Make them struggle!

It’s common writing advice: make your characters struggle. When things are going well for them, throw a disaster at them.

I don’t disagree with this advice. First, it’s part and parcel of the rising-tension structure that’s at the core of traditional western storytelling. And second, it’s a psychological one-two punch: readers empathize and identify with a character who struggles (because we all do); and then readers feel a cathartic rush when the character succeeds in a struggle. Some say this is one of the main draws of fiction: to let the reader vicariously struggle and experience triumph. And by escalating the struggles, you escalate the vicarious triumphs.

But though I understand the advice, I’ve never consciously followed it. In my stories, I just see what should logically happen next, and I write that. Easier, harder, I don’t think about those, I just write the logical next thing. If there’s escalating struggle and rising tension in my stories, it’s entirely subconscious.

But THIS story… Every time I think, “What should happen next?” the answer is “More bad news. It just got worse.” Every time I think, “OK, they have a plan that will succeed, now I just have to write what’s left,” I start writing, and I discover, “Wait a minute. They never thought of this.” There is hazard here everywhere they look. There’s no “triumph,” there’s just survival to reach the next struggle.

Oh, there will be an eventual triumph. I know what it is (I’ve known from the start). And there’s maybe only six to eight challenges left before they get there.

Of course, two weeks ago, I thought there were only five or six challenges remaining, and I’ve hit them with half a dozen challengers since then. So there may still be surprises hiding out there for them. And for me!

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