Poor Polly Protagonist. In my previous post, I left her marriage in ruins. What began as a simple argument over buying a Christmas tree ended with two potential calamities.
In one option, Polly gets her tree but has to let her manic sister-in-law and feral brood come for the holidays.
Andy Antagonist uses the tree issue as an excuse to tear their relationship completely apart. He ends the marriage.
Which option should Wally Writer use? Dunno! It depends on the plot Wally has outlined for himself. Both options are going to keep Rita Reader turning pages. But which one hooks the story in the direction Wally Writer wants his story to go next?
Obviously, the first scenario is comedic and would lead to a series of mishaps reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s tacky relatives in the film, CHRISTMAS VACATION.
But let’s say that Wally Writer isn’t writing a comedy. He wants to be serious and dramatic, so he chooses the last option–where Andy unmasks his true colors as a nasty toad of a husband that dumps his wife on Christmas Eve.
We’ve got a doozy of a “no and furthermore” scene ending here. What are we going to do with it?
Consider Poor Polly’s options:
#1) She can wimp out and go crawling back to Andy, begging him to let her stay.
Well, phooey to that one. If she’s that spineless, Rita Reader won’t want to read about her.
#2) Polly can call Connie Confidant and go cry on her best friend’s shoulder.
This has potential. It doesn’t seem all that exciting on the surface but hold onto it.
#3) Polly can swallow some grocery-store wine for courage and drive over to her ex-boyfriend’s house for a fling.
Hmm. This option looks intriguing. If Polly has a wild affair, won’t that complicate her life? Probably, but will it complicate Wally Writer’s project?
Is that where Wally’s story is going? What if that wasn’t what Wally intended at all?
Writer, beware! If you push your protagonist heedlessly from one problem to the next without thinking things through, you’ll probably write yourself into a dead end … or come out where you weren’t planning to go.
So often, in response to the writing advice to “increase the stakes,” “make things harder for the protagonist,” “keep the protagonist constantly in trouble,” etc. it can be easy for the novice to fall into the trap of puppeteering. Are you throwing your character into one problem after another in a contrived, disconnected way–all in the cause of “exciting writing?”
Let’s retreat a bit and re-examine option #2. Connie Confidant looks a little blah initially, but she’s far more useful than you suppose.
If Polly takes a bit of story time to cry on Connie’s sofa, pouring out years of frustration, anger, angst, resentment, and fear for her future, then what’s really happening is that Rita Reader is getting a breather.
We’re letting the big, argumentative, conflictful scene that just occurred sink in. Polly is venting, and Rita Reader is empathizing. The bond between character and reader is growing stronger.
As soon as Polly stops howling, blows her nose, and sits up straight, the story is no longer on emotional pause. Now we’re going to process Polly’s problem, right in front of Rita Reader, who’s avidly turning pages. Rita wants to know what Polly will do next.
Polly is going to work out that solution in a mix of logic and emotion, and she’s going to do so right on the page for Rita to follow.
This process is a dramatic unit of plot equally important to scene. It’s known as a sequel, and it has a structure for writers to build.
We’ll review that construction process in the next installment.