My youngest daughter's favorite book lately is Brave Ireneby William Steig. It's a children's picture book about a young girl named Irene who must deliver a dress to the duchess for her dressmaker mother who's fallen ill.
I had to analyze the book (as I invariably do with just about every book I read!). And although the book isn't perfect, it embodies the KEY to successful storytelling, which I think is one of the reasons my daughter loves the book.
When Irene starts out to deliver the dress, the odds are already stacked against her. The box containing the dress is huge, the palace is far away, and it's starting to snow.
But Irene leaves anyway. As she walks along everything continues to get worse. With each page, Steig adds another obstacle: an uphill path, the snow falling harder and getting into her boots, the wind making the walking almost impossible, and finally the wind tearing her box out of her hands and blowing away the beautiful dress.
Of course brave Irene plods onward, steps in a hole, twists her ankle, becomes lost, and must grope about in the darkness. Just when she thinks she might be there, the worst thing happens—she falls off a cliff and is buried in the snow so that only her hat and hands stick out. She's stuck with no one to help her.
There's a writing lesson packed in those few pages—the key to successful storytelling: Story-tellers must gradually heap more and more problems on the characters until they're buried under the weight of them.
HEAP on the problems, because without problems, there's often very little left to hold the reader's interest.
1. Always be thinking how to make things worse for the character.
In the book I just finished writing, my hero ends up being accused of attempted murder. First he's thrown into the dungeon. But as he was sitting in the dank, foul-smelling pit, I decided I wasn't being hard enough on the guy.
So I challenged myself to find ways to make things even worse for him. I gave him a ticking clock deadline to rescue his true love, no way out of the dungeon, and an impending death sentence. And to push him over the brink, I decided he needed to receive false news about his true love which would make him lose the will to go on.
We need to figuratively push our characters down the hill until they reach rock bottom and make our readers believe there's very little hope of them getting up again.
2. Have one problem lead logically to the next.
In all of the problem-heaping, we can't just have random bad things happen to our characters (like having a bad hair day, getting hit by a car, and then choking on a chicken bone at dinner).
Rather the problems should all tie together in some way (as they do in Brave Irene). In fact, the more intertwined everything is to the plot and character arcs, the more believable the problems become. Otherwise readers might begin to roll their eyes.
In real life, we usually don't have numerous problems escalating within such a short span. But in fiction, we pile on more than any one human could possibly endure. Yet, through all the layering of the problems involving external, internal, and relational conflicts, we have to weave them together in such a way so that the plot is still believable.
3. Don't let the problems defeat the character.
Make them heroic in the face of the all the obstacles. Brave Irene was, well, brave. She kept plodding along, determined to reach the palace. Even if she got grumpy or whined at times, we still admire her because she didn't give up. She's a worthy hero and someone we want to be like.
All too often we're tempted to let the problems depress our characters to the extreme. While we want our characters to react believably (show disappointments, heartaches, etc.), we also want them to rise above their problems and handle them with the kind of heroism and strength we wish we had.
4. During the black moment, the catalyst needs to be organic to the story.
When our characters hit rock bottom (their black moment), they'll want to give up. But there's always that last little bit of inner strength that keeps them from caving in completely.
Sometimes we can use another character to impart wisdom and encouragement. Other times, we can trigger a memory that gives the character hope. Perhaps we have the antagonist say or do something that spurs the heroine to make one last effort.
There are numerous ways to get the character out of the black hole we've put them in, usually something we've hinted at and set up earlier. We need to keep our rescue or catalyst moment true to the story, instead of throwing in a miracle that suddenly and neatly gets our character out of trouble.
What about you? How are you doing in heaping problems on your characters? Do you ever struggle to realistically get them out of all the trouble you've put them in?