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?

Cardboard men and the women who love them

Men characters…can’t control ’em and can’t shoot ’em.
Actually, I guess I could do the latter. And that is just about where I am right now with one of the guys in my work in progress. His name is Josh. Or sometimes Matt. Before that his name was Alex. The fact that I can’t even settle on a name for this guy shows you where I am with him right now. He’s the husband of my heroine and while SHE doesn’t really need him — in fact, that’s part of her character arc — I do need him. He’s important to the plot.
It’s my fault. I gave birth to this creep. I can’t even blame my co-author sister Kelly because when we plotted this book out, I was the one who drew duty on Josh. I put him on paper, I got him up and walking around. So now I have to find a way to deal with him. I thought I was doing okay with him until I ran his introductory chapter past my critique group. They tore Josh to shreds. 
Josh, it seems, is a cipher. In creating him, I committed one of the biggest sins of writing, something I preach about to every new writer I encounter. Namely:
Your villain must not stupid, dull, or incompetent. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero.
Wait, you say, Josh is the villain? I thought he was the husband. (Actually, he might be the villain; I haven’t really decided).  Regardless, the same commandment applies to love interests as well as villains. If you expect readers to buy into a romantic relationship, the man you pick for your woman must be worthy of her affection.
Josh, alas, is made of cardboard. He’s not the sexy UPS man. He’s the UPS box.
I haven’t taken the time or energy to flesh him out. I neglected to give their relationship enough back story to make it believable. I didn’t give enough thought to his motivations. I have been so busy lavishing love and words on my heroine, the cast of fabulous secondary characters — shoot, even the frickin’ scenery — that I just plain forgot about flaccid Josh.
I know why this happened, though I hate to admit it.
This book is not a Louis Kincaid book, so I can’t depend on my deep “friendships” with old characters. I don’t know these new characters yet so it’s harder to plumb their depths. This book is also not a strict thriller like we have written before. It’s closer to psychological suspense, which for me at least requires some stretching. It is still dark in tone as our other books but it is more dependent on relationships and all the shadows, ambiguities and difficulties that presents. 
I think when writing Josh I had flashbacks to my romance writing days, when relationships were the backbone of my stories. There wasn’t the convenient conveyance of violence or an unsolved case to propel the plot forward; you had to build suspense solely through how the characters related to each other. Plus there’s the sex thing. In romance, if you didn’t have sex every four chapters or so there was something wrong with you. But that was a long time ago. I haven’t had to have sex since…well, never mind.
Friends, I am here to tell you. It is not just like riding a bicycle.
The lesson here is: Pay attention to every character and don’t take shortcuts. Go deep and then even deeper when you think about their motivations. I didn’t do my job as a writer with Josh the first time around. I thought I could get away with giving him less than my best. So now, here I am, struggling with rewrites way too early in the first draft. 
This is not a good place to be because first drafts, as I have said often, should be just that — drafts. If you stop and go back for intensive surgery too early in your book’s life you lose your forward momentum. But I have no choice because I know the rest of the book will not fall into place the way it needs to until I go back and fix Josh. So today I will transfuse Josh with some blood, jolt him with the heart paddles, and try to make him come alive on the page.

I should have killed him off in chapter 4. It would have been easier.