It isn’t a story until something goes wrong

From a post at Kill Zone Blog, this gem:

There is another tip, though, that transcends opinion to become holy writ. I’ve seen it work wonders for writers who have struggled to move forward without ever really wrapping their head around it. With a more open mind, though (and yes, it’s a shame that we sometimes need an open mind to see that which is simply, obviously and always true, in writing and in life), it can change your writing journey the moment you see it, provided it parts the curtain of your understanding:

It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.

Not bad! I think this is (almost) universally true (but not quite). The author of the post — Larry Brooks — is thinking about real stuff actively going wrong:

… newer writers in particular get stuck writing about something — a character, a place, a time, an issue, all without plot-driven conflict or antagonism other than the hero’s inner issues — rather than writing about something happening in the context of something gone wrong for your protagonist, launching the hero on a dramatic quest that unfolds under escalating pressure from antagonistic opposition, threat, urgency and emotionally-resonant stakes.

You see? Something goes actively wrong, leading or forcing the protagonist into an active quest.

This is basically going to be true for SFF, certainly, but true universally? I’m not sure I think so. As you may have noted by now, I am not crazy about much of the literary fiction I’ve tried — I have totally, utterly hated some of the literary fiction I’ve tried — but even so I would say that something can go wrong internally for the protagonist and that counts as something going wrong and can drive a story. Possibly not a story I would want to read, but a story. I’m thinking of MADAME BOVARY here, incidentally, where what goes wrong is all internal (as I recall) and the protagonist’s “quest” is more a sinking into ennui. (As I recall! I read it twice (ugh!), but it was a long time ago). I can think of other literary titles where this was the basic idea.

Now, to be fair, I tried to think of a book with little in the way of active stuff happening that I actually really loved. For example, a story like IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE by Rumer Godden, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a quiet novel about a woman who becomes a nun. Everything that matters is internal there, too.

That whole thing about opposition, threat and urgency is not the point of books like this. Can one say that stuff goes wrong for the protagonist? Maybe, sort of, but quietly wrong, and the external problems are not the point of the book. I think it would be stretching a point to say this kind of novel fits the rule above.

On the other hand, for SFF, it seems to me it is pretty much always true that you don’t have a story until something goes wrong.

Somebody on a panel … Sarah Beth Durst maybe? … I’m not sure, but whoever it was said, You start your story where things change irrevocably for your protagonist. That’s not quite the same thing, but it’s close, and it stuck with me because I think it’s pretty much true as well. I will say, I’ve started books at a different point than that and done the moment-when-things-irrevocably-changed in the backstory. (THE FLOATING ISLANDS.) Still, I think that’s a useful way of looking at where to start a story. And then generally the story moves forward because of things that go wrong — more and more wrong till the protagonist & co. finally win out over whatever antagonist or circumstances.

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11 thoughts on “It isn’t a story until something goes wrong”

  1. I just finished reading Long Journey to a Small Angry Planet on the plane last night, and I thought at the end that it was a rather pastoral piece in a lot of ways. That is, there was no grand overarching danger. Rather, it was more of an intimate journey of character discovery framed within a physical journey. (Also reminded me a bit of Jenna Moran’s recent efforts into pastoral RPG design – which I completely don’t get, although it seems interesting.) Very good book, and a nice change of pace from “war, war, war” or “save the universe” or “mankind’s doom approacheth on [tentacled/clawed/horned/nanobot] feet!”

  2. It also reminded me of old games of Traveler. “Hey! We finally earned enough to upgrade our ship! Woo hoo!” Modest milestones, but fun…

  3. Interesting! “Something goes wrong,” but on a small scale where events contribute to self-discovery instead of the other way around.

  4. I’m writing something very close to slice of life at the moment. I wouldn’t say anything really ‘goes wrong’, though we do get life changes.

  5. Maybe for the quieter stories it’s more of a point where a choice must be made, not ‘something goes wrong’. In Brede Philippa chooses the convent. In Gone with the Wind it’s Scarlett’s choice of uh.. Ashton?.. In Medair it’s her choice to go after that magical horn to call the help they did.

  6. Oh, I’d agree with that, Elaine. The slice-of-life I referred to is basically about making/committing to a choice.

  7. Maggie Stiefvater’s book Sinner is still SFF, but the plot is pretty much entirely driven by internal issues of the two main characters. It is nominally a book about werewolves, but really it’s about someone who is suicidal and self-destructive figuring out how to choose a different path. In fact, the setup for the book sort of goes out of its way to make it clear that the only “something wrong” is internal. (The main character is already rich, successful, healthy, has supportive parents…)

  8. And in Medair, of course she has to keep making choices, even when things are going … um, less wrong? Sort of right, even.

    I started Stiefvater’s SHIVER, but couldn’t get into it. So much so I’m not sure I’ll try it again.

  9. Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things proved to me that all a story needs is a character who wants something very badly (that they can’t have, or can only have with great difficulty/sacrifice)(which i guess counts as something going wrong, so I haven’t really added a new category of what stories can be about!) But certainly in that story there’s nothing “active” that goes wrong; there are just a lot of objects in the wrong place, so, entirely internal conflict.

  10. Very interesting, Kim. I would call that starting out with something wrong, which is perhaps not quite the same thing — almost certainly not the what the post about things-going-wrong had in mind.

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