View Full Version : What's the worst that could happen?

November 19th, 2013, 03:34 AM
What’s the worst that could happen?

Whenever you’re in doubt, whenever you’re stuck, whenever you just can’t think of one more hook for your story, the best choice is always “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Heck, it’s such a good choice for an evolving story that you shouldn’t have to wait until you’re stuck before you use it. Use it everywhere!

But, I’ve noticed that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what that “worst thing” could be. In fact, in several stories I’ve read, it seems that the authors have made the mistake of picking the wrong worst thing, opting for the obvious, but, in my opinion, incorrect choice. It’s not always the obvious choice that’s best. In fact, the best choice for Worst Thing That Could Happen needs to be the Best thing that could happen for the story. If you’ve noticed, not everyone makes the New York Times Best Seller list. Obviously, not every writer is gifted with being able to pick out the Best Worst Thing for their story.

Death. That’s a real killer isn’t it? It’s an obvious choice for “worst thing.” Your protagonist facing death is definitely a high-stakes game, bringing high drama and a bucketful of tension along for the ride. But, actually dying? Not so much. (Unless you’re into short stories.) Sure, threaten the heck out of the protagonist, but don’t kill them off in Chapter One. In fact, it takes a great deal of craft to kill off a protagonist, even at the end of a story, and still make the impression upon the reader/audience that you chose your “worst thing” wisely. Yet, death isn’t exactly a no-go for Worst Thing choices. But, unless you’re writing fantasy or some really wacky science fiction, it’s probably not a good idea. (In my opinion, that is.) In fact, Death is a pretty poor choice of Worst Things. But… Why?

Death is final, that’s why it’s such a good conflict hook. When Death is no longer “Final”, then it loses its oomph… If you go around killing character’s off and then resurrecting them, every other page, the Threat of Death is no longer real. Who’s afraid of Death if it’s not real? The Threat of Death is a great conflict hook and is used in many different genres. But, the actual death of the protagonist or any character necessarily means that their storyline is done. (Except in reverse-histories/flashbacks and the like or certain specific settings that favor it.) That means that all the character building and subplots that hang on that character lose a great deal of the power that drove them. Readers don’t want that. They don’t want you to water down all that hard work with the death of your protagonist and neither do you. Instead, readers want continued, agonized, existential suffering for every character in the story… until the Happy Ending. (Gross overstatement alert) Let’s examine some “Worst Things”, other than death, and see what it is, exactly, that makes them such zingers.

“The Empire Strikes Back” holds such a cornucopia of readily visible archetypes and story hooks that I can’t ignore it. (Plus, since it’s one of the most popular movies of all time, it has a good chance of being recognized in examples like this one…That's why I tend to choose popular movies as examples in posts. :) ) Let’s focus on one element, for now - The Showdown. In this scene, Luke is battling his evil nemesis, Darth Vader. It’s a pitched battle, neither one able to overcome the other. Then, when the stakes are highest as they balance above what is, in effect, a bottomless pit (See the visual, there? Metaphors, two for a dollar…), Darth scores a lucky hit and has Luke at his mercy. This is it! This is the end for our daring protagonist who we’ve watched ascend through his “Coming of Age” story, straight through his “Heroic Quest” and on to what should be a storybook ending of shining victory or terrible defeat due to his own hubris. What will it be? Will Luke’s hubris result in his death? Or, will Luke become a milksop and give in to Darth’s demands to join the “Dark Side” of the Force? It’s the end of the movie, only minutes remain, savvy Jedi voters in the audience check their watches and begin to sweat…

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Luke dying would not be the worst that could happen. It’s just too pointless. That would end his suffering and the “tie that binds” his ragtag collection of sidekicks together would be gone. No other character has the machismo and that “certain something” to enable them to rise to the foreground as the new protagonist. The series would then be over and Skywalker Ranch wouldn’t get that media room addition Lucas wanted. No, death is out of the question. Death for Luke would be the worst thing for the story. Luke turning coat and joining the Empire would be even worse – There would simply not be any way to inspire the audience’s attention enough to allow for building up another protagonist in the same theme that had so successfully attracted the current audience. Even if that could be done, what then? Would we get yet another movie about a knight fighting an evil sorcerer with Luke as his champion? Meh…

Luke is still a boy, for the most part. He has lofty dreams, believes in his own immortality and personal strength, just like any adolescent, and hopes that by making a rash decision, he can bully his way through a fight with powers that he cannot yet fully comprehend. Luke also idolizes his father, which has been thoroughly demonstrated to the audience in the past. Luke believes that he follows in his father’s footsteps of being on the side of the “Good Guys” and he depends upon that to affirm his own beliefs about himself. Luke believes himself to be a Knight in Shining Armor! (Classical Downfall Via Hubris alert!) After all, Good will win because good always triumphs over Evil! Luke, in his adolescent rashness, has self-actualized far ahead of his still pubescent wisdom. So, given all of the above…

What the worst thing that could happen… now that we realize all of these story elements?

Now that we’ve delved a bit further into the character of Luke, what’s the worst thing that could happen? You’ve built up a wonderfully classic Good versus Evil storyline. You’ve gathered all the threads of passion and conflicting ethics you could find and woven a knot out of them that puts your protagonist in exactly the right spot at the right time for a blockbuster ending. In fact, you’ve written yourself into an impossibly tense corner and your novel, script or screenplay isn’t yet finished, but you must still deliver the goods. What’re you going to do, kill him off and ruin the ending and any chance of a resurrection of the franchise? Heck no! You wanna eat, dontcha? Are you going to have Luke join up with the Dark Side like a wimpy little weasel? Heck no! The audience will march right out the theatre doors and lynch you in your office with your own telephone cord! (They had cords back then. Really. For true.) Are you going to leave it as a cliffhanger, hoping that some sort of inspirational moment will come to you before the next screenplay is due? If you haven’t figured it out before the Producers prompt you for that screenplay, expect lots of pain. (Ever see “Marathon Man?”)

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, it’s time to introduce what is called an Existential Threat. Except, in this case, we’re not talking about Luke’s mortal existence. Instead, what we’re going to threaten is Luke’s entire belief system and the core of what he believes makes himself… him. We’re going to take the audience into a high-stakes game for Luke’s soul! Didn’t expect that, did ya? There they are, fighting above a bottomless pit, Luke is gravely injured and we just know that Darth is about to cut him up for Jawa Snacks. Luke’s mortality is on the line, but that’s not the zinger that has any possibility of being a viable Worst Thing. No, now that he’s doomed, we’re going to threaten his soul. Might as well, right? I mean, the guy is about to get killed and, while we want that threat to be very real, its fruition would be a disaster for Mattel’s new toy-line. Instead, we’re going to demonstrate to Luke that everything he has believed in, all his childhood daydreams, everything his Mentor had told him, everything he had based his own self-image around was a complete and utter falsehood – Darth Vader is his father.


Heck yes! Yes, yes, yes! YES! This is the absolute worst thing that could have ever happened in that scene to this protagonist and it is done with masterful intensity. Not only is he doomed, physically, his soul is now crushed. He knows that it is true and, perhaps, has suspected it all along. Yet, now, it’s undeniable. How many Truths have you denied? How many Truths has the audience denied? Probably a good many. But, that’s not why this is the Best Worst Thing. This is the Best Worst Thing because it allows for the Worst Thing Ever to occur, yet adds depth and an entirely new dimension to the story. This is the Best Worst Thing because it allows yet more pain and even higher stakes to be heaped upon the protagonist while, at the same time, not killing him off – He gets to live through this agony and we, as Viewers or Readers, get to experience it. That is why Readers read and Viewers view - They want to experience a story.

So, Luke falls into the bottomless pit, err, ventilation shaft. Get it? Bottomless Pit? (Metaphors, we’re having a sale… ) Luke falls and, by seeming design (Prophecy?) gets shuttled down a trash chute (Another metaphor?) and is eventually rescued by… his friends. (Allies, in classic fashion.) He doesn’t battle it out with some goofy looking robots or Bad Guys wearing snakes on their heads. No, he is rescued by his friends as he is literally helpless to affect an outcome on his own. Not only did we knock the He-Man Knight In Shining Armor Goody Two-Shoes down a few pegs by beating him up and cutting off his hand, we stomped on his soul and emasculated him, too. But, thankfully for the story, his friends rescue him and, thus, provide us a wholesome end to this serialized account of inner pain. To be continued..

When you’re looking for Worst Things, always remember that you’re most definitely not looking for Worst Things for the Story. Instead, you’re looking for the Best Worst Things for your story. Killing your protagonist off on page fifty? Probably not a Best Worst Thing… Ruining their life on page fifty and giving them no apparent way to reverse the damage? Best Worst Thing! Everyone loves Best Worst Things! That’s what makes the best stories. It’s what attracts us to those things called Plots and it’s what builds character in our Characters.

Best Worst Things aren’t only for the final Plot device – They’re useful everywhere. That is, they’re useful as long as you don’t overdo it and you manage to insert enough of them for the story to be interesting without being too morbid. If you have bad things happening to characters, you need to have them contrast with something, right? If you don’t, then all those Best Worst Things you’ve managed to come up with aren’t going to seem so significant. So, don’t sprinkle them on too liberally. In fact, leave some room for Almost Best Worst Things like minor setbacks and the like. Maybe have a couple of minor Good Things happen, just to provide a bit of comic relief?

So, let’s try it. Let’s get a character that is doing something (Doing Something is always an eye-catcher.) and give them a Best Worst Thing:

Fred is going to the store.

OK, where’s the Best Worst Thing, here? We can’t kill Fred off ‘cause nobody likes Fred, yet. How ‘bout we have Fred get into an accident? No, too mundane. Either it’ll be a minor fender-bender and the scene will be over in a few pages or he’ll have to go to the hospital and we’ll bore everyone to death. (People like reading about Doctors Doing Something in a Hospital, not about patients lying there, comatose.) Hmm… How about we mug Fred? Yeah, let’s mug him!

Fred gets mugged on the way to the store.

Ah, that’s better. But, is it the Best Worst Thing? Not exactly. There’s no further peril in store for Fred, here. So he got mugged? Big deal, happens every day. It’s just not Worst enough to matter much. Fred can just go on about his business while being a few dollars poorer. Let’s up the Stakes for this mugging..

Fred, on the way to the store in order to buy his mother the medicine she needs, gets mugged.

Yes! Much better! Now we have some High Stakes involved! Uhh… Nope. In our enthusiasm for Worst Things, we got hung up on one and put our blinders on. Fred can still get the medicine for his mother, he just needs more cash. Even if he was dirt poor, the pharmacist would probably hand over the medicine on credit, just because he’s a good guy… or something. No, that’s not the Best Worst Thing… yet.

Fred, coming back from buying the last of the life-saving medication his mother needs, is mugged and the mugger destroys the medicine in a rage because Fred has no more money…

Ahhh… Sweet tragedy... Fred purchased the last of the medicine that the pharmacist had and loses it to a desperate and dastardly mugger’s rage. Sweet, sweet, pain… Yes, wallow in it, Fred! Where is your Red Riding Hood, now? Uh… I mean, the cow you sold. No, the beans! Yeah, the beans! Poor Fred meets a stranger on the road and the Best Worst Thing happens to him, just like so many others. (This is why you never, ever, Go Somewhere or Do Something in any Fairy Tale, ever!) You can work with this Best Worst Thing! You can base an entire plot off of it! You can combine this Best Worst Thing with others in subplots in order to weave an interconnected dramatic story of Best Worst Things!

So, what next? How do you go on, now that you’ve used up your first Best Worst Thing? That’s simple – You set up the story so as to make it acceptable for the next Best Worst Thing to happen! You keep doing that all the way to the End. When you get to the End, either the Best Worst Thing Happens and the character is successful in some way or another of the Best Worst Things happens and the Character is unsuccessful, but the Reader is illuminated in some way. (An unsuccessful ending for a protagonist should never leave the Reader with nothing to show for their reading effort.)

For instance:

Fred is mugged on his way back from the pharmacist, where he just used the last of his money to buy his dying mother the medicine she needs to save her life. The mugger, in a rage, stomps the medicine into the snow, destroying it, and beats the heck out of Fred, leaving him lifeless and alone, lying in the snow. Fred now has the immediate danger of losing his life, there in the snow, and has the added pressure of the larger plot-moving device of no longer having the life-saving medicine his mother needs. But, Fred survives, due to… something. We have to have Fred so we can write the rest of whatever story it is that Fred happens to be in! So, let’s say, Fred meets his first Ally – A homeless man. Not much of an Ally, is he? He doesn’t come off as a very powerful Ally character, does he? Well, he’s powerful enough to save Fred’s life, so it’s a start, I guess. You’re a writer! You can see the possibilities.

Now, we’ve lost the immediate life-threatening freezing-to-death-forever-in-the-snow threat and we need another one. Right? I mean, if we don’t have anything else happen, either it’s a short story with no development of this Ally-Fred relationship in order to accomplish the Goal of saving his mother’s life, or it has to be a Plot with further development necessary. And, that means we need another bad thing to happen. Preferably, we need another Best Worst Thing.

What is it? What elements do we have to work with, here? We have Fred, who really hasn’t changed at all since page one, unless we count on his despair as change, which doesn’t have much oomph to it. We also have an Ally to work with and we still have the Goal to reach of saving his mother. So, let’s play with his Ally – What’s the Best Worst Thing we could do, here? No doubt, you’ve already thought of plenty. But, let’s try this on for size:

The Ally is really a hired thug in disguise. His job was to beat Fred up and convince him to get his mother to leave her rent-controlled apartment. It seems her landlord wants to break the lease and he figured out hiring a thug was his best option. (Her landlord isn’t the brightest hammer in the bag…)

So, we now have the threat of Betrayal mixed into this story, solely from Best Worst Thing strategerizing. Fred is naturally going to befriend this poor homeless guy and invite him back to his mother’s apartment, right? Not only do we have Betrayal, we also have a Wolf in the Fold Drama going on! Remember, it’s not Worst Thing that you’re going for, it’s Best Worst Thing. You’re looking for the Best Worst Thing that allows you to keep writing and to keep your Readers reading.

Let’s back this down a bit, though. If we give out hints that there’s a Wolf in the Fold, the first suspect is going to be Fred’s Ally, right? Any Reader worth their eyeballs is going to figure that’s what we’ll pull on them. So, let’s don’t do the obvious. Instead –

The Ally is a drug addict. At a critical point in the story, the Ally is going to spend all of Fred’s money on drugs for himself or otherwise cause Fred’s world to come crumbling down due to his addiction. His drug-dealer might even take all the money, since the Ally still owes a previous debt, which we will magic up to suit the story.

We see this sort of thing in Comedies, don’t we? We’re often faced with a neer-do-well/screw-up that ends up spoiling the plans of the Protagonist (or puts them in jeopardy) only to, somehow, pull through in the end. Well, we’re not that gentle, today, so we’re going to introduce the Ally to a tragic end, later in the story, entirely due to his ineptitude/addiction/screw-ups. We will write a good Best Worst Thing for the Ally’s tragic subplot and maybe even kill him off, unless torturing him is more fun… For now, all we care about is how the Ally’s storyline impacts Fred and whether or not this is a sufficient subplot to build from while dragging the Reader along with our hints of a Wolf in the Fold.

Now that we’ve decided to avoid handing the Reader the entire Plot by the second chapter and have resolved the Ally’s storyline, we’ve successfully managed to introduce the true Best Worst Thing by dropping some hints about a possible Betrayal. In this case, it’s not going to be the Ally being a Wolf in the Fold. That’s because it’s what the Reader would expect! Instead, we have the luxury of being able to write “like” we’re writing for what the Reader would consider to be the Best Worst Thing, but we’re secretly writing what we know to be the real Best Worst Thing. Why is that the Best Worst Thing, then? In order to understand how The Best Worst Thing really works, you have to realize that the Wolf in the Fold must be Fred’s Love Interest, of course! Oh my, what a tragic life Fred leads… We’ll introduce the Wolf-in-the-Fold girlfriend/fiancé in the third chapter and then tear out Fred’s heart near the end of the book. Writers get paid for being sadistic.

So, take a look at that story that you’re having trouble with. Examine that action scene that just doesn’t seem to have the tension you need, find those relationships that are dragging your story down and throw Best Worst Things at them until your characters scream with pain and your Readers scream with pleasure. And, of course, add your own thoughts regarding Best Worst Things. (I murdered the formatting, sorry. But, my connection is unstable at the moment, so here it is... I'll clean it up, as I'm able.)

January 1st, 2014, 08:38 PM
A very useful post. I myself have been wondering about what the worst thing to happen to my protagonist could be. I love the Empire Strike Back example and your detailed breakdown of Luke's "discovery" being the best worst thing. That was probably one of the most impacting revelations in cinema history.

I think what is difficult is showing the reader why the best worst thing is so devastating for your character. I have a few WIPs where revelations are made but I am not confident I have shown the reader what impact these things have on the character. So reading what you say about Luke and his taken for granted belief that his father was a great Jedi helps me understand why that scene had such impact. I always assumed it was just shock value, but really it does mean a great deal to Luke to discover that his father was a great Jedi but was not quite strong enough to resist the temptation of the dark side, which then makes him feel insecure that he himself may go the same way.

I'd like to add another example to your "best worst thing" thread if I may, perhaps not as popularly known as the Star Wars story, but Alien has a very good best worst thing that is revealed to the crew at a moment when their confidence in defeating the alien is faltering.

After the alien kills three crew members, including their captain, the three remaining crew discover that their science officer is in fact an android who was placed on board their ship to ensure they pick up the alien and return it to Earth. As well as that they discover their employers deem them to be expendable.

So rather than having yet another crew member killed by the alien, the script writer decided to throw in a blow to the characters self esteem by revealing to them that their employers are not interested in their survival and would much rather have the alien survive. They even went as far as to secretly put an android on board to ensure they don't succeed in killing it.

I think the impact of that revelation in the film made the audience's sympathy for the characters elevate to a new level, and it played a huge part in making that film work.

So the best worst thing was to destroy the hope of the heroes, by showing them that those back at home expected them to be killed. So from that point on the audience REALLY wants them to survive just to show their b*stard employers.

Kyle R
January 2nd, 2014, 03:42 PM
Good post, Mork! Well said! :encouragement: It brings to mind some things for me...

In all instances, when it comes to possible disasters at the end of a scene, I like to consider the two levels of conflict: External, and Internal.

The External conflict deals with things that influence the protagonist's external struggle. Robots attacking, bullets whizzing, dinosaurs rampaging...

The Internal conflict deals with things that influence the protagonist's internal struggle. This is where the Theme of the story often lies. It's also the character arc stems from. This is the realm where we attack our protagonist's flawed way of thinking and/or living, in order to grind him up and spit him out as a new, changed person in the end.

The "Luke, I am your father," moment is a prime example of an Internal blow, and it's why, in my opinion, the line is so powerful. Calling it an attack on the "soul" is a great way of putting it.

Ironically, the "worst thing" for a character, internally, will often turn out to be the "best" thing for them, as far as correcting their flawed existence goes. There's often an internal "death" and "rebirth" to complete the character's arc. At some point, identifying what our character needs to learn to be a better person (or to defeat the external conflict) can give us a clue as to what kind of Internal blow we need to lay on him, in order to shake him out of his rut.

Usually, I like to save the heaviest blows (both external, and internal) for around the 3/4 mark, right before the break into the final Act. I find that if I shatter the universe too early, the overwhelming catastrophes could become monotonous, predictable, or fatiguing. Too late, and the story may drag on too long, or create a "rushed," over-condensed final act.

One thing I like to do, when structuring my plot twists and conflicts, is to keep in mind the term, "Rising Tension." The situations get worse, the disasters get worse, and the options become fewer, as the story progresses. Eventually, our character may find himself stuck with only two options. One of them will lead to his demise (either physically, or spiritually), and the other will lead to salvation. But both choices come at a cost.

If I start too high right off the bat, my story may not have much vertical movement left in it. If my future scenes are less tense and of lower stakes than my earlier scenes, it often results in a loss of reader tension, and thus, a loss in interest…

So I'm always careful of where and when I decide to fully tear apart the hero! The timing can be, and often is, significant.

In any case, great thread. Cheers! :D

January 2nd, 2014, 03:57 PM
Excellent. :)

Ride the Pen
July 21st, 2014, 11:30 PM
Nice post!

The problem I have with a lot of fiction is just that - obvious choices of the author. Nobody goes the difficult route, creating really nice problems.

People, put some effort into creating your problems!

August 23rd, 2014, 04:07 AM
"The worst thing" Is a very good thing to strive for, as it does create more suspense, however I find it's very easy to predict what's going to happen when people always try to find the worst possible scenario in a situation.

Im not really sure how I feel on the subject.