How Much Worse Can it Get?

Today, I’m continuing the series I started on the Write Conversation blog, Plot Problems Solved in Three Questions.

Previously, I discussed the question, What Would My Character Naturally Do?

Today, let’s explore the question: How can I make it worse?

Bring In a Gun revolver

Mickey Spillane is credited with saying, “When your plot gets stuck, have someone come in with a gun.”

Why? Because the gun, no matter what the situation, makes things worse.

It doesn’t have to be a physical gun. It can be anything. Your heroine is exploring a strange house and the lights go out.

Your hero gets in his car to drive home from work and a woman screams.

A husband and wife are having a normal dinner conversation and the wife says, “I’m seeing someone else.”

All these things ratchet up the tension and throw your main character off stride. They knock him out of his comfort zone. They present him with new choices, choices that rip at his gut or his heart. Choices he doesn’t want to make. Choices that will prevent or delay him from his achieving his story goals.

Ratchet It Up

Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:

timeThey strap bombs to the core and set them to go off in one hour. Never underestimate the power of the ticking time bomb.

There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.

They start killing the hostages.

The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.

She’s aiding the terrorists.

What Can Make It Worse?

Throw obstacles in your main character’s path. Literally. It’s 4:45 p.m., she’s driving on the interstate and she needs to be across town by 5:00 p.m. or she’ll lose her job. A tractor-trailer jackknifes in front of her. Every lane is blocked. She’s still miles from her exit. And her cell phone is dead. What does she do?Angry Leopard

Raise The Stakes

In the movie, Live Free or Die Hard, Bruce Willis, as John McClane, is helping the FBI prevent a cyber attack on the United States. His job is to transport an uber-hacker to the FBI. The cyber terrorists try to stop him every way possible. But this is John McClane. In desperation, the terrorists kidnap McClane’s daughter. This raises the stakes. This makes it personal. This doesn’t stop McClane. This propels him to take greater risks, to face death, to save his child.


Star Wars FightersThe key element to making it worse is the escalation must be believable. It must flow naturally, or organically, from the story, from what has happened previously. If you haven’t planted the seeds for an alien invasion early in the story, you can’t use the appearance of a flying saucer in the last act as a device to make things worse.

And your character’s reaction to the escalation must be something she would naturally do.

Study and Experiment

As you read novels and watch movies, study them. Look for places where the situation gets worse for the main character. Study how the writers did it, how they set it up.

Throw as much junk at your main character as you possibly can. If it works, keep it in the story. And see how you can make that even worse.

To paraphrase Donald Maass: What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Put it in the book.

What are some things you’ve done to your hero to make it worse?




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