Monday, December 21, 2009

Things Go Wrong

Generally, I don’t read guest posts and I certainly don’t link to them, but I happened to see a guest post by Steven James on Brandilyn Collins’ blog titled Things Look Bad? Make Them Worse. You ought to read it when you get a chance. He talks about how many people think stories are a series of events, but they are not. He then makes the statement that “you do not have a story until something goes wrong,” and he talks about making things worse to increase the tension in the story. I’m sure those of you reading this blog already knew that, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it.

I do want to talk a little more about this concept of going wrong. We’ve talked before about Where a Story Should Begin, but when do things go wrong? I asserted in that article that we begin a story when the protagonist needs to change, but is unwilling to change. For our discussion here, the key phrase is needs to change. The fact that something needs to change tells us that something has already gone wrong.

Let’s look at an example: I recently read Terri Blackstock’s Cape Refuge. At the beginning of the story, a village council is attempting to close down a half-way house owned by the parents of the protagonist. With this being a whydunnit, we aren’t going to find out why this thing has gone wrong or when it went wrong until near the end of the book, but something has gone wrong and by Steven James’ definition, we have a story. The murder will occur later, but something went wrong before page one.

Another example: In Searching For Mom, we begin the story with Sara receiving an assignment to write about her mother. The problem is that she doesn’t have a mother, never met her mother, will not have an opportunity to meet her mother and knows very little about her mother. Something has already gone wrong.

Blake Snyder described this as the stuff that needs fixing. As such, a story could be described as an account of how the protagonist attempts to fix stuff. Once the stuff is fixed or we reach a new understanding of how things ought to be, the story is over. That is what Steven James was saying when he said, “Romance stories are not about romance; they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.”

It is the desire to fix stuff that moves us through a story. But we need to keep in mind that the readers will grow tired if we pile things going wrong upon things going wrong. Some of the hardest stories to read are those where nothing goes right. That type of situation will cause the tension of the story to be too tight. The story will snap and the reader will give up. So, make things go wrong and make things worse, but do it within reason or risk losing the reader.

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