Posts Tagged ‘Plot’

The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 4: Structure

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on December 2nd, 2010

People go to movies, watch TV, and read novels because they enjoy having a certain type of experience. They enjoy it so much that they are willing to pay for it, again and again and again.

Our job as writers is to create a narrative that evokes this desired experience in the reader. Yes, we have to be passionate about our story. Yes, it’s an art. Yes, it’s complex and sometimes feels a bit mystical. But we can’t let that make us forget the fact that the ultimate purpose of the story is to guide the reader through an experience.

Now maybe that approach is too businesslike for you. Maybe it removes the artist too much from the production. If you feel that way, then think of it as the writer finding and inventing crazalicious things that he or she just can’t help but want to share. In this view, the author goes out into the world and brings back delights and wonders for others to enjoy.

There are many different delights to share. So some people love humor. Others delight in being spooked. Others want to relive the feeling of falling in love. Still others want to feel adventure and thrills. Or they enjoy the feeling of insight, wonder, curiosity, and wish-fulfillment. Others want a mix.

One of the core elements in a majority of the experiences readers love is being in suspense about the outcome of a character’s fate. Readers love to HOPE and FEAR for a character for 90% of the story. They love their worry and/or curiosity to build. And they love a good release.

Presenting an interesting and sympathetic character with a significant happiness problem initiates the reader’s hope and fear and curiosity (btw, presenting a mystery initiates the reader curiosity). But we can’t stop there.

Remember: readers want their worry to build to a sharp point. Then they want a good release. We do that by having the character solve his problem in a certain way. Solving those problems is what plot is all about. In the last part of the series, I talked about the details of plot. (And if you haven’t read the first post in this series on problem and the third one on plot, I suggest you go read both right now so the rest of what I’m going to talk about will make sense.) In this part of the series, I’m going to talk about the big picture of plot, about the structure of the story as a whole, and what key elements that structure needs in order to help readers feel a building of tension and a release.

Think about problem solving, not voodoo

In order to do this, we first need to demystify what’s going on and get to the heart of plot. Story and plot are NOT about a character going on a mythic Jungian heroic journey. Nor are they about characters following a rigid Hollywood structure grimoire. Nor is there one secret plot pattern that all awesome stories use.

In the types of stories we’re talking about, the plot is about a character solving a problem. That’s it. That’s the grand whoop-tee-doo mystery. Not very exciting, but that’s what the writer needs to keep in mind. Well, and the fact that the manner in which the problem is resolved has to build reader tension—form follows function.

I know some people will argue that many successful artists swear by things like Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey. But if you read Campbell’s book, you’ll find something interesting. What Campbell did was survey traditional tales from many cultures across the globe. He listed common features of those tales and found that certain types of things kept popping up in the stories. He concluded these were signs of unconscious Jungian archetypes. There was no purpose to the form except to express the archetype. And so he listed the common elements, gave them mystical names, and explained their source in pseudo-psychological terms.

Do you see where he went wrong?

Let me do a Campbell with eating utensils. Let’s imagine I go around to all the various cultures of the world and look at what utensils they use to eat. Gadzooks, but I’d find a startling number of similarities. Who would have thought? For example, the super rich living in their million-dollar New York high rises drink from crystal glasses while the mud-poor hut folk in Bangladeshi backwaters use gourds and sometimes even cup water with their bare hands, but it’s all the same basic form—The Hollow.

Instead of seeing that a hollow form is a great way to hold liquids and solids, I would conclude it must be a sign of some deep-seated subconscious archetype. That’s why we have cups and spoons. Therefore, because The Hollow resonates with our human unconscious, maybe from our time hanging out in the womb, a powerful dinner will include The Hollow in some form precisely because it interacts with the archetype, putting us back into the womb, to the time we were being fed directly by our mothers and felt inexplicably comforted and satisfied.

Dang. That’s good. Somebody out to get me one of them PhD’s. I can see it now: The Mythic Meal . . .

Too bad it’s a bunch of hooey.

Campbell’s documenting all those traditional tales was a great thing. Identifying the similarities was cool. But instead of looking for the simple function the form was created to fill, Campbell ignored the function and turned the form into a magical totem.

People who study modern-day stories sometimes do the same thing. Except instead of using labels like “Threshold Guardian,” “Shape Shifter,” and “Ordeal,” they use terms like “Act,” “Plot Point,” and “Confrontation.”

I’m not arguing against labels or patterns. What I’m arguing against is divorcing form and function. It’s true that people can sometimes use Campbell’s list of common elements to develop a story that builds and releases reader tension. But when we talk about form outside of the context of its function in the reader’s experience, we prevent ourselves from seeing how things work. The form becomes a mystical black box. And because we don’t know the whys behind the form we can’t see when the form should and should not be used. We sometimes find ourselves falling into the trap of prescribing Procrustean plot beds that are exactly wrong for our purposes or into rebelling against form altogether.

So let’s not do that.

There is no voodoo here. There is only a character trying to solve a problem.

People solve problems every day. It’s not very mystical. But because it’s the core of story, thinking about how your character will try to solve her problem is one of the most powerful ways to help you figure out your plot structure and detail. And that’s what we’re going to do in the rest of this post.

Key suspense structure elements

So how do people solve problems? What’s the process?

Well, wait a minute. We have to add a little to that. We’re not just having characters solve problems. We’re showing characters struggle with problems in ways that engender and build suspense in a reader. Then we’re showing them resolve the problem in ways that provide the reader a wash of cathartic relief. So maybe the better question is: what elements are necessary for readers to feel tension about a characters struggle to solve a problem?

Here’s what I’ve been able to identify. I believe all the elements below are critical for a reader to see or understand. By that I meant that if you take any one of these away, it will prevent the reader from feeling tension, feeling it build, or feeling it release.

1. PRESENT the problem. In this phase, a reader must:

  1. Understand what the problem is
  2. See a sympathetic and interesting character
  3. Understand and buy into why the character can’t or won’t walk away from the problem
  4. Be surprised by some of the particularities of the character and problem

2. Main character STRUGGLES to solve the problem. In this phase, a reader must:

  1. Understand the actions the character is going to take and why the character is taking them
  2. See actions unexpectedly thwarted and troubles increase
  3. See some actions succeed
  4. See the character locked into an attempt to solve the problem that will be final
  5. Be surprised by some of the particularities of the motives, decisions, actions, and results

3. Main character RESOLVES the problem. In this phase, a reader must:

  1. See whether the character succeeds or fails. For suspense the character usually snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.
  2. Understand what the success or failure means for the character’s life going forward
  3. Be surprised by some of the particularities of the resolution

We present the problem and why the character must face it. This raises possibilities in the reader’s mind, good and bad, for the character. Because the reader finds the character sympathetic and interesting, the reader will automatically root for the character to win.

We share with the reader how the character plans to solve the issue. Then we show how those plans keep getting thwarted. This raises reader fears. We show other actions succeed. This raises reader hopes that the character still might win. At some point the character gets locked into a final attempt.

As the main character struggles this last time, it looks like she is going to lose. Then we show her snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This produces a wonderful wash of relief in the reader.

Along every step of the way, readers need to be surprised, not about everything, but about enough of the particularities of the problem, character, actions, reactions, and resolution that it prevents the reader from knowing what WILL happen. Instead, these unexpected things allow the reader to know what MIGHT happen and worry about the possibilities.

Not the three-act structure

I know some of you are thinking—hey, that’s the three act structure. It’s true some people describe the three acts in a similar way. But I have tried very hard to avoid the word “act.”

First, an act is simply a major division of a story. A part. And it’s somewhat arbitrary how those divisions are made. Because of this, the structure above might describe stories with one, three, five, seven, or more acts.

Second, “act” doesn’t tell you what you as the writer are trying to accomplish. It’s a form term that carries little useful information, and in fact, sometimes obfuscates what you’re actually trying to do.

Third, “three-act structure” is too often used in rigid forms, a lot of them originating in Hollywood, that prescribe certain proportions, obstacle types, and event sequences. It’s all focused on form outside of the context of any function, and that’s precisely what I’m trying to avoid.

So I prefer not to talk about acts, but phases of problem solving. This helps me keep clear what my goals are and reminds me of my many options.

Of course, the three phases constitute a very broad structure. They still need a bit more detail in order to be translated into the events and scenes of a specific story. But before we move into that topic, I want to take a moment to talk about what I think is the exact wrong approach to our topic.

Think about patterns & options, not rigid formulas

The three phases of problem solving form the basic structure of a story that builds suspense in readers. A number of events will occur in each phase. But there are simply too many variables for there to be one best sequence of events for giving the reader the type of experience we hope to deliver.

Think about this mathematically. If we have three phases to solving a problem, and there are three sequence options for the events in each phase, then we have 27 different possible combinations. 27 different possible event sequences or plot patterns!

But there are more than three options in each phase. Furthermore, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of possibilities for each of the story elements listed below:

  • Type of problem
  • Number of sub-problems (sub-plots) included in the story
  • Types of characters
  • Character personalities & traits
  • Numbers of characters in the story
  • Places where the problem takes place
  • Character motives for solving the problem or opposing its resolution
  • Reasons why the character must face the problem
  • Actions that may work to solve the problem
  • The skills and resources the character can bring to bear on the problem
  • The skills and resources the opposition can bring to bear on the problem
  • Obstacles to solving the problem

Each choice for the elements above will affect the sequence of events in your story as well. There are just too many variables to say there’s one sequence of events that’s best, even though you will run across folks who propose just that.

Building stories is like building houses. Yes, you need a foundation, walls, and a roof, but holy cow, look at all the variations that are possible and successful given those basic requirements.

So instead of thinking there’s ONE ultimate magical structure, I’ve found it’s more productive to identify many event sequence patterns that work.

This is one reason why reading other stories is such a powerful way to increase your skills—you get to see so many patterns that do and don’t work. This gives you a whole catalog of options that you can use or tweak into new variations for your own stories.

For example, if you’re writing about a heist, then look at how real and fictional characters have solved that problem. If you’re writing about a chase, do the same. Stories about romance and friendship problems have certain patterns as do stories about catching spies and solving mysteries. Look at your story problem, think about how you’d solve it, then go and see how others have solved it. You can use what you find or change it to suit your purposes, always keeping in mind the type of experience you hope to deliver to the reader.

How a plot pattern saved my writing

This idea of plot patterns is actually one of the things that helped me learn to how to finish stories. I once reached a point where I was going to give up my dream of writing. I was in a week-long workshop and couldn’t finish the story that we were supposed to write. I’d worked on it for at least fourteen hours and didn’t even have the opening scene. This was five years after I had won the Writers of the Future prize. Five years in which I couldn’t finish a story of any kind.

It’s not that I didn’t have ideas. I had bucket loads of cool problem, character, and setting. But there was something I lacked. I didn’t know it at the time, but I lacked an understanding of the key fourth story element—I lacked plot. So with this particular story, I didn’t know how to proceed. I didn’t quite understand how characters went about solving the type of problem I wanted to write about.

But again, I didn’t know that. Instead, I concluded that I just didn’t have what it took. My one success had been a fluke.

So I sat in a restaurant on that Thursday night contemplating the fact that my dream was going to be put away for good, because I was determined not to waste another minute or dollar on something in which I had no chance of being successful. Luckily (or Divinely) about an hour before I gave it all up, I stumbled into thinking maybe I could try applying to my story an event sequence pattern I’d seen used elsewhere.

I applied the one little pattern I knew for that type of story problem. Suddenly, the lights went on, the music began to play, and the story came to life. The scenes rolled out in front of me. And I wrote a story that went on to sell multiple times. More importantly, I was able to continue to finish stories afterwards.

This lack of understanding about plot wasn’t the only thing that was keeping me back at the time, but it was one of the main ones. Looking for patterns and variations has been useful to me ever since.

So let me recommend you think about and look–not for some formula or grand master sequence of acts, plot points, or events–but for effective event sequence patterns (plural) for the types of story problems you write about. When you do, you’ll find your stories come easier.

To get you started, I’m going to describe some of the patterns and variations I’ve seen in each of the three story problem-solving phases. Each is a tool I think you’ll want in your story workshop. None of them are the golden key to success. However, each of them is an option that can work, depending on the story and your objectives.

1. Patterns for Presenting the Problem

The story begins when we present to the reader (a) the main character, (b) the problem she’ll face, and (c) a good reason why the character can’t or won’t walk away from the problem. If the main character is sympathetic and interesting, the reader will root for her and want to see what happens. If some of the particularities of the character and problem are surprising or novel to the readers, it will generate more interest than if it’s something they’ve seen many times before.

Here are some options to think about when you structure the event sequence of the presentation phase.

  • Number of scenes to present the problem
  • Straight or twist presentation
  • Central problem or a subplot problem start
  • The reason why the hero can’t or won’t walk away
  • Size of the presentation phase (proportion)

We’ll briefly discuss each in this section.

Number of scenes to present the problem

We can present the problem in one scene or over the course of a couple of scenes.

For example, in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, the problem is presented in one scene. Katniss goes to reaping day event, witnesses her little sister’s name drawn, volunteers to take her place, and then sees the boy she’s going to have to kill.

In Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy the problem is presented in two scenes. In the first scene a guy shows up and mistakes our hero for a contract killer. He passes the hero an envelope with $10,000 and a picture of the woman he wants killed with the address on the back. In the next scene, just a few minutes later, the killer shows up and mistakes our hero for the guy putting out the hit. We know very quickly what the whole story is going to be about.

Sometimes it takes quite a number of scenes to present the central problem. For example, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help the problem takes nine chapters to fully reveal itself. We start off immediately with three interesting women in different hardship situations. That alone builds our sympathy and invests us in them. But it’s not until the end of chapter nine that we finally know the specific issue that will form the central question of the story.

Sometimes it takes so long because we’re presenting a string of events that lead in a causal manner to the main problem. For example, in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International, we start with a scene where a fat boss turns into a werewolf and tries to kill the main hero. This attack sends the hero to the hospital. But it also prompts the hero being offered a job to join a monster hunting organization. The offer leads to his acceptance, which leads to some training scenes, which leads, at last, to the central story problem being introduced in chapter six.

Straight or twist presentation

How we reveal the nature of the problem is another option in the presentation phase. We can present the problem clearly up front. Or we can start with one understanding of the problem, then, as the character gets to work on it, we present another scene that opens our eyes to the real nature of the issue.

The problems in Hunger Games and The Good Guy are straight presentations. We start knowing exactly what’s up.

On the other hand, we could start with two murders. The detective thinks it’s the work of some crime organization. Then he discovers they both have a peculiar tattoo. One that was found on another dead man who was a soldier that worked on some super-secret Army biological weapon project. He comes to find out that all three men were on that project and the murders were made to look like something they weren’t. Twist!

Central problem or a subplot problem start

Another option is to lead with the central problem, or to lead with something else, maybe the introduction of a subplot or something about the character that will engender interest and sympathy.

In Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow, the first page starts with the presentation of the central problem of the story. The same thing happens in Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris.

However, in The Good Guy, we start the book with banter back and forth between the hero and a bartender friend about the hero’s lack of a love life. It’s funny and interesting and actually sets up the subplot of the book, which is a love story. But it isn’t the central plot issue. That comes in the next scene.

Likewise, in Spiderman 2 we start with Peter Parker having issues trying to keep a job, do well in school, and win the love of his life. This subplot directly impacts the central story problem. But the central story problem of Doctor Octopus doesn’t show up until a few scenes later.

In Hunger Games we open with a short introductory scene that presents the character and builds interest in her. It also introduces a love element. After that brief presentation, we move directly into the presentation of the central story problem.

The reason why the hero can’t or won’t walk away

Of course, if our character could just walk away, then we as readers would expect them to. So there must be a good reason to face the problem. Our fourth set of options center on this.

There are usually three reasons why someone would be locked into dealing with a problem:

  • Physical
  • Moral and value
  • Professional

Physical reasons are simply those that physically force people into facing the problem. You’re stuck on a runaway train. You’re not going to jump at 80 mph. You are on an airplane flight with terrorists. You are on the Titanic when it hits the iceberg. The villain wants you dead and seems to have no problem finding you. In these stories, something physical is preventing the character from avoiding the problem. It doesn’t matter whether they want to solve the problem or not, they’re going to have to deal with it.

On the other hand, there are situations where our characters have a choice.

The character might have strong moral reasons that compel him to face the problem. Maybe a child is in danger. In this situation, the hero does something bad by not acting. In another sense, a character might lose something of great value of he doesn’t act. Maybe someone he loves will be hurt or die if he fails to deal with the issue.

A character might also have professional reasons. These characters try to solve problems because it’s their job. Cops track down killers. Soldiers go into war. Bounty hunters chase folks that jump bail.

These motivations can be presented in the same scene as the problem, or they can be presented in a separate scene. For example, sometimes the hero is willing to charge forward. Sometimes the hero is unwilling and needs a shove. So in The Good Guy our hero takes about one paragraph to decide he’s going to take the problem head on. But in another story you might have a hero who doesn’t want to engage. This may require a scene or two that gives him the motivation.

Size of the presentation phase (proportion)

How long should the presentation phase be?

You’ll often read some story structure models that claim the story should have a 25-50-25 structure. The first part should be about 25% of the story. The resolution should be 25%. And the struggle should take roughly 50%.

The problem is that the rigid 25-50-25 proportion doesn’t hold up very well when tested against actual stories. Look at the stories below:

  • Hunger Games finishes the presentation phase 8% of the way into the novel.
  • The Good Guy finishes the presentation phase 4% of the way in.
  • TV episodes of The Mentalist routinely finish the presentation phase less than 2% of the way in, but in one episode they threw in an extra case and took 30% of the time.
  • The Help finishes its 27% of the way in.
  • Monster Hunter International finishes its presentation phase 28% of the way in.

Quite a range. And there are a lot of stories finishing the presentation phase at all points in between.

What this says to me is that the 25-50-25 rule is something that someone cooked up without checking reality. Or, at least, the reality of today’s fiction market.

It might be that a presentation phase of 35% to 50% of the whole might make it difficult to guide the reader into the pitch of emotion that’s necessary for a climax. Maybe not. I haven’t analyzed any stories that have such big presentation phases yet.

What I can conclude is that some stories get right into the central problem while others present subplots or multiple scenes that build to the central problem first. Until I find stories with different proportions that work for me, I’m going to try to keep my presentation phases under 30%. And if I’m not doing anything complex, I’m going to try to keep them below 10%.

No one right option

As you can see, there are a lot of variations to the presentation phase. The key thing to remember is than any of these variations can work. None is intrinsically better than another. So don’t fall into any rigid plot formula trap.

Instead, keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish in the present phase. Then choose the options that work best for this phase for your story and make it is as interesting as possible.

2. Patterns for the Struggle

In the presentation phase, readers are introduced to the problem. But they want more than a moment of sympathy or worry. They want their tension (their hopes and fears) to build to a pitch.

How do we do that?

We don’t let the characters solve the problem. Not yet, at least. Instead, we do just the reverse—we make the problem bigger and harder to solve than it was before. We make the hero struggle. We make the situation more intense. We raise the stakes. All of this increases the reader’s tension.

So the character forms a goal—solve the problem—identifies the first step to do just that, and takes action. Of course, she won’t solve it with that one action. We talked about that in the last part of the series. If she solves it right out of the gate, the story is over. We want reader tension to build, not dissipate. And so she’s going to go around the story cycle a few times trying to solve the problem.

How many times?

There’s NO set number. There are many variations that work. However, I will say that with the central problem you probably need at least three revolutions (some subplots might only require one revolution). First, you need that many to create a story long enough to make it a novel. In fact, you’ll probably need many more. Second, there’s something about three that makes it feel significant, that the character has achieved something. Finally, three seems to be the number that sets a pattern. If someone fails the first two times, we’re likely to think they’ll fail the third. I believe this helps build tension surrounding that third attempt.

So while our hero makes some headway, she also runs into troubles that seem to threaten complete failure. The reader feels the hero has a chance of winning, but the troubles and failures make the odds of her losing seem to grow. Furthermore, the hero begins to run out of time, the stakes (what might be lost) are raised, vague threats become very specific. These are all the problem intensifiers we talked about in the first post in the series, and all of them make the reader’s worry grow.

So what does this phase look like? Do you have to follow a strict pattern of “pinch points” and “mid act reversals”?


Again, there are just too many options and variables for there to be one best sequence of events.

What you need to do is keep throwing troubles, conflicts, surprises, and obstacles at the reader. You also need to let the hero have some successes. This allows the reader to have cause to fear and hope and not know for sure how it’s all going to turn out.

At some point the hero finds himself with one last chance to resolve the problem. When the hero heads, by decision or by force, into that final showdown, that last possible attempt to solve the problem, the struggle phase ends.

Here are some of the options to consider when you sequence the events of this phase:

  • The type of problem your character is solving
  • Trouble progression
  • Actions the antagonist takes to oppose the hero
  • Number of stories and plot turns
  • What leads the hero into the final showdown
  • Proportion

I’ll briefly discuss each.

The type of problem your character is solving

Each type of problem requires different actions to solve it. If gang-bangers are threatening your son, you will take one set of actions to solve that problem. If you’ve just met the love of your life, you will take a different set of actions. If you’re caught at sea in a massive hurricane, you’ll take a third set of actions.

If you’re working with a murder mystery, a critical first step is identifying any clues that might lead to information about who did it and why. So your character will examine the crime scene. Next, he’ll go talk to people associated with the victim. Next, he’ll run down leads he finds from those initial investigations. He’ll find more clues and more leads. He’ll form a hypothesis, test it, and find it’s wrong. So he’ll track down more clues. Finally, he’ll figure it out. Now, he has to figure out how to capture the perpetrator.

However, if you’re working with a problem where a team of soldiers needs to go behind enemy lines to sabotage a military installation, you might start with the selection of the soldiers, then their training, then their deployment to the theater of action, then them going behind the lines, then their arrival at the target, then their escape.

If you’re working with a love story, the characters need to meet. The reader needs to see romantic possibilities, but something must prevent them from getting together. This obstacle is the problem. However, if the obstacle is that they work for diametrically opposed organizations (she’s a gun-toting Minuteman, he’s a coyote) then the resolution will proceed differently than if the obstacle is that she’s already engaged to be married.

So look at your problem and identify the main steps to how it might be resolved.

Sometimes it’s helpful to work backwards. If you know what the resolution is, then describe the situation the character is in at the end of the story and reverse it. That’s what you present at the beginning.

For example, if Spiderman is confident and single-minded at the end, present him conflicted and doubting at the beginning. Then think about the types of things or steps that would help the hero get from point A to point B. What kinds of experiences would force him to look at things in a new way or make a decision or come to realize what’s really important?

However you work, forwards or backwards or both, it often helps to map out all the main steps you see to someone resolving the issue. And don’t feel your story must have the same number of steps as another story.

For example, The Hunger Games has seven parts to its structure:

  1. Present problem – 8%
  2. Preparation for the games – 31%
  3. First round of fights – 12%
  4. Rue – 11%
  5. Peeta – 22%
  6. Climax – 12%
  7. Aftermath – 8%

The exact wrong thing to do would be to conclude that all awesome stories (which I thought Hunger Games was) must have seven parts with the proportions shown above, including the hero going on the offensive around the 53% mark.

Why do I say this? Because a lot of awesome stories don’t.

Let’s look at the idea that the hero should go on the offensive at the 50% mark. In Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy, the hero goes after the villain at the 19% mark. Then he flees, even as he’s working to solve the problem. Only at the 85% mark, does he actively go after the killer again. In Lee Child’s The Enemy, the hero is actively trying to solve the murder mystery from the start. In Louis L’Amour’s Ride the River, the heroine is being chased for the whole novel. Not until the very end does she turn the tables.

I could list many more examples. The point is that having the hero go from reacting to acting at the 50% mark is only ONE pattern. Maybe it fits your story, maybe it doesn’t. The same applies to the seven parts.

Instead of trying to fit your story to one pattern, put yourself in your character’s shoes and think about the main steps that would be required to solve the type of problem your character faces. This should give you a general sequence of events.

Once you have that sequence, you have a general idea of how the story will progress, but that’s not enough because this phase is not about solving a problem. It’s about making the problem harder to solve. It’s about throwing increasing troubles at the main character and making them struggle. So while you think of the general steps to solving the type of problem your character faces, you alo need to think about the types of troubles you’ll throw at the character and how those troubles progress.

Trouble Progression

Each story will feature different types of conflicts and obstacles (as well as different types of help and aid along the way). I can’t find any pattern in the stories I’ve looked at to suggest you must include certain types of conflicts and obstacles. What I can see is that the troubles need to get worse the further the character goes.

Form follows function. We’re trying to build reader tension to a high point and then release it.

One way to approach this is to think about some of the key things that can go wrong–our hero’s car breaks down, he gets shot, someone informs the villain about the hero’s plan, a key member of the team turns traitor, the hero’s sidekick is killed, etc.–then sequence them from least to most dire.

Another approach is to think about a point where the character must face his worst fears, the dark moment when everything seems to be lost. Then work toward that moment.

If one of your obstacles is a dilemma (and I’m not saying all awesome stories must feature this), then one approach is to think about the major dilemma the hero must face, the point where he has to choose between two terrible options, e.g. break his moral code and win or keep his code and lose horribly, save his mother or save his son, etc. Then think about how the hero will get into that position.

Another option is to think about how the hero’s options begin to disappear.

A common pattern of trouble progression is to give the character a huge set back. Over the next few scenes the character works to get back on top. Except when he does, he is thrown for another bigger loop. He reacts to that and works to get back on top, but just as he does, he’s encounters another killer setback. So you have a big disaster and some scenes to recover and catch up, and we think the hero’s rolling, and wham, another disaster. How many of these big setbacks/reversals you have and how far apart they are spaced depends on your taste and the type of story you’re writing.

Another common pattern in the trouble progression is for the hero to encounter a dark moment just before the victory. Of if you’re writing a tragedy, he experiences a bright moment just before he loses. Why alternate the ultimate and penultimate plot turns this way?

Remember the analogy I made in the post on plot about being thirsty, and that the time the water tastes best is when we’re bone thirsty dry? This is what we’re talking about. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is so much more powerful than snatching victory from the jaws of victory.

Taking the readers to the point where it seems their worst fears will be realized and then turning it around only makes the victory sweeter. Giving the reader great hope, just before everything falls apart, makes the loss feel so much more terrible.

Another common pattern is the alternating of positive and negative plot turns. One turn gives us hope. The next raises our fears. I do not mean that every plot turn must be the opposite of the one that precedes it. Only that the hero makes progress, and then runs into troubles, gets some aid, and then runs into more troubles, etc. To create this type of pattern you will use all four types of troubles (no, no-furthermore, yes-but, no-but) discussed in the last post.

To see what I mean, we can look at Hunger Games. I counted 30 major situation changes in that story. The average size of each of those 30 sections was 17 pages or about 5,000 words. In the list below I mark turns that introduce something that makes it seem more likely she’ll win with a + (positive) and those that set her back or make it seem more likely she’ll lose with a – (negative). I’ve tried to keep it as general as possible so I don’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet.

  1. -
  2. -
  3. +
  4. +
  5. -
  6. +
  7. -
  8. -
  9. -
  10. +
  11. +
  12. +
  13. +
  14. -
  15. +
  16. -
  17. +
  18. -
  19. +
  20. +
  21. -
  22. -
  23. ?
  24. -
  25. +
  26. -
  27. +
  28. -
  29. +
  30. -

Notice there were a lot of times when the – and + alternated. But there were quite a few where the main character faced a few +’s or –’s in a row. Again, the point isn’t to follow this exact pattern or the sizes of story sections. It’s simply to see the variability in the back and forth.

One last thought. Some people find the middles of stories the hardest part to write. I suppose they can be. But I’ve found that when I think about troubles, the scenes roll out in front of me. I think this is so because trouble begs for reaction and action.

For example, I was recently outlining Dark God’s Glory. I had parts of the story, but there was a large section of the middle where I could envision only about two scenes. That was not nearly enough. And those two scenes weren’t very interesting anyway. I realized I needed some kind of disaster, so I asked myself “What’s the worst that could happen at this point? What would totally screw my hero over? What could go terribly wrong?” I generated a few options and very quickly ran into one carrying a few hundred watts of zing.  Boom! Scenes galore, all the way up to the climax and beyond.

So if you find yourself stuck, check to see if your main character is actually having to deal with any immediate troubles. If not, think up some gnarly setback or twist and see if that doesn’t shake something out of the plot tree.

Actions the antagonist takes to oppose the hero

Directly related to the progression of trouble are the actions the villain or opposition takes to thwart the hero.  I made this its own topic because I’ve found it’s incredibly useful in coming up with great troubles to play the story cycle from both points of view, like a one-man chess game.

Just as I need to know my hero’s goal, motives, and plan, I also need to know the same things about my antagonist. In fact, in some stories the antagonist’s plans are what drive the story.

So my hero takes an action. I switch in my mind to the antagonist’s point of view and ask myself what I would do. How would I react given his goal, motives, and resources? This suggests a course or three of action. I select the one that sparks my interest the most. This action, of course, causes trouble for the hero. So I switch back to the hero’s point of view and ask myself how I would react as the hero. This causes trouble for the villain. So I switch back to the villain’s point of view, and back and forth I go.

In coming up with troubles, it’s sometimes helpful to think of how the antagonist’s actions might escalate. So when the hero pops up, maybe he sends a henchman to give him a stern warning. When that doesn’t work, maybe a smart villain might send the henchman back to quietly remove him. When that doesn’t work, maybe I call in some favors from the chief of police who I have dirt on. When that doesn’t work, maybe I decide to go take the hero’s family hostage. When he comes to save them, I’ll get him then.

Thinking about the situation from the antagonist’s point of view always helps me come up with lots of troubles for my hero. Again, as with all troubles, the one thing you want to keep in mind is that you want the antagonist to gradually escalate the measures used to remove his problem, which translates to a trouble progression for the hero.

Number of stories and plot turns

There are, on average, 40 to 70 or scenes in a novel. Some of these will be reaction scenes, others will be action scenes. Each will usually move the plot forward with a decision, revelation, help, or a troubling result—a plot turn.

Some subset of those scenes will contain major plot turns, huge setbacks or revelations that dramatically change the situation. For example, someone close to the hero may betray him. Or some significant part of the hero’s plan fails. Or the hero learns that he’s totally misunderstood the problem. Or the hero finally decides to overcome his flaw. Etc.

How many major and minor plot turns you have is up to you. However, the scenes and plot turns don’t all have to focus on one problem. Many stories are actually made up of a group of stories—a central story and a bunch of other smaller stories that relate in some way.

One of these subplots might require two scenes to tell, another might require ten, while another might be told by inserting a few paragraphs worth of interaction into scenes that are focused on another problem (think of a love story that progresses as the two characters work on the central problem).

You can start a subplot before, during, or after the presentation of the central problem. So in one story you might start the love story subplot before the villain shows up with the central problem. Or you might insert the love subplot after the villain shows up and let it be the thing that locks the hero into dealing with the problem. Or you might raise the subplot in the same scene as the one where the villain shows up—the hero falls in love with the villain’s henchman.

You can also start subplots during the first half of the central problem’s struggle phase. I don’t know of any stories that insert them in the latter part of that phase, but I don’t know there’s any reason not to.

Some of these subplots will be resolved before the resolution of the central problem. Some of them will be resolved after. Some, if you’re writing a series, will resolved in a book later in the series. All three options can be satisfying.

The key thing to remember here is that the sequence of events in your struggle phase also depends on the number of stories you’re telling, the number of plot turns each of those stories has, and where you weave in each of the three problem-solving phases for the subplots.

Do you see now why it’s impossible to prescribe ONE sequence of events for every story?

What leads the hero into the final showdown

The next thing you want to think about is what locks the hero into the final showdown and moves the story from struggle to resolution. I see three things that will do this:

  • An insight & decision
  • Some piece of information or a tool
  • An external pressure

Which it will be often depends on the main obstacle the character faces.

The stories that use insight and decision are usually those where the main obstacle is the character’s internal problem. For example, in stories where love and friendship is on the line and the obstacle is the main character’s values, it may be that the hero has to make a decision to place love above something else. So the hero, as in Sabrina with Harrison Ford, finally comes to the insight that no amount of business success can compensate for a lack of love. Of course, his actions before this point have made a mess of the relationship. He’s betrayed and humiliated her. Struck her to the core. Will she have him back? We don’t know. But he decides to make one last attempt to win her love and heads to the resolution.

In another type of story, the chief obstacle may be a lack of information. So maybe the hero has the power to deal with the problem, but doesn’t know who the villain really is. A lot of murder mysteries are structured this way. At the point when the hero finally learns the identity of the villain, he immediately heads to the climax to expose or capture the criminal. Or maybe what the hero lacks is knowledge about the location of the villain. Now that the hero knows it, he can go in to take him out. In another story of this type, the main obstacle might be finding a cure for a virus. Once the hero obtains the lacking information, she can head to the resolution.

Sometimes it’s not information the hero lacks, but some object–a weapon or tool. Until he gets it, he can’t possibly beat the opposition. For example, in John Grisham’s The Firm the hero needs to get documentation he can use as blackmail to make the partners of the firm back off. Once he has this, he can go face them and resolve the problem for good.

Finally, in some stories the thing that thrusts the hero into the final confrontation is some external force. For example, in Hunger Games the hero is holed up and surviving just fine. But because the gamers want the last battle, they force all the remaining contestants together. Likewise, in Star Wars, the empire finds out the location of the rebel base. Our heroes probably would have stayed hidden or on the run if they could have, but the empire forces them to act.

Please note: some folks maintain that all awesome stories feature the hero facing a certain type of ultimate obstacle, which affects what locks the hero into the final showdown. For example, some say the only way to write an awesome story is for the hero’s internal flaw to be the real obstacle to his solving of the external problem. And so the lock is him overcoming the inner obstacle so he can solve the external problem. Spiderman 2 is an excellent example of this type of story. And this type of problem can be very delicious.

But there are so many other awesome stories where a character’s flaw isn’t the main obstacle or even an obstacle at all. The Good Guy, Ride the River, episodes of The Mentalist and hundreds of other stories fall into this category. Don’t feel forced to use one type of obstacle. Use whatever makes the story most interesting to you.

Once your character is locked into the final showdown, the struggle phase ends.


We already know the 25-50-25 proportion is bogus for the presentation phase. So how big are the struggle phases of the books you love? They might be different from the ones I love. Still, I think it’s useful to see the variety that’s out there. Here are a few from books that work for me:

  • Hunger Games: 79%
  • The Good Guy: 74%
  • Servant of a Dark God: 68%
  • Monster Hunter International: 66%
  • A random episode of The Mentalist: 51%

Clearly, there is a wide range of proportions that work. Your job is to look at the stories that you love, the ones that have an struggle phase that works for you (and the ones that don’t work at all), and see how long it takes to build reader tension to the levels you want before you head into the resolution. Don’t follow it slavishly. Use it simply to give you a general idea of proportion.

3. Patterns for the Resolution

Readers want their tension to build to a pitch. Then they want to feel a release. The resolution phase is where you deliver that delicious release.

The resolution isn’t something completely different from what you’ve done before. It’s just another trip around the story cycle. As such, you have:

  • Reaction
  • Action
    • Preparation
    • Approach
    • Climax
  • Aftermath

At the end of the struggle phase something locks the hero into the final showdown. The hero reacts to that thing. The reaction might be short or long, and includes what any reaction would—emotion, thought, discussion, motive, and decision. In Star Wars, this is the sequence where the rebels react to the fact that the empire knows where their base is and is going to obliterate it. It includes the scene where they discuss how they’re going to blow up the death star.

Because it’s just another trip around the story cycle, once the hero decides what he’s going to do, he begins to act on his decision. This may include some preparation. In action movies, he straps on his guns, says farewell, etc. In a crime drama, he may get his team organized. Then he approaches the villain. In Star Wars, the preparation was when Luke and the others were getting into their fighters. The approach, obviously, was them flying to the death star.

At some point, the hero engages. He fights the villain, chases after the girl, executes his plan. This is the climax. It should be hard. There should be a struggle.

At the moment when all seems to be lost, the hero resolves the problem. As with any action, it’s important to know what the ultimate obstacle to victory at this point is. Is it cowardice, knowledge, power? Once I know this, it’s easier to write the resolution. So the hero removes that last obstacle and vanquishes the opposition. The lovers remove the last obstacle to their everlasting commitment and ability to be with one another.

At that point readers want to see the consequences. They want to bask in the triumph and tragedy for a while. Let the feeling slowly mellow. And so we show what this means to the character’s future life. We show the rewards or the punishments of having solved the problem. Maybe we resolve an outstanding subplot or two.

So the resolution phase is just another trip around the story cycle, but one where the result is final. Here are some patterns I’ve seen that work in the resolution phase.


As with any scene or sequence, there will be back and forth, stimulus and response—the hero will go around the story cycle a couple of times and run into troubles until the odds for winning look pretty slim.

The hero can go in and try to win with his original plan. This is like Luke flying in to blast the death star’s garbage chute. That’s the plan and the question is whether that plan will work or not.  Or the hero can go in with his big plan and, twist, it completely fails! I won’t ruin Hunger Games for anyone, but there’s just such a twist there. There’s another in The Good Guy. The same in Servant of a Dark God.

Sometimes, at a moment when all seems lost, logical but unexpected help comes to the hero’s aid. This is what happened in Avatar when the animals stampede the opposition forces. And what happened in Star Wars when Han Solo comes roaring back. It doesn’t resolve the problem for the hero, but it sure helps. And it makes the readers cheer!


In stories where the hero has an insight and makes a decision to change, the showdown will test his resolve. It will often present a situation similar to one shown in the beginning that established the character’s flaw. So if the hero was a coward then and sacrificed his buddies to save his own skin, it will present a similar situation at the end. But this time the hero damns his own self-interest and charges in to save his friends.


As for the aftermath, I’ve seen some that are quite abrupt others that are longer. I personally favor a slow curtain.

I’ve seen aftermaths that show the reward and end. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does this. We see the fish in a living stream and know things will be alright. There are no remaining lines of tension. My short story “Bright Waters” does this. You can read it in the fiction area of my site.

On the other hand, other stories show the reward and then take it a step farther and not only show life moving on, but also raise another line of tension. For example, in The Incredibles, the story ends with the Underminer (another villain) rising up from below, presenting future story possibilities. My short story “Loose in the Wires” does this. You can read it in the fiction area of my site. Even though I wanted to make sure Servant of a Dark God ended with a satisfying finality, it also projects the reader’s mind forward.


Stories often spend a bit more time in the preparation, approach, and climax phase of this trip around the story cycle than they might in other revolutions. They do this so that the reader’s suspense and anticipation can build. Again, it’s like drinking water when you’re bone dry. You can drink it all in one gulp. Or you can savor the quenching of your thirst. Readers want to enjoy it. So we don’t want to rush this phase. However, how much time you spend all depends on your tastes and the type of story you’re writing. The stories below show the variety.

  • The Good Guy: 22%
  • A random episode of The Mentalist: 15%
  • Servant of a Dark God: 15%
  • Hunger Games: 12%
  • Monster Hunter International: 6%

Let’s look at those stories again with their proportions side by side.

  • The Good Guy: 4-74-22
  • A random episode of The Mentalist: 2-83-15
  • Servant of a Dark God: 17-68-15
  • Hunger Games: 8-79-12
  • Monster Hunter International: 28-66-6

Clearly, there’s a wide variety of sizes that work. You might find other stories with resolutions that last much longer. The key is to look at the patterns in the stories you like.

Putting it all together

Let’s pull back for just a moment and review the key points of this post.

1. Structure is all about problem solving, not a mystical journey or form.

2. There are three phases to solving a problem in a way that will raise reader tension. These three phases form the structure of our story.

  1. Present the problem
  2. Main character struggles to solve the problem
  3. Main character resolves the problem

3. There are a number of options for what happens in each phase and so a whole range of event sequences can be successful.

4. Choices that affect the presentation phase include:

  • Number of scenes required to present the problem
  • Whether you present the problem with a twist
  • Whether you start with the central story or a subplot
  • The reason the hero can’t walk away

5. Choices that affect the struggle phase include:

  • The type of problem your character has to solve
  • Trouble progression
  • Actions the villain takes to oppose the hero
  • Number of stories you’re trying to tell
  • Number of plot turns in each story
  • What locks the hero into the final showdown

6. Choices that affect the resolution phase include:

  • Twists
  • Character tests
  • Subplots resolve in the aftermath
  • How the ending raises possibilities about how the future

My challenge to you is to start looking at the stories you read and watch through the lens of the model above. Start to notice patterns.

Other patterns

I’ve shared a number of plot patterns and options above. But they are by no means all that are out there. The best place to see these are in the stories you love. Break them down into problem resolution phases and story cycle revolutions. I promise that you’ll begin to see patterns that you can use in your own writing.

In the meantime, other authors explain their models of story structure. Don’t read them as scripture. They are just patterns. Each is one author’s model of how story works. I suggest you look at their models then test them against the stories you love. Some of the models will be helpful to you, some of them won’t be.

And if one of us maintains that all great stories follow a specific event sequence or feature a certain type of problem, make doubly sure you test it. My experience is that such statements rarely hold up. Here are some resources to get you started, but remember—the best place to look is in the stories you love.

Again, don’t look for the one magical plot. There isn’t one. Think instead of objectives, problem-solving, patterns, and options. And, always, always, always about what effect the form has on the reader.

What’s Next?

Up to this point in the series we’ve examined principles of problem, character, plot, and structure that lead to reader suspense. These are all big concepts. How do they translate to the actual text on the page? That’s the topic of the next post in the series where I discuss scenes.

Until then I challenge you to test the thoughts I’ve expressed above. Test them. And come back and let me know your results.

Also, if any point in any of these essays is not immediately clear to you, that means I haven’t done my job. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Parts in the The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Series

  1. Scene  (coming soon)
  2. Development Tips

Tags: , ,

The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 3: Plot

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on October 29th, 2010

In part one, we talked about the story problem and its central role in reader suspense. We also talked about a man scratching his bum.

In part two, we discussed the three character factors that are critical for reader suspsense and how they also help make a character rock.

(For those of you just starting the series, you can find links to the other parts in the On Writing area of the site.)

So let’s say you’ve already got all that. You’ve developed a character who is sympathetic and interesting, maybe tugs on the reader’s sense of wish-fulfillment. You’ve given that character a problem that’s significant enough for readers to be intrigued. Now what?

Let’s go back to the objective. Readers want to hope and fear for a character; they want their tension to build to a pitch. Then they want to have a cathartic release.

Character and problem by themselves don’t go anywhere. You still have to build reader tension to a sharp point. So how do you do that?

You do it with plot.

Plot is nothing more than the character’s attempts to solve the problem and the results of those attempts. There’s no mystery to it. A character has a problem. Character tries to solve the problem. And something happens as a result.

The key is to remember that the plot has a job to do. You can’t have your characters go about solving the problem in any old way. You can’t have just any old results. Form follows function. To deliver what readers want, you have to develop the plot in a manner that builds the reader’s tension. If the story’s about a happiness problem, all of the attempts and results should increase the reader’s hope or fear for the character. If it’s a mystery problem, the attempts and results should increase the reader’s curiosity.

In this post, I’m going to discuss the Pareto factors for doing this. And these factors all revolve around making the problem hard to solve.


The first part of making problems hard to solve has to do with clarity.


Wait a minute. Clarity? Um, what? How exactly does that make a problem hard to solve?

Clarity doesn’t make problems harder to solve. What is does is provide the critical function of allowing the problem to exist in the reader’s mind in the first place. The simple truth is that readers cannot hope and fear for anything if they don’t understand what’s going on.

So the very first thing you do is make sure the reader knows or suspects what’s at stake, i.e. what’s to be gained or lost. They need to understand something of the danger/threat, lack/opportunity, or mystery. They also need to know or suspect why it’s going to be difficult to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity. This means the reader will need to know about or suspect possible obstacles and conflicts the character may have to face.

This doesn’t mean you have to reveal all. It just means there must be something to fear and hope for.

When you don’t explain the danger or opportunity or mystery, then the most the reader can feel is confusion, maybe brief moments of surprise. Imagine a thriller that fails to establish that Bob kidnapped George’s wife who is a Chinese spy. George and Bob run around for 100 pages and the whole time the reader is thinking: “When’s the story going to start? What’s going on? Why is George chasing Bob?”

The classic example of this is given by Alfred Hitchcock in an interview conducted by Francois Truffaut. Here’s Hitchcock.

There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story. (François Truffaut, Hitchcock, pp 79-80)

Hitchcock gives two more great examples in his essay “The Enjoyment of Fear,” first published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (I think there’s some zing in the juxtaposition of housekeeping and the enjoyment of fear, don’t you think? Magazines were so different back then.)

Readers feel surprise when something unexpected occurs. By definition, they do not see it coming, even if it makes sense after the fact. So to create this effect you need to withhold information and lead the reader to have different expectations. Then wham!

Readers feel curiosity when they’re given enough information to form a question but not the answer. For example, in a murder mystery, we know someone’s been killed, but who did it? And why? In another story, like McDevitt’s Ancient Shores, the character finds an odd thing in the ground at his farm. When he digs it up, he finds a modern-looking boat made of a material more refined than any known to man. We know what he found, but what is this and how did it get into his field? With other stories where characters face dangers and lacks, readers feel curiosity about what might happen next.

However, if we want our readers to hope and fear for a character, we have to give readers more information. We have to let them know what’s at risk—what’s to be lost or gained. We have to let them know what the obstacles and conflicts are, what MIGHT happen. After all, how can you fear for a character if it’s smooth sailing to the finish line?

No information = no possibilities in the reader’s mind = no expectations = no suspense.

This isn’t to say we must eschew surprise and curiosity. Both are delicious. In fact, both actually help create suspense. So the point isn’t to avoid them. The point is to make sure we understand that we cannot create suspense by withholding the situation. We create it by giving the reader all the information we can without giving away all the details of the resolution or key plot turns until the moment they occur.

BTW, I say “all the details” because sometimes, despite our best attempts, the reader will see some of the plot turns coming. But if we’ve done it right (fingers crossed), on those occasions they will only see a part, and the part they don’t see will pack enough surprise or particularity to delight.

Make the Problem Hard to Solve

So readers want to hope and fear for a character. To feel this, they must not know what WILL happen, but do need to suspect or know what MIGHT happen and feel tension about the possibilities. They want that tension to build, and then they want to feel a cathartic release.

The reader will continue to feel that tension as long as the problem is unresolved (the danger remains, the character continues to suffer hardship, the mystery becomes more puzzling) AND the situation changes in such a way that the reader’s worry grows.

How do we make sure the problem persists and intensifies for forty to seventy scenes (an average range for many novels) despite the character’s efforts?

We do this by throwing OBSTACLES into our character’s path. We make the problem hard to solve.

I’ve listed the types of things that do this below. But remember: these aren’t ingredients to a recipe; they’re options. You don’t need to think up something for every category. You just need enough to bring the problem to life.

1. Put the Character at a Disadvantage

The first way we make the problem hard to solve is by putting the character at a disadvantage. The disadvantage may be a small, medium, or large, depending on your taste and the kind of story you’re telling. There isn’t one type or level that’s best for all objectives. But our characters do have to have some disadvantage; otherwise, there’s no reason for readers to fear for them.

Lack of knowledge

One of the most common disadvantages is a character starting off not knowing how to solve the problem. Or not having a critical piece of information that will allow them to solve it.

For example, think of all the murder mysteries you’ve read or seen. The character starts off not knowing who the killer is or why they did it. In the movie Taken, the father doesn’t know who stolen his daughter or where they’d taken her. He had all the skills and power to resolve the issue once he found her, but he lacked vital bits of information.

Sometimes the characters think they know what the problem is, but when they try to solve it, they realize they didn’t really know what the problem was. It’s called misdiagnosis.

For example, in The Incredibles, Bob goes to the island thinking his problem is a rogue robot. But his real problem is Syndrome.

In another story, a man might think his problem is that his wife is stepping out on him. When he tries to resolve that, he learns she’s actually being blackmailed.

In Dean Koontz’s The Husband, a gardener starts off thinking he’s being threatened by people who want to get to his brother’s money. He tries to solve that problem only to realize that it’s a plot by his brother to kill him.

Anytime your character doesn’t how to solve the problem or doesn’t know the exact nature of the problem, it makes the problem harder to solve.

Lack of skills or power

You can make a problem harder by limiting the character’s skill or power in some way.

Luke Skywalker knows the death star is going to blow the world the rebel base is on into smithereens. We have no question about what’s going on. Luke knows what he needs to do—start a chain reaction that will blow the thing up. What Luke lacks is the power to easily go in and execute the plan. He doesn’t have his own death ray. Doesn’t have computers that can target with precision. All he’s got are dinky little X-wing fighters. He’s limited in his ability.

A Jewish woman is taken by the Nazis. Her lover, who is a Nazi soldier, wants to rescue her. But the lover has no power to order the men to release her. He has no money to pay them off. This doesn’t mean he can’t rescue her. But it does mean he’s going to have to find some other way. It means resolving the issue is going to become much harder.

Personality flaws

Sometimes personality flaws can put the hero at a disadvantage.

Maybe the hero is recovering from an addiction to some drug and finds himself being required to snort a line in front of the villain to prove he’s legit. Maybe he’s a bigot and won’t accept the help of a woman, but she’s the only one with the key. Maybe he’s too proud to admit he’s wrong. Maybe he’s a slob and loses things, including the key to the getaway car. Maybe he doesn’t know when to stop drinking. Maybe his lack of self-control leads him to follow after a woman who comes on to him and then leads him right into the hands of the villain. Maybe he lacks social graces, but needs some high class to infiltrate the villain’s circles. Maybe the character has an issue with trust, has been burned too many times, and begins to suspect the other team members.

Maybe the character’s virtue is the source of his flaw. He’s so willing to see the good in people he blinds himself to who the villain really is. She’s so committed to doing her duty that she’s sacrificing her relationship with her husband and children for it.

Of course, flaws affect our sense of deservingness. Take personality flaws too far and our hero will become annoying or despicable. At that point, the reader stops rooting and worrying for them. Still, they can be a rich mine for making the problem harder to solve.


If all a character needs to do is snap his fingers to solve the problem, then readers can’t worry for him. Unless, of course, he’s missing fingers. Any handicap will put our characters at a disadvantage.

Sometimes the handicap is physical. In Seabiscuit, the jokey is blind in one eye. This makes it very difficult during a race to see when someone is riding up on his blind side. It also makes it hard for him to see openings ahead. It puts him at a disadvantage in a race. In the movie Wait Until Dark, three criminals threaten a woman who is blind. In Gattica, the hero has DNA that makes him weaker than the others wanting to travel into space.

In other stories, the handicaps might be emotional, mental, or social. In Forrest Gump, the hero is mentally handicapped. In other stories, heroes are tormented by fears of snakes, spiders, being alone.

Handicaps can be interesting all by themselves, but when they become a disadvantage to the hero’s goal of solving the problem, they affect suspense.

Time limits

Another disadvantage is having a time limit. Of course, a time limit of a gazillion years doesn’t make most problems harder to solve. Time limits put our hero at a disadvantage when they don’t allow any wiggle room or when they simply don’t allow enough time to solve the problem by normal means.

Next time you read a book or watch a movie, notice how many deadlines, ticking clocks, and time bombs are used.

We Want Underdogs!

In the end, the disadvantages our characters have are only useful if they make the character the underdog when compared to the opposition.

Our hero can have all sorts of great qualities, but the opposition must have something that gives them the advantage–more money, more power, more knowledge, more connections, more training, more whatever is important in the story. This doesn’t have to be huge. Sometimes the hero is the underdog simply because he starts two or three steps behind the villain. The first part of many stories features the hero just trying to catch up.

For example, In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has mad skillz and knowledge, but he’s outnumbered, outgunned, and outfinanced. And the Nazi’s always seem to beat him to the punch. In Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy, the hero has great skills, but it’s just him against the US government. In The Lord of the Rings, we’ve got a wizard who can work wonders and an elf that can see and hear for miles. But Sauron has so much more. By the end, all we are left with are two little guys and a smelly freak job.

The worse the obstacles and odds the characters face, the more tension and, therefore, relief the readers feel. Think about this. When do you cheer more? When your non-ranked, underdog sports team beats the number one team in the nation, or when they slaughter the local pee-wees?

2. Add Conflicts

The second way to make problems harder to solve is to introduce people and things that actively work against or resist our character. Your characters can come into conflict with others, the setting, and themselves.

Conflict with the opposition

You will have points of conflict with the opposition. That’s a given. The smarter and more powerful the opposition, the harder the problem is to solve, the more the reader can worry, and the bigger the triumph at the end. So you want to make your opposition character and team a real threat.

The best way I’ve found to do this is to play the story as one-man chess, thinking not just about the hero, but about the opposition as well. The hero is, for the opposition, a problem. And so I’ve found it very productive to develop the opposition’s goal, motives, and plan. Then as the story progresses I stop and think: what cunning/smart/scary reactions might this opposition character have to what the hero just did?

Remember, the better the opposition, the more tension the reader will feel. And the key to the opposition, villain or decent chap, is the goals, motives, and plans.

Conflict with the other good guys

Sometimes we think only about the opposition, but the other good guys can provide so many delicious conflicts. In fact, if you think about casting variety, this is just an extension of that topic.

So maybe the hero is about to break a moral code some of the other good guys won’t, or vice versa.

Maybe some of them just can’t stand the risk.

Maybe one of the good guys has lost the vision and turned traitor, as Cypher did in The Matrix.

Maybe the good guys have different reasons for being on the team. One guy joins the army because the judge told him he could join the army or join the convicts in the big house. Another guy joins because he feels a duty and all of the men in his family have served since the Civil War. Maybe another guy joined because he felt like this was the only way to prove to himself he wasn’t a coward.

Maybe the hero is teamed with someone that is a complete opposite. The hero’s a neat freak, the partner is a slob. The hero is highly-educated, but his right hand man barely got his GED. Maybe one of the team members is a KKK sympathizer, and another one is black.

As with the opposition, the key here is taking a moment to explore the other characters’ goals, motives, and plans.

Conflict with bit characters

After looking at the main characters in the story who have goals and plans that conflict with the hero’s, you might want to see if there are any bit characters who do the same.

Maybe the hero drives into some bad neighborhood to try to get some information from someone. When she comes out from her meeting, she finds her car stolen.

Maybe in one scene the bad guys start shooting at a playground. The hero rushes them, but a mother who is trying to get her son off the swing gets in his way.

Maybe the hero needs information, but the guy working security has a mortgage in default and can’t lose his job.

Maybe our hero is trying to get away and an vigilante truck driver hears the chatter over the police channel.

Think about the other people that might in the scenes and what conflicts they might pose. If one is too delicious not to use it, put it in.

Conflict with the setting

The setting includes everything that’s not a character with some part—geography, technology, culture, religion, government, etc.

Maybe the hero wants to stop the two men carrying his little boy off, but there’s a raging river between him and them.

Maybe the hero wants to get back to camp, but the temperature drops and drops and drops as in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.”

Maybe the hero encounter asteroids, trains that are late, horses that are high-spirited, and insects carrying malaria.

Maybe a hurricane is coming in and making it rough for our brave gal to go out to sea to save her husband whose boat is swamped.

Look around in your setting and see what things might provide obstacles to your character.

Conflict with self

The last, and sometimes the most powerful, type of conflict is a character’s conflict with herself or himself. This type of conflict arises when a character wants two things that seem to be mutually exclusive.

For example, maybe the hero wants to marry the girl of his dreams.

“I love you, Luke”

“But you’re my sister, Leia.”

He wants that intimate relationship; we as the audience want it for him, but we also want him to avoid the freak zone. We can’t do both. Unless . . .

“But,” Leia says, “I take birth control.”

(Zoiks! Run, Luke, run!)

Maybe, like Katniss in Hunger Games, the heroine wants to live, but in order to do that she has to kill a boy who has been nothing but kind to her family. She wants to survive and be kind. She can’t do both.

Maybe like John Proctor in The Crucible the hero can keep his honor only if he dies. He wants his honor. He wants his life. He can’t have both.

Maybe like Bob in The Incredibles, the hero wants to escape a life of drudgery, but he also wants to keep his family safe. Alas, it seems he can’t have both.

Have you noticed how many love stories pit someone’s desire for independence against his or her desire for love? It’s simply hard to solve a problem when doing so means you must give up something else of great worth.

When developing your story, take some time to explore potential conflicts inside the main character. You don’t have to include these types of conflicts in every story, but when you come up with a good one, it’s such a lovely way to put your hero and readers through the wringer.

3. Make Progress with Continuing & Growing Troubles

The third way to make a problem harder to solve is by making it grow despite or because of the characters actions.

But that doesn’t sound like progress–how do you make progress if the character’s troubles not only continue but grow? Simple, the progress I’m talking about is in sharpening the reader’s tension. As the plot complicates, the reader’s tension grows.

Think about the flip side of this. The moment you solve all the problems in the story, the story is over because the readers have nothing more to worry about. So you must continue to give them troubles.

This doesn’t mean the characters can’t solve small parts of the problem along the way. It doesn’t mean good things can’t happen to the character. After all, we want to fear AND hope for the characters.

So, for example, in the middle of Hunger Games, we get two nice chapters where things are looking up for Katniss. Of course, we don’t want to think about the fact that she’s going to have to eventually kill the person she’s teamed up with. Or the fact that the careers are out there killing off everyone else, narrowing down the contestants until there’s nobody else but Katniss to hunt. So Katniss still has problems, but for a few chapters we get a break from the tension. And then we’re plunged back in, worse than before.

What this does mean is that despite the successes, our character still fails to solve the problem and, very often, makes it worse.

So as our character attempts to solve the problem, she will experience disasters, calamities, setbacks, misfortunes, upsets, betrayals, unforeseen obstacles, desertions, and failures. Plans will go awry. The villain will counter with shocking blows. The character will learn things that twist her (and the reader’s) understanding of the problem in more dangerous directions. The problem will become more intense (see part 1), more immediate, probable, significant, and specific. More in the character’s life will be put at risk.

Maybe the character starts the story being personally threatened by the villain, but as the story progresses the villain begins to threaten his children. Maybe our inexperienced team sets out and halfway through the story, their leader (Gandalf or Obi-wan Kenobi), the guy who was keeping them all from dying, is killed. Maybe our airplane gets shot and the fuel leaks out, and our perfect escape crashes into the mountains only miles from where we began.

All of these plot turns keep the tension building.

Another thing they do is keep the story from becoming monotonous. A fight where the positions of the hero and the opposition remain static quickly begins to bore. Think of a football game where the score remains at 0-0 for three and half quarters. Both sides keep getting the ball and keep having to punt after three downs. Nobody gets injured. Nobody makes any yardage. Nothing changes.


So we keep the plot turning, keep adding complications and revelations and conflicts and surprises. We keep giving the reader something new to increase their hopes or fears.

4. Avoid Predictability with Surprise

The last way we make the problem hard to solve is by making sure nothing works as planned.

Readers will have a hard time hoping and fearing if they can predict what will happen. When they pull back and cogitate, they may suspect in the end that the hero will win. But if we’re telling the story effectively, they won’t be pulling back much. They’ll be focused, the details of the immediate events filling up the capacity of their working memory. They’ll be living in the moment on the page and worrying about the characters. And the surprises we deliver will put them off balance. They’ll make it so the reader can’t predict exactly what will happen next.

Remember: reader’s don’t want to know what WILL happen. They want to know what MIGHT happen and feel tension about the possibilities.

So some surprises will convince the reader that our hero MIGHT indeed lose. The hero’s smart and bold plan, which everyone expects to work, fails. The one sidekick we thought we could count on turns traitor. The opposition tricks our hero into a setup that now has the cops thinking he committed the crime.

Other surprises will give the reader reason to think they still MIGHT win. Our hero gets a critical clue that leads her one step closer to the killer. Maybe she beats up the villain’s henchman and escapes. Maybe the sidekick who rejected her at first decides to come help after all. Of course, we can’t give our hero an easy go of it. We still need them to fear. But our characters always have to have a chance, even if it’s tiny.

We evoke surprise in the reader when we lead them to expect one thing and deliver something else. Sometimes you do that by structuring the story so the lead character, and the reader, don’t have all the facts up front. And the current set of facts lead to one conclusion. Sometimes you skillfully plant ideas into the reader’s mind that misdirect their expectations. A classic example of this is the red herring in mysteries.

However you do it, surprises need to be believable to work. They need to be logical. Readers will not hope or fear if the opportunity or threat is hokey or forced. Rubber snakes only scare people when they’re mistaken for the real thing. So give the audience surprises that take their breath away, and watch their tension and delight rise.

Putting It Together with The Story Cycle

It’s good to know you need to make the problem hard to solve, but how do you use all the obstacles to develop the plot? How do you layer them in? How do you start and move forward?

You follow the story cycle, which is simply a model of how we humans go about solving problems, and apply the techniques listed above in ways that make sense to you and spark your interest. You can move forwards or backwards, whatever is most productive to you at the time.

I’ve inserted a diagram of the cycle below and will explain each element. Please note that this is built on the wonderful discussions of scene and sequel found in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham’s Writing and Selling Your Novel and Scene & Structure. I’ve added my own insights, but if you want an expanded discussion of this topic, you might want to read what they have to say there.

One thing to note before we dive in is that the parts of the cycle don’t always correspond to individual scenes on the page. You can present an action or reaction in a scene, a sequence of scenes, narrative summary, or, if it’s insignificant, you might not present it at all. The decision about what to put into scene, narrative summary, or leave out entirely is something I’ll discuss in the part of this series that focuses on scenes. For right now just know that story is about a character’s attempts to solve a problem and the results of those attempts and you’ll be sharing only those parts that make a difference.

Inciting Incident

Everything starts at the point when the problem arises. In fiction, we call this the inciting incident. In real life, it’s the “ah, crap” or “oh, no!” moment. Or, if this is a story about a lack/opportunity, it’s the moment of “dude!” and “oh-my-gosh, oh-my-gosh!”

So with a murder mystery, it’s the point in time when the lead character learns about the murder. In a story about a kidnapping, it’s the moment when grandma is shoved into the back of the van. In a love story, it’s the moment when the girl meets the boy.

The inciting incident thrusts the lead character and the central problem together. The central problem is the main problem the character will be dealing with throughout the rest of the story. Maybe Lead took action and found the problem. Maybe Lead was just minding her own business and the problem found her. It doesn’t matter.

There may be other subplots in the story. There will be changes, complications, and developments in the central problem as we go along. We don’t need to know everything about the problem in the beginning. We just need to know that the character has a problem and that this problem is going to be the one the story is about.


So what do we do in normal life when presented with a problem? Let’s say water starts dripping out of the light fixture right above your kitchen table. Maybe the wiring starts to spark. What do you do?

First, you will experience some emotional response. It might be alarm (Oh, crap! That might start a fire!), or anger (Those morons who rent upstairs!).

Next, you consider your options. Maybe you need a towel or bucket under the fixture. Maybe you should go bang on the door of the apartment above. But maybe the people are gone, so you’ll have to break in a window or try to force the door, or call the apartment manager. Maybe you call your buddy who is in construction. Depending on the problem, you might find yourself in a discussion, performing some analysis or research, or sketching out a plan.

At some point, you decide on a course of action. 

When we face any problem in real life, we follow that same sequence of:

  • Emotion
  • Thought
  • Decision

For our plot to feel real, we need to follow that sequence with our characters as well.

Sometimes in real life we move through the reaction process quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. This happens in a story as well. But because you want to make things clear, you’ll remember that any non-standard decision will need an explanation. So you’ll put that into the thought part so it makes sense to the reader.

Please note as well that reaction is the place where we have the most time to explore motive, including the past.

When the character finally arrives at a decision, the reaction phase is over. In fact, the character’s decision to take some action propels us into the next step. Even if the character decides to ignore the problem, that’s an action. And as you’ll see, it’s going to fail. Because plot is all about trouble.


At this point, the character has decided to take some action. The goal or purpose of the action is to fix the problem or complete some step along the way to fixing the problem. The character will either reach that goal or she won’t. When the goal is clear in the reader’s mind, they form a question: will the character solve the problem? It’s a clear yes or no proposition. And because the character is deserving and the problem is significant enough for the reader to care, the reader will hope the character succeeds and fear she might not. 

If, however, you fail to make the decision and goal clear to the reader, then they won’t worry and hope as much as wonder what the hero is doing. Too much of that and we’re back to confusion instead of suspense. So make the decision and goal clear right up front.

If it’s a scene where the opposition is doing something to the character, then you make the opposition character’s goal clear. Think about Hitchcock’s bomb in the example above. The hero doesn’t know about it. But the reader does. The reader knows exactly what might happen. And because they know about the awful possibility, they can worry about it.  

Let’s say the hero decided to call the apartment manager. Often, in our normal lives, the first action will solve the problem. In this case, the manager is in. The manager immediately calls the maintenance man who goes up stairs, finds the renters above left a sink running, turns it off, mops up the mess, and fixes the issue.

Problem solved.

That’s real life. We solve all sorts of problems on the first or second try in real life. We keep tension down. But with stories we don’t want to eliminate tension. We want to build it. The reader wants to worry for a good long time. And so the form has to be different. This is why problems in stories aren’t fixed so easily.

So what do you do?

You change the result of the action to something that maintains or builds tension. There are four types of consequences that can occur when you attempt to fix a problem.

  1. Yes: you fixed the problem.
  2. No: you didn’t fix it.
  3. No, but: no you didn’t fix it, but you did do or find something useful. For example, no, you didn’t find out who the murderer was, but you did find an important clue. Or no, you didn’t find the bad guy’s lair, but you did find a new ally. Or no, you didn’t capture the criminal, but you did get a license plate number.
  4. Yes, but: you fixed the problem, but now you have a bigger or different problem. For example, yes you killed the monster, but now you woke up the monster’s mumma and she’s twice as big and ferocious as he was. Or yes, you killed the monster, but he bit you and you are now infected with a virus that will turn you into a monster. Or yes, you escaped the prison facility, but the guards were alerted and are on your tail. Or yes, you killed the assassin sent after you, but now the bad guys know where you are. Or yes, you caught the thief, but now realize this means there was someone on the inside helping him. Or yes, you killed the killer robot (Mr. Incredible), but there’s some mysterious person watching you (and you begin to lie to your wife and then they bring you back and the monster just about kills you).
  5. No, furthermore: you failed to fix the problem, furthermore, you just made it worse. No, you didn’t kill the monster, furthermore, the beastie has now kidnapped your brother. No, you didn’t succeed in killing the king, furthermore, his guards caught you and now you’re in prison. No, you weren’t able to convince her to go on a date with you, furthermore, she thinks you were only asking so you could spy on her company. No, you weren’t able to convince your father to let you take the science class you so desperately need to get out of Nowhere-ville, furthermore, your father has cut off all your schooling privileges.

Which of those will make the problem harder to solve and increase a reader’s hopes AND fears for the character?

Not the first one. You cannot present a problem to your character and have them fix it on the first attempt. You can’t do this because then the story is over. There’s no hope and fear; there’s only “done” and they’re looking for a new story. You want to BUILD reader tension and curiosity and only release it after it’s grown to a sharp point. So a simple “yes” is out.

What about the others? A “no” will let you maintain tension. It doesn’t really change the story situation, but it can work. A “no, but” keeps the trouble in place but allows your character to make progress on solving the problem. This continues the fear and builts a bit of hope. That sounds good. A “yes, but” will allow the readers to hope for a while and then be plunged back into fear. That sounds good too. A “no, furthermore” will increase reader worry. We like worry, so that will work as well.

Of course, these kickers, the yes-buts and no-furthermores, will have more power if they also include an element of surprise. Not only does our hero experience a setback, but the situation has been altered in an unexpected that puts the readers on their heels—Crap! What will the hero do now?!

Again, the yes portion of the yes-but option can last for a scene or three. However, the other shoe must drop sometime. It might drop immediately. It might drop in the next scene when the villain reacts to what the hero just did. It might drop a few scenes later. But it must drop.

If the result truly is a yes, you must drop a new problem in its place. For every problem you solve, you need to raise at least one more or switch to another plot line (problem) that’s still active. There is no ideal length for the time between a “yes” and a “but.” There is only the principle that suspense depends on problem, and the longer you go without a problem, the more likely it is that your reader’s tension will decrease.

Of course, suspense is not the only delight stories deliver. If you ease up on the suspense and deliver a chapter or two of humor or wish-fulfillment, the reader might not notice or care. In fact, such a switch might be exactly what the reader needs. Nevertheless, the story can’t progress until we come back to the central problem. If readers complain that the story is slow or wanders, it just might be that you’ve strayed a bit too long.

Despite the variations just mentioned, for your story to continue, your character will enter the action with a goal and end up with trouble. In summary, the main parts of the action are:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Trouble

Okay, the last part really should be “Result,” but for most of the story it’s trouble, and so I’m sticking with it to emphasize the point. When we give our hero more troubles, we kick the story back up to problem, which leads to a reaction, which leads to action, which leads to more trouble, and another reaction, and around and around we go. We continue to kick the story around the cycle until the very end when the final answer to the final action is a big resounding YES! Or it’s an everlasting no and the readers close the book and weep, or blog about heartless authors, or, like I did once, rip the offending ending out, write a better one, and glue it in place.

Conflict & Surprise – The Cycle’s Dynamo

You’ll notice I’ve drawn the graphic with conflict and surprise as the dynamo in the middle that gives energy to the wheel. The role of conflict and surprise cannot be overstated. They imbue every part.

The inciting incident leads the character smack into conflict and surprise.

The action revolves around obstacles and conflicts and surprises. More importantly, it ends in a great dose of conflict and surprise—that’s the very definition of a yes-but and a no-furthermore. The hero starts out thinking his action will work and finds it doesn’t. Surprise!

Even in the reaction stage we can include conflict and surprise. Maybe after our team’s setback, they regroup and discuss what they’re going to do now. This is a fine time to allow the varying motives of those on the hero’s team conflict. Maybe this is the time when one of the people we rely on defects to the other side. Maybe it’s the time when we begin to really see the impact of the disaster that just occurred. It’s also a wonderful time for our hero to come to a surprising insight or make a surprising but logical decision. Or let one of the other characters make a surprising suggestion.

Through it all, this conflict and surprise keep the character at a disadvantage. And that keeps the reader hoping and fearing and wondering what in the world will come next and how will the character ever pull it off.

Look for how conflict and surprise work in the stories you love. And if you’d like, you can see it work in a fabulous sequence in _Life_, season 1, episode 3.

Here’s the setup. Charlie Crews is a detective who was sent to jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Being a cop in prison made him a target for many beatings, hence the yellow faded-bruise face. Eleven years later they found none of the DNA at the murder site was his. So they released him, and, as settlement for damages, gave him a bunch of money, and allowed him to be a cop again. He’s been partnered up with Dani Reese. Nobody really wanted him, but she’s had problems of her own and got stuck with him. Crews had a car in the first episode, geeked out about GPS and hands-off telephone (stuff his missed in prison), but the ex-con lawyer Crews has put up in his mansion ran it over with a tractor. He’s been riding the bus. In this sequence, Crews and Reese are looking for a guy named Manny Umaga who carjacked a man and his wife then shot the wife. In this sequence they go find where he is and then go get him.

Watch it and then read my comments below. It runs from minute 15:49 to 21:15.

1. Surprise. You walk into a dangerous car shop. What are you expecting? You know you’re going to meet hard characters. They’re not going to want to talk to you. There’s some danger here and, therefore, a bit of suspense. So we meet some hard characters. But did you see the surprising particulars of Buscando Maldito–his neck tattoos and hat? Wonderful and new (at least to me). Then before we can have the expected confrontation–surprise–Crews sees the car of his dreams. Then we get that wonderful exchange between him and Maldito and El Repitito. Total humor. Totally unexpected. Then Maldito suggests a posse? Not only is he willing to talk, but he suggests he goes with them? Did you notice as well Maldito’s surprising responses to Reese’s questions—no on-the-nose dialogue here. When going to get Umaga, more surprises. Flash bangs? Big honking Samoan running like that? Busts down the door? Takes Crews by the neck? Crews pulls his own knife? Surprise after surprise after surprise.

2. Conflict. Between Crews/Reese and guys in shop, Maldito and Crews about the car, Maldito and Reese (didn’t you love that bit about the airbrush), between Umaga and Crews, between Crews and setting. Then Crews and Reese (with the knife).

BTW, look at this sequence with the lens of the story cycle. If you watch just a little bit more, you’ll see it’s a classic yes-but trouble. Yes, they find Umaga (not without a lot of conflict), but the victim won’t identify him as the killer. And around the cycle the story goes again.

Now look at the last few scenes in the current story you’re reading. Is the author using conflict and surprise as tools to move the story around the cycle?

Plots that rock

We present readers with sympathetic and interesting characters who are dealing with significant hardships or dangers. But readers don’t want to worry for two seconds and then have their tensions resolved. They want to feel a rush of relief. And you can’t feel a rush unless there’s something major to feel relief from.

When does cold sweet water taste the very best?

Not when you’ve just drunk a gallon jug of it. Not when you’re swimming in a freezing lake full of it. No, water is mind-blowing when you’re so thirsty your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, when the spittle has dried all around your lips, when you’ve been thinking about that drink for hours and the world seems to be nothing but heat and rock and dust.

When you’re bone thirsty dry, that’s when the first sip feels like the rapture.

The magnitude of the relief experienced in the resolution is in direct proportion to the stress that comes before it. So the more tense the reader is when they get to the resolution, the bigger the relief. If you’re delivering a mystery, the more puzzled the reader is, the bigger the insight.

In the beginning of the story we introduce the problem, raising a reader’s curiosity and interest. In the end we resolve the problem and satisfy the reader’s thirst. But it’s the wonderful middle where we build the thirst. With great middles, our story resolutions bang. Without them, they ho-hum and fizzle.

And it all revolves around making the story problem harder to solve. In fact, I’ve found that as long as I keep thinking about how to keep making things harder on my characters, the story scenes seem to line up and present themselves.

Now, we’re not done with plot just yet. In the next part, I’ll discuss the big picture of plot. It’s called structure. I’ll share why I think it’s more helpful to think about structure in the context of problem-solving, plot patterns, and Pareto elements than it is to talk about mythic journeys or rigid act numbers, proportions, and plot points. I’ll also break down at least one novel so we can see how an example of how everything we talked about works in practice.

In the meantime, if you think you might see other things that make a problem harder to solve or affect the story cycle, please add them in the comments.

Bonus 1 – A little Hitchcock

The following is an excerpt of an interview, presented in two parts below, between Alfred Hitchcock and Huw Wheldon. It was filmed for the BBC television program “Monitor” and was first broadcast on May 5, 1964. Watch it, keeping in mind the points made above. Of course, the purpose of sharing this isn’t to quote it like scripture. We don’t want to accept anyone’s model of story without thinking about it and testing it against our experience and observations. So listen and then let me know if you think his ideas are accurate.

Part 1

Part 2

Here’s another. “Movie Go Round,” 8 July 1966, Light Programme, Alfred Hitchcock talks to John Kennedy about the enjoyment of fear & ways of creating suspense (with reference to Vertigo).

By the way, if you enjoy Hitchcock, you’ll want to read Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb.

Bonus 2 – Development Questions

In the last part in this series, I’ll talk more about using suspense principles to generate story ideas, but you can start trying to apply the Pareto factors that have been discussed right now. Here are examples of productive questions you can ask yourself.


  • What types of danger might my character face?
  • Who’s in the most danger?
  • Who stands to lose the most?
  • What’s a stake?
  • What are the character’s opportunities?
  • What kinds of hardship might they face now?
  • What are some potential mysteries in this world or with this problem?
  • How can I make the problems more intense?
  • Who might cause a lot of trouble in this situation?
  • Why would the opposition want what they do?


  • What are some things that could make my character sympathetic?
  • What are some things that could make my character deserving?
  • What are some things that could make my character more interesting?
  • What are some ways I could provide cast variety?
  • Why types of people would be fun to put together?


  • What types of obstacles does the character face?
  • What are some things that can put my character at a disadvantage?
  • What are some possible fun points of conflict inside the character, with people on the character’s team, with the opposition, and with other bit parts?
  • What are some possible upsets the character can experience along the way?
  • In what ways might the problem get worse?
  • What are some surprises I can spring on my reader and character?

You don’t need to answer every question. Just take one and run with it listing as many options as you can. List out all the dumb cliches that come to mind. Don’t filter yourself. Dumb stuff works like manure on the garden of your mind. Cherish poop—it’s what makes flowers grow. As you generate your options, try to vary the nature of the solutions you come up. And try to think up some that are unusual. Sooner or later you’ll start coming up with ideas that spark.

Bonus 3 – An Invitation

I don’t want you to simply accept the model of the story cycle I’ve presented above. Please take some time when you next watch a TV episode or movie or read a novel and see if and how it works in the kind of  fiction you love. You don’t have to break down the whole story if you don’t want to. Just do a scene or three. Then report back here what you found. You, me, and everyone who reads this will be better for your insights.

Parts in the The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Series

  1. Scene  (coming soon)
  2. Development Tips

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Writing tips from Best Seller Debbie Macomber

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on February 16th, 2010
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I saw this today and thought of the assignments I give in my workshops. Look at what this hugely popular writer did to learn and focus her craft:

  1. Knew what she liked and followed HER passions (she knew what rocked her).
  2. Took 4 books she loved and broke them down to look for patterns she could use. This is exactly what Bernard Cornwell did (link at bottom).
  3. Identified what it was she wanted to deliver to her readers. I believe her four words were “Provocative,” “Relevant,” “Creative,” and “Honest” (form follows function).
  4. Notice also how much she loves plot turns (story cycle–surprise and conflict).

What a delightful interview. I’m going to pick up a Macomber and give her a go. Anyone have a recommendation on a title?

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Some Key Concepts for Love Stories

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on December 9th, 2008
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My first four professionally published short stories were all love stories of one kind or another. I love good love stories. And so when the Writing Excuses team podcasted about this topic with Dave Wolverton, I was excited to hear what they had to say. Of course, they didn’t dissappoint. However, I would like to add a few things here.

1. A love story or romance is a happiness story. The problem is one of danger to, lack of, or opportunity for the happiness that comes with having a close bond with someone else. To be loved and included, to be valued by someone.

2. Love stories don’t have to be between two characters who are romantically interested in each other. They can be between two people who become friends or a person who is on the outs with a particular group as with RAINMAN, or between a father (or father figure) and son as in TREASURE PLANET, or a mother and daughter.

3. It seems to me that these social story problems can be broken down into four elements.

  1. Raising the idea
  2. Making the characters attractive
  3. Raising obstacles and conflict
  4. Showing signs of progression


Just as with any story problem, we have to know there’s an issue. The idea of possibility or lack has to be presented to us. And the specific person who we hope the character bonds with has to be identified. How is this done?

Lots of ways. But I can see two big ones right off the bat. The first has to do with what a character notices about the other person. In a romantic love story, it might be some thoughts about another’s attractiveness, either looks or character. This could happen when the character sees the other person, touches them, hears them speak. And it doesn’t have to be a stranger. Perhaps they had a crush on that person when they were younger. There are all sorts of cues we use to signal romantic potential. All we have to do is raise a few of those for the reader and the idea is planted.

The second way the idea is raised is by having some other character raise it. Someone else notices the person and thinks them attractive. Or they make a suggestion that our character getting together with them is a possibility.

So when Jack sees Mary he can think about when the blankety blank she’s going to get off the commando team because all she does is distract the men. Not him, of course. Or Bill can tell Jack that Mary has been watching him. And Jack can say, she can look all she wants because she’s never going to get a piece of this.


The second thing I see that’s necessary is that the other person is attractive to the reader. Or, at least, the reader could see how the character could be attracted to this person. This doesn’t always have to be physical beauty. Nor does it have to be sexual attraction. A buddy story would be about something else–about someone who we think is admirable in some way. But it has to happen for the reader to believe the story.

Of course, our hero may be duped. Jack might be falling for Cindy when she’s really just after his money. The readers know both sides and can see how Jack’s choices make sense, even while we feel great anxiety of the trouble coming down the line. 


These are key, of course. No obstacles or conflicts and there is no story. Jack sees Jill. Says I love you. They marry. The end. So we have to have obstacles. They can start immediately with the character recognizing a possiblity. For example, Jack is simply oblivious to Jill’s interest in him. And when he decides to trust his friend’s advice to pursue her, he sees her with another man. She’s not an option for him afterall.

If we think about yes-buts and no-furthermores and that usually the hero has to fail at the end of act 2 for us to feel triumph at the end of act 3, we’ll see that obstacles and conflicts progress just as they do in any other story.

There are many obstacles or points of conflict. Distance (CASTAWAY), social status, fears of rejection, a stuttering problem, another person who Jack is interested in or who Jill is interested in, something Jill does that Jack doesn’t agree with, jobs that are demanding and keep them apart or make them keep secrets (TRUE LIES). Are too closely related. It’s against your vows or values (you’re a nun or he’s a client) Etc.  Many are internal and have to do with trust, fear, competing desires, and commitment.

The key to the obstacles, I’ve found, is in making it hard to choose or fulfill commitment. It isn’t about sex or kissing. Because you can have a story where two people have sex and it doesn’t resolve any tension in the love story (what if the guy is seen that night with another woman?). It’s about two people being able to say I love or value you and meaning it.

And so anything that would keep them from commiting works. And after they’ve committed, anything that would make one recant. Or be unable to enjoy that love going forward.


The last thing is that the audience needs to know that things are moving forward. In plotting, we need a few yesses along the way or the story’s over. How do we do this? What are the signs? I can think of a few.

  1. The character’s thoughts are more and more about the other person, noticing all sorts of things, dealing more and more with inner dilemmas.
  2. The character’s actions become more and more open. The lingering looks, or glances she tries to  hide, the touching. The character’s words become more and more direct. Usually oblique at first and then more clear later.
  3. There is more validation from other characters.

Why do so many stories have the characters in a romance dance? Not because dancing is some mystical thing. No, it’s a romantic cue. We associate romance with dancing. And being in such close proximity raises the pulse. But you can put people in close proximity in many other ways–in a crate as they’re being smuggled into the country, standing smashed together in a subway, retracting a bullet from the leg, cutting and washing hair (John Travolta in PHENOMENON), etc.  The reason why we do this; however, is so that we can get a yes, a sign of progression. Of course, we could also use it to raise a devestating conflict as when Maria dances with Captain Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But that’s only devestating because during the dance they had declared in subtle ways that they were interested in one another.

So we raise obstacles and show signs of progression, back and forth, the obstacles pointing more and more toward disaster until at the end of act 2 Jack loses…and we get the no-but plot turn. No, he’s failed completely. But then a desperate glimmer of hope…

In the end we need final confirmation. One thing that says, yes, they’re committed. Often in romantic love stories writers use sex as a blunt confirmation. I think it’s often the lazy way out. Here, show Jack and Jill having sex. Okay, next plot point. It’s lost most of its power for me. And such a thing should be anything but cliche. My advice is to think of many other ways that show commitment and value. A few examples off the top of my head are what Dean Koontz in his ODD THOMAS series did this for Odd and Stormy, FAR AND AWAY with Joseph and Shannon, WHAT ABOUT BOB, and SABRINA. In fact, having sex was turned on its head in this one. Lovely.

At least think about other options because romantic love stories are not about sex. Sexual tension stories are. But that’s a different problem. A different type of story. And it seems writers sometimes confuse these two. Romantic love stories are about two people finally saying, yes, I love you, I value you, and I mean it, and always will. And as an audience, we believe.

And if that doesn’t move you, then remember that one of the things we go to stories for is surprise. Something new. How wonderful would it be if something as simple and Jackbiking into Jill’s work place with a parrot on his shoulder is the ultimate moment of the story, and says everything that needs to be said? And when Jill looks up at the commotion, her heart to this point hardened or desolate, and sees the bird, the audience weeps or cheers…

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Plot Basics

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on December 2nd, 2008
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In the comments to this week’s writing excuses on the 3 act structure, a writer asked if the try/fail cycle would really work with her chase story because her folks do not “fail to solve the problem” every time so much as “escape by the skin of their teeth”.

I thought this was a great question because we ARE often led to believe that the characters need to fail in each attempt. But if we look at a number of stories we’ll see that this isn’t the case. The hero is NOT always failing in his scene or sequence goal. In fact, much of the time he succeeds. So how does plot really work? Here’s my post.

[edited for clarity]

Jen, fwiw:

A few things finally opened up acts and plot to me. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you. I say this because a chase would work the same as anything else. I’ll just start at the beginning, although I’m sure you know a lot of this.

1) Story is about someone solving a problem. The problem is one of happiness (danger or lack on some level–physical, social, freedom, etc.) or mystery.

2) The reason why we tell stories about problems is because the solving of problems, if done a certain way, evokes suspense, surprise, and curiosity in the reader, and then a release of emotional tension. Why we humans like that ride, I don’t know. But we must keep this in mind when dealing with #1 because these effects are the main effects the bulk of people go to story for.

3) Plot is simply the actions the characters take, the results of their action, and what they decide to do next. Except this can’t be any old action and result. It has to be action and result that builds the anxiety of suspense, surprise, and the mystery or puzzle.

4) There are four possible answers to the question of “did the hero’s action solve the problem?”: yes, no, yes but, no furthermore.

For example. Yes, you killed the monster. No, you didn’t. Yes, you killed the monster, but it bit you and now you have the virus that’s going to turn YOU into a monster. No, you didn’t kill the monster furthermore you woke up its mumma.

Of those four possiblities, only the last two build suspense and curiosity. The first removes it totally. So it’s out. And a no answer leaves suspense unchanged. All you’re doing is delaying things with that. What you want to do is ratchet it up.

So if you want to build suspense then when a character takes an action, that action has to make things worse. They may escape by the skin of their teeth, but now the federal police know where they are (yes-but). Or not only did they not escape the police, but now the mafia, the real bad guys, know where they are (no-furthermore). These escalations and complications to the plot/problem continue until the hero’s plan is in total shambles and it appears he really is done for. That’s when they get one last shot at it.

If someone is trying to escape you don’t need a different plot structure. Their actions simply need to make it harder and harder and harder. Their plan needs to start to come apart. Things go wrong. Things they didn’t plan for make it worse. Someone double-crosses them or goes AWOL. We need to see them walking into dangers they didn’t plan for. If you go back and look at Prison Break season 1, you’ll see this all over the place in the last two episodes.

5) Acts are just a nifty way of breaking up the problem solving process into parts. In act 1 (the beginning), as stated, you introduce the problem and show that the character won’t or can’t walk away. Often a big reversal or reveal (a big yes-but or no-furthermore) marks the end of that act. But the key thing is that the hero MUST act. The stakes or too high or they simply can’t get away.

Now in act 2 (the middle) the hero says, aha, this is the real problem. Let’s try to solve it. Act 2 is a breeze to write IF you think about escalations and complications and nasty surprises–yes-buts and no-furthermores. He takes an intelligent action. BAM. It gets worse. And as these complications pile up we see that the hero comes to a point where his plans are in a shambles and the problem looks almost certain to squash him for good. In Star Wars, sure they saved the princess, but they led the empire to the secret base and the death star is going to blow them away (a grand yes-but).

In the last act, the hero straps on his guns and trys one more thing. Sometimes it helps to think of acts 1 and 2 as the hero reacting and act 3 as the hero finally getting the inititative, although it appears to be almost too late, and strapping on his guns. In Star Wars they do this. They’re running, running, running, and then they attack the death star. But the odds are slim. And they only have one little chance.

Remember: the odds are slim at this point and things get worse not because this is how problems are solved. Many get solved on the first try in real life. But because solving a problem in this way produces maximum suspense, surprise, and curiosity–the chief effects readers go to stories for. Any time you see a new plot structure or theory, you need to ask yourself what effect it has on the reader. If you can’t see any, junk it.

So you might have three acts, four, five, seven (all variations I’ve seen). It doesn’t matter. An act usually ends with a huge change in the nature of the problem. See Robert McKee’s STORY. But the number of acts isn’t the issue. It’s the effect on the reader. The acts are just means to an end. If we don’t keep the end in mind we’re likely to misuse the techniques. 

6) The key for moving through the acts is to ask myself about actions, obstacles, and results. Here are some questions I’ve found productive.

Action. What are some intelligent actions the hero might take in this situation? What would I do? What are some logical steps that the reader might not think of?

Obstacles. What happens? What are some compelling obstacles the hero will face in this attempt? Are there points of conflict with himself, someone else on his side, the antagonist or his henchmen, someone in the background, with the setting? What does the antagonist do to foil the hero? What is a logical but maybe an unexpected and surprising obstacle to both the reader and hero? How does the hero’s plan begin to come apart?

Results. What happens? What are some possible results that pose a yes-but or no-furthermore? What would be unexpected, surprising to both the hero and the reader? How does the character’s action make it worse? How does the result reveal the problem is much worse than the hero and reader first thought?  I’m thinking of complications and escalations–things that make the problem harder to solve or more important because more’s at stake.

In all of these, I choose the options that gives me the most zing and run with them. If they peter out, I try another (take 2, take 3, take 4), until I have one that works. Then I repeat it all over again and again until the hero is looking the gun in the face.

7) The “hero’s journey” is nothing more than a bunch of mystical names for common elements in this specific type of problem solving structure. Why does the hero have to leave home? Not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because this forces them out into unfamiliar territory–adventure, risk. Things go wrong. The hero has to face the problem.

Why does the hero go to “the cave”? Again, not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because turning and facing the monster, going onto ITS turf, poses the MOST RISK and hence most danger and hence most suspense for the reader.

Always keep the purpose of the story in mind. Suspense and curiosity DRIVE the structure of most stories. Yes, there are other effects we go to story for. But the reason stories are structured the way they are is because of those two reader effects. And all the rest of those Joseph Campbell terms are useless to writers unless they make the connection and see how they play into suspense and curiosity.

And even then I’ve found it’s wrong-headed to bind yourself to to a form just because. Or to think you need to slavishly follow it. The decision has to feel right for the story. It has to build anxiety and curiosity. And whatever does that well is right, regardless of whether it follows some formula. Although, I will say that certain story structures are used again and again because they deliver the goods to the reader better than other structures. Like biological evolution, they survive because of natural selection by readers.

So that ended up longer than I intended. Hopefully the ideas were as helpful to you as they were to me.

This writer’s question arises because of the common way of explaining the try/fail cycle sets us up to think there is only a no or no-furthermore option to each attempt by the hero. However, if we just look at a handful of stories, we’ll see the yes-but option is used all the time. What we want to avoid is the yes option, because that just stops the story. It stops the story because story is about solving a problem. And once the problem is solved, the story is over.  

Other writers talk of formulas, however “pattern” has always been a more helpful way of looking at it than “formula.” I know, that’s semantic quibbling. But “formula” suggests to me THE way while “pattern” suggests to me something not so strict, something with some give to it and perhaps a great number of variations. Either way, pattern or formula, I found that unless I can understand the why of a part of the pattern, the effect it has on the reader’s experience, it’s not much use to me. It all comes down to plunging our hero into trouble or mystery, and then making the trouble or mystery worse SO THAT the reader feels increasing anxiety, curiosity, and surprise.

BTW, here’s a good explanation of the 3 act structure with some tips from Stephen J. Cannell, an old pro. I really like his tips on act 2 issues and complications. Because if we make the antagonist an active force, he or she will provide many wonderful yes-but and no-furthermore options.

You’ll find other excellent explanations of plot in TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain, HOW TO WRITE BEST SELLING FICTION by Dean Koontz, and THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING by William C. Martell.

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Diagnosing Quantum of Solace

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever, On Writing  by John Brown on November 30th, 2008
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Last night I went out with my wife and some friends to watch QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I was so excited. But when the movie ended, I was totally unsatisfied. There was no release. Nothing. It just ended.

There was lots of great stuff in it. Love the character and style of this new bond. Loved CASINO ROYALE, but this just didn’t work for me. My diagnosis has two parts.

MINOR ISSUE: clarity in story. The chase scenes were so choppy I couldn’t get a feel for what was going on so I could worry for Bond. All I did was get sick to my stomach. Part of the way through I told my wife I was going to write death threats to the freaking director. Who in the world thought that was a good idea? It doesn’t mimic battle etc. In battle you are HYPER alert and focused. Your world doesn’t turn into chaos.

But it was more than the chase scenes. There were times when I did not know what was going on. Why was Bond going to his friend from movie 1, why was he watching that guy pick up a bag at the play, why was he going to the party, etc.?

If he’d shared any of his plans, I could have gotten worried when antagonistic forces thwarted him. As it was, I was just watching him do stuff and only realizing at the end what the goal was.

The basic principle of suspense is to let me know what they need to do and why they need to do it, then let me worry as I see the operation fall apart. Or let me know the danger and see them walking into it. But time and again they didn’t provider the viewer with the necessary information in this movie. 

MAJOR ISSUE: ineffective story structure. I think for a film to build to a huge climax and release, the hero has to find himself in more and more desperate circumstances. His situation has to become darker and darker until we see no way out for him. By the end of act 2 his plans etc. should all be in shambles. He’s out of options.

In this Bond I rarely felt he was in danger. Yes, there were some fight sequences which were tense, but he never ended up in worse shape afterwards. We got messages that he was being framed for murders, but I never really felt the screws tightening on him. So it never got darker and darker for him.

His plans seemed to only be delayed, not destroyed. In Casino Royale, his car is wrecked and he’s taken captive and is going to die. He loses. In this one, nothing. Even when his plane is shot down going out to the desert, it’s just a delay. They walk to the bustop and are soon back on track.

There might be another point about something being at stake. The water grab is a great idea, but we’re talking a 50 year plot. It’s not THAT urgent.


I think they could have done more by playing up the revenge/mystery of the last one. Yes, have the water grab, but make this personal to him. He’s searching for the answers to who was behind his lover’s death. Why not?

Then get the villain, the US CIA, and the British hunting him down with real resources. He evaded everyone fairly easily in this one. He’s running FROM all these forces, barely one step ahead, until he gets caught by them. And it’s one of Green’s guys in the CIA or something like that who captures him. So he’s totally screwed. Then have the Black CIA officer do something to spring him. He’d probably have to die for it.

I’m sure there are more and better options. But do something so that Bond is running for his life, FAILS, then pulls it out. Not chasing down the bad guys one by one with relative ease.

Just one option. Thoughts?

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