Turn up the heat...
There is nothing worse than Texas in July. Heat indexes of 100 plus, the only breeze is from passing traffic on the highway and any rain we get comes complete with sound effects and a fireworks show that rivals the most professional pyrotechnic presentation. Wait; there is one thing worse…August in Texas. More of the same with humidity so high it is like going into a sauna just getting to your car.
Just like Mother Nature, we need to turn up the heat in our writing. Not only do we have to create characters the reader will love and identify with, we have to increase the risk, raise the stakes and make it matter more for our characters.
My favorite movie to show this raising of the stakes is Dante’s Peak. Especially the last half. The volcano is about to erupt, ash is falling like snow in a blizzard and the town mayor’s kids have taken the truck and gone up the mountain to bring stubborn grandma to safety. Personally, I was with mom, if she doesn’t want to come down…then stay up there and get lavafied.
But now, mom and our manly hero Harry, “have” to go up the mountain also. We see them headed up the mountain ash falling so thick they can hardly see. A helicopter crashes right in front of them; rock slides threaten to knock them off the road. Trees are falling left and right. They barely make it through a rock and tree slide that blocks the road behind them. Grandma is upset, mom is upset and the road behind them is blocked, what will they do now?
A moment later, lava starts pouring down the mountain and into the back of her house. They run out the front door, lava flows around the trucks so they run to the boat that just happens to be there. Whew!!!
Motoring down the lake to safety, they notice the dead fish. Seems the lake has turned to acid and has started to eat the metal boat. Talk about turning up the heat. Here they are, in the middle of a lake of acid, surrounded by dead fish…in a leaking boat. What could be worse than this? Again, the writer turns the heat up another notch. The propeller on the boat motor has been eaten away and no longer is useful. And to make matters worse, the water in the boat is rising fast. Grandma saves the day by jumping into the lake and towing the boat to safety. As they run down the dock to land, it crumbles beneath their feet but they do make it to shore. Naturally, she dies before they reach the ranger station and another truck.
As they drive cross country in the ranger's truck, things seem to have swung their way. Until the lava blocks their path, front and back. Driving through is the only way to go. As they head into the lava, the tires begin to burn and then, the writer turns up the heat a notch. They get stuck. Lava is heading toward them, tires are on fire and they are stuck. Heroic effort gets them out and going again when what do they see, grandma’s dog on a boulder. They can’t leave him…
Eventually, they make it to town and the safety of a mineshaft. As they settle in to rest Harry realizes he forgot to turn on the NASA GPS device that will tell the world that they are alive in this mineshaft. Returning to the truck, Harry is injured in a tunnel collapse but manages to get to the truck. Climbing through the broken windshield, the tunnel collapses more, crushing the top of the truck.
Finally, he is in the truck, broken arm and all. What else could go wrong? The roof is creaking and groaning and sinking lower and the GPS, won’t turn on. Eventually, he gets the GPS turned on and they are rescued.
Our characters need to be challenged also. The reader needs to care about what happens to our hero or heroine. If they don’t, the reader won’t finish the book. When you are writing, think about what could happen next. What would be the one thing that would turn up the heat in your story and increase the risk or raise the stakes for your main character? Then, let it happen. Let your character be tested and have to struggle. Put him/her in a situation that causes them to grow and change, to test their limits and moral fiber.
One help I’ve discovered in doing this is Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel and the workbook that goes with it. The workbook has writing exercises designed to deepen our characters, enrich the plot and make your writing stand out from the crowd. Not only does this work for novels but I have found it to be great help in short stories. These techniques work in all genres; mystery, romance, SF. Give it a look over. I highly recommend both of them.
Jean, you are so right on all counts. I remember this movie and all the amazing "nexts" as everything moves up to the next notch.
I also remember the heat in Texas, in summer. OY. That's some hard-to-believe heat until a person experiences it; I remember it feeling like walking into a concealed tropical dome directly beneath the sun. It takes strong people to live in that kind of heat. (I don't live there anymore.)
Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post and the takeaway book recommendation. I've now got another to add to my growing list!
I'm glad I had training for this as a kid when I used to play like the carpet was hot lava! LOL.
I have both of Mass' books as well, and although I'm more of a literary writer myself, I still find things that can be used no matter what you write. I gave a couple of his workbooks out as prizes for our contestants last season. So, this post is timely!
I think his advice can even work for nonfiction - I'll remember to turn up the heat, even in my next article. It makes the read more enjoyable.
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