(When was the last time I did a post on Wednesday? I have no idea, yet here we are. Welcome back)
“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”
Murphy’s law. An old military saying. Whatever you like to think of it as. Along similar lines, I would like to create a new saying; that when you’re writing a book “anything that can go wrong, should go wrong.”
I recently read a novel (I’m not gonna name it just because at the moment I don’t feel like bashing but I do need to vent a little), where everything kept going right. It was one narrow escape after the other. Every time things were getting precarious, someone was about to get caught, they got away. Everything ended up being alright. No characters were captured, no characters were seriously injured, and no one lost anything of great value. I think I counted like six different instances of this and that was like only halfway through the book.
While reading, I was getting to the point where I wanted the characters to get captured. I wanted someone to get seriously injured. I wanted them to lose the important object or at least an important object. I just wanted something absolutely devastating to happen.
But the characters kept getting away from the “bad guys”. They kept escaping (without a scratch, mind you). They kept slipping out just in the nick of time or being rescued just in the nick of time. Things were going so well for the characters that it was getting dreadfully boring.
And that is one of the things that makes a story compelling; when things keep going wrong. It keep us readers on our toes, keeps us dying to know what happens next, keeps us biting our fingernails as we worry about the wellbeing of our favorite characters.
But none of that happens in a story where everything narrowly avoids disaster.
So I want to go over two stories where things constantly go wrong (and in true Bernadette style, these will be movies, and not books).
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Ah, a classic. Perfect to watch when you’re in the mood to see some Nazi’s melt.
So first off, the movie even starts with a failure. Indi (Indiana Jones, I mean) manages to get the golden-head-statue-thingy (you know what I’m talking about), only to lose it to the Belloq (the French baddie who’s working with the Nazi, for those not familiar with the plot). This is great because the failure ends up being more interesting than the success AND foreshadows the Belloq later being Indi’s nemesis for the rest of the film.
The next plot point where things go south is when Indi is in Nepal, meeting with Marion Ravenwood to get the medallion/staff piece. Now, by the end of the scene he gets both Marion to go with him and the medallion. He’s successful, BUT only after an absolute disaster in which the inn burns down (Mariam’s livelihood #loss) and a Nazi gets an burn/imprint of the inscription of the medallion on his hand (this is important because the inscription is needed to find the Ark. This adds more tension as now both the bad guys and the good guys might be able to find the Ark).
Indi and Marion go to Cairo. Here a lot of things fall apart with dead monkeys and Marion presumingly dying (she actually gets captured by the Nazis). However, despite many loses, Indi does make progress when he finds the Lost Ark.
*cue dramatic music* *you know what music I’m talking about*
They find the Ark. Yay! Success! But you know what happens like a split second after their success? DISASTER. The Nazi’s find them, take the Ark, and seal Indi and Marion in the tomb (well, it wasn’t a tomb. But like, they are sealed underground).
Looks pretty bad.
From here and for the next like, I don’t know, 15-20 minutes, is one long exciting ride of trying to get the Ark back. But it’s a saga of failure and success. Indi and Marion get out of the tomb, try to take the plane, that doesn’t work, try to take the truck, eventually Indi is successful but only after getting shot and run over a few times. #loss.
Things look good. They get on the boat with the Ark, etc. etc. THEN, everyone’s favorite villain, the Nazis show up once again to steal the Ark. #failure.
Indi escapes and threatens to blow up the Ark with a bazooka. Looks like success? Nope. Not yet. He can’t do it. #failure. Then of course we have the epic conclusion of the Ark being opened and all the bad guys melting and being zapped.
But even as they and the Ark get back to the states, there remains a sense of foreboding. Now obviously not every story has to end this way, I am all for gloriously happy endings (pull quote from Tolkien) but because of the mood, the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark remains iconic.
The whole story is propelled forward by things going wrong.
Onto our second movie.
The Last Jedi
Ok, ok, OK. I know a lot of people hated this movie but I thought it was pretty good. Why?
Because everything the heroes in this movie tried to do absolutely failed, right up until the end.
Rey: She goes to Luke to get him to fight with the Resistance. Doesn’t work (until the very end). Tries to get him to train her. Doesn’t really work. Tries to get Ben Solo to turn to the light side, doesn’t work. Nothing works until the end when she is able to save what is left of the Resistance with the Millennium Falcon.
Poe: The movie opens with him recklessly wanting to take the down the dreadnaught, which though successful, ends up with devastating loss. Because of lack of communication between leadership, he decides to commit mutiny and take over the ship (fleet??), and then that doesn’t turn out once Leia wakes up and zaps him. He doesn’t succeed until the end when he leads the Resistance to safety.
Finn/Poe/Rose: They had a brilliant plan, they really did. To get into Snoke’s ship and disable the tracker so the Resistance Fleet to get away. Except, it doesn’t work when they are betrayed and everything quite literally bursts into flames.
In conclusion: depending on what kind of book you’re writing, things don’t necessarily need to go as heinously wrong as shown above, but things should go wrong. And things almost going wrong don’t quite count. Obviously it’s fine for things to almost go wrong – that’s how things in stories stay tense. There should be a middle ground between going wrong and going right. But if there’s too many “character almost falls off the cliff but doesn’t” it just gets boring.
Readers want to see characters struggle because we want to root for them. Make them struggle. The whole story should be a struggle bus.
With, obviously, varying levels of struggle-busing depending on the genre.
That’s all for now, folks.