Making Things Worse by Making Them Better

Writers talk a lot about provoking characters to transform by making things worse and worse for them until they’re exhausted, and are left with no choice but to change. That’s what stories are usually about in a nutshell: transformation in the face of adversity. It’s the old “hurt the hero” game. As Star Trek and Sci-fi writer David Gerrald so eloquently put it:

Transformation occurs because the self is exhausted —it surrenders to the moment. And then surprises itself by reinventing itself. Transformation is the reinvention of the self by the self.

The standard procedure here on exhausting characters is to give them a problem that unbalances their world (this often forms the inciting incident), and then, instead of solving that problem, make it worse and worse in all the devious ways you can think of. By making things worse, you can strip away a character’s previous coping strategies and denial tactics, until the character has their dark night of the soul moment and recognizes “I’m the problem” and transforms. (This is something I talk about in my novel writing and Art of Conflict classes, and in posts like this one on the importance of desire).

But here’s another little jujitsu move I’ve been thinking about lately that often gets overlooked: sometimes the way to make things worse for characters is to make things better. Let the main character get what they think they want, because nothing is more devastating than achieving our dreams, goals, or long sought-after desires, and realizing it’s not what we wanted after all, and it doesn’t really change anything.

Usually, this happens in Act II, in what Blake Snyder refers to as the “Fun and Games” section of a story. This is where, in the bizarro world of the second act, the character might finally achieve what they’ve always desired (or at least consciously desired). However, the character’s unconscious desire must still be unfulfilled for the story to have dramatic tension. (For more on the two types of character desires, and how they can be used to create character conflict, check out this post).

By achieving their conscious desires, or having things momentarily get better, the stakes can be increased. We’re never more fearful than when we have something to lose. And in addition to the increased stakes, there’s the crushing realization that comes with getting what we want and still not being happy, as many lottery winners (like Jack Whittaker, who won $315 million, then, after the money ruined his life, said “I wished I’d torn that ticket up”) have experienced. Oddly enough, there’s even a fear of wealth, called Plutophobia, for which you can be medicated (or I can help you solve this by relieving you of the underlying problem of having too much money).

So sometimes in Act II, stakes are increased and tension is developed through the push and pull of having things get better for characters, then worse, then better. The key thing to remember here, though, is that the plot must escalate, so everything thing that is gained, and everything that is lost, must be greater to the character than what came before (otherwise the middle will sag).

Sometimes the character achieves their conscious desire in Act III as a false climax. Silver Linings Playbook is a good example of this, when, in the last fifteen minutes of the film, it looks like Pat will finally achieve his initial conscious desire and win his wife back. The trick to making the false climax work is to have it become clear to both the reader/viewer and the main character that the thing they truly want (their unconscious desire) is actually quite different from what they initially thought they wanted (just as, when Pat finally wins the attention of his wife back, *spoiler alert* he goes running after Jennifer Lawrence’s character).

Having characters get what they think they want can be a way to push their unconscious desires to the surface, and reveal who they truly are — which is not only transformative, it’s often the point of fiction.

Try it out. Let your characters achieve their conscious desires. Then see what they do with it.

And if you can think of other examples of how having things get better for a character makes things worse, please post them here. I’m eager to dig deeper into how this can work in stories.



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