I’d like to welcome guest blogger Jayne Ormerod whose debut novel “Blond leading the Blond” is now available from Amazon and your local library!

“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!
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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.

24 Responses to When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

  • Jayne, worst case scenarios can lead to great conflicts in stories. Thanks for tweaking my brain in new ways.

  • I loved the examples you gave for putting your characters into tough situations. It’s definitely more interesting for the reader and propels the story. By the way, I had several stiches and still have a large scar from when I cracked my head open at age 5 while jumping on the bed. Sorry, but it does happen. 😉

    • Julia – LOL! We used to play “alligator”. One person on the floor and the rest of us jumping around the furniture until someone was caught and pulled down by the gator. I still don’t know how we managed to survive without stitches!

      All the things Jayne mentioned certainly fall into the realm of possibilities and would certainly keep the reader turning pages.

      • Nina, we played alligator too! or maybe it was pirannah! Same principle. 🙂

        Julie, so so sorry to hear about your childhood mishap. I trust you are fully recovered, and probably learned to never ever do that again (whereas those of us who didn’t listen kept/keep jumping.) And you have “proof” for your children that bed jumping is indeed a bad idea. Thanks for stopping by this morning.

  • GREAT ideas, Jayne. I just started a novel and this is “grist for the mill”, so to speak. I’ve taken a 3-hour class by Donald Maass and I love the way he forces you to make your scenes more exciting and dramatic.
    Patti

  • What a great idea – much more interesting than a lengthy explanation of how to produce tension. Good job, Jayne! And, Nina, I’m glad I discovered this blog. I’ll be seeing you again.

    • Sandy – Jayne did a fabulous job of making tension easy in a few easy steps. I’m so glad you happened by. I look forward to seeing you bumping around The Block.

      • Sandy, I suspect a “lecture” would have fallen on deaf ears. Besides, this “hands on” post was ever so much more fun! I actually had about a dozen more examples but, well, cyber space is at a premium so cut out some (that I have saved and just might use for my own charactes.) I know from reading Left at Oz that you’ve already mastered this principle.

  • So great, I could write a whole book on these things. Good work!

  • Very good advice. Sometimes I get so busy trying to push the plot forward that I forget about making little conflicts like this.

    So Jake and Daria…

    After the wreck Jake sees the ghost of his dead brother and freaks out. The stress causes Daria to have a herpes outbreak. LOL

  • Wow, I love this post! You did an excellent job of playing what-if. I must remember to use this format when I write my own novels. W

    What if the heel breaks on Daria’s show, throwing her into the arms of another man just as her date, a man planning to propose to her at the stroke of midnight on stage, walks by! This good samaritan just happens to be her ex, who’s still in love with her and has gone as far as to stalk her! What if…

    I truly enjoyed this! Thanks for writing this post.

    Sara Trimble

  • Sara, misinterpretation of an event seen with one’s own eyes makes for great conflict. Now you have me wondering if Daria gets back ith her date or if this is merely the impetuts for an HEA with the good samaraitan? I’d definately have to keep reading to see how this one pans out. Thanks for “playing” the game today!

  • Very interesting. Fun game.
    What if a bat flew into the room through the open patio doors. In his attempts to chase the bat away from Daria, Jake elbows her in the eye. She has one hell of a shiner the next day, everyone thinks he beat her because they don’t believe the bat story and he’s feeling so guilty he’s stumbling over himself trying to make up for it.

    • Donna – Another good “what if”. I’d love to have you all in a room to do some brainstorming for plot lines! Thanks for visiting.

  • Sorry to be late to this ball! It’s deadline weekend for Chick Lit Writers’ Stiletto judges, a contest Jayne-the-former-finalist knows well. Had lots of fun with your scenarios. I was absolutely certain that Daria’s wine-stained couture dress was borrowed, possibly from the boss for whom she’s been house sitting for the past month. Maybe the invitation was borrowed, too–with the best of intentions. It’s a charity event, and Daria really has a heart for the cause. Surely her boss would, too, if Daria had been able to reach her. Daria was certain she would approve the ticket expense–until the destruction of the dress. . . .

    • Chris – oh, that certainly could be interesting. I would read on to figure out how she’s going to work her way through this without losing her job. (And I loved the Stiletto contest … I got the pleasure of reading some of the entries this year.)

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