What is the Worst Thing That Can Happen in this Chapter?

Think about what makes you keep reading a book. Is it when everything works out well? Is it when the story finally fits together like a month-long jigsaw puzzle? Is it when the end of the book is exactly what you expected from the prologue?

Of course not! That would be silly and boring!

You like it when things blow up, when people get dismembered, when the wife or husband comes home early for the first time ever. You like it when things go awry.

And so do your readers.

I mean, conflict is what moves a story forward, after all. But how can you best find the conflict in a novel or a short story?

Easy! Kind of. I don’t know where I read it, but at some point over the past few years, I ran across this delightful nugget of writing advice: before this chapter ends, what can I do to make my main character’s life miserable? Or, in my case, what is the worst thing that can happen to my characters in this chapter?

As I’ve been working on Lineage these past few months, I’ve really kept that in mind. When my team of technomages are running for their lives, do they get on the elevator and make it to their destination? Of course not! There are armed guards in their way, and they get captured! When they beat the guards and go into the elevators, do they make it out safe and sound?

No way!

The elevator system suffered unexpected damage and can’t reach that part of the building anymore. Detour time! The detour then takes them into an area packed with hostiles, not to the safety of the escape shuttle. They need disguises now!

In the interest of spoilers for the book, I’ll stop here. But you see my point. What is in my outline a simple “escape” bullet point has turned into a 5-6 chapter run-and-gun.

All because I make sure I ask myself, “what is the worst thing that can happen to my characters in this chapter?” and run with whatever I can think of.

So far, it’s working well. I’m rounding out the last 10-15k of the novel, and my characters have come across some pretty horrific revelations and situations I hadn’t planned out. (My outlining style is a chronology of major plot points, not scene-by-scene notes, so that is pretty conducive to this question, too.)

But as I’m nearing the end, I’m starting to have chapters and situations where I’m not looking for the worst-case scenario.

Writer Beware!

You have to be careful when approaching your fiction from this perspective, though. If you use it too much, you run the risk of wearing your readers out. You run the risk of becoming the next George R.R. Martin, but without the wealth and the fame. Just the ridiculously serious series of novels without hope or comic relief.

And no one wants that.

You want to be able to give your characters victories. I mean, think about Star Wars. As great as The Empire Strikes Back is, what if every single movie ended like that. What if we had no award ceremonies like in A New Hope. What if the Ewoks never got their celebratory pants-off dance-off at the end of Return of the Jedi? What if Boss Nass didn’t get to hold that giant ball of glowy goodness in The Phantom Menace?

There’s a reason that Empire sticks in our minds! Yes, Dante from Clerks, it is just a series of down endings. But Star Wars isn’t. Star Wars is about hope and redemption.

Not how badly George Lucas can screw with the characters. (That’s what the special editions, DVDs, and Blurays were for. Ba dum ching!)

And while Lineage is The Technomage Archive‘s middle book, its Empire, I don’t want it to be too heavy. I want there to be a few small victories in there that make all the conflict worthwhile. But when I’m having trouble finding that conflict, or it’s been too long since anything major happened to shake things up–which translates into poor planning or complacency on the part of the author, by the way–I always ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen?”

Then I make it happen.

What about you? What do you do to find or create the conflict in your stories? Share your tips in the comments!

Comments

  1. Miguel

    I agree with your idea that writers should be careful on putting too much conflict in the story they are writing. Although a roller coaster ride is exciting, there will be a time when you had enough an want to get off it.

  2. I feel the same way. It’s really hard to balance the need for motivation and conflict with a few good introspective, character-driven chapters. Because like my wife says about car-chase scenes in movies, “after a couple minutes of watching OMG ACTION, it’s boring, and I stop caring. It all looks the same.”