Tag Archives: try fail sequence

The Gentle Art of Escalation

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!

Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.

I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…

Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.

Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.

The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.

Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?

Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!

A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.

And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…

Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.

The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.

Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.

The cake is not a lie

The cake is not a lie

 

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Typing in the Dark

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

— Robbie Burns, To a Mouse

I had a very busy day yesterday, little of it related to writing, and something happened in the morning that got me thinking about plotting. So this morning I’m trying to compile my thoughts into a useful form, typoing in the dark (not an actual typo) and taking a page from Dave Freer’s book by using a bit of poetry. It’s a well-known bit there in the middle of the first stanza I’ve quoted. (That’s by no means all of the poem, and if you can read dialect you should enjoy the whole thing.)

What happened in the morning, you’re wondering, and am I ever coming back to it? Yes, I am! The strange thing that happened started in the bathroom, where my First Reader gave the dog a bath. Now, the door to the backyard where the Beast hangs out is reachable through the kitchen, so the first I knew of it, was a wet dog running into the kitchen where I was making lists for the day of cooking and canning.

Now you’re wondering what this can possibly have to do with plotting. Is it the surprise element? The sudden violent death of a community of fleas happily living on their doggy planet?

No, this is about cascades and consequences. You see, I try to keep the kitchen floor reasonably clean, but between Miss MuddyPaws (yes, the dog has a lot of names. Officially, she only has one, Tricksy. It’s descriptive of her) coming in and out the back door, and three child-things who are using the same door, the kitchen floor suffers. This is, sort of, like your protagonist’s life. It’s not perfect, It’s old, beat-up linoleum, but he’s content with it the way he has it, and he’ll straighten it out when he has the time.

Now, along comes the author like a wet dog shaking out her (fortunately short) fur all over the place and leaving pawprints. Your protagonist is suddenly in trouble. Not a lot of trouble, just enough to have him reaching for a kitchen rag with a slight feeling of dismay. Wiping down the fridge, our hero looks at his life (the floor) and realizes that the wet pawprints are a little muddy. Good Heavens, that did more damage than he thought. Time to pull out the mop and do a bit more damage control…

As an author, it’s tempting to let the characters we’ve created rest on their laurels. This can lead to what my First Reader calls the Golden Boy syndrome, where no matter what happens in the book, you just know it’s going to be all right. There’s no tension in any crisis, we know the hero will win. In this case, the mop will rub out the pawprints, and the kitchen work can begin anew and…

Nope. You know what’s coming next. Or you think you do. You might not expect that the brand-new sponge mop, still with the sponge wrapped in plastic, would snap in half when the plastic was pulled off. Our hero has completed his first try-fail sequence, and is now standing there with a perfectly good mop-handle, an effective weapon… but not the right tool for the job at hand. Here, we could cast him into despair. He could collapse in tears on the muddy floor, flailing with his rag and making it all worse. But you and I, we like Human Wave stories, so instead he just pulls the sponge off and tosses it, puts the mop handle where it could be used if needed, and pulls another mop out. Our hero is resourceful. He’s got no less than three mops in there with the broom.

At this point in the story it’s time to talk about escalation. That first crisis point wasn’t too bad, really. A quick swipe, and you’d have it all cleaned up, you think. The broken mop, well, that was a minor obstacle. But what you, my dear author, are going to throw at Heroic Mopper next is bigger, more time-consuming, and will take a lot more effort to cope with. He’s got his mop-bucket, a rag mop (not ideal for the job, but less fragile than the sponge) and he’s all ready to go… until he realizes that the floor a lot dirtier than he thought. He stares in dismay at the very muddy water now in the mop bucket, and takes a deep breath. Mentally rolling up his sleeves, he pours some vinegar in the water (because for some reason there is no floor cleaner in the house) and starts to get the whole floor wet, not just where the pawprints were.

Our hero is now stuck into the job, he has to go on, and get it done, there’s no going back. And we’re not going to make it easy on him, as authors. We’re going to force him to adapt, improvise (the vinegar) and overcome. In writing, this will appeal a lot more to readers than the guy who has all his sh*t together, can instantly lay his hands on the right tool, and probably didn’t have a dirty kitchen floor to begin with. However, even with our man making progress, we’re not going to stop throwing things at him. He’s going to get the whole floor damp, and then dump the (dear god where did all that dirt come from?) bucket to start a fresh batch of mop water, because this mess is too much to get in one bucket.

Now here we have a damp floor, the third sponge mop (with a self-wringer, which the rope mop did not have. We’re upgrading our hero’s weapons, since he’s having to fight and earn them), and a bucket full of clean, warm water with some vinegar in it. Our hero is going to triumph, surely! Victory is in sight! Plunge the mop in the bucket, wring it out, and….

Catch the bucket with the corner of the sponge, spilling it over most of the floor. Our hero, so elated a moment ago, stands there jaw dropping as a flood of water rushes across the floor, under the fridge, almost out the door to the front entry. As Authors, this is where we bring our hero to the breaking point. This is the lowest moment. The moment where the hidden dogbunny of dust and dog hair pops out from under the fridge to float defiantly on the cresting wave of defeat that is threatening the rest of his life… He springs into action. This time, he not only wields the mop, herding the water away from the fridge and entryway, he calls for help. With friends (coffkidscoff) at his side, he beats back the enemy, using everything in his armory against them. Mops, dirty towels from the laundry basket (damning that he’d done the laundry and there were only two he could call on), even pushing water out the back door and into the yard, he’s finally got the enemy licked.

And then, the crisis over, our hero can pack up the tools, put the bucket away, hang the towels to dry a bit before returning to the laundry, and look contentedly at his kitchen floor. It’s cleaner than it was, for sure. There’s still some damp patches, but those will dry. You, the author, can foreshadow a lead-in to a new book by inserting a little about the dogbunny cowering under the bed, shaking his wee fist and vowing revenge on his drowned and trashed cousin. But the Heroic Mopper stands triumphant, and then you give the readers their cigarette moment.

What’s that? Well, Dan Hoyt is the man who explained it to me as the moment of satisfaction following the final climax of the book. The hero had triumphed, and now you give him – and your readers – a moment of peace, a glimpse of the rewards he’d fought so hard for. In the Heroic Mopper’s case, that would be making Lego gummy candies, processing twenty pounds of peaches, making peach skin jelly from the peels, making a chocolate mayonnaise cake, and a batch of Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. Then he can stand there smiling while his family feasts, with a clean floor under his feet.

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