The Conference, Day Two: The Art of Making it Worse

Scrutinizing Raven (c) Marion Deeds 2015

The photos I’ve used have nothing to do with the text. I just like them.

One of our workshop members had a point in her story where the main character sees a person on a bridge, getting ready to jump. It’s a crucial scene to the rest of the story. It had some logistical issues. I imagined the writer was feeling the way I do when I confront logistics – frustrated. Finally she set her pen on the desk and said, “Okay, maybe it’s not a jumper, it’s just someone wh–”

“No,” David said. He didn’t wave his arms, and he didn’t raise his voice, exactly. “No. Don’t take it easy on your Main Character. Don’t let them off the hook. Make it worse. Always make it worse.”


“Make it worse,” is not new advice. Any aspiring writer has seen the graph of “rising action leading to the climax and denouement.” David disagrees with the word “action.” He prefers “tension.” And he wanted us to understand that the “worsening” that happens must spring from the MC’s own actions.

As a reviewer, I read a lot of books where the author basically drives a dump-truck into the MC’s driveway and pours out a bunch of problems. The problems are often unrelated; one crisis after another flying at the brilliant hero, creating the feeling of a collection of short stories rather than a novel. It goes like this:

Ocean and Fog (c) Marion Deeds 2015

“It was good to be back in atmosphere. I took off my helmet and only then saw Sarge standing by the airlock, tapping his foot.

‘Don’t get too comfy,’ he growled.

‘What’s up? I figured out the secret to the maze and brought back the antidote,’ I said, ‘and nobody even got killed.’

‘Yeah, where there’s an armada heading our way,’ he said, ‘and it looks like they’re from the Angry Monster System. Suit up. You’re on point.’”

In other words, this is a new adventure, not a problem that springs directly from braving the maze and grabbing the antidote. Yes, it’s making things worse, but in a completely random way. Usually the next thing that would happen is that a space rock would breach the hull. No reason, it just makes things more dangerous.

This can work really well in the hands of a gifted and devious writer who shows us at the end how all these random disasters were connected. All too often, though, they aren’t. They just happened. The word I tend to use in reviews is “episodic.” No matter how brilliantly written each discrete conflict is, I am always left feeling unsatisfied by these kinds of books.

“It was good to be back in atmosphere. I took off my helmet and turned to help the prince with his. I noticed he was staring over my shoulder. I turned. Sarge stood by the airlock, tapping his foot.

‘We’ve got an imperial armada headed our way, from the Angry Monster System,’ he said. ‘They say we’ve abducted the prince and heir to the empire. Would you know anything about that?’

‘You said if I helped you I’d have sanctuary,’ the prince said, staring at me. ‘You promised.

Same stakes, but now they spring from the character’s actions.

In David’s book The Mercy of the Night, the private detective who wants to help Jacqui is being followed by some bad men. He figures out that they’ve put a tracker on his car. He pulls off the tracker and holds it up, waving it at the two men who are in a nearby car. He’s taunting them, basically. Without creating spoilers, let me just say that this action, which springs organically from the character, his psychology and characteristics, (“Geez, dudes, do you think I’m stupid?”) makes things worse for him – and it’s at least in part his own doing.

Often “make it worse” comes from the character’s defense mechanisms as she tries to avoid facing the weakness, wound, lack or failing (WWLF). I’m reading a Tara French book right now, Broken Harbor. She writes dark atmospheric mysteries set in the Dublin, Ireland, murder squad. If the philosopher said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” I think both Tara French and David Corbett might say, “What which you do not confront will destroy you.” In Broken Harbor, the smart, snarky and tenacious detective who is our MC and a first person narrator will not face the truth of his own past, the wounds he has not tended while he was trying to tend to everyone else. He doesn’t see why his identification with one of the murder victims flies in the face of his own belief system about victims, why it’s so strange and so passionate. He doesn’t understand what his mentally ill sister is trying to tell him.  But we do. And we see how and why he has stopped short of confronting his partner, asking the questions that normally he wouldn’t wait the length of a breath to ask. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I have to say, I’m not optimistic about the outcome for our MC. In this case, the smart, successful, tough main character, desperately trying to ignore his own pain, makes one small mistake after another. And they are small. But they roll down the hill like rocks, bringing the boulders down with them.

Negative Space Cat, Panache Gallery, Mendocino, 2015

So do not give in to the desire to take it easy on your characters. I find that when don’t want to make it worse, it’s usually not my MC I’m “taking it easy” on. It’s me. Making it worse, truly worse for the MC will open plot doors I don’t want to go through. It might make the character have to do something I think is unsavory, or raise moral questions I don’t want to go into, or just… geez, I had her run out of money, but now she’s stuck in Bakersfield, and I have to get her to that pier in Long Beach! What is she going to do? Maybe she’ll have to hock something of value to her, like that ring that was the last thing her ex-boyfriend gave her. Only, she doesn’t know the ring is on a Want List from a murder scene (well, he’s an ex for a reason, right?) and now the police are on her trail. Maybe she steals. Maybe she goes into a bar and talks her way onto the stage and sings for tips. I dunno, but I bet I’m going to find out something interesting about her, if I make her deal with having no money, instead of pausing at a nearby ATM.

Always make it worse.


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