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?

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.