Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Just say no

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 29•15

road blockMost of us could not hack the lives of fictional protagonists because everything they do and everywhere they turn, events are designed to shriek denials, thwart desire, and erect roadblocks. Plots and scenes are built on forces and characters that stand in their way, blocking something they desperately wants or needs, delaying gratification. The results are disaster, failure, and heartbreak. As frustration, misfortune, reversals and losses pile up, you swear the poor sod or lass is about to crumble. And then you slap them around some more. Such is fiction.

No = Stress

A dramatic portrait of a young woman sitting on an old wooden chair and praying.

You see, storytelling boils down to conflict and opposition and both stem from a single word: no. And although it sounds simplistic, your job when plotting is to say no to just about everything your protagonist wants or attempts. True, you’ll throw in a ‘yes’ now and then, but not too many, and not until the last possible moment. In the best stories more than one person, situation, or force says no to your protagonist, and from every quarter. In fact, the no’s, the tortures, the refusals, thwarting your protagonist’s large and small desires and goals should be adamant, constant and tortuous and should happen in large and small events.

There is nothing as unsatisfying and lacking suspense as a storyline where problems are easily solved, clues appear as if by magic or intuition, love is instantaneous and seldom rocky, people always agree and are agreeable, and everyday conditions never interfere with the protagonist’s comfort.

All these obstacles are not simply designed to

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create roadblocks, but reveal your protagonist in a fictional pressure cooker. The more often you say no, your protagonist’s chief flaws will be exposed, and as he’s threatened and worn down, this creates suspense because the reader is worried about the outcome. It’s also delicious when desperate and thwarted, he chooses the wrong means to achieve a goal, which, of course, just leads to more conflict.

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