As I am deep in the outlining phase of my massive manuscript re-write, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me and need all the help I can get in re-working most of my plot. In my current (like, I don’t know, fourth?) draft, one thing is clear: my main plot is far too simple. Too many things come to the protagonist too easily and – often – by sheer luck. Well, that’s just not going to cut it. I need to make things much more complicated for her and here is how I plan to do it.
How can you make your readers’ hearts fill with dread or concern for your characters, compelling them to keep turning the pages? Simple: keep stacking up obstacles for your protagonists. Here’s an exercise that I’ve seen recommended in quite a few places, but which I first tried in an outlining workshop taught by my friend and Columbia Writers co-leader, Dustin.
The Five Worst Things
Take a scene where the conflict is weak or where things feel too safe for your characters. Think of something bad that could happen as a result of their action (or inaction). That’s number one. Now, think of something worse that could occur: there’s number two. And go on down the list, thinking of subsequently more trying scenarios until you have five terrible things that could happen to your characters. Heck, if you’re feeling ambitious/cruel, you can go with ten ideas.
There’s no need to always have these things be physical harm or death (that gets old quickly, trust me), but it can be the loss of a friendship, uncovering a closely-held secret, realizing something important has been a lie, being betrayed by a trusted person, losing an item, or missing an opportunity. I always gravitate to grievous bodily harm (because my protagonist is scrappy and gets into lots of hand-to-hand combat), but I need to expand my horizons a bit.
This exercise is great because it can function not just with individual scenes, but in a macro manner, applied to a whole manuscript or story. What are the five worst things that can happen to your characters throughout the entire narrative arc? How can you keep them on their toes? What complications can you throw at them?
And remember: not all of these complications need to be the result of the antagonist’s actions. Lots of characters will do a perfectly good job of sabotaging themselves – so let them! A flawed character who doesn’t always act in their own best interests can be a compelling one.
Grab some paper and give it a try. What are the five worst things that can happen? Only your imagination knows for sure!