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How to Use Danger to Create Plot

6 Jan

“Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn appeared in The Georgia Review‘s Summer 2012 issue, along with an interview with Salman Rushdie and an essay by Scott Russell Sanders.

Everyone is familiar with Chekhov’s gun: If the story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. If a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element.

A really great example of creating plot around something forbidden can be found in Monica McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” It’s the first story in her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, which won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. You can read “Out of the Mouths of Babes” at the Georgia Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about Grace, a woman who is babysitting Andy Henderson, a precocious nine-year-old boy. By the end of the first page, the story introduces something forbidden, through the instructions of Andy’s mother: “I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

This doesn’t seem particularly dangerous, and it doesn’t need to be. If, as a writer, you rely on danger that is recognizably dangerous in every situation, then may end up needing dangers of greater and greater magnitude and end up writing terrorism/spy novels—which is fine, unless you’re not trying to write them. The important thing is that the act is forbidden. Next, the story must break the rule. The question is how. One option is to delay the breaking for as long as possible, perhaps ending the story with the forbidden act. Another option is to break it immediately and make the story about what happens next.

This story chooses the latter option. Grace wanders around the house, and Andy takes advantage of her absence to call an exterminator and bargain for the best extermination deal possible. Then, rather than punish the boy, as he expects, Grace instead says, “How would you like to make an even tougher call?” She challenges Andy to call her cell phone company and bargain the manager out of some overage charges. Andy pulls it off. Now what?

What this story does so well is escalate the danger. Grace asks Andy to make three more calls, each more personal and more important than the last: to a casino’s credit card company to reduce her payments, to her boyfriend to dump him, and to her sister to arrange a truce meeting. The stakes are higher with each call, and each call presents greater challenges to Andy, the nine-year-old trying to fake his way through them.

But what really makes this structure work is the effect it has on Grace. While wandering around the house at the beginning of the story, she discovers the liquor cabinet and pours herself a drink. With each call, she pours another until, by the final call, she’s close to passing out. Without these drinks—if the calls and the pressure to pull off the trick didn’t have any effect on Grace—then the story would feel flat. Suspense can be created by the knowledge that, even if something goes according to plan or succeeds against all odds, the character will still pay for it somehow.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a plot structure with an element of danger, using “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn as a model:

  1. Forbid or warn a character. The dangerous thing can be, literally, anything. Every situation has no-no’s built in. Don’t leave the house without doing the laundry. Don’t step in a puddle. Don’t fall asleep while driving. Don’t go out with him/her. Be careful with that knife. Don’t run with scissors. Pay attention to what you’re doing while ______. Don’t take medication while operating heavy machinery. Don’t shake the baby.
  2. Break the rule a first time. There are varying degrees of brokenness. For the first breaking, keep the stakes low–so what if it’s broken? As you probably know from breaking any rule or taboo, the lack of consequences of the first breaking makes it easier to break the rule again, with higher stakes.
  3. Break the rule again, but raise the stakes. McFawn does this by making the challenges more personal, moving from financial bills to personal relationships. Another way to raise the stakes is to move the breaking from a private setting to a public setting.
  4. Make the breaking take a toll on the character. If the rule exists for a good reason (or if the consequences for getting caught are severe enough), then there is likely some stress involved. How does that stress impact the character? Does it lead to nail biting? drinking? eating? spending? cheating? lying? How is the character’s life and person affected by these decisions that she makes? The key is to give the story layers. Even if the plot succeeds on one layer (the rule breaking has a positive outcome), there should be a different result on another level.

Good luck and have fun.

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