It's Gonna Cost You
Sat Apr 23 2016
No matter where you look these days, it seems like everything is just so expensive.
Even our language is filled with idioms for this. "Pay up," "a pretty penny," "an arm and a leg," "pay to play," just to name a few. We even talk about intangibles in terms of money, as in "opportunity cost."
This is just as true in a novel as in real life, especially when it comes to those intangibles.
The Cost of a Good Plot
Most people look at a plot as a sequence of obstacles a character must overcome in order to achieve some goal. That works because obstacles create uncertainty as to the outcome--characters might fail--which in turn creates drama.
But you can also look at a plot as a character's process of acquiring and spending resources in order to achieve their goal.
Here's the thing: Advancements and setbacks in novels have to come with a cost, or else they feel hollow. Literally cheap. If a character makes some effort to attain some goal, they'd better sacrifice something in the process. That's the cost.
The obstacle view of plotting is great for laying out the advancements and setbacks your character will go through.
The cost view of plotting is how you give meaning to those advancements and setbacks.
A resource is anything that the character can use to achieve some end. The best resources are ones that can be lost or taken away. More on that later.
At the start of a book, you give your characters some set of resources. These can be practically anything: clothes, money, friends, jobs, skills, social class, credentials, membership in an organization, information, favors people owe them, and so on.
As the story progresses, the characters will discover that they lack the resources to take the next step towards solving the central story problem, achieving their ultimate goal, et cetera.
Thus, individual sub-plots tend to be mini-quests to obtain whatever resource they need for that next step, culminating in a mini-climax in which the character uses the resource to take that step.
Pay to Play
But remember, the obstacle view of plotting isn't all about advancements. There are also setbacks.
All advancements or setbacks happen as the result of an attempt to make an advancement. Therefore, in the cost view of plotting, the cost must come with the attempt.
It's not about the results characters want. It's about the opportunities the characters have to get those results. There is never any guarantee of success; if your characters always succeed at everything they try, then I guarantee your story will be boring.
A plot is a poker game, not a grocery store. Characters don't simply trade the resources they've earned for the advancements they want.
Rather, they trade the resources they've earned for the chance to get what they want. They have to ante-up, not knowing whether they're going to be dealt a royal flush or an eight-high busted straight.
Note, this doesn't mean that the cost has to be paid before the character makes the attempt. Just that the cost must somehow be inherent in the attempt itself. Chronologically, they can pay the cost at whatever point makes sense.
Moreover, characters don't even have to know what the costs are up-front. Characters will always have some sense for the cost of the attempt they are about to make. But you're free--nay, encouraged!--to impose all kinds of surprise costs on them when they least expect it. Clearly marked prices are for grocery stores, not plots.
Cheap Victories Versus Expensive Ones
Some resources are one-time use. You can only shoot the last bullet in your gun once, then it's gone. That last bullet is a valuable resource. Spending it really matters.
Other resources can be used more than once. Skills and authority come to mind. If your character is a bad-ass ninja, he can scale walls and whatever more or less any time he wants. If your character is the Queen, she can wield her authority all the time if she needs to. Skills and authority are resources, but because you don't lose them when you use them, they're a cheaper currency within your plot. Victories achieved that way mean less.
I well understand the temptation to give your characters impressive skills and make them powerful people. You can do that, but if those skills and that power are how they solve every problem, once again your story will feel cheap.
The victory achieved by firing that last bullet, that's the one readers are going to remember.
To pay a cost up-front, while knowing that there is no guarantee of success, creates intense drama.
But when the character's attempt actually results in failure despite the cost, that's heartbreaking. It's a gut-punch to character and reader alike, because we both understand that there are no refunds. You don't get your ante back when you lose the hand.
Object Lesson: Godric's Hollow
There's a great example of expensive failure in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (Spoilers, duh, but if you haven't read it by now what are you even doing?)
In the part when Harry and Hermione are on their own, on the run from the Death Eaters, there is a scene where Harry and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow. They want to interview Bathilda Bagshot, who they suspect has the Sword of Griffindor or can at least tell them where it might be.
Except Bathilda's house turns out to be a trap. Bathilda herself has been replaced by Voldemort's snake, Nagini, in disguise. The trap is sprung, summoning the Death Eaters and Voldemort. Spells fly. Harry and Hermione barely escape with their lives, thanks to Hermione's ability to apparate them away, but in the process Harry's wand gets broken in half.
Goal: Find the sword or information about it.
Attempt: The visit to Godric's Hollow itself.
Inherent Cost: Their safety. They know they are being hunted by the Death Eaters. They know that to be seen there carries a high risk. But they do it anyway because it's the only way forward they can see. They ante their safety into the pot, but draw that busted straight anyway.
Surprise Cost: Harry's wand. The symbol of his power. The thing that chose him, that officially confirmed his wizardness when it made sparks for him at Ollivander's shop way back in his the first book. That was the cost of the attempt, which netted them nothing in terms of advancement. What a steep price indeed!
It's a gut-punch to Harry, one that sends him reeling for several chapters and affects the course of the entire rest of the story.
Your characters want things. Their desires are why they bother doing anything at all.
When your character comes to you and says, "I want this," your job is to say, "Well, you can try, but it's gonna cost you."
The more cost you impose on the character to finally achieve their goal, the more meaningful and satisfying the end result is going to feel. Both for them and for us.