Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (What can go wrong, must), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
We know that in a story, what can go wrong must go wrong. And then some. It's how the suspense escalates, forcing your protagonist to deal with things she'd really rather not. That's why one of the biggest things that can go wrong with this story is when nothing goes wrong in it. Here is what such a story might look like. It's 1872 and Rose, a headstrong 21-year-old, lives in Rochester, New York, just as the fight for a woman's right to vote is gaining steam.
Her father is a prominent banker, and her mother is active in social causes, starting a library, and raising money to help children with polio. Unbeknownst to them, Rose has been avidly following the work of Susan B. Anthony, so when she learns that Anthony is going to try to vote in an upcoming election, she announces she is going along. Her parents forbid it. They're worried about what their friends will think, and besides, what if something happens and Rose is arrested? But Rose sneaks off anyway and joins the crowd supporting Anthony as she goes into the polling place.
Rose has a glorious day and comes away with renewed commitment to the cause. Her parents, though--disappointed by her disobedience-- re relieved that none of their friends found out she was there and that no real harm came to her. By the time women get the right to vote in 1920, Rose is an old woman herself, her parents long gone. Remembering the good times of her youth, she's filled with pride as she cast her first vote. Oh, that's a sweet story, not to mention boring, why? Because nothing ever went wrong. What did Rose struggle with? Nothing.
What did her actions cost her? Nothing. What did Rose learn? Say it with me, nothing. The stakes don't mount because there are no stakes. So let's poke around in the story, pin-pointing where the writer missed opportunities to set Rose up for a fall. As we do, notice how it's only when things go wrong for her that she's forced to tap into strengths she probably didn't even know she had. Also, notice how easy it is to make changes when the story is only one paragraph long, as supposed to waiting until 300 pages. First off, let's look at Rose's first action.
If she is going to sneak out, we want her not only to be caught, but maybe even get arrested. Everything that happens must spur an unexpected and hopefully unwelcome consequence. Never let your protagonist off the hook unless doing so will land her in even bigger trouble. Then there's her dad's occupation. He's a banker, and so instead, why not make him a judge who will be directly involved in thwarting Anthony's crusade? That would make Rose's actions much worse for him, and by extension worse for her.
Plus, it gives her a very personal cost for standing up for her beliefs. And what about her mother situation? Here is a thought. Maybe Rose's mom is in the midst of a huge fundraising campaign, and her biggest donor threatens to pull out if Rose continues to publicly support women's rights. This gives Rose's actions another very personal consequence. Most important, what about Rose's action in the heat of the moment? Let's have the writer take it from here.
After vowing to herself that she won't do anything to attract attention, Rose gets so inspired that she tries to vote. When officials turn her away, she fights back and is arrested. Once in jail, things get even worse. Her parents won't bail her out, hoping to teach her a lesson. But instead of breaking her spirit, she sees how horribly the downtrodden are treated, and it doubles her commitment. Then Rose faces her own father in court, and standing before him, she realizes that if he acquits her, he'll lose the trust of his colleagues, so she makes an impassioned speech admitting her guilt.
But it isn't enough. Seeing her beloved parents shunned for her beliefs, she begs them to disown her and is a little stunned when they tearfully agree. Then even with all that, Rose still comes away with a renewed dedication to a cause that she believes is bigger than their own lives. Decades later, on the day she votes for the first time, she feels a deep sadness at the pain she caused her family, a sadness tempered by a deeper sense of pride for what she helped accomplish.
This time because what could go wrong for Rose did go wrong. She found out what she was really made of, which makes for a great story.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots