Why a bad day makes for a good story

Fri Jan 06 2017

When was the last time you heard someone tell an absolutely spellbinding story about the totally awesome day they had?

Let me guess: never?

On the other hand, we all love to tell stories about our terrible days. Your car's funny little noise that ended up stranding you on the side of the freeway while you were rushing to pick up your kids from daycare. The five day wilderness hike where raccoons got into the packs on the third night and the whole group had to make it back to civilization while genuinely living off the land.

Why is that? Why does misfortune make for such great stories, while sunshine and roses puts us to sleep?

Is it pure schadenfreude? Pure revelry in the misery of others?

Thankfully, no. And the reason why not leads to an old writer's adage:

“When in doubt, make it worse”

This saying is your number one strategy for fixing lackluster scenes. It's all about making the story better for the reader by making the situation worse for the characters.

You do it by introducing obstacles, challenges, and any other problems you can throw at them. Stuff that interferes with their ability to pursue their goals.

In any scene, your protagonist should have some goals. We'll assume you've done the legwork of making sure that the goals are ones readers will want to see your protagonists succeed. (If not, we can talk about that too, but that's more of a premise issue than a plotting issue.)

So to create drama and ratchet up your readers' interest in the scene, create situations which increase the difficulty the protagonist faces in reaching his or her goal. Doesn't matter whether the goal in question is a short-term one or a long-term one. As long as readers can see the difficulty, it'll work.

What's the worst that could happen?

People usually ask that question rhetorically, as a way of dismissing the possible risks involved with whatever they're about to do. Slam twelve shots of tequila in a row? Sure! What's the worst that could happen?

But if you're a writer, your job is to take the question literally. Look at the scene, and within the bounds of plausibility, ask yourself what the characters would consider to be the worst possible thing to happen right then.

For example, several years back I was writing a manuscript about a small time con man. In the main plot thread, he'd gotten himself uncomfortably mixed up with a gang and had just done some stuff to break that connection. In another thread, he was wooing a girl he knew was going to be "the one."

I'd reached the point in the second thread where the girl had agreed to come over to his place for dinner. I wanted them to have a nice date, because I needed to deepen their relationship.

I remember puzzling over how I was going to write that scene such as to satisfy my goal while also not boring my reader to death. Because honestly, the thought of "he made dinner and she really liked it and they snogged on the couch and everything was lovely" didn't excite me much, so why should it interest a reader?

So I asked the question. And the worst thing I could think of to happen would be if the scary, badass gang leader showed up at the guy's apartment right in the middle of the date. Because I don't care how well your date is going; something like that's going to mess it all the way up.

All of a sudden, I had a scene I was excited to write.

Pile it on

So I took a run at the scene that way, and it was definitely more interesting than a simple date scene would have been. But it wasn't interesting enough. It turned into a dialogue-heavy, awkward conversation scene. I like writing dialogue, but the result just didn't have enough movement. It felt like what it was: people standing around talking.

The nice thing about "when in doubt, make it worse" is that it's a well that never runs dry. So I asked myself, "what would make this bad situation worse?"

Then I remembered that to break his ties with the gang, the con man had run a small con on the gang's leader. He got away with it at the time, but what if the gang leader caught on later? Well, given the nature of the con job, the guy would be humiliated in front of his girlfriend.

The situation would sure be worse if the gang leader was murderously mad.

So I had the gang leader and his henchmen blow the protagonist's door open with a shotgun, storm in, make the protagonist grovel abjectly for mercy, wet himself, and leave him in need of medical attention.

Let me tell you, that was a fun scene to write.

It also still achieved the scene's original purpose of developing the relationship: in order to get himself to the urgent care facility late at night, he needed to ask the girl for help. He had to open up and show some vulnerability, so by the time he got bandaged up and she was taking him back home, their shared adversity had definitely taken their relationship to a deeper level.

Not that she wasn't still upset about the whole situation, of course. But that's only fodder for future scenes.

Why it works

Earlier I promised you that "make it worse" doesn't work out of delight in the misery of others.

It works by removing predictability.

When characters have a plan for achieving a goal, and they're in the process of executing their plan, subsequent events become predictable. Readers usually know what the plan is, allowing them to predict what's coming next.

If that's exactly what you give them, they'll be bored.

Throwing problems in the way creates uncertainty because the characters could potentially solve the problems in lots of different ways. Or perhaps fail to solve it at all. As soon as the problem crops up, readers find themselves thinking "I wonder what he's going to do about that?"

The only way they can answer that question is to keep reading.

And as writers, isn't that all we really wanted in the first place?