Novelist Maureen McHugh (Mission Child, China Mountain Zhang) has a sign above her computer. It is, she says, "the only thing I know about how to plot." It says: "THINGS GET WORSE."
It's extremely good advice. Stories, after all, are about things that went wrong. No one wants to read a 400-page novel about a person who has wonderful, trouble-free days all the time. We may want to live such lives, but we don't want to read about them. The basic story plot is: 1) Something happens that someone doesn't like; 2) The problem gets fixed; or 3) The problem doesn't get fixed.
But that's a pretty sketchy outline to follow when you're actually building a plot. What elements should you make worse, and how do you do that? You can start by asking yourself four questions:
1. What can go wrong for the protagonist?
This is the most basic of devices for fashioning a plot. Your character is trying to do something positive and fairly straightforward: throw a surprise party, cash a check, run a horse ranch, get to Mars. He knows how each step of the process is supposed to happen. You, the writer, ask yourself: What can go wrong with this process? Then you write that in for the character to deal with.
Think about what your character is trying to accomplish. What are some of the things that can go wrong? Don't let your character off the hook too easily—think of how solutions to the character's problem can make the situation even worse. Once you've established a primary problem, throw your character a few curve balls by developing additional woes. Allow your secondary characters to have problems of their own. How do these troubles affect your protagonist?
Let's take an example: Susan is on her way home from work. She has just enough time to get to the bank and cash a check before she must pick up her son at day care. What can go wrong with this process? Some possibilities:
• Susan is driving faster and more carelessly than usual. A child dashes out in front of her car, and she hits him. She screams and leaps out. The child is not dead, but there is no one around and Susan doesn't have a cell phone.
• Susan gets to the bank and, as she waits impatiently in line, the bank is robbed by two gunmen. Police arrive, and Susan is taken hostage.
• Susan arrives at day care, and her little boy does not want to leave. He has bonded with his teacher—more, Susan fears, than with her. She realizes she needs to spend more time with him. But she loves her high-powered, time-consuming job.
Three very different stories. But they all have a common element: A character is trying to accomplish something positive, and life hands her a problem she didn't want. Which trouble you hand your character, of course, depends on what kind of story you want to write. Susan's third dilemma will make a much quieter, more introspective story than either of the first two.
Sometimes, the problem is implicit in your original story idea. In a detective story, for instance, your detective is usually handed a murder, either because that's his job (the professional) or by circumstances (the amateur sleuth). In this case, you ask, "What can go wrong?" while the protagonist is dealing with the original problem. Perhaps the detective, while following a clue through a warehouse, gets locked inside. Or someone starts shooting at her. Or she gets suspended from the force for exceeding police authority. All of which, from the detective's point of view, are things gone wrong with the investigation.
2. How can solutions make situations worse?
If your character has any spunk at all, he'll try to fix the problem (often he has no choice). You may want to let him fix it, and let that become the story. This works well for short stories, which usually deal with a single troublesome situation.
How will he fix the problem? That depends on what kind of person he is (which is why Henry James said, "Character is plot"). The character may get things the way he wants them through reason, bribery, violence, begging, manipulation ... the list goes on and on. And each of these coping devices can be applied to both a family dilemma or an international project aimed at getting to Mars. How and why your character addresses what has gone wrong may well be the theme of your entire story.
Sometimes, however, the simple pattern of raise-a-trouble-fix-a-trouble is not sufficient. This is especially true for novels, which need more plot complications. One way to think of these is to ask yourself what your character can do, while trying to fix the situation, that makes it even worse?
Susan, for example, might address each of the three troubles we've given her in ways that only deepen her problem:
• After hitting the child with her car, Susan drives frantically to a pay phone to call for help. When she returns, she discovers that an ambulance and cops are already on the scene. She should tell them she was the driver ... but she doesn't. The child is being taken care of, no one saw her, it will only get her in trouble. So she leaves. However, unbeknownst to Susan, there was a witness, and Susan is arrested.
• After being taken hostage, Susan tries to escape. But she is caught and shot. Now, she's not only a hostage, but she has a broken arm and is losing blood.
• Susan quits her job to stay home with her son. A month later, her husband leaves her. Now, she hasn't got enough money to support them, and her job has already been filled.
The plot has deepened.
3. What else can go wrong?
Your character's second problem does not have to be the result of trying to fix the first problem. In a novel, especially, the character may have multiple unrelated troubles. Consider J.K. Rowling's wildly popular protagonist, Harry Potter (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, etc.).
Harry is born with something already wrong in his life: The lord of evil, Voldemort, has killed Harry's parents and is trying to gather strength enough to kill Harry too. This major problem forms plot developments in every book in the series. But Rowling also has other things, some large and some small, that go wrong for Harry at the same time.
In The Goblet of Fire, Harry is faced with the following difficulties, all unrelated to Voldemort:
• He must ask a girl to the Yule Ball, a prospect that 14-year-old Harry finds terrifying. He makes the problem worse by waiting so long that almost all the girls already have dates.
• A journalist is writing lies about him in the local paper.
• He has a fight with his best friend, Ron, which makes Harry miserable.
• His other good friend, Hermione, is displeased with him, because he won't join her political group.
• He is failing a school subject.
Each of these represents something that has gone wrong for Harry Potter. How he copes with each creates the novel's plot.
Of course, the multiple difficulties you give your character shouldn't seem so unrelated that they belong in different stories. Harry's various problems are tied together by the natural rhythm of the school year at his boarding school. Your protagonist's difficulties may all be the logical results of setting, family situation, job developments or larger political concerns. The project of getting to Mars, for instance, might reasonably go wrong in a number of ways: funding, terrorism, incompetence, political shifts and natural disasters.
You know what your protagonist's big problem is. What else can go wrong in her life?
4. What can go wrong for the other characters?
Your protagonist does not operate in a vacuum. He has co-workers, family, friends, neighbors, enemies, people from his past. Sometimes, you can generate interesting plot developments by asking what can go wrong for these people.
Susan, for instance, has a husband. He will undoubtedly react to her hit-and-run/abduction/job quitting. But he may also have things going wrong in his own life, things that will also impact her. Perhaps he's having an affair. Or a new job. Or a heart operation. Or a trial for embezzlement. How he copes with these difficulties can be interwoven with how Susan copes with hers.
In The Goblet of Fire, things get worse for Rowling's secondary characters, as well as for Harry Potter. Ron, for example, comes from a poor family, so he doesn't have the right clothes or much spending money. Nasty kids tease him about this. Plus, he likes a girl who isn't interested in him.
Using the four questions to develop your ideas
These questions are not supposed to be a formula to mechanically plot a story or novel. Rather, they are designed to get you thinking when you have an idea for a story ("a woman is taken hostage during a bank robbery," "a corporation decides to go to Mars"), but you do not have a full-fledged plot.
Not all questions will apply to all stories. Choose what seems useful to you. How do different combinations of answers fit together? Which combinations excite you most? Which contribute to the overall theme or feeling you want your story to have?
And remember, out of disaster, cometh plot.
Nancy Kress' most recent novel, Probability Moon, features things going from bad to worse for anthropologists, military men, aliens, physicists and a 5-year-old child.