Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Workshop:

The Worst Case Scenario

By Lazette Gifford
© 2006,
Lazette Gifford


Your story has hit the 'dead zone' where you can't make it move forward.  The scene where you've stopped has no follow up that fits, and everything you think of just doesn't work.

Step 1

The first thing to do is make certain what you're writing is needed for the story.  Quite often, a story gets into a log jam because the author has followed some path that doesn't lead anywhere.  Step back to the last interesting thing you wrote.  Do you really need what follows?  Can you compress it, explain it in a few lines or paragraphs, and move on?  If the story has started to sound boring to you, chances are this is the reason.

This is one of the easy ways to fix a story, but it's often overlooked because writers have a problem with stepping back in a story.  Try it and see what happens.  But don't just delete the scene or scenes that you cut out.  Save them in a secondary file somewhere, just in case you decide to use something there after all.  It might be that whatever you're writing is just at the wrong point in the story, and somewhere later will be better.  Save the material so you don’t' hav eto recreate it.

Step 2

Sometimes Step 1 won't work.  You have written something interesting, and you have something interesting in the future, but right now you're not sure how to get from the one point to the next. A transition scene -- a scene where you gloss over the present and jump to the next part -- won't work because you need something to happen between the two events.

I often tell writers when they get blocked on a manuscript or outline, one of the best ways to get the story moving again is to imagine what would be the worst thing that could happen at that point.  Too many people assume this has to be bombs going off or the like -- but it isn't.  Sometimes the 'worst' is not something so obvious. Finding these seeds of conflict -- and that's what they are -- can require you to take a different look at your story than what you first intended.  It can give you new paths to explore, and bring depth to your story when you thought you were blocked and couldn't go on.

Let's look at an example of how to work this little bit of writing magic.

Darilis Kie is a warrior from the world of Nevo, a place settled early by the humans, who had long since adapted -- some might even say mutated -- to their new world.  There were three original settlements on the world, and they've had a going war for about a century (who can tell, it's not Earth time, after all) as they fight for the local resources.

Darilis is just hiking home from a battle where most of the army was lost, though they still held the line.  He's worried about the future.

In the outline, you know that in the future Darilis and will convince his people to join forces with one of the other cities.  However, right now, the problem is getting him from the battle to home, and the path looks pretty dull.  You don't want to jump too far into the future, because you have some specific incidents that are going to happen between now and then... but for the moment, what is Darilis going to do?

There are five factors you want to look at:

  1. Interaction
  2. Excitement
  3. Emotion
  4. The immediate past
  5. The immediate future

So, with those five items, what could happen now in the story that would make this more interesting than watching Darilis slog through the muck fields, heading back home?

  1. The first thing to consider is Interaction.  He isn't walking alone.  There are others around him, and all of them in state of worry over what will happen next, with most of their army lost.  They've just left a battle, and emotions are running high. What could go wrong in such a group?  How about fighting amongst themselves? 
  2. That doesn't work?  Let's look at excitement.  They've just left the battle field, where they barely won.  What if the battle isn't quite over?  What if the scouts come running to say that there's a large force still following them, and they have to race back to the walls of their own city?
  3. And then there's emotion.  Again, remember that they've just left a battle.  They will have wounded with them.  These are people Darilis trained and fought with for years.  How will he handle his shield partner dying in the muck fields, not on the battle field like a warrior, and not at home with any honor?  If you had the man die in battle, maybe you need to move that death to here, instead.
  4. Much of what I've talked about here is related to the Immediate Past.  There are more ways you could use that past to create a new incident.  Maybe the scouts didn't see the forces coming.  Maybe they just fell into attack, at a time when Darilis is thinking they're going to make it home.
  5. And last there is the immediate future to consider.  You can quick march him through the muck fields and get him home -- only to find that his wife has run off with another man.  So what has he been fighting for, then? 

There are variations you could write on any of these, and you can even combine a few to make an interesting set of scenes to cover that march home.

So, what about something more down to earth?

How about a little romance?  Angela has been invited to the wedding of a woman from work.  She doesn't really know the young woman very well, but she hasn't anything better to do and she'd like to make friends with her new co-workers.  She's only lived in town a couple months, and so far she's only met one man she liked, and their first date went disastrously.

You and I know she's going to get together with the man, despite the disastrous first date.  But you need her to do something else for a little while, so that the story isn't just a string of meetings between the two.  Let's look at our five factors again:

  1. Interaction
  2. Excitement
  3. Emotion
  4. The immediate past
  5. The Immediate future

What could you do with this?

1.      Interaction -- She's going to be at a wedding filled with strangers, and how she interacts with them can tell the reader a great deal about her personality.  You can take this chance to even fill in some of the blanks about her background as she's asked questions.  And maybe you can find her an 'aunt' character -- someone who adopts her to help her fit in.  A character of this type can be a great help for elsewhere in the novel when you need more interaction with someone.

2.      Excitement -- What goes wrong at the wedding that she can help to set right?  What are her strengths?  This could be a great place to show an unexpected ability to take charge and make things work.  It could be a good counterpoint to whatever happened at the disastrous first date.

3.       Emotion -- What if she meets someone at the wedding who looks like Mr. Wonderful?  He chats her up. They're having a great time.  He slips away, and by accident she finds he's doing the exact same thing with some other woman. There's a nice, short emotional roller coaster of a ride!

4.      The Immediate Past -- you could stretch this a bit.  Does the wedding make her think of her own, failed marriage?  Or do you want to just step back to the last work day, and weave in something from the office, carried over into the wedding?  Is there some office rivalry that might get played up here?

5.      The Immediate Future -- Does she catch the bouquet?  Too cliché, maybe.  How about if the bouquet breaks apart, and she's one of several women who catches it?  Or how about a problem on the way home, and the only phone number she has is for the guy from the date?  A nearly dead cell phone, not a phone booth in sight, a rainstorm... oh, there are lots of things you can do with that one.

The point is that even if you have written an outline, you can still look for something new to add in when the story slows down or you begin to flounder in the possibilities.  Focus on conflict and see if one of the five factors can help you see the next step.

Your turn

Take either of the two story prompts above and work out your own version of what would happen next using some of the five factors.  Or better yet, find a story of your own that is at a 'dead zone' and either find the material to cut or use one or more of the five points to get it moving again.

Applying this workshop to your own material will better help you see how to use it within your own parameters.  Experiment.  Try different combinations.

Remember, a story is all about conflict.  A story usually dies because the writer can't see the next form of conflict -- the next point of 'what can go wrong now' in the story.  Looking at the story through the filter of the 'five factors' can help narrow the focus and get the characters moving again.