I recently posted a quote from E.B. White on my Facebook group page, a quote that spoke to me about the importance of trouble when it comes to generating a plot: “There’s no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.”
I’ve always agreed with those who say that creating a plot is a simple matter of getting a character into trouble and then seeing what he or she will do to try to get out of it. With that in mind, I’d like to offer up a few ways to get your characters into trouble.
1. Sometimes trouble pays a visit. In Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” a young boy, Scotty, gets hit by a car, and though he appears to be unhurt at first, he later slips into a coma, and then dies. His mother forgets about the cake that she ordered for his birthday from a baker who was abrupt with her. When the baker starts calling the house to say the cake hasn’t been picked up—saying things like, “Have you forgotten about Scotty?”—the trouble that started the story takes on an added dimension. No longer is it merely bad fortune striking. It’s now something that requires a response, and that response is the eventual confrontation with the baker, which leads to a surprising moment of grace. The combination of bad luck and the presence of the baker lead us into the complicated terrain of suffering and compassion. If trouble puts pressure on a character, increase the pressure from a source outside the realm of the trouble. Press harder until your character has to act.
2. Sometimes we make our own trouble by what we decide to do. Sammy, the teenaged narrator of John Updike’s “A & P,” quits his job as a grocery clerk cashier in support of the girls who have violated decorum and come into the store in their bathing suits. Of course, his gesture goes unnoticed by the girls, and Sammy ends up with a consequence he couldn’t have predicted: “. . .my stomach fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” Use dramatic irony to complicate the trouble-causing action. Let the character’s intention produce its opposite result.
3. Sometimes we make our trouble by letting people believe something is true when it isn’t. The central action of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, depends on thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, who makes a false accusation based upon facts she believes to be true. Her accusation changes lives forever. There are variations of this plot-making strategy. Perhaps the character tells the truth about something heard or seen, but leaves out other facts in order to let the listener construct the narrative that the speaker desires, a narrative that the speaker knows to be a partial truth. Sometimes a character says or does something only to have it misinterpreted. The key here is to arrange the facts in such a way, with whatever back story is necessary, so more than one narrative is plausible.
4. Sometimes we make our trouble by trying to run away from what we’ve done, or by being afraid of what we might do. The mathematics tutor, Henry Dees, in my novel, The Bright Forever, gives his pupil, Katie Mackey, a fatherly kiss on the cheek, but because he knows people already consider him an odd bird, he knows that if anyone were to have witnessed the kiss, they would consider him suspect. Adding to his fear is the fact that he’s already started to question his own motivations. His fear leads him to a moment of paralysis at the time when he most needs to act, thereby creating a trouble that will haunt him the rest of his life. An entire plot can be spun from a character’s questioning of his or her own action.
I’m particularly interested in how people create their own troubles, either from the git-go, or from how they respond to misfortunes that befall them. As the quote from E.B. White indicates, things will always get complicated if we let one thing follow another. If we can add a little pressure, irony, misinterpretation, or multi-layered motivations, we can help those complications along. Too much restraint or politeness ruins a good narrative. Put your characters into action. Let them run at cross purposes with others, with dramatic situations, and with themselves, and you’ll create a memorable chain of events. We have to make room for the human flaws that can lead to trouble. Then we have to make enough room for our characters’ attempts to save themselves. One thing leads to another. It’s a good thing for a narrative to remember.