THE PLOT THICKENS

Tune in tomorrow night, same bat-time, same bat-channel.—promo for the ’60s TV series Batman


In the 1980s, the Gillette Company launched a successful ad campaign for its antiperspirant deodorant, Dry Idea, with the slogan: Never Let Them See You Sweat.

TV commercials would feature celebrities who listed the three “nevers” in their profession, the third one being, “And never let them see you sweat.”  

Writers take the opposite approach. They want their readers to see their characters sweat, so to speak, out of nervousness, worry, anger, frustration and fear.

Remember, stories aren’t about happiness. They’re about problems. Happiness is merely a setup for the troubles that lie ahead.

We’ve certainly read enough books to know that whenever an opening chapter describes a pleasant situation, things are going to grow dark and disturbing soon.

Once your students understand that stories are about conflict, the next step is to show them how to heighten the tension by adding stumbling blocks to impede their characters’ attempts to solve the problem. If nothing stands in the way of the resolution, the story doesn’t have real conflict.

For example, a student might write about a time when she was worried about an upcoming test. She wrote that she was so nervous, she stayed awake all night, stressing over it. The following day, however, as she read over the questions, she realized that her concerns were unwarranted. The test turned out to be a piece of cake, and she made an easy A.

The narrative appears to have conflict (worry over the test). But without stumbling blocks to escalate the student’s anxieties, the story may come off as weak.

Now let’s look at the example again, this time with stumbling blocks.

Margie is flunking algebra. She has to pass the final exam, or she won’t graduate. She’s been counting on her friend, Tom, the math whiz, to tutor her. But Tom is involved in a horrible car accident and is hospitalized, so he can’t help her. Margie also discovers she’s left her algebra text book and study notes in her locker, and the school is locked for the weekend. What is she going to do?

Teach your students to add stumbling blocks to their stories by demonstrating how to resolve the conflict in a three-step process. The main character tries to come up with a solution, but fails. He tries a second time. Again, he comes up short. On the third attempt…bingo!  

The Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum, translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” In other words, the third time’s the charm. This is the same formula used in many fairy tales.

By creating bad situations for their characters, your students will have to think critically about how to solve the problems, and thus, give their stories satisfying endings.

Whenever people say, “Ahh, the plot thickens,” what they mean is that things are getting worse. And that’s what you want your students to do—make things worse for their characters.