Burning Down the Hospital

building burningI love worst case scenarios. Well, in books anyway.

Have you ever heard the writer’s advice that when you have your hero up a tree, surrounded by the enemy – that is not the time to look for a way to rescue your precious hero. That’s the time to throw rocks at him/her. I couldn’t agree more. If any thing, consider the other delightful dangers that can be layered on such a situation. Someone could start cutting the tree down, or start the tree on fire!

If you’ve read my posts on character handling tips, you probably figured out that I’m not the type to let my cast off easy. If they don’t come to me fully committed, I may well get them committed to an insane asylum before I’m done with them. Scratch that, psychotic characters are extremely useful!

In one of those Disney “behind the scenes” vignettes I remember someone saying that in most cases we expect the hero to win. We know the basic outcome. The twists come from giving the opposition the advantages and stacking the deck. We want the reader to wonder HOW it will all work out.

My Husband and I have had several run-ins with this. He’s an addicted problem-solver. Be it computers, finances, relationships, clashing principles or even just struggling people. He longs to help work it out, to ease stress and make things more efficient and productive. In most cases, this is a priceless skill/tendency.

Then there’s me, the writer. I texted him the other day and it sort of went like this:

Me: Remember that winged girl? The one who’s kinda sort of in love with the villain? Well I’ve decided that she’s childhood best friends with the heroine.

Him: Wow. Sounds awkward. (note, he is at work, but I’d worked this out at about 2 am the night before and just couldn’t wait until he got home)

Me: And I figured out who killed the winged girl’s family. I knew they died, but not details. Solarieous made the winged girl kill her own family!

Him: Ouch.

-there was a long pause-

Him: It works. I hate it, but it works.

Yep, I even had the ! when talking about murder and emotionally traumatizing my characters. I was excited! Bring on the cruel and unusual.

(My Husband has warned me about security monitoring at work that might misunderstand my scheming.)

I can’t relate all the details and reasons, not coherently without tripling the length of this, but these two “problems” up the stakes, opens up numerous tense confrontations, justifies the traumatized character that had always been troubled in my mind and just made everything click.

I confess that sometimes it means I don’t have it all worked out before-hand. I have had scenes partly written where my Husband has read it and when it won’t scroll down any farther he turns to me and demands, “How in the world does he get out of that?”

I cringe. “I don’t know. You got any ideas?”

Sometimes I’ll be stuck like that for days. I guess I figure if it takes me that long to figure out a viable solution then it’s not likely to be guessed by my reader or seem cliché.

I’m usually not sold on a solution until it both feels realistic and plausible for setting/character(s) and also hopefully “clicks” other things into place. By “clicking” I mean that it helps justify (make straight) other elements/issues. It’s one of those “aha!” moments that afterwards just feels natural.

When NOT to use a worst case idea:

  • Generalized reasons are if it feels unnatural/implausible, distracting or for pacing issues
  • If it will steal too much focus from the actual main plot(unless it’s going to be the new plot)
  • If it doesn’t deliver enough tension to merit the hassle/word count (such as if to do it justice it requires a whole bunch of sidetracking)
  • Too many subplots already – then go through and select a few of the ones that deliver the biggest punch or “click” best and focus on those

I guess one last tip is that if something is worth doing, do it. Worse case scenarios can’t be done half way or snuck into off stage fluff. Or at least I haven’t seen such work out. Play it up. Let yourself have permission to “make an issue of it”.

Go ahead and let yourself enjoy one of those situations where it’s better to make a royal mess of it all!

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

3 comments on “Burning Down the Hospital

  1. Great advice. When I feel conflicted about doing something terrible to a character I love, I know readers will feel it too. So I do it.

  2. lol, absolutely tknopp.
    I had one book where someone was reading it while I was writing it and one of his comments was to the effect of, “I’m so glad you got this girl away from that crazy villain.” She is the hero’s girlfriend but the hero wasn’t around to protect her.

    So when I read his comment you can bet I redesigned my outline to put her right back in “that crazy villain’s” line of fire, let him kidnap her and poison her. It was a splendid twist! I can’t thank him enough for that… er, suggestion.

    It was like, “okay, what else do you absolutely not want me to do to them?”

  3. There are days when I’m right there with you…. and days when I don’t want to think about it, because I just don’t want to face being deliberately “mean” to my characters.

    I think the difference, for me, boils down to this: When it’s all theory, I don’t like casually dreaming up terrible things to do to my characters. But when the rubber hits the road, and I ask myself, “What’s going to happen? What HAS to happen for this story?” then nothing is off the table, no matter how horrible it is.

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