Let Nothing Be Easy

Let nothing be easy for anyone ever. Create and take advantage of every opportunity to cause trouble. Think about how difficult things were for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Ahab, Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara. Who made them difficult? Who drove Hamlet crazy? It wasn't his father's request for revenge. It was Shakespeare. The whale wasn't the real cause of Ahab's death. Melville was.

You, the author, do it all. Make all the trouble. Exercise sadistic license. One way to do that is to raise the stakes as much as possible. For example, if a young, successful lawyer, practicing in a prominent firm in a well-to-do county is asked to do something he feels is unethical, immoral, or illegal and he tells the senior members of the firm that he can't, in good conscience, go along, they might tell him:

"Well, Martin, if you can't help us out on this, you don't have the kind of loyalty and team spirit you need to work here. In other words, you're out of a job."

OK, so it's play ball, or you're out. That's one level of conflict. But, for the same effort, without changing the meaning of the story, they could say:

"You're out of a job, and we'll see to it you never practice law again in this county."

We've intensified the drama without changing the sense of the story. But have we gone all the way? Can we go farther? What if the young lawyer's bosses say:

"We're sorry to hear you won't back us up on this, Martin. Frankly we had our doubts about you. So, just in case, we took some time to cook up a little file on you. Some of it's true. Some of it's not so true, but it'll stand up in court. If you don't go along, you're not only out of a job, but we'll have you disbarred. You'll never practice law again anywhere."

Now, we haven't changed the thrust of the story, but by raising the stakes we've made it more intense and dramatic.

Have we gone all the way? For this story, as I imagine it, we have. As I imagine it. That doesn't mean that someone else can't imagine it differently, push it farther, and make it work better. The senior partners could threaten to murder the young lawyer's wife and child. The story could get to that point, and it could be made to work, but it might border on becoming a different kind of story (a crime thriller) than I had in mind. That's my sense of it. You may go for something more extreme, and it would be just as valid.

Fiction reflects reality—the truth of reality. But fiction is not reality. It's concentrated, intensified reality. It's the essence of reality. In a sense it's more real than reality. It certainly reveals more truth than everyday reality. And it's never as mild as reality often is. So, you must put pressure on your characters to force them to use themselves. The more they use themselves, the more they reveal themselves. The more they reveal themselves, the more we experience and identify. You'll never go wrong by making everything as difficult as possible for everybody, bad guys as well as good guys, at all times.

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