This only makes sense every other time it happens, but whenever I’m feeling extremely stressed and upset, something that often cheers me up is reading a depressing book. I think this has something to do with the fact that what’s happening to me is never as bad as what is happened to the characters in the book. Regardless, my go-to book is The Fault in Our Stars because I can read it in a long night and because it is sufficiently depressing enough to cheer me up.
And if you’re a TFIOS hater, bare with me, because this post isn’t really about TFIOS. However, something that always sticks with me from the book is when Hazel talks about being asked to rate her level of pain every time she goes to the ER.
[The nurse] said, “You know how I know you’re a fighter? You called a ten a nine.” But that wasn’t quite right. I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating face up on the water, undrowned.”
This can be a mindset that applies to small things in our every day lives, but most importantly it is a mindset that we as writers need to understand will affect the shape of our plot and the ability of our characters. When something terrible happens to our characters – and terrible things will happen time and time again – we need them to push through. To move through the story, and to make the plot worth reading, we need our characters to be able to endure and survive and conquer the things that others would balk and flounder at.
This isn’t because our protagonists or any of the characters need to be the strongest or the bravest. This is because plots are the connections between a series of successes and failures, and because regardless whether the character succeeds to fails in the face of a challenge, they will face many things. Though you need to balance out the high-action plot points with some calmer moments for the characters to regroup, every moment is leading up to something great. And before your protagonist accomplishes their greatest success, they will experience their greatest failure. How they emotionally and physically deal with the consequences of their failure is something for another post, but the important point now is that they will have one failure that is definitively worse than others.
Your story needs a moment that is the great and terrible ten. There are countless posts online about why we must do terrible things to our characters to shape their personality and to develop a read-worthy plot. But amid all these struggles, one failure needs to trump the rest. Our characters, after all, are never infallible. Whether or not their motivation to conquer less destructive moments is because they know one will come along that will truly destroy them, despite all their best efforts, something will eventually get the best of them.
So give your characters things to overcome and give them the means to overcome them. Readers love to root for their triumphs and bravery. But make sure that you understand (when you are writing these moments) how they affect your characters. Not every trial can be a small failure, so make sure you understand what will constitute the moment that is the great and terrible ten.
Postscript: I wrote this because it has been too long since I posted and because this is something that I think is important, but I do think there are several points to this post that can be clarified and expanded upon. I hope to do so in subsequent posts, but also feel free to comment any questions you have.
Additionally, my previous post has now been updated to include, in few words, the things I meant to say when I first made the post but was at the time unable to.