I wrote a post a few months ago about how a children’s movie used an important plotting technique—that is, when a protagonist solves one problem, she or he should be confronted by a worse problem. Now advice from a documentary filmmaker, whose mother is a student of mine. Ginny was frustrated with the plotting of her latest novel, so her son told her he’d read it and see if he had any suggestions.
He did have suggestions, and one of them intrigued me. The novel has two main characters, although the focus is more on one—a young doctor named Jackie—than the other—Jackie’s new next-door neighbor, Ruth, an eighty-year-old woman who is dying of cancer. Ginny’s son felt that Ruth needed to be more isolated. Instead of moving near one of her closest friends and starting to date a man, she should be adrift and lonely, which would force her to rely on Jackie more, strengthening the bond between them. I commiserated with Ginny over the loss of two fun minor characters, but realized that her son had made an excellent suggestion. Isolating a character, taking away her or his support system, is another type of conflict, and forces the character to perhaps take action she wouldn’t have otherwise. So I appreciated this piece of advice from the world of film.
And then Ginny’s son’s advice was demonstrated in a TV show that my daughter and I watch. The show is called Supernatural—think Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The X-Files. Two brothers, Dean and Sam, spend their time fighting vampires, ghosts, demons, and other creatures most of us have never heard of. They have a life-and-death dependence on each other, as well as a surrogate father named Bobby and a rather … um, supernatural friend. Bobby’s ramshackle house in the middle of the auto repair/junk yard he used to run is their only home. At the start of the seventh season, Dean loses almost everything. He has cut all ties with the woman he tried to have a normal life with, his friend has disappeared, his brother Sam has a shaky grasp on reality after the horrific experience he went through in season six, Bobby’s house has just burned down, and Bobby himself might be dead.
Wow, I thought as the camera focused in on Dean for the final shot, standing in the junk yard with the charred remains of Bobby’s house behind him, talk about isolated. The screenwriters had employed that plot device with a vengeance. Even a casual viewer of the show couldn’t help but sympathize with Dean and probably would be eager to know how Dean was going to hold up under all of these stresses. (Not to mention what was going to happen to all the other characters.)
Anne Lamott warns in Bird by Bird, her excellent book on writing: “You are probably going to have to let bad things happen to some of the characters you love or you won’t have much of a story. Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time. As soon as you start protecting your characters from the ramifications of their less-than-lofty behavior, your story will start to feel flat and pointless, just like in real life.”
Couple her advice with Ginny’s son’s, and you can make your protagonist truly miserable. Naturally, that misery has to make sense, has to be true to your character and the story, but you will have a better chance of grabbing your readers’ interest and holding onto it if you keep your character walking right along the edge of a cliff that has a tendency to crumble, leaving her or him teetering on a ledge.