Last post, Libby said:
I’ve been having trouble with that point in a story from the lead-up to the climax to the aftermath… once I hit the part where all the stuff I’ve been alluding to has to APPEAR, things tend to go over too smoothly and much too quickly, and I think it’s ultimately unsatisfying. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing wrong, but it feels like the story needs an extra PUSH that I don’t know how to give.
I’ve read all the stuff about there needing to be a part where it all goes wrong, so that you can straighten it out at the climax, but when I do that, usually my characters have this barrage of crazy emotions, listen to someone explain the whole thing (or run around and save the day), and then it’s tidied up and it just feels OFF. It’s weird.
The plot skeleton, which is what I think you’re referring to when you say there “needs to be a part where it all goes wrong,” is DEscriptive, not PREscriptive, and it just means that a story wherein things run along too smoothly is seldom interesting to read. The heroes have to face and overcome obstacles, but the obstacles don’t necessarily have to be of their own making. It depends on the story.
There are three kinds of obstacles your heroes can face on their way to solving the Big Problem. The first kind are internal – the prejudices, blind spots, temperament, lack of skill or knowledge, etc. that could/would keep them from successfully doing what has to be done. The second kind are external – the moves the villain makes to counter them, the equipment they’re missing (whether it’s a magic sword or the ore to smelt to make cannons), the tornado or avalanche or attack by rabid beavers, the broken wagon axle or flat tire. And the third kind are those that result from the logical consequences of whatever the heroes have just done – for instance, they sold their cattle in order to pay for cannons to shoot the dragon with, but without cattle to eat, the dragon starts munching on people instead, making the situation worse. Or the new weather satellite makes it rain on the drought-stricken area, but causes a hurricane to hit the big city just to the south.
What kind of obstacles are the most useful for your story depend on the sort of story it is. If the main story is a Man Learns Lesson type of story, where the protagonist is his own worst enemy, then yes, a lot of the things that go wrong really should be coming from the mistakes the protagonist makes. That’s how he/she is going to end up learning that lesson. In a Brave Little Tailor sort of story, the obstacles the protagonist faces often come from the outside. The villain, if there is one, isn’t going to just sit around waiting for Our Heroes to come and lay siege to his castle; he’s going to do something to try to stop them. If the opponent the heroes face is Nature, the broken leg will turn to gangrene, or a bear will attack, or there’ll be a tornado or a blizzard or a hurricane.
The other thing is that ideally the obstacles need to build up toward the climax. In other words, as the heroes get closer to facing the Big Problem, the tension has to rise. It doesn’t matter whether it rises because all three of the main characters have been arguing with each other for the entire book, and the fights get worse as the Grand Finale approaches, so that as they head for the final confrontation they’re not speaking to each other and unlikely to be able to cooperate in solving the problem, or whether it rises because of a slow revelation that things are Even Worse Than They Thought – those lost sheep weren’t lost, they were eaten; they weren’t eaten by a bear, they were eaten by a dragon; they weren’t eaten by just any dragon, but by an Ancient Wyrm; not only is this dragon an Ancient Wyrm, it has a personal grudge against Our Heroes/their village/their king; etc.
Also, you probably don’t want to pile up a lot of things, expecting to straighten all of them out during the climax. It’s usually more like a series of steep steps, where each minor solution leads closer to the Big Main Problem. Sometimes, what you need is a series of problems that are related, but still independent: Big Problem – we have to kill a dragon. Solution – we’ll buy some cannons. First minor problem – no money. Solution – we raise some money by selling the sheep the dragon was eating anyway. Consequence/next problem – hungry dragon starts eating people. Solution – we all stay indoors while messenger runs off to buy cannons. Next problem – messenger is stuck at bottom of mountain with cannons; trail is too narrow to get them up, and dragon will eat anyone who goes out to widen trail. Solution – use old mining machinery to haul cannons up side of mountain from safety of stone building.
The dragon doesn’t get any more dangerous, really, as the sequence progresses – but the urgency goes up when it starts to eat people, and then rises again when it looks as if there’s no way to get the cannons up where they can actually be used to defend the village. If I were doing it, I’d have them get the cannons up and use them, but have one explode (since it was made by the lowest bidder), throwing the aim of the others off and resulting in an only-slightly-wounded dragon who is now really angry.
The alternative is a bait-and-switch. That is, when your heroes have figured out that they have to take down a dragon, and taking down the dragon turns out to be too smooth and easy, you give them an entirely new problem that results from their dragon-killing: a powerful cursed sword that one of them unknowingly picks up from the dragon’s horde, for instance, or the Dragon-Master who’s really mad that they’ve just killed his pet, or the army from the next kingdom over that can invade through the pass now that the dragon is dead and can’t eat them. Of course, this means that what you thought was the end of the story isn’t actually the end, and you still have a lot more to write…but it’ll probably make a better story. And nobody ever said writing was easy.