Thursday, June 25, 2009

Now Make It Worse

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.

My bff, Mary Hershey, and 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.)


Aspiring Author said...

Seriously? I always worried that i was being TOO hard on my character.

Anonymous said...

*gasp* Super. :) THANK YOU. I especially love undermining what your hero holds sacred.

This is what's great about writing. I could swoon. I promise not to stalk your blog. If you promise to write less useful stuff. :)

Seriously, thank you, thank you. Thank you. :)

Robin L said...

AA, I think the thing is, one can always pull back from overdoing something, it can be toned down or tweaked, if need be. But if the basic bones and heft of the conflict aren't there in the first place, it can be very difficult to wedge them in at a later point in time.

I think the other trick that makes the "too hard on my character" thing work is causality; the sense that it is their own actions as they attempt to solve the problem that enmeshes them further in the conflict. Hm. That might need to be the subject of its own post...

Sputnitsa, please feel free to blog stalk all you want! That's what it's here for. Glad you found your way here.

And you're welcome! :-)

Aspiring Author said...

Got it.
might you do a post sometime soon about voice? I'm having a tad difficulty make my characters sound unique.
(They all talk the way i do)

Katy Cooper said...

This is most excellent advice -- it kept running through my head as I was revising a scene I've been wrestling with for the last week or so.

Robin L said...

AA, I did a four part series on Voice back in April. Have you seen that? (If not, try searching the Voice tag in the sidebar.) If that doesn't answer your question, I'm HAPPY to blab more about voice!

SO glad the advice helped, Mz. Cooper.

Aspiring Author said...

Well.. it sort of answers my questions but like, what ways can you make two characters talk different? I only know one and that's one seldom speaks and uses short sentences and the other doesn't.
do you know any others?

Katy Cooper said...

This could not have been more timely, as I try to think what happens next in the wake of the Big Turning Point scene. My main character has discovered something about herself that pretty much appalls her, something pretty huge: how do I up the ante on it, when it's really too soon to have a giant external thing happen?

Make it worse by making it mean more, by changing the stakes. She knows this new knowledge puts X at risk; in the following scene, Y is within her grasp, except for the repercussions of the new knowledge.

Thank you, Robin, for this post!

Monie said...

Thank you so much for your great advice! I will put the link to your blog up on mine!

Robin L said...

So glad you found me, Monie! And thanks for linking!