“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.”
– Don Maass, Writer Unboxed: It Can’t Happen Here, 3/4/2020
I first heard Don say this years ago when he spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference held by the Authors of the Flathead, a multi-genre writers’ group based in Kalispell, Montana. I remember the moment clearly. “What is one thing your main character would never do?” he asked. “Wear lipstick,” I wrote in my notebook, clueless enough not to realize what he would say next. “Now make them do it.”
And that’s become one of my most important tools for unfolding plot from the characters themselves. Not wearing lipstick might seem trivial, but in that unpublished manuscript, it led me to think about where my MC, a deputy sheriff, might feel she had to wear lipstick. Another character is a national news reporter who’s just been fired from her job and retreats to her summer home in Montana where, naturally, she responds to her lover’s unsolved murder by filming a television segment, including an interview with the deputy sheriff.
In my Spice Shop mysteries, Pepper Reece would never ask her ex-husband, a Seattle cop on the bike patrol, for help — until she has to.
What would your character never do? Betray a friend? Betray a confidence? Fire a gun? Run into a burning building? Run from a burning building? Take a welding class? Wear pink? Eat a sweet potato? Make it matter. Make her do it.
Well, except maybe for that the sweet potato.