Monday, January 2, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#37) -- What's the Worst That Could Happen?

What do you mean when you say that you start plotting by
asking the question "What's the worst that could happen?"

A discussion on a pulp writers group recently prompted me to post that "Apparently I write backwards from most, then. I start by asking "what's the worst thing that could happen to ..." then I have to have the protagonist dig his or her way out of that pit."

After sending that post, I got several responses about the worst thing that could happen physically to the character and how that may or may not be a successful writing technique for several of the writers on the list.

So I felt the need to clarify.

What I don't mean to say is that ___________ vs. ___________ is ever the worst thing that could happen. This question goes deeper than the kind of story that wonders, "How cool would it be if Hulk fought Superman?" That's the whole point of asking the question to begin with. It should get to the deeper core of who the character is, not what might hurt him or her physically the most.

I don't usually go for what's physically the worst thing to happen, but what's truly the worst thing for the person to deal with. I.E., for Reed Richards, the worst thing that can happen isn't to have to face Doctor Doom or Galactus, but to face a future without Sue. And if I could use Doc or Big Hungry to exacerbate that threat, then it's a win-win.

A few examples:
  • Lance Star -- the boy scout who sees in black and white meets a woman who lives in the gray and refuses to be good or evil, preferring to skirt the line from both sides.
  • Blackthorn -- a man out of time who depends on his companions is forced to face his flip side (a woman out of time) without their help
  • The Grandstander (iHero) -- a man whose only superpower was knowing the day of his death (thus having carte blanche until then) sees that day come and go, leaving him deathly afraid of every single moment
  • "Posthumous" (Zombiesque) -- a female zombie who clawed her way up from the ground and has resisted the urge to kill in order to find her husband and restore her marriage must face the fact that her husband finds her now to be disgusting and repugnant
  • Starlight (iHero) -- A no-longer-human heroine who decided to pretend to be a mother again must face the death of the son who helps her believe the lie that she can still be a wife and mother.
  • Fishnet Angel (iHero) -- A man who wants more than anything to become a superhero gets his wish, in the worst way possible.
  • "Life Imitates Death" (Pro Se Presents) -- A man determined to preserve his marriage after his wife comes back as a zombie tries to combine his art and his promise to be together even though her hunger grows increasingly more ravenous
  • The Fool (iHero) -- A joke of a hero dies and the city celebrates his life, but his wife must choose whether to let him be remembered as a hero (the lie) or a fool (the truth)

I should note that I don't always start with verbalizing the question, but it's always there in my mind, while I'm plotting and pre-writing. It's become part of my mindset of approaching a story. To me it helps tie my plots to my characters, thus creating story, not mere plot.