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It Can’t Happen Here

South Surrey, British Columbia, is by most estimates upscale.  While townhouse developments are spreading like weeds, single family homes are the norm.  They are not cheap.  They are large, with impossibly green lawns and fresh haircut landscaping.  There are winding streets and cul de sacs that do not invite through traffic.  Kids are driven to school in luxury cars.  Shopping centers have spas and the furniture for sale in home décor stores looks like it was built for a race of giants.  There are no dive bars, only a wine bar and microbrewery.  You get the idea.  A nice place.  Quiet.  Conformist.  Voted Conservative in the last election.

Which is why one morning last August, it was shocking to learn of a shooting at the drive-by window of the Starbucks at the Southpoint Exchange shopping center, a few scant miles from where I live.  Yellow police tape?  At my regular Starbucks?  My wife and kids drove into the Southpoint Exchange parking lot not an hour later to see a fleet of police cars flashing their red and blue disco lights.  Two suspects were quickly apprehended and on TV the story behind the shooting was also quickly reduced to two words: Hell’s Angels.

Things like that don’t happen here.

Which, in a way, is a factor that plays into writing a story: normal people with relatable lives and feelings are thrust into situations that are not normal, are not experienced by the rest of us, and which are extreme.  It can’t happen here.

In genre stories, we’re used to that.  Dead bodies.  Future cities and far away planets.  Vampires in warehouse night clubs.  Sure.  The extraordinary is normal and, for readers, safe and fun.  Things like that don’t happen here.  But whether an intentionally unreal genre story, or a story grounded in a recognizable world, the job of the storyteller is to relate a tale about what doesn’t normally happen.

I mention this because writers with whom I work and whom I teach sometimes get stuck.  They say things like, I don’t know what should happen here…something…I’m just not sure what.  Well, okay.  If you think in terms that are realistic, or make rigid story rules, or create characters who “wouldn’t do that”, then you may well hit a point where story events grind to a halt.

Sometimes imagination just plain stalls, as well.  You don’t know how to move forward, can’t think what a character ought to do, or feel stymied because the options feel small or not dramatic enough.  You know something big is needed but what?  Friends’ suggestions are good but don’t fit your novel.  Your story world isn’t like that.

Things like that don’t happen there.

The Place Where Things Happen

Lately I’ve been reading novels set at lakes.  I like lakes.  They make me think of summer, cabins, canoes, Sunfish sail boards, suntanned kids, ice cream stores, farm stands, book barns, long evenings and short romances.  Ordinary stuff.  Feel good stuff.  Lakes have a summertime appeal, a halter top allure.  The pleasures in store are lemonade sweet and barbecue safe.  I want to go to lakes, which probably is why I am reading novels set at them.

However, novels are not about the ordinary.  Not ordinary events.  Not ordinary people, with ordinary pasts.  The calm surface of lake stories belies their cold depths.  There are secrets sunk in lakes.  Their very charm and ease invite disruption.  What’s dangerous about lakes can be as much the people as the water.

The premise of J.P. Smith’s The Drowning (2019) is self-explanatory.  A boy at a summer camp in the Berkshire’s drowns, but not under ordinary circumstances.  An arrogant counselor, Alex Mason, left him on a raft in the middle of the lake, only to scare him.  Teach him a lesson.  Twenty years later, Alex is a successful real estate developer with a beautiful family.  You probably can see where this is going.  The water in Alex’s swimming pool is dyed red.  When the swimming pool is drained, words are chiseled on its concrete bottom: “Remember Me.”  Pictures of Alex with his mistress are texted to his wife.  Every guest room in one of the hotels that Alex owns is filled with rats.  Someone IM’s Alex’s daughters.

Joey is back—or is he?

The creep factor in The Drowning is high.  So, let me ask you this: In your WIP, how creepy are you willing to get?  How weird?  How scary?  Not your kind of novel?  Maybe so, but your WIP has a mood.  It’s intended to invoke a certain feeling in your readers.  Excitement.  Anticipation.  Mirth.  Dread.  Anger.  Resolve.  How deliberately do you provoke those feelings?  Are you okay with letting your readers off the hook?

In Sarah J. Henry’s Learning to Swim (2011), Troy Chance witnesses a small child tumbling off a ferry on Lake Champlain.  Troy dives in and pulls the little boy to the surface…only to see the ferry sail away.  She swims a mile to shore with the boy, saving his life, but instead of gratitude she is met with mystery.  No one claims the boy, who speaks only French.  He doesn’t know his name.  A freelance writer, Troy sets out to learn the truth.  She quickly locates the boy’s father, Philippe Dumond, in Ottawa, who tells her the boy, Paul, was kidnapped five months before, but the story is suspicious.  When she suggests he bring favorite clothes or toys to his son, he has already boxed them up as if not expecting the boy to return.  Troy reunites the father and son, but pieces of his story do not add up.  His wife was shot by the kidnappers—or was she?  As Troy grows more deeply involved with Philippe, is she safe or sinking into peril?

Learning to Swim is driven by twin forces: Troy’s care for the boy, Paul, and a mystery which is spun out until the story’s final pages.  So, let me ask you this: In your WIP, how much mystery are you building?  How much are you withholding from your readers, and for how long?  Not your type of story?  That’s fine, but what is any story if not a mystery; a raising of questions which require answers?

People are mysteries.  The past is a mystery.  The truth of things is never certain.   You can use back story to explain your characters’ motivations, or you can save that.  You can explain everything about your story’s location to your readers, or you can withhold that knowledge.  What’s going on in the story and why can be obvious, or it can be a puzzle, it is all a matter of your intent—and skill—as a storyteller.

Sarah Addison Allen’s Lost Lake (2014), centers around a lake of that name in southern Georgia, where widowed Kate Pheris escapes with her daughter, Devin.  The lake and its visitor cabins are wholly owned by Kate’s great aunt Eby Pim, whom she has met only once as a teenager.  The lake has been a beloved retreat for many, but the property has fallen on hard times and Eby has at last decided to sell it to a developer.  In the last summer former guests return each, like Kate, looking for something they have lost.  This being a Sarah Addison Allen novel, you can expect a good deal of warmth, healing, Southern charm and a hint of magic.

What makes Allen’s novel stand out is the richly imagined cast of characters, beginning with Eby herself who when young married a rich man and honeymooned with him in Paris long past the point of propriety.  However, one foggy night they witnessed a heartbroken girl fling herself from the Bridge of the Untrue.  Upon returning to America, they gave away their wealth, bought Lost Lake and distanced themselves from their families.  In the present, Eby’s husband George has passed but she still shares the place with Lost Lake’s mute cook, Lisette…who was the girl who long ago flung herself from the bridge in Paris.

Interested?  How can you not be?  There is nothing at all ordinary about Eby or any of the others at Lost Lake.  There’s Jack Humphrey, a podiatrist who has been in love with Lisette for years.  There’s Selma, who possesses eight charms to marry the man she wants, and has used seven of them.  There’s Wes, a Lost Lake neighbor, who has been crushing on Kate since her one summer visit long ago when they were sixteen.  There are the alligators said to live in the lake, which fascinate Devin.  Then there’s Kate’s manipulative, ice cold mother-in-law, Cricket Pheris, who is famous for her heart-warming and utterly phony real estate TV commercials.  The last summer of Lost Lake will for each of them be a final farewell to the past…and for each the beginning of a new future.

So, let me ask you: How eccentric and unexpected are your WIP’s secondary characters?  Does each have a quirk, an interesting back story, an impossible desire, or a built-in contradiction?  Why not?  When fascinating people are around, fascinating things happen.  People who aren’t ordinary don’t act in ordinary ways.  They can’t.  That goes for protagonists too.

Making Things Happen Here

Let’s turn all that into practical ways to get your story unstuck.  Here are some prompts…

What is the dominant mood of your novel?  Romantic?  Terrifying?  Mysterious?  Magical?  What the most romantic, terrifying, mysterious or magical event you can imagine?  Make it happen here.

What do you want your readers to feel?  Anticipation?  Dread?  Desire?  Sorrow?  Hilarity?  What, for you, would make you feel that way?  Make that happen here.

What is your protagonist’s darkest back story event?  Elevate it.  Make it bigger.  Make it worse.  Give it a name.  Now bury it.  What behavior is a clue to what is buried?  How can that cause trouble?  Make that happen here.

Pick a secondary character.  Give that character a celebrated or notorious past.  What is true about it?  What is exaggerated?  What is pure myth?  Build that in, then expose the truth.

What has happened in your story world that is fabled, legendary, peculiar or horrific?  Make it happen again.

Pick a character to make eccentric.  Pick another to make tragic.  Pick another to handicap.  Pick another to fall in love, especially if the match is unlikely.  Make it happen here.

What can your protagonist do next that is intuitive?  Unexpected?  A huge risk?  An over-the-top gambit?  Dangerous?  Shrewd?  Foolish but brave?  Out of character?  An action that will be recounted as legend?  The hardest possible thing to do?  Make that happen here.

If you are stuck and asking what should happen next, head straight for what cannot happen.  That’s the direction you want to go.  The goal is not to play within the rules, but to break them.  Story is not about what is realistic, reasonable, safe and ordinary.  It is about the extreme things that happen to people who are not ready.  It’s about the dramatic things that people like you and me might do—but do not—under duress.

Story is what we can’t imagine, but which you can.  Make it happen here.

What will you make happen in your WIP that doesn’t happen ordinarily?  What will your protagonist do that us regular people do not?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].