“Stop jumping on the bed before you fall off and crack your head open!”
How many times did you hear that when you were young? Or perhaps yelled it to rambunctious children yourself? Okay, now raise your hand if you’re guilty of leaping fearlessly across the chasm between twin beds anyway, and managed to do so safely. I see I’m in good company. Yes, I’ve knocked a few pictures askew, broken a lamp or two, maybe even left a few dents in the plaster wall, but I have never, ever, in all my years of bed jumping, cracked my head open. Leave it to my mom to always warn me about the worst possible outcome of any situation.
“Don’t run with scissors or you poke your eye out.”
“Don’t get near the lawnmower without shoes on or you’ll cut your toe off.”
“Don’t lick the beaters while they mixer is on because it will yank your tongue clear out of your mouth.”
So let me take this opportunity to say, “Thanks, Mom,” because always warning me about the worst thing that could happen has not only kept all my 2,000 body parts in tact, but her dire predictions have made me a better writer.
“What?” you ask.
Yes, when I sit down to write a new scene I put on my mom hat and figure out what bad thing can happen to my characters and thus create conflict which raises the tension which, in the words of esteemed literary agent Donald Maas, is what “keeps the reader turning pages.”
Let me show you of what I speak. We’ll start with a scene, say a charity event held in the ballroom of a swanky downtown hotel. Our hero, we’ll call him Jake, looks yummy dressed in a tuxedo that emphasizes his broad shoulders and bulging biceps. Our heroine Daria looks stunning in an off-white, off-the-shoulder, cocktail-length number paired with sexy sling-back stilettos. How about we give her a little something sparkly top go around her neck, too? Okay, so the plan for the evening is a cocktail hour followed by an haute cuisine dinner, then a night of dancing under the spinning disco ball to music offered by a soulful singer and her back-up band. We follow our characters as they eat, drink and be merry. All nice and good and probably very enjoyable by real-world standards. But to a reader? In a word, BO-ring!
So now we’re going to play a little game of “What if…” thinking of something bad that can happen to our characters, and then let’s go one step further and figure out “what would be worse…” I guarantee you that we’ll spin a scene that will keep the reader engaged in our little drama.
Here’s some ideas I’ve come up with.
What if… Jake forgets to bring the tickets so they have to drive all the way back to his apartment on the other side of town so are very late to the ball, putting them both in a bad mood. I can imagine that dialogue—or lack thereof—in the car. But what would be worse is if they were to be in a car accident because Daria made a snide comment causing Jake to take his eyes off the road for a split second. (Fear not, they will both survive, and their relationship will grow stronger as they heal. This is a Happily Ever After story, after all.)
What if…somebody jostles Daria’s elbow and she spills red wine on her couture dress. Or if we’re going to worst-case wardrobe malfunctions here, what would be worse is if Daria returns from the restroom with the back of her dress tucked in her underwear. (And I speak from personal experience telling you this is the WORST thing that can happen to a woman at a formal event. You’d think my mother would have warned me about that! No worries, though, my “date” for the evening married me anyway.)
Or what if…Jake’s ex-fiancé is in attendance, looking ravishing, as usual. What would be worse is if Madame Ex is hanging on the arm of Jake’s new boss and whispering all sorts of secrets while looking his way. (And of course he has some dark secrets. All yummy heroes do. But that’s another topic for another day.)
What if…in hopes of taking advantage of the romantic venue Jake slips an engagement ring into Daria’s champagne and she accidentally drinks it. Worse yet, what if Jake’s ex-fiancé accidentally drinks it. I think there might be a little “conflict” after that, don’t you?
What if…when Daria passes through the lobby on the way to the restroom she interrupts a robbery. Oh, what if she’s taken hostage! At gunpoint!
What if…while they are enjoying their dessert, the charming elderly lady next to Jake falls face first into her cherry chocolate chip cheesecake? But what if it’s not a simple heart attack, but murder? And Jake is the prime suspect? (Forgive me, I’m a mystery writer at heart, and I’ve found nothing increases the tension better than the introduction of a dead body.)
Or feel free to rely on the all time “what’s the worst that can happen” scenarios that our mothers taught us. Like, what if…after the ball, they get a room at the swanky hotel and while they’re getting “frisky” Daria does fall off the bed and cracks her head open?
Making “bad things” happen to your good characters is such a simple concept, but so important to creating a compelling read. So can they go out for a nice date? Of course, but something has to happen, something out of the ordinary, something that will increase tension, maybe show the character’s “true colors” or force them to face their demons or push them outside of their comfort zone in some way. You need something that creates conflict and tension. Something that will have your readers saying “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” That’s what makes a story not only worth reading, but also worth the twenty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents they plunked down for it.
Okay, your turn to play. Let your imagination run wild and think of something bad that can happen to Jake and Daria on their date. Then figure out what would be even worse than that. And maybe even push yourself to go one step further along on the worst-case scenario continuum. Is it possible to push too far? Yes. For example the abduction by aliens (unless you are writing sci fi) is too far for a mainstream romance. But in general, the worser the better. And please share your ideas in the comment section. We all want to read them!
Jayne Ormerod is the author of The Blond Leading the Blond, set in a fictional lakeside resort in Ohio. A lot of bad” things happen to Ellery, her main character, as she searches for her aunt’s killer. More information about Jayne and her writing can be found at her website.