Throwing Rocks at Your Characters

They say when you don't know what happens next, or when the story is slowing down, the best thing to do is throw rocks at the characters. It means make things hard for them. Just when they think they got out of one scrape, toss them in an even worse one.

I learned this best from one of my favorite chapters in Air Pirates. Hagai (not a pirate) needs the help of Sam (pirate) to find his mother and plans to leave the town of Providence with him. Unfortunately, the Imperial Navy and another particularly nasty pirate named Jacobin Savage don't want Sam to go.

The outline for this part said "Hagai helps Sam avoid arrest then together they escape Providence." But when the time came to write it, I wasn't sure what that looked like.*

It started simple. Hagai boarded their airship just as two Navy ships showed up and starting shooting at them. Fortunately Sam and crew had a clever piratey maneuver to get them airborne fast and out of range. It was a good scene, but it felt too easy.

So I threw rocks.

They escaped the first two ships, but the Navy was ready for them. Over half a dozen new ships came out of the clouds and surrounded them. They attached themselves to Sam's ship with steel wires and started reeling them in.

It was good. It was tense, but now I had a new problem: how would they get out of it? Whenever you throw rocks, you'll run into this, but that's when you know you're doing it right. If the situation isn't impossible, it means it's too easy.

I won't tell you how they escape (hint: it gets worse before it gets better), but I will say that what started as a clever-but-simple maneuver turned into one of my favorite battle scenes in the entire book. (In fact, I had a hard time topping it for the climax...I'm still not sure I did). All from throwing rocks.

To sum up:
  • When the story is slow, or you don't know what happens next, or things feel too easy: Throw rocks at the characters.
  • Throwing rocks means: Every time the characters think they're okay, make something even worse happen.
  • When the situation looks impossible, you're doing it right.
Have you done this in your stories? How did it work out for you?

* It's true, my outlines used to be really vague. They've gotten progressively more detailed the more novels I write. But no matter how detailed your outline is, eventually you do have to make up something.


J.A. Paul said...

I have done this many times. For me, it is the fun part of writing. When things seem near impossible, yet you can solve the situation in a plausible way then you have done your job as a writer! And hopefully you and the reader had fun with it.

jjdebenedictis said...

Oh, yeah. I throw rocks, and I get almost as excited as the characters when I successfully get them out of a situation that looks impossible.

Joshua McCune said...

Even when I know most of the treacherous landscape, I tend to throw in avalanches anyway b/c, well, I like blowing stuff up.

Problem with this is the actions have consequences that must be observed. Particularly on the emotional scale.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

One of the best lines from Scott Westerfeld's signings was that whenever he got stuck, he just had Deryn jump off something (an airship, a walker, a inflatable Darwinian creature). #awesome #stilllearninghowtodothis

Myrna Foster said...

You did top it, but that is one of my favorite scenes. :o)

Adam Heine said...

@JA: It's fun for me once I figure that solution out. While I'm banging my head against the impossible situation? Not so much :-)

@JJ: Exactly. Once they're out, I'm happy. Of course then I have to throw something worse at them ;-)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

There are undoubtedly many reasons I'm not published, but I think this is one of them: I don't like throwing rocks at my poor, sweet, helpless characters. Thank you for this post. Good reminder!


Deniz Bevan said...

I think it's those impossible situations that I'm afraid of. We'll see - I'm in the midst of editing the last scenes in my book and I'll try to make the characters suffer. Mwwahahaha!
(word verification: potard. Sounds like an LOTR gaming character)