Set fire to your heroine and feed her to the lions

by limebirddennis

OK, so you are writing a novel; what is it that keeps the reader actually reading?

For some it may be the bodice ripping count, if some pale and palpitating young thing doesn’t get her bodice ripped at least every other chapter, then it’s into the old supermarket box under the stairs with it, ready for a trip to the second-hand book store.

For others it’s body count, if they can’t picture the blood dripping from the spine of their book at regular intervals then why carry on?

Whatever it is that floats a reader’s particular boat, there is a common thread. Will the heroine find a protector, will the prisoner avoid the guards and escape? That common thread is jeopardy. According to the Collins English Dictionary, jeopardy can be defined as danger of injury, loss, death, etc.; risk; peril; hazard. In writing terms it can be what provides the motivation to RUN!!! It may be a source of tension or conflict. In other words, it is what can take your story and transform it from being simply a series of scenes that take us gradually towards the conclusion, into a story that is compelling. As a young reader, if I saw a blurb on a book that said it was “a real page turner” then it told me something about what I could expect from the hours that I was going to invest in reading; and if I wasn’t feeling compelled to turn that page…

I am currently writing a Young Adult novel in which the 16 year old heroine is kidnapped by aliens and, through her abilities as a storyteller, heads off a potential war between the human colonists and the aliens. Now of course, interspecies war is pretty high up there on the jeopardy scale, the end of the human colonisation of Onyx etc. etc. but the anticipation of that is not going to sustain the reader until the point where the heroine actually saves the day. So what I did was to make a list of things that could happen to the heroine and put her in jeopardy while she is on the journey to the final showdown.

* Going to see the child psychologist
* Being kidnapped and isolated from other humans
* Telepathic communication with aliens could explode her brain
* Attack by a lion (or the alien equivalent)
* Bush fire!
* Fall off a cliff into the sea
* Aliens threaten to kill all humans
* Breaks her leg
* Poisoned by some strange fruit

Then, for each option, the question is, would this stop the story going forward? Having ones brain explode clearly cramps the ability to save the day, so that was out. Breaking a leg may not end the story (Misery anyone?) but in this case it would make things just too difficult. Anything else can then be seriously considered as a detour or a subplot for part of the journey of the heroine.

Of course, finding the source of the jeopardy is only the start of the process, now the fun stuff comes in, writing the action, bringing in the conflict, describing the colour and smell of the vomit…

When you get down to structuring those chapters, there are obviously different approaches that you can take (more of that in a later post). However, to just touch on the subject: if your story is a fast paced adventure, then one approach is to see the full novel as a collection of episodes in a series. Each chapter builds on those that came before, but each chapter should also build to its own climax and resolution (or, sometimes end with what would be a cliffhanger on TV). It may be that there is a bush fire and, after the trials of running from the fire, the chapter ends with reaching safety. Or, the jeopardy may be on a longer timeframe; with a chapter ending with the revelation that all humans on Onyx are at risk (and subsequent chapters resolving part of this longer story arc).

How do you go about building in multiple sources of jeopardy? Do you brainstorm, or do the various crises pop into your head fully formed as you write? I would be interested to hear from you all about your own approaches.

And look out for my novel where I take a 16 year old girl, psychoanalyse her, kidnap her, have her attacked by wild animals, where she is caught in a bush fire, almost drowned, poisoned, and made the focus of a potential war with aliens – and thank the stars (on her behalf) that I stopped my brainstorming there!

As we come to the end of a post on jeopardy, there is only one thing to say…


……. tock

………… tick

……………. tock

………………. bop

………………… de bop bop

………………………. bop… bop… bop

(Please note: For those of you digging into the history of my personal blog, this is an expanded version of something that I wrote back in November 2010 during NaNoWriMo.)


24 Responses to “Set fire to your heroine and feed her to the lions”

  1. Reblogged this on dmlbooks – and commented:
    Here is a post of mine over at the Limebird site, about how to make a story compelling.

  2. My ‘outline’ for Nano was more of what you described above, marking the major crises in the story. I didn’t include much detail and my story changed, ending differently than I had planned. Nonetheless, thinking about the major events at the beginning helped me work the story out.

    I can’t remember where I found this, but I thought it was helpful:

    The focus is broader, on pacing in general, but the graph reminded me a little bit of your tick bop visual above:

  3. I like to know the beginning and the end – and then let the characters take over to a certain extent. Get a first draft done and then start looking at strengths and weaknesses.
    The real “jeopardy”/pace/tension gets built in (for me at least) in the re-write, rather than the first draft – but every writer is different.
    It’s in editing that my characters become more real/deeper, and I work on the atmosphere, play around with changes in pace and cut the unecessary boring bits that add little and spoil the momentum. It’s also a good time for spotting the potential sub-plots and building on them, using them for tension, when the main plot is going through a quiet period.

  4. Creating character motivations is where I usually start looking for conflicts. Then I’ll brainstorm some additonal intrigue while creating my storyboards.

  5. I admire your ability to plan and be thinking about what the reader needs as it sounds as if it helps you to create a book that will offer your readers an exciting experience. I’m terrible in that I’ll have an idea and then just sit and start writing from the beginning, occasionally making little jumps, but more or less just writing straight through. I find it exciting that way because I don’t know what’s going to happen, but inevitably I end up having to do a complete re-write, then another, then another as it suddenly hits me where the plot needs to go. I need to actually write it before I know what’s going to happen and it’s always from the point of view of the book rather than the reader, which if I was being objective is probably the least effective way of going about it!

  6. Great post Dennis, that was exactly the problem I had when I tried to write a kids book, not enough jeopardy! Writing a list of possible disasters is a great idea, I’ll have to try that out next time I’m trying to plot something out!

  7. Great post! Even if you’re not writing a wild action adventure, it’s still so important to raise the stakes for your characters. I love the suggestion of each chapter having it’s own arch–that would keep things moving really well.

  8. I follow the advice of making things harder and harder for the main character. I keep ramping up the problems. And “torturing” the protagonist. I have a genal idea of the conflicts and obstacles but I usually invent more as I go along. 🙂

  9. Thanks buddhafulkat, you’re right, what I described is the first stage, it helps you to map things out, but it isn’t set in stone; some things don’t work, blinding flashes of inspiration hit you etc. etc. It is the lattice on which an artificial organ is grown cell by cell, it is not the organ itself 🙂

    Oh and everybody, watch the quick presentation on pacing from the link buddhafulkat gave. It is brilliant!

  10. I agree, unpub, every writer is different (that’s why I steal from many, rather than trying to be a clone of one 😉 ) I didn’t even touch on character, and that is obviously vitally important too. Even when just looking at the various trials and tribulations that run headlong at the protagonist, one character will take the left fork, one will take the right – and a whole new story is born…

  11. Dennis, you are right too 🙂 I guess what I was writing above is a bit more applicable to certain types of story. While, in my example, we see Talatu mature over the span of the novel. The main ‘character conflict’ is in the beginning, it is the push that gets her started on the journey, but, during the journey, it is more one girl against a hostile environment. I attended a webinar where there was a brilliant process suggested for mapping character conflicts, I’ll see if I can adapted the ideas for here.

  12. Sally, I admire a writers ability to sit down and just write without planning the story arc! But, it’s different strokes for different folks.

    And don’t get me wrong, I still end up with a first draft! I still have to go back over it and add twists, develop characters, add colour etc.

    P.S. Did you like how I started one sentence with ‘but’ and one with ‘and’? It’s 7.30am and I’m in a rule-breaking mood!

  13. Thanks Esther, I think that children’s books can be very hard to get the right balance; you want plenty of jeopardy in there, but it also has to be age appropriate. Certainly, looking back on myself as a child, I wanted there to be action action action! At least, most of the time I did; I have just remembered that I read The Colditz Story at 10 years old – it was slower paced and the jeopardy was often there in the background, the environment, interspersed with more specific moments when someone was about to make an escape etc.

  14. Thanks Annie, I came to that realisation (years late I know!) when I was adapting a TV script that I had written. Originally it was going to be an anime series (if I could sell it!) so each episode had to make sure that you wanted to invest the time in watching the next week. I then decided that I would prefer to finish it off as a novel. (It’s in my ‘unfinished’ pile…)

  15. Kourtney, that’s great for many stories. Take a look at buddhafulkat’s link above. It talks about having the set-up, the action, and the come-down for each scene or even (in game design) for a few seconds!

    I am always in favour of ramping up the level of the obstacles, but within a framework. I like to think of some stories as fractal in nature (must be the geek in me…) you see the overall story, things are happening; but zoom in, hey, there’s a character; zoom in there’s the things acting on the character; zoom in there’s the things, maybe years ago, that created the conditions that mean the various things are there to act on the character: zoom in; zoom in…

    Thomas Aquinas would have explained that everything that happens is caused by something that preceded it; or to misquote Sir Isaac Newton, for every action there is a narratively appropriate reaction. I guess that what I am saying is that, yes, we need to come up with these different plot twists, ideas, etc. but, when it comes right down to it, everything still has to fit into a coherent whole.

    It’s 8am and I have already drunk a bit too much coffee and I need to start work. I’m rambling a bit (doesn’t look too good for today’s output) so I’ll stop there…

    • Great post Dennis,

      I have used different approaches for different drafts lol. Usually when I set out for my rough draft (especially for NaNo) I just write whatever comes to my head. And because I’m more interested in getting down 50,000 words, and I find conflict/action to be so much easier to write, my roughs are filled with action.

      It isn’t until I go back and revise that I see my action scenes might not be dire enough, or too outlandish, or misplaced. So, then I have to restructure and actually take the time to work things through–pacing–and properly design the action scenes so that not only are they compelling they are also believable.

      • Kate,

        I’m sure that many (most?) writers use your approach. The above may be of use when you are stuck though…

        For NaNoWriMo 2011 I went the total opposite of your approach (in 2010 I only learned of NaNoWriMo on 31st October so did no planning at all!). For 2011 I had 30 chapters planned out (in terms of who was to be the focus, where it would be taking the story etc.) so that I had a chapter a day to write. As it is, November was just crazy and I only managed 27K. However, I know that I would have struggled to hit the 50K anyway as I had made my plan too detailed and prescriptive, I was running out of inspiration!

        The result is now in my unfinished folder and will be re-written in a much shorter form (10-15K) as I think there are the bones of a great story there, just not a novel.

  16. This is why, when a child, I stopped writing for a long, long time, and have only just reentered. I didn’t have the heart to tell my characters that they only existed so I could torment them, and that as soon as the torture stopped, the story would too! It seemed all-too-cruel to invent someone just to bother them. A lot.

    Ah, but that’s writing, I suppose?

    • anudibranch, thank you for your comment and thank you for giving me an idea for a short story!

      I don’t know about anyone else, but I love torturing some of my characters. In one story, a very bad man (no details here, but, trust me, he was BAD; ends up being eaten alive and then resurrected so that he could be eaten again… Another, a “master of the universe” has a reputation for despoiling the rainforest; he learns that, sometimes, Mother Earth can fight back… Of my good characters, they may suffer, but, hopefully, they come out better for it at the other side.

      I hope that your re-entry into writing is going well.

  17. I tended to give my characters inner turmoil in the beginning.

    Then Sammy breaks her nose in a drunken stupor.
    Gets beaten up by a gang of thugs.
    Deals with a group of insane adrenaline junkies n
    Finds out a terrible secret about her dad.

    Mika gets stolen from time.
    Another character is going to change sides (probably).

    They fight scary turtle monsters who seem impervious. (Going to change the deus ex that makes it easier in the second draft or during first edit.)

    Thompson gets knocked out.

    And these ideas came to me as I wrote the novel. There’s actually more terrible things happening to them but I think that’s the main points.

  18. I like to establish normality and then hit them with something, whammo! hehe.

  19. Definitely Neeks, you’re right!

    I suppose there are two ways to go, there is yours – start with normality and then BANG!

    The other is to open with a massive action high and then go back and explain it.


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