The best writers are sadists with their characters. They make their characters suffer because seeing characters struggle to overcome horrible odds is what creates conflict and tension. Too many novices don’t want their heroes to suffer so they write timid stories with minimal conflict where everyone’s happy.
The best stories are filled with disaster. When defining your story, always look at what’s the worst that can happen to your hero and what’s the best that can happen to your hero. The best that can happen is your happy ending. The worst that can happen is what happens right before the happy ending.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero (George Bailey) lives a meager and dull life in a small town that he would love to leave so he can see the world and have an adventure. He thinks the worst that could happen is that he’ll forever be stuck in this small town and never see the world, but really the worst that could happen is to see everyone he loves and cares for living a miserable life in a small town that creates a miserable life for everyone.
Guess what? That’s exactly what happens when Clarence, his guardian angel, lets him see a world where he never lived. Because he never lived, he sees how his life actually touched so many people in positive ways.
George Bailey thinks the best that could happen is that he can leave his small town and have an adventure, but that’s not what’s really the best. What’s the best for him is that he realizes how much he really does love his life and that he’s has a wonderful family that loves him, friends who care about him, and a feeling of self-worth from all the wonderful things he’s done for others.
In “Alien,” the best that could happen is that the alien isn’t dangerous and they can get it off the ship. The worst that could happen is that the alien is dangerous – and that’s exactly what happens.
Always look at the worst that could happen to your hero, and that’s what the audience wants to see. Then they want to see the best that could happen because when you combine the worst and the best scenarios side by side near the end, that creates the greatest amount of contrast in a story and the greatest amount of emotional impact.
Always look for the best and the worst that can happen to your hero, and then make it happen. That’s one key to creating a great story.