with our lives as usual. It’s not because we’re awful people, it’s just that faceless people we don’t know who are suffering isn’t as impactful as the suffering of those we do know.

Which is actually a good thing, or we’d spend our days hiding in bed, miserable.

But for novels, readers need to care. And the more faceless people affected by something, the less they care about it. It’s too conceptual, and it becomes background noise for the story.

Readers care about characters they know. And since they know authors don’t usually kill off the main characters, readers understand that whatever terrible “worst thing ever” hanging over a character’s head won’t truly come to pass. And if it does, it won’t hurt them that much.

Essentially, the “worst” won’t happen so readers don’t worry about it.

(Here’s more with Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

It can come across melodramatic rather than dramatic.

One of my favorite cheesy movies is Deep Rising. It’s about (from IMDB) “A group of heavily armed hijackers who board a luxury ocean liner in the South Pacific Ocean to loot it, only to do battle with a series of large-sized, tentacled, man-eating sea creatures who had already invaded the ship.” Treat Williams plays the protagonist, and every time something goes wrongs, he asks “Now what?” And he says this a lot.

It’s funny, because the movie does get a bit over the top—but that’s point. It’s supposed to be melodramatic and cheesy.

But unless that’s the goal for your novel, having things always go wrong in the worst possible way can come across just as cheesy. The last thing you want is readers chuckling over a moment that’s supposed to be scary, or exciting, or tug at their heartstrings.

(Here’s more with Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

Instead of the “worst thing that can happen,” look for the “worst outcome for that situation.”

Every scene will have a different level of “worst” that fits the situation and can actually happen. Think about:
  • What will cause the protagonist to spectacularly and impactfully fail?
  • What will cause an emotional blow?
  • What will make things harder down the road?
  • What did the protagonist not see coming (that maybe they should have)?
  • What will shake up their worldview?
  • What will make them reevaluate everything they thought they knew?
  • What will raise the stakes enough to keep tensions high, but still leave room to escalate later?
The trick is to create problems with real stakes that lead to bigger problems (“bigger” is also subjective), so the plot and story can advance and keep readers hooked. Start small and keep climbing—don’t dump the end game on them in the first act.

You might ultimately decide the “worst’ is something you do want them to face, but save that for the climax when it can truly have an effect on the story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look at the stakes in your story (or scene). Are they the worst that can happen (in a bad way), or the worst outcome for each scene?

How do you feel about “the worst than can happen?” How do you use this advice?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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. Thank you Janice, I've been enjoying your blog, its very helpful and I really appreciate all the work you put into it. Just purchased your book Plotting your Novel: Ideas and Structure!

    1. You're most welcome. I'm glad it's helping you. And thanks! It's much appreciated.

  2. Have I mentioned how glad I am to have you back? This is a true Janice piece, digging deeper into its subject than many bloggers do with a whole series of posts.

    I agree, going big with threats can easily backfire. Threatening "the worst" and then escaping it is an absolute cliche, it's written so often -- it's what makes many forms of adventure and action more friendly than going for true suspense. So better writing should change it up, look for more varied and convincing dangers that actually *could* happen without constantly threatening to break the story. (Rachel Aaron did a blog some years ago about how the anime *Food Wars* has more suspense than many fighting shows, because losing a cooking contest doesn't mean getting beheaded.)

    Also, "bigger bangs are better" is serious tunnel vision. How many other *kinds* of problems can happen? what could cause them, what effects do they have, how would each of those fit with the flow of the story?

    "Worst for the characters" is just one tool for finding the best problem for the story.

    1. Aw, thanks so much!

      Love the Food Wars example. (Rachel rocks). I think that's why so many reality shows like that do so well. There IS real suspense and high stakes, even if they're not beheadings.

      "Worst for the characters" is a good thing to keep on a post-it on the monitor :)

  3. Thank you, Janice. It's true what you say about 'the worst thing'. If readers know it's not going to happen, then they have no emotional feeling for the story.