On Writing: The Basics–Now Make It Worse

Friday, October 14

Let’s say you’ve spent some time and come up with this perfect conflict for your character. There is even something at stake if she fails. Go you!

Now think of a way to make it worse. Seriously.

I had an opportunity to attend one of Donald Maass’s all day workshops, and he asked this question. Many times. So often, we got to giggling, however, it was highly effective in driving home his point. Push the limits. Dare to take your character to the wall, then blow the wall away and take him even farther than that.

So, have you found a way to make it worse? Good.

Now make it matter even more. No, I’m not kidding. And there is a subtle different between making something worse, and making it matter more. Making something worse is about upping the stakes, making it matter more is about upping the emotional intensity of those stakes.

For example, when I was writing Theo, my initial external conflict was that she was going to discover this cursed artifact and removing the curse was going to fall on her shoulders. To make it worse, I decided that curse had the power to bring feast, famine, drought, and destruction to the entire country. To make it matter even more, to twist the conflict so that it uniquely and intensely skewered Theo, I had it be her mother who had unknowingly unleashed this horror on the world. For a child who felt responsible for her parents and whose familial role was to take care of them, this really upped the intensity of the conflict. Not only was it the worst that could happen (death and destruction on a national scale) but it would be her family’s fault, which gave her an added impetus to stop it.

So now take a look at your conflict.

How can you make it worse?

How can you make it matter even more?

Can you make it even worse than that? Oh go on, try. I bet you can.

Some things to consider:
Make your characters suffer. Whoever your hero cannot live without, cannot possibly succeed without, remove them. (Maass suggests killing him, but I write for kids so I take a gentler approach.)
What is your character’s greatest asset? Take it away.
What is sacred to your hero? Undermine it.
How much time does he have? Shorten it.
What matters most to your character? Threaten it.

You get the idea.

The thing is, Maass said that of all the manuscripts that cross his agency’s desks, few fail because they go too far or push too hard. No, the majority of them fail because they don’t go far enough, they don’t take things to their extremes. Which relates to my post of a couple of weeks ago about failing gloriously. Don’t let your failure be a whimpering one. If you aim for the bleachers, you have a better chance of getting past first base.

(Or something like that. I’m not so good with sports metaphors.)

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