Gone

Flickr Creative Commons: Steve McFarland
Flickr Creative Commons: Steve McFarland

Only one machine stood between us and our goal: bringing our hockey-obsessed son to his first NHL game (Devils vs. Sharks) in Newark.  The machine was a New Jersey Transit ticket kiosk in Manhattan’s Penn Station.  No problem.  The machines are fast.  Slot your card, punch the screen and you’re on your way by rail under the Hudson River.  From the Newark station it’s an easy two block walk to the Prudential Center, hockey heaven.

Our son is six.  His sneakers were hopping with excitement.

I stepped up to the machine.  We’d taken a taxi this far.  We had plenty of time.  I touched the first few screens at the kiosk and then froze.

“Where’s my wallet?”

Not in my pocket.  In an instant I knew where it was: on the floor of the taxi cab now heading down Seventh Avenue, never to be seen again.  I hadn’t asked for a receipt.  There are a dozen Chase banks within spitting distance of Penn Station, where replacement ATM cards can be obtained in ten minutes, but it was Sunday.  They were all closed.  I have my American Express number memorized but that’s no use.  You must slot the actual card.

My driver’s license was gone too, plus all my cash.  Dash home for a credit card?  We live not in Manhattan but far away across yet another river in Brooklyn.  It already had taken us forty-five minutes to get this far.  At this point the only way back was a long winter walk.

My wife and son stood together looking at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain the solution.  Of course I would have a solution.  I’m Dad.  I always know what to do.

I shoved my right hand into my jeans pocket.  Still empty.  I checked my back pockets, jacket pockets, the tote bag holding blankets for the ice arena…no wallet.  Without that wallet I wasn’t a man.  I wasn’t even a person.  How many times had I passed by pan handlers and scoffed at strangers claiming lost wallets and asking for a dollar for “train fare”.  Street cons.  No one was going to help us.  It was all up to me and my pockets were empty.  I had no ideas.  I didn’t even have any change.  My wife doesn’t carry her wallet when she’s with me and we were a long way from home.

My son said, “Dad?”

I raised my eyes.  Above me there was only a florescent light fixture.  What could I possibly say?

Well now.

Have you ever had the floor fall away beneath your feet?  Have you ever been deflated, punctured or beaten?  Have you ever been robbed?  Have you ever had a mirror held up to you, one relentlessly honest?  Has a spouse or partner walked out of your life for good?

At those times the foundations of your life and the floor under your days are gone.  Presumptions that surround your existence no longer are true.  The past is erased.  The future is a void.  What you feel is not only insecurity, loss or grief.  It’s the end of identity.  What makes you you is gone and there’s no getting it back.

What’s the worst thing that happens to your protagonist in your WIP?  What’s the worst defeat, the final one?  It’s great to portray the collapse of your protagonist’s sense of self at that moment, but what about elsewhere in your manuscript?  All the way through are moments of challenge, reckoning, betrayal, setback and coming up short.  What happens to your protagonist’s sense of self at each of those moments?

Story events have impact but in manuscripts often that impact is limited to a simple reaction, an inner churning of emotions that are already obvious.  However, even small events can deliver a surprise gut punch.  They’ll do that naturally, sometimes, but you can also engineer those blows. Take my story.  Losing your wallet is no fun.  In the moment you feel helpless.  You don’t know what to do.  But it’s not a blow to self…well, not until this time.

In my story what gave the gut punch?  Perhaps it was my son, so eager to see his first NHL game, looking at me and asking, “Dad?”  There you have it.  The punch is not in the event itself (losing a wallet) but in its setup (a kid’s faith in Dad).  At any other time losing my wallet would just be annoying.  This past Sunday–this is a true story—it was more.  I was going to let my kid down.  I was going to fail as a dad.

Let’s turn this into a technique to dig out of story moments greater impact; indeed, impact so strong it drops the floor out from under your protagonist.  Try this:

  • Go to the middle of your manuscript.  Look at your protagonist.  Pick a moment of challenge, reckoning, betrayal, setback or coming up short.
  • For your protagonist, what’s the worst part of this situation?  What makes it excruciating?  What makes it a personal failure?
  • Work backwards in the story to set up the moment and why this particular kind of failure can’t happen.  Pin your protagonist’s hopes on success.  Previously, this type of failure has been overcome.  It’s a point of pride, so much so that it’s become part of who your protagonist is.  Hey, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen.  Never.
  • As your protagonist finally fails in the moment you’ve chosen, involve others.  When the floor falls away, let it fall away in a public place.  To whom else, besides your protagonist, would the personal failure underway be the most evident?  If at all possible, put that other person in the scene.

Does taking those steps ramp up a small story complication so that it has larger personal stakes?  Does a moment of reckoning become a look over a cliff?  Does a betrayal have the extra sting of being naively unforeseen?  Does a plot setback carry with it a personal shove to the ground?  Is coming up short also coming up utterly empty?

Drama in a story is not only what happens in the plot.  It’s also what happens inside.  Just as you can enlarge story events, you can enlarge their effect on your characters.  You can even make small events big defining tests of self.  Standing at a ticket kiosk with empty pockets can be so much more than the small oops it really is.

By the way, the inner devastation of story events can work the other way.  Small events can be big triumphs.  Last Sunday we made it to the hockey game after all.  Dad pretty quickly recovered his cool.  That day Mom happened to be carrying an ATM card, too.  The moment got handled.  We blew past it.

But, oh!  For a minute there it was the worst.  I was about to fail as a dad.  But I didn’t.  Dad had a trick up his sleeve for that situation: She’s called Mom.  Dad’s pretty smart to keep her around, don’t you think?

What small event in your story can become, for your protagonist, a really big thing?  How does it drop the floor out from under your protagonist’s very sense of self?

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

Comments

  1. says

    Mint, as always, Don.

    We couldn’t get to the car in Jersey after a day in Manhattan once–at least, we couldn’t get to it via my original plan. The rivers look wide at those times, the mountains high, the weather ominous, the spouse–well, enough said.

    Love how you draw such insight from hockey and public transport! It’s all about creating moments in our stories, isn’t it. Small events in the story, big emotions for our protags, great experiences for our readers.

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  2. says

    WHEW! I’m so glad Mom came to the rescue. We’re often good at that. ;) The way you told your story, I was all worked up over how sad little boy was going to be. As a mother myself, I know how their disappointments can be infinitely harder to bare than our own. And when it’s our fault…that much worse.

    I like this idea of the floor being ripped away from under a protagonist’s feet, their sense of falling intense, and their view, hopes, ideas fall away as reality crashes over them. It’s a powerful image. I think I may add it to my character map worksheet.

    Thanks for another wonderful post, Don!

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  3. Carmel says

    Next time, tell the ending to your story before the (I’m sure it must be) excellent writing advice. I blew right past it to find out if your son made it to his hockey game. Whew!

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  4. says

    BEAUTIFUL!

    That introduction was a page turner for me.

    My heart sank ever so slightly when you said, “My wife and son stood together looking at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain the solution. Of course I would have a solution. I’m Dad. I always know what to do.” Hell- I felt helpless sitting here in Ohio. I’m reading your post and thinking, how is he going to get out of this one. Then you stop! You persuaded me to care about the main character and then you stopped the story.

    Rah!

    Don just manhandled my emotions.

    YOU’RE KILLING ME!

    You had my undivided attention after that. What a serious ripple effect.

    Unforgettable example. Unforgettable lesson.

    I thank you good sir.

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  5. says

    Enjoyed that plot twist at the end, Don. You had me going for a while, though, which, I suppose, was your point precisely! Now I have some things to think about as I get my hands dirty with more revisions this week. Thank you!

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  6. says

    Okay, really? A DM workshop AND a DM WU post? How am I supposed to get any work done today?

    I hope you got your wallet back, Don! (And “mom save the day” is a classic ending, by the way!)

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  7. says

    Today’s lesson goes directly onto the wall (the one I stare at when I choke on the page). I, too, was feeling the tension of your predicament. You evoked memories of my own moments as a mother in similar circumstances, which added to the drama of your tale for me. Glad it all worked out, and that Mom got to be the hero. The timing for this was perfect today. I was about to tear up an existing scene and look for ways to make it pop.

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  8. says

    Speaking of blowing by…I blew by the fact that mom was with you. My gut tightened when I thought that mom was in Brooklyn and you at Penn Station and the clock ticking. But, with mom with you, well, the opportunities abound. She could show a little ankle and stick out her thumb as in ‘It Happened One Night’. She could approach another suburban mom with a five year old and share her plight. She could, well, let’s just say mom’s are not helpless dependents. They are a valuable resource. Here’s to moms everywhere saving the day, every day.

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  9. Denise Willson says

    ‘My son said, “Dad?”’ Oh, my, I could sooooo see his little face, pleading eyes, ah! Wonderful. And way to go mom. Handy, aren’t we?

    Great post, my dear Yoda. As always, thank you. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT (coming soon)

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  10. says

    As with other readers, your opening anecdote (and accompanying cliffhanger) had me at the get-go! Brilliant! The advice also came to life with the example. You’ve given us a great way to raise the stakes and make every plot turn matter. Thanks much! And, whew: so relieved your son was able to see the game. Yay moms!

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  11. says

    Great post, Don. Yes, you had me at, “Only one machine stood between us and our goal:…..” Loved your opener. Loved how your son’s sneakers were hopping with excitement. And I loved the way you used this to show how to raise the stakes in a story. This is definitely one aspect of craft I’m still developing. Thanks for the tips.

    And for sharing the ending. Moms and Dads can complement each other well, as your story illustrates. :)

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  12. says

    You are so right about the drama in the moment. I keep telling my kids in my Young Players troupe that they need to “play the moment” on stage and think about how they feel about what is happening and what they are saying. It’s action and reaction.

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  13. says

    So beautiful. Thank you for the gift (and the craft) of story all wrapped up in this gem of a post.

    Amazing how one word: “Dad?”

    is enough to make ALL of our hearts sink. Masterful.
    :)

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  14. Marcy McKay says

    WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workbook is my bible for each of my novels I am so grateful to you for sharing your vast knowledge in it + the story you shared today. You’re stinkin’ awesome, Donald Maass.

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  15. says

    Us dads are expected to be the hero. Always. I can see how this might be useful in a scene, where other characters have certain expectations of my hero, yet he just can’t meet them. For a character already in the clutches of a ruthless author, one little scene like that might just push him over the edge.

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  16. says

    Don, loved your write-sleight of hand in the storycraft-within-a-story-within-a-story nesting dolls of this piece. But where’s the epilogue, telling us what happened to that wallet?

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  17. says

    such a great post. i love digging into the protagonist’s head – it’s challenging, but once you get in there, they usually start sharing all of their secrets. a wonderful book that helped me learn how to go deeper inside is “Wired For Story” – I tell every writer I know about this book. It’s a game changer.

    My husband loses his wallet at least once a week. :)

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  18. says

    I always love to read your advice, and I’ve learned to follow it. I just had a blast systematically dismantling my protagonist’s life. Totally and irrevocably! Such fun it is, too. LOL Thanks, Don, for pushing us to be harder on our characters.

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  19. says

    I loved this post. I have a six year old grandson of my own and know just how important that hockey game is, :)
    Thank you for your advice on how to add these little moments of crisis into our own books. I think that it will help to make the characters that are so alive in the authors’ mind, real for their readers also.

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  20. Dana McNeely says

    You got me at “Dad?” So much so, that I couldn’t even digest the great advice you gave after that, couldn’t focus on the words at all, had to skim, skim, skim to the bottom to find out the end of the story. Did it turn out okay? Surely, surely…and it did. Yes, Mom to the rescue. :)

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  21. says

    Brilliant story! You’re the DAD!!! My husband too, always knows how to save the day. I’ll confess that we all expect it. And your story is so very instructive. After a nearly 2 mo break, I am back to revising/polishing and it is your workbook that I’m using. Thanks for a good story and lesson.

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  22. says

    Hey Everyone-

    I’m in the midst of an online workshop for the WFWA this week, so forgive me for not replying individually. But, thank you for the comments and for finding a writing lesson in my moment of gone.

    I did not get my wallet back. The cash…erg, back luck. Luckily, it only took 48 hours to replace all the necessary cards with one exception. I still have not replaced the most important card of all: My Starbucks gold card.

    Mister, can you spare a latte?

    Folks, let me tell you, my fellow New Yorkers are a hardened bunch. No compassion. Is this what it feels like to sit in the slush pile? Without coffee?

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    • says

      Hmm. I can handle rejection (because that means I just keep improving my writing), but my world would come to an end if I lost my Starbucks gold card!
      Hope you get reconnected with your coffee central line soon.
      :)

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  23. says

    You are just too good! You start off the blog saying that “only one machine stood between us and our goal,” and then your wife, your “deus ex machina” (god from the machine), was the solution. Loved it! All good dads have their deus ex machina. Yours is a super wife. (Way to go Mrs. M!) Little ironies out of the way, I loved your post and have already put your tactics to work in my latest. Thanks!

    Sophia Ryan / She Likes It Irish

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  24. says

    Thanks for turning what could have been a very unfortunate
    event into a great lesson on plot development. What a great
    technique for intensifying the dramatic tension of specific story
    events! I am not a parent, so I can’t relate with how you felt, but
    I can identify with your son’s feelings. I don’t know how many
    times my mother locked her keys in the car, leaving us stranded.
    And, though situations like that are annoying, it’s worse when I
    almost miss a basketball game because of it! So, I see how it is
    possible to amplify the emotional impact of an event upon a
    character. And, as you found the bright side—in writing this
    helpful article—I found the silver lining. I now have MacGyver-like
    skills in popping open sunroofs and using hangers to unlock doors.
    And, I’d be most upset about my Starbucks card too.

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  25. says

    So glad to hear that your story had a happy ending, Donald.
    And thank you for the wisdom in this article. Hopefully, it will stick. I know it will help strengthen my story.

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  26. says

    I’m blessed to be taking the class with you at WFWA, and wow, this is yet another great lesson in writing fiction. I’m already trying to figure out how I can use it. And I’m so happy you made it to the hockey game.

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  27. Lisa Writer's Retreat Workshop says

    Hey Don,

    Thanks for another great post. Sorry to hear about your wallet but glad you were able to attend the game after all. Thank you for always challenging us to dig deeper into our manuscripts and our characters.

    -Lisa

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  28. says

    Great post – suspenseful as well as educational! I recently read a John Lescroart novel and was admiring the way he kept doing exactly what Don’s post just described. (Met him – & DM – at the Surrey Writers Conference a few years back.)

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  29. says

    Okay, Don. Let’s really beat you up, like you advise us to
    do to our characters. Let’s take away your wife’s ATM card. Then
    what? BTW, you are great, man. Love your workshop this week at WFWA
    Cheers, Ian.

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