Monday 4 March 2013

Worst Case Scenario Is Something To Aim For

Sometimes in life we get worried and worked up about something and it turns out not to be as bad as we had feared. The terrible thing we were convinced was about to happen doesn’t materialise. It’s good when it turns out that way. In real life.

In a story, however, that kind of build up and release is not rewarding, it’s disappointing.

When a character thinks: I hope the killer doesn’t look in this closet where I’m hiding... definitely have the killer open the closet door. 

On a basic level, you always want to choose the path of most conflict. If a robber is trying to sneak past security guards, having him slip past without any problems isn’t going to be a very interesting robbery. You need problems and for things to go wrong in order to create an interesting narrative.

But this principle also applies to a character’s reason for being in the story in the first place.

Let’s take a woman at her younger sister’s wedding. Seeing all this love and romance and happily ever after stuff makes her freak out that she’ll be alone and single for the rest of her life.

That fear drives her to get involved with the wrong guy, to do what he wants, whatever it takes to make him happy. But in the end she realises it’s better to have no man than the wrong man.

You might think the fear she had at the beginning is enough to show motivation for what happens to her, and it comes full circle when she has her epiphany.

And you could do it that way— I’m sure readers will get why she does what she does.

But you’d have far more impact on the reader if you showed her getting everything she wanted—the rich handsome, the beautiful house, the posh new friends—and showed how she changed and did whatever it took to get all this.

But she had to abandon her friends, lost contact with her embarrassing family, ended up stuck in her new home entertaining people she doesn’t even like.

Then the fact she’s utterly alone and unhappy, the feeling she did all this to avoid, will resonate strongly with the both the character and the reader.

Then her realisation at the end will carry weight.

Whenever a writer brings a fear or warning to the reader’s attention, it’s tantamount to an agreement with the reader that just such a thing will take place. The reader might not be all that aware of this agreement and the writer may have just mentioned it in passing to add motivation, but the expectation has been created, and it needs to be met.

Even if there is a way to avoid the horrible outcome in a plausible and entertaining way, don’t. Falling into the worst possible situation is the best thing for a story. It’s not easy to write and it may not be fun for the characters involved, but it’s the most entertaining version for the reader.

In fact, the only time you shouldn’t have it work out the way the character was most afraid of is to have it turn out even worse.

Making the character aware of the possible negative outcomes (and through them, also making the reader aware) enables you to set up foreshadowing, create tension and anticipation and establish stakes. But all that dissolves very quickly if they just stroll through the story never having to face those fears. 

Whatever the character dreads most is what they should end up having to deal with at some point.

This is by no means a hard and fast rule. It’s just that if the character is worried about a monster under the bed, it tends to be a more fun if there really is a monster under the bed. 
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Bring the worst fears to life.

Al Diaz said...

As reader I have experienced that disappointment. It is actually ironic that I didn't remember it as a writer when I started my current story, resulting in me having to rewrite the whole thing again. There must be some sort of switch that goes off in my head when I shift from reader to writer. I must check that.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I hated this trope in that awful M. Night Shyamalan movie "The Village." They were worried about monsters and there were no monsters. It was such a disappointment.

mooderino said...

@Alex - Even if you can find a way to avoid it.

@Al Diaz - I think that's true for all of us. So much easier when looking at someone else's work.

@Michael - I don't think this applies to M Night. His movies tend to be awful no matter what.

Francene Stanley said...

I see what you mean. I must work out what my character's worst fear is to give the story more punch. Thanks for the advice.

Sarah Foster said...

Do you think the worst case scenario is ever TOO obvious? I was nodding my head in agreement while reading this until I realized that I purposely avoid this in my WIP, because it feels cliched. But then again, I suppose it's all about expectations. If you set up an idea for the reader, then you have to follow through. If you never even put that idea in their heads, then they won't be asking those questions in the first place.

CBame13 said...

Without the worst possible outcome happening to the characters, what will they have to rise up and overcome? It is imperative in any story for just what you said to come to pass. We would love for everything to work out fine in real life, but that would make for a really uninteresting read.
As always, great post!

Unknown said...

I agree with the intent of putting a character in a closet and having fear of someone opening it, then they don't. Heck yes, open the closet! Why else did you write this scene anyway, right?

Misha Gerrick said...

So true. If the threat isn't as serious as anticipated, the result feels like a cop-out.

mooderino said...

@Francene - It should work for any fear the character has, not just their worst one.

@Sarah Anne - I'd say it depends entirely on what the fear is and how it's demonstrated.

@CBame13 - cheers.

@Diane - I agree, bit I see that type of writing all the time in WIPs.

mooderino said...

@Misha - any threat that gets sidestepped feels like a cop out, I think.

Elise Fallson said...

It is a disappointment when the writer or a film builds up certain expectations and suspense but doesn't follow through. If it's too disappointing, I'll put the book down. I'm ruthless like that. (;

mooderino said...

@Elise - Sadly, sometimes you don't realise until you're at the end of the book. The cunning gits.

LD Masterson said...

I'm a bit in agreement with Sarah Anne's comment. Sometimes I think it works better to not have a monster in the closet. Then the reader is completely off guard later when it pops out of the bathroom instead.

mooderino said...

@LD - The important thing is to live up to the threat, you don't have to do it in an obvious way. As I said in the in the post, it's okay to give readers something even better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). What you don't want to do is give them nothing.

Rusty Carl said...

I know, I know... geez. Is everyone on of your posts directed directly at me? I'm trying.

Seriously, the line you said about if their worst fear doesn't happen... it's because what happens is actually worse... that is awesome. I'm taking notes.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - I'm standing behind you right now.

Misha Gerrick said...

Hey again, Mood,

Congrats! You were voted Giver of Best Writing Advice for the Paying Forward Awards.

Please check out my blog to see how you can claim your prize.


Carol Bodensteiner said...

This is exactly the situation I'm working with in my novel right now. I've known that in real life I tend to avoid conflict at all cost but I have realized my character is doing the same thing. Every time a problem crops up, she walks away! In this rewrite, I'm forcing myself to make it all go wrong for her. You're right - it is hard to write, but it's so much better to read!

mooderino said...

@Carol - I think it's that natural inclination to avoid trouble that makes it feel like a good idea at the time.

Brett Minor said...

I have hit that disappointment many times. The author builds up the suspense for chapters and then nothing happens. It's a big let down.

Visiting from A to Z Challenge. This is my first year participating.
Transformed Nonconformist

mooderino said...

@Brett - Often the writer is aware of it but considers it okay because it's intentional. And sometimes it even works, but rarely.

nutschell said...

great post, as usual! Worse Case Scenario=Best scenario for novels.:D

mooderino said...

@nutschell - cheers.

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