Making it Harder and Worse

I was sitting in a workshop at RWA and suddenly… WAM! I was Gilligan getting hit in the head with a falling coconut. I knew all about making things worse for your main character but what hit me was this: what I’ve been doing was NOT making it worse. I was making it harder and this is not the same thing. Let me explain.

I thought making it worse meant adding extra obstacles on the path to the goal. So, if Mary needed to walk 5 miles to get milk from the store, I was adding snow and then a shorter deadline and then a broken leg and a heavy dog that needed to be carried along the way. These things all make Mary’s goal more difficult to reach and they’re all necessary and great, but they’re not making it worse. They’re simply making the journey harder. Making it worse means gradually increasing the stakes. When I heard this, I was like, what? Gradually? Increasing? En Inglés, por favor? I thought you were supposed to use your first act to lay it all on the table so that the inciting incident would seem like the WORST POSSIBLE THING THAT COULD HAPPEN and so the reader would think THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST WIN.

I was so wrong. It’s supposed to go something like this:

Part 1: Establish a good reason for the main character to need X. For example, Mary just loves milk and she needs it every day with dinner.

Part 2: Take away X so your character is incited to get X back. For example, Mary opens her fridge and the milk is all gone. <insert gasp here>

Part 3: Add an obstacle on the path. For example, Mary starts on her way to the store and it begins to snow. DON’T STOP THERE. You also need to increase the character’s motivation. For example, tell us that the reason Mary needs milk for dinner is because she has a calcium deficiency and her bones might spontaneously crumble if she doesn’t get it.

Part 4: Add more obstacles to the path. For example, Mary finds out there is only one store open today and it closes early. Then, she trips and hurts her leg. You must increase the motivation here too. For example, Mary wants to win the love of Dave and she can’t unless she can give him milk at dinner too. (Dave obviously has ties to the Milk Board!)

Part 5: As a final step, add the proverbial straw to the camel’s back. For example, Mary realizes she forgot her money so she must trade something for the milk but the only thing she can trade is a limp dog that she must carry all the way to the store. This is usually the part when Mary gives up. But it is also the part when you need to give her the one thing she needs to go on and that one thing is not a guy with a car: it’s the final piece of motivation that pushes her to limp the rest of the way with the dog on her back. For example, tell us that Mary was deprived of milk as a child and only by having milk can she feel like she has escaped the milk-less tyranny of her past and learn to love Dave the way she needs to love him.

And now, I have a sudden craving for cookies. With coconut.

Category: On Writing