The Worst Case Scenario
By 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.
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.
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
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
There are five factors you want to look at:
The immediate past
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?
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
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?
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,
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.
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
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:
The immediate past
The Immediate future
What could you do with this?
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.