Recently my girlfriend and I were discussing the television show Beauty and the Beast. It was something she had just gotten into and she was complaining about the second season of the show. Basically, after a solid first season the show decided to reset the status quo (as television shows often do between seasons or, sometimes, between episodes). This upset her because it felt like the world no longer had stakes.
Dexter is another perfect example for this. Outside of the end of the fourth season each season finale ended with Dexter doing something that would reset the status quo. First season he killed the Ice Truck Killer before Deb could find out his secret. Next season he killed Doakes before anyone could find out his secret. Third season was Miguel Prada. Then came the Trinity season. All bets were off. Finally the show took a chance, moved forward, and it was awesome. But then the fifth season shied away from risks. There was another opportunity at the end of that season to push forward even harder – Deb would finally find out what Dexter was. But the show bitched out, she let him go without learning his identity, and the sixth season was back to square one. I stopped watching after that, but I’ve heard it was steadily downhill.
My point is that as a writer you want to create the most dramatic stakes possible. Write yourself into a corner. Personally I try to put my main protagonist in the worst possible situation by the end of the second act. The reason is not only to keep the audience entertained and guessing (how will [protagonist] get out of this?) but to really see what my protagonist is made of. This is part of the reason I don’t normally outline too far past the end of the second act. The characters are already fairly well established so I like to let them take me where they want to go in the search for a resolution.
Admittedly, this isn’t the easiest route to take. And sometimes it doesn’t work. My last project I completely rewrote the third act, using what I had gleaned from the characters more as a framework than as a final outcome. I think it’s much stronger because of that.
Stories should constantly be surprising. Often that means letting your characters get themselves into impossible situations, then struggle to get themselves out in creative ways. I am a firm believer that the worst thing that can happen should happen. This differs from character to character. One characters worst case scenario might be their mother dying. Another’s might be losing their favorite necklace. Doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. They need to deal with it. And they sometimes need to fail.
Everyone wants a happy ending. I get that. I like them myself, if they make sense. But, and I would say moreso than down endings, happy endings need to be earned. Not necessarily in a pyrrhic way, but earned through the characters digging themselves out of a hole and showing conviction for what they want. If they can’t do that, then either they don’t deserve it or they’re not the character you want them to be and they need to be rewritten.
Breaking Bad was great at this. Every week the stakes would be raised and you would ask, “How is Walt/Jesse/Skyler/Hank going to handle this?” And every week they would find creative ways to solve their problems, or die trying. It was riveting every time.
Don’t think, though, that these things can be random. Just like a happy ending needs to be earned, so too does a character being at their lowest point. If a character’s worst fear is their mother dying, but their mother is happy and healthy all story and then dies randomly it feels cheap. That character needs to be agonizing over a cure for their sick mother, and then what they hoped would cure her is what actually kills her. How does she deal with that? Does she feel guilty? Does she lash out at the unfairness of it? Does she find a way to cope? Those are much more interesting questions than being able to chalk it up to an accident or coincidence.
We all love our characters. That doesn’t mean we can’t get them dirty and let them work to stay clean. That’s entertaining.