Writing Hack #2: The Ultimate Question

I’m picky. And I don’t mean mildly picky. I don’t mean ‘Yeah, the acting was lame but the movie was fun anyway’ kind of picky. I mean the kind of picky where one bad plot twist can totally ruin a story for me. I mean the kind of picky where two slow episodes out of twenty will make me drop a show. I mean Picky with a capital P which is why if I find a story that keeps me on the edge of my seat, I will hold it up like baby Simba and sing songs about it. (I’m probably exaggerating, but not much. Only a little.)

I can appreciate stories with a slower pace if the elements work together. For example, nobody’s going to claim that BBC’s Sense and Sensibility tears across the screen at breakneck speed. Nobody’s going to claim they loved My Neighbor Totoro because it was a nail-biter. That being said, I don’t usually prefer a slow pace in my stories. I like things to move along at a nice rate – but without sacrificing important elements. This is one reason why I love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies so much – the pacing is nearly flawless and still manages to give us action, humor, romance, character development, and zombies. All at once! It’s the best!

Unfortunately, pacing isn’t an easy thing. You want to write a fast-paced novel, but somewhere along the way you drop the ball and realize nothing has really happened for the last twenty pages. You were in a high-speed car chase through a lit city at night and suddenly you’re on a flat stretch of dusty desert road and you have no idea how you got there, but you realize you’ve been there for a while. No, I don’t know this from experience. Absolutely not. So what went wrong? What happened? What did you do?

In my experience, the question isn’t usually ‘what did you do’ so much as ‘what didn’t you do?’ Let me give you an example.

(Note: To protect the innocent, I will not be fully disclosing the name of the author nor the series from which this example is taken. I appreciate your understanding.)

In St*ph*n** M*y*r’s Tw*l*ght series, she gives us a character named Jasper. (Jasper’s name is fully disclosed because it isn’t his fault he was written so poorly.) Jasper’s backstory could have been very tragic – he was turned during the civil war by a beautiful female vampire who then used Jasper to train her army of newborn vampires and then kill them once they outgrew their initial strength. It had all the makings of a heart-wrenching tragedy, right? Right, except S*ph*n** M*y*r decided to go a different route. A snuggly, feel-good route. A disappointing route. After a crisis of conscience, Jasper leaves his patroness. She hunts him down. And…they part on friendly terms? No hard feelings? Nothing? That’s it???


That’s it. What could have been a deliciously tasty piece of pain became anticlimactic.


But Mirriam, what’s wrong with something turning out for the best? What’s wrong with a little niceness between enemies? 

Nothing, my sweet summer child. Unless you want a good story. Not unless you wanted to make Jasper’s backstory interesting. But because Jasper and Maria parted on such ridiculously good terms, St*ph*n** M*y*r rendered Jasper’s backstory a moot point. She took something potentially interesting and nullified it in the same blow. Instead of wanting to know more, we now have to say so what?

Fortunately, I have a single nifty tool to keep your novel (and mine) from falling into long stretches of nothingness. I call it—

 The Worst-Case Scenario.

This is simply the idea of taking any given scene and asking the eternal question – what could possibly go wrong? This is the kind of thing a movie character asks rhetorically just before very non-rhetorical lightning strikes them. Cue maniacal laughter. Let me give you a positive example (all names are fully disclosed because there is no shame here): Prison Break. This show thrives on worst-case scenarios. They don’t kid around. Every episode is set up like a bunch of dominoes that continue to topple for forty minutes just so the episode can leave you on a cliffhanger of epic proportions. No punches are pulled here. (The main character is flat-out mutilated by the end of episode two.)


Michael’s brilliant, elaborate plan to save his falsely-accused brother Lincoln via a daring escape is thwarted at the very last minute by a new piece of pipe. Sarah Tancredi petitions her father the governor for clemency for Lincoln and for a moment things look hopeful – until he goes over the files and denies clemency anyway. Michael’s last-ditch attempt to fry the wiring of the electric chair is foiled when Captain Bellick’s snitch among the inmates rats out Michael. The episode ends with Lincoln literally sitting in the electric chair, seconds from death.

Every single plan they come up with is somehow changed or ruined because 90% of the shows’ scenarios are worst-case. This doesn’t render the show a depressing study in tragedy – rather, it showcases the quality of the characters amid an impossible slew of odds. Now: this kind of writing isn’t easy. It forces you, as an author, to think outside the box, to put your characters in difficult situations and get them out again – but nobody ever said this writing thing was easy.

So the next time you’re feeling stuck or bogged down in your own writing, it might be time to ask yourself, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ and answer your own question.

(Tell me, for I am curious – what could possibly go wrong in YOUR novel right now?)

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