Thursday, August 5, 2010


 By Jason Black

There’s an old adage among novelists that holds “when in doubt, make it worse.” When you as a writer have the feeling that a scene isn’t as dynamic or energetic as you’d like, when you’re concerned that there isn’t enough drama to keep the reader flipping those pages, or when you have the sneaking suspicion that the scene’s outcome is a bit too boringly predictable, there’s one strategy that almost invariably addresses these problems. Make it worse.

That is, make it worse for your characters.

Create obstacles and challenges

Creating obstacles and challenges is how you make things worse for your characters. In any scene, your protagonist should have some goals. Actually, all the characters should have goals and motivations that drive them, but we’ll focus on your main POV characters because their goals and motivations should be the ones most clearly presented to the reader, and should also be the ones readers are most sympathetic towards. In other words, readers ought to want to see your protagonists succeed.".
So, if you’re giving your protagonist a bad day, that implicitly means you’re creating situations which increase the difficulty the protagonist faces in reaching his or her goal. The situation—as in the picture accompanying this article—may even make the goal impossible. Those guys about to hit the track with their spandex-covered bodies had the same goal for the day: win the race. That ain’t happening now.

Let’s take a quick example. Imagine you have a newly engaged couple driving to an important dinner where the fellow is meeting lady’s parents for the first time. If they like him, they’ll agree to pay for the wedding, so the stakes for the couple are high. They have reservations at a nice restaurant. He is freshly shaved and showered and has even put on a suit for the evening. They’ve done their best to lay the groundwork for a successful evening.

This is a decent setup for the subsequent dinner scene with the parents, but the present moment—driving to the restaurant—is not particularly interesting. You could just cut the driving scene and skip straight to the restaurant. But, why not kick it up a notch by creating an obstacle? How about an accident on the freeway that leaves them stuck for an unanticipated half hour in traffic, making them horribly late and ruining the all-important first impression? That certainly ratchets the scene up considerably, and makes readers curious to know how the couple will cope with it.

We create problems for our protagonists in order to solve problems in our scenes. When scenes don’t feel dynamic and energetic, chances are it’s because the protagonists aren’t facing sufficient—or sufficiently compelling—problems. Watching our characters come up against those problems and struggle to solve them, that’s dynamic and energetic for the reader.

Problems create conflicts
You may have heard another old writers’ adage, “keep conflict in every scene.” When you have multiple characters in a scene—whether they are allies or antagonists—you have an opportunity to turn a problem situation for your protagonist into some kind of inter-personal conflict. With allies, they may have different ideas about how to deal with the problem. With antagonists, the conflict is more overt because the antagonist’s goals—bad guys have goals too—are in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals.
Returning to our now stressed-out young couple, there isn’t much they can do about the traffic itself. Leaving them stuck in it is boring, because they are powerless and can’t make any real choices. You need to get them out of the traffic so they can again act. So, let’s say that after creeping along the freeway for half an hour, they gladly take the first exit they can even though it puts them into an unfamiliar part of town. Now you can create some conflict. “Go that way!” “No, this way!” “We’re already late. Just go that way. I’m sure Jefferson Avenue is over there.” “No, it isn’t. It’s up ahead!”

Watching the fur fly is dramatic and entertaining on its own. But notice what else the conflict does for you: it alleviates the predictability of the un-conflicted scene. Readers can’t know who’s going to win the argument unless they read on.

Solutions are characterization

One more adage—and surely it’s one you’ve heard—“show, don’t tell.” Making it worse for your characters tells us what kind of people they are, by showing us the manner in which they confront the problem. Does the prospective husband cede to his male pride and stubbornly drive how he will, hoping not to get them further lost? Does he suck up his pride and stop to ask directions? Or, perhaps, he simply “yes dears” his way through the ordeal, letting her direct the driving and thus letting any subsequent blame for getting them lost fall on her shoulders? Each of those, plus a world of other possibilities, shows us a lot about what kind of a guy he is.

Watching how characters overcome problems shows us what kind of people they are, which in turn is how you elicit sympathy for them from the reader.

Pile it on

Finally, pile it on. Why stop with one problem? Perhaps stopping to ask directions is too cliché for your taste, so add another problem: not only are they in an unfamiliar part of town, it’s a bad part of town, the kind of place where you don’t exactly want to stop for anything. Just because you’ve made a bad situation for your characters doesn’t mean you have to stop there. After all, you can always make it worse.

So make it worse to add energy, drama, and unpredictability, but also for one more reason: At the end of the day you need readers rooting for your protagonists, something they just can’t do when the characters have it too easy.

Jason Black is a freelance book doctor who helps aspiring novelists strengthen their craft from his home in the Seattle area. You can read his blog of practical, hands-on tips for character development, on his website at

Jason will return on a continuing basis to participate in our How Would You Fix This Paragraph/Scene.


Jessica said...

Jason, I always love your posts, as you give great advice for writers. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

This is very valuable information. I looking for ways right now of throwing rocks at my characters.

K. Harrington said...

Very good post. I recently came across a great quote that said that giving the readers discomfort is the greatest fictional ploy.

B. A. Binns said...

Is that why I have so many ideas for plots swirling through my head, because my life is a series of "bad days?"

I love this post. I know I have to make my character's lives miserable many times before they get their happy endings, but sometime I get to know and understand and even love them so much I hate torturing them. Good to be reminded that their anguish is a reader's delight.

Jason Black said...

Glad you all have enjoyed the post! I'm always pleased--and a little relieved!--when a guest-blog article goes over well.

@Jessica: You're welcome!

@K. Harrington: Yes, but I think we must be careful with what we mean by "give the readers discomfort." If we mean "make them anxious on behalf our characters' fates," then by all means yes! But if we mean "make them uncomfortable with what we're writing about (subject matter, detail in gory scenes, et cetera)," then I think we should be very thoughtful first. Remember, what we write must always serve the story first, and while there are certainly times when making our readers cringe or blanche is a good thing, we should be guided by exactly that caveat: is it in service of the story? Because if we're just doing it for cheap thrills or whatever, well, I guess to each his own but that has never really done it for me.

@B.A. Binns: Yes, make them suffer before letting them succeed. But while they're fighting hard to succeed, and especially if they have to undergo some kind of meaningful personal growth in order to succeed, be sure to show the steps along that process in a believable way too. I have an article about that on my blog, here:

Many thanks to all of you for reading my article, and to the purveyors of this fine blog for inviting me to come talk with you all. I look forward to many more in the future!

Jeff Turner said...

I write about good and bad days in my books. Together they paint the tapestry of our lives, one goes with the other to tell the whole story.

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