What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

27 thoughts on “What Can Go Wrong?

  1. These are the words any RPG player dreads, because every time, and I mean EVERY time one player utters them, someone dies.

    But, for writing fiction, very clever! lol

  2. I hit a snag on the romance I’ve been writing because the characters achieved their goals too easily. Him and her get together and salvage their lives and that’s it. I didn’t even want to write it. So I chewed on What Can Go Wrong for a few days. My first few ideas weren’t Wrong enough, so I mused until I found a way they could go Wronger. According to Ye Old Romance Outline, this is the part where a Hidden Secret Comes to Light. I had to make it really bad while not being the cliche love triangle most romances have.

    • You’re right, Kessie, our characters should never have it easy. Easy means boring. I believe the best character arc is to throw the protagonist into the fire, crush her, and then let her find a way out of the pit.

  3. Great tip. I haven’t actually asked this question when writing a scene/chapter but it’s a good way to help build suspense. I’m going to have to try it and see what goes wrong…!

  4. This good discussion reminds me of something else we might want to discuss here sometime–running threads (or pulling them) through the manuscript. By which I mean to say, that when we introduce (or remove) an element into our story, we need to follow that thread backwards and forward through the rest of the WIP, to make sure that we haven’t left any threads “hanging.” For example, the rebels you mention shouldn’t have just appeared for the first time in the chapter in which they downed the plane. I’m sure that you had to work backward to set them up into your story, and then you followed that thread to a resolution. We can discover great new characters and subplots that way!

  5. Thanks for a great tip, Joe. Seems like most really good stories have lots of “what can go wrongs”….even the mundane~like a parent being late to pick up another child for school~ gave the movie, One Fine Day, a foundation for building an entire script! Here’s hoping, in your real life, nothing goes wrong today!!

  6. Great tips. One of the first things I realized when I tried to expand my way-too-short mystery was there weren’t enough “What Ifs” and “What Can Go Wrongs” in it. Now I have a full length novel and then some!

  7. One of the highlights of my writing hours is rubbing my hands together and letting out an evil chuckle as I consider this very question. My poor characters…poor, poor characters.


  8. Those were the very words in my head yesterday, when I tried to create a subdomain for the website I am building. And boy, did I find out. Back to Square One, now. Tomorrah’s annudah day.

  9. Awesome post. I was having the same problem, things were going to easily. It can’t be this easy. No way it that easy. Was that all there was to it, easy?

    To combat that, I let my two MCs walk right into an ambush. Nope, turns out it wasn’t easy at all.

    And that guy who sat and scowled his way through the first meeting? Should have checked his hand. You would’ve seen the tattoo, the one from the video and avoided a whole lot of hurt at the beginning of Act III. But nooooo . . . you didn’t listen to me when I told you it was too easy!


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