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Amp Up Your Conflict Four: Throw a Rock at the Planet
A great way to raise the stakes in your story is to add something that’s beyond anyone’s control.
The title of this post is a bit facetious. Hucking an asteroid at the Earth does not make PLOT! appear, contrary to what Armageddon would have you believe. I am not a fan of making natural disasters the antagonists in your story. (This does not mean the man vs. nature conflict is invalid. The story still has to be about character, and giving your antagonist a face keeps that focused.) However, as both a setting and a crisis, natural disasters can add urgency and suspense to your story.
Think about any story set against the backdrop of greater calamity (Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand). All of these use various disasters like war and disease outbreaks as the setting and much of the conflict in the story. Natural disasters can add tremendous conflict and add tension to normally mundane tasks like day-to-day survival. But we still remember Scarlett O’Hara and Billy Pilgrim. It’s their struggles against these disasters that give them conflict and drive their characters. Even minor disasters like a power outtage, a flood or an unfortunate storm can drive forward a plot that doesn’t have the disaster as a central theme.
The Odyssey is popularly characterized as a man vs. nature story, and in a way it is. Odysseus is struggling against nature to get home. However, nature has a “face” through the Gods, which make it a struggle of Odysseus vs. the Gods more than nature.
Disasters (like an impending asteroid!) can crank up the tension in your story. Just remember that the disaster isn’t the point of your story. Be sure to keep your characters in the forefront and disasters can add an unexpected twist to your tale.
Having worked as a freelance and content editor as well as an author, I have both made and seen many common storytelling missteps. I’ll post a blog each week about these issues and ways we authors can avoid them. The first piece of advice:
1. Be a sadist
Your characters are not your friends.
This is a difficult truth to accept. You care for your characters. You put hours into crafting their backstories and creating the world in which they live. You live, eat and breathe with them. When you put your tablet or computer away for the night, you feel like you’re neglecting your characters until you open your story to write again.
And your job is to make sure those characters hate your guts.
Think about some of the great characters in literary history and what they faced in their lives. Sherlock Holmes. Anna Karenina. Hamlet. Edmond Dantes. Jay Gatsby. All of them end their literary stories with wildly different levels of success, but the one thing they have in common is that their journeys are full of plenty of suck. If nothing bad ever happened to them, we wouldn’t care about them. I’m sure Holmes would have preferred he not be a drug addicted asshole, or Anna a social exile driven to suicide. But without the misery and tragedy in their lives, we wouldn’t care about them like we do.
You write to deliver your readers a great story, and that comes from tearing down the compelling characters you’ve created. Readers thrive on conflict, on their emotional ties to your characters. That requires a lot of collateral damage. You need to make life suck for your characters at every turn. Otherwise, you’re letting your readers down.
Remember this golden rule: Whenever possible, make things worse for your characters. Much worse. Whether or not you build them back up again at the climax is up to you.