And now that our discussion has ended on the topic, with some members weighing in with excellent comments (Well done, youse guys!), let's return to:
Moon's SUPER SECRET #22: THINGS GET WORSE!
Margaret Atwood of THE HANDMAIDEN'S TALE fame said this: "People are always coming up with new theories of the novel, but the main rule is: HOLD. MY. ATTENTION." The same is true of short stories. Plot is the engine that drives your stories through a series of try/fail cycles in your hero's attempt to solve their problem that leads toward the inevitable climax. But how interesting is a story that goes like this: Our hero needs to learn to ride a bicycle. He gets on, wobbles and falls down. He gets back up and tries again. He wobbles and falls down. He gets back up and tries again. He wobbles and falls down. He tries one more time, and this time, he rides the bike and lives happily ever after.
Okay, if that's your kid, that is a very exciting story. But one must admit, if you don't have a parental investment, it's run of the mill. Everyone learns to ride a bike like that. There's nothing new here, and people come to stories to read something fresh, to experience something they haven't experienced or thought about before. They want to be entertained, they want to explore new worlds and new territory, and they've already seen this scenario, many, many times. So, how do you make it a page turner? How do you get them invested in your ride a bicycle story? The best way? Ratchet up the tension. Don't do the same thing over and over. Have your hero try, and fail, and because of the failure THINGS GET WORSE.
How do we ramp up the tension? We put a better, souped-up engine in our bicycle story. We put the boy in Afghanistan in a remote location. His mom is having a baby, and it's not going well, and she cries out to him to get the midwife. Alas, the midwife lives in the village, several miles away. He could try to run there, but he knows he'll tire and lose time walking. He scrambles out the door, sees his mom's bicycle. She has tried to teach him how to ride, but he had a bad fall and said he'd never get on a bicycle again. Yet, there it is, the only way to get to the midwife on time and save his mom's life. With the power of his need, he gets on, grips the handle bars, and pushes off, wobbling like always, and down into the dirt he goes, a failure once again. He fights not to cry, picks up the bike, gets on again and pedals, trying to remember what his mom tried to teach him about balance. Just when he thinks he has it, he falls again, hitting his head on a rock, blood gushing from the gash. This time, he cries. He's going to lose his mother if he can't get to the village. Should he abandon the bike? No, he'll never get there in time, and he fears she will die, and it will all be his fault, because he was too afraid to learn to ride that bicycle. So he wipes that blood away, lifts up the bike and gets back on, determined he will not fail this time. And he finds his balance, but it's a bumpy road, and he knows there are IEDs placed along the sides by the Taliban. One more fall, and it could be his last, for him, and his mother.
Okay, there's an example of THINGS GET WORSE. With every try/fail cycle, you ratchet up the tension a notch, hopefully, toward the inevitable climax where the hero must pit everything he or she has learned against a do or die situation. High stakes, where the price of failure this time is not just THINGS GET WORSE, it's PEOPLE WILL DIE. If you can combine that with the person or people that you love most will die, even more powerful. This is a figurative lesson. The stakes don't have to ramp up to death, they just have to be high. They could be part of a university admissions' scandal and YOU WILL BE EXPELLED FROM COLLEGE. Or how about this one: YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE WORKING FOR A LAW FIRM BUT YOU FIND YOU'RE REALLY WORKING FOR THE MOB. But my favorite THINGS GET WORSE? See if you remember this one: YOU INHERITED A BANKRUPT STRING FACTORY AND A DILAPIDATED MANSION, BUT IT WAS BUILT BY A FAMOUS ARCHITECT, AND IF YOU COULD JUST GET RID OF ONE PESKY MOUSE AND FIX THE PLACE UP A BIT, IT WOULD BE WORTH MILLIONS. That's a great THINGS GET WORSE story lesson. For extra credit, go watch it, and every time you see the script writing in try/fail cycles and then THINGS GET WORSE, call it out, loud and clear. Not only will you get the lesson embedded, you'll be a hit with your significant other watching with you. Or you'll get hit. Either way, you get a good dent in your skull.
Remember, your job as a writer is to hold the reader's attention. With a first reader or judge with almost 2000 stories to get through in this contest each quarter, what do you think will happen if your story makes them yawn? How long will they keep reading? A fail to hold attention ANYWHERE in your story is a contest fail. You might get a shiny certificate, but that won't get you the win. Don't give yourself a pass. Be tough. Make sure your plot is tight by intelligent try/fail cycles with every fail ramping up the stakes as THINGS GET WORSE.
Last edited by Wulf Moon
on Sun Mar 24, 2019 8:49 am, edited 2 times in total.