What ELSE Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A writing prompt from Alex Hiam, author of the Silent Lee series

We all know that riding-for-a-fall feeling when someone says, “What could possibly go wrong?” (Uh, right. Haven’t you heard of Icarus?)

            As writers, we often let our protagonists charge ahead, overconfident, riding for a fall, then help them struggle to recover. The idea behind this writing prompt is to pump up the plot by making something else go wrong next. Something even worse.

            Take James Cameron’s screenplay fo the movie, The Titanic, as a working example. It’s about first class passenger Rose, who is betrothed by her family to someone she doesn’t love and about to jump off the stern of the Titanic when she’s rescued by Jack, a third class passenger. So the plot opens with something that is going very wrong: Rose’s life. Then more things go wrong. Cal, the spurned fiancé, gets Jack arrested. And we all know the REALLY big thing that’s looming over this plot: The ship is going to sink. But somehow, all this mayhem works and we end up feeling the story is about love, life and redemption, not just about the things that went wrong.

            When we’re writing our own plots, we instinctively put our characters in harm’s way, in interpersonal conflicts, or both (like Cameron does). An opening chapter in which something goes wrong is a really great way to draw readers in. But sometimes the plot begins to feel a little short on momentum as we write subsequent scenes. This is where you want to think like James Cameron and ask yourself, “What else can possibly go wrong?”

            Sink the ship. Send a hurricane bearing down on the protagonists’ town. Discover an old letter suggesting that two characters who have just fallen in love may be long lost siblings. Throw a new disaster into the plot and see how your characters deal with it.

Here’s a Fun Writing Exercise!

            Start with a well known story in which something bad happens and pump it up with a new bad thing of your own invention. My suggestion: Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest, coming to a cottage and entering it—only to be captured and fattened for roasting by the witch who lives there.

            Actually, the Hansel and Gretel plot is even worse than that. If you recall, it starts with a famine. Their father, a woodcutter, has remarried, and their stepmother talks him into abandoning them in the forest so they won’t have to share the limited food. It ends when the children trick the witch and she falls into her own oven. Then they find her hidden jewels and go back home, triumphant. Meanwhile the evil stepmother has died, so (ignoring how they’re going to reconcile with the complicit father and get over their traumas) it’s a happy ending. But.. What else could go wrong?

            Pick up the tale at a turning point in the plot—for instance, just before or after the witch goes into the oven, and add a new plot wrinkle. Write a scene in which something else goes very wrong.

            But here’s the thing about making things go wrong. They should be unexpected but not contrived. If the reader ends up thinking, ‘Why would a tree happen to fall through the roof and break Gretel’s leg just as she’s about to push the evil witch into the oven?’ then it’s not great plotting. Not unless you’ve set the story in the context of a major windstorm coming toward them; or you’ve had the woodcutter out felling trees, unaware that the witch’s cottage and his lost children are nearby. This exercise takes a little more thought than just throwing some random disaster at the protagonists. Try to make the something that goes wrong an inevitable surprise, meaning that while we didn’t see it coming, once it arrives, we get it. Make it feel inevitable in hindsight.

            Have fun writing!   – Alex

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