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Challenges, Threats and Near-Misses

Life is filled with challenges, threats and near-misses, as are the stories that keep readers turning the pages.

A recent conversation with a book coaching colleague reminded me of some of the major events I have lived through.

One of them was the Great Lakes region blizzard of ’79, which occurred in mid-January of that year. Over 20 inches of snow fell. Chicago O’Hare was shut down and Chicago was under snow for weeks before they were able to dig out and get things moving again. Snow drifted as high as the second-story balconies of the barracks on Great Lakes Naval Base where I was stationed. I was lucky. I had a sturdy roof over my head and a warm coat. And the military kept me housed and fed.

In 1980, while I was stationed at NAS (Naval Air Station) Whidbey Island, after two months of earthquakes and steam venting, Mt. St. Helens erupted, spewing a column of ash, material, and gas 80 feet in the air. Fifty-seven lives were lost and many homes were destroyed, buried beneath hot lava. Ash fell from the sky, blotting out the sun and covering fields, orchards, cities, and towns across eleven states. I was lucky, I lived miles from the blast. Close enough that the sound of the explosion woke me and was so loud I thought the military base across the highway was testing ordinance, but far enough from the main calamity to remain safe.

When I lived on Panama City Beach, Florida in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a category five storm, landed. At the time, the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States ($25.5 Billion in damage) and 15 direct fatalities, only surpassed 25 years later by the powerful and destructive Hurricane Irma. We hunkered down as the storm roiled over the peninsula. It sounded like a train was driving right over us, I thought it would tear the house open like a flip-top. But we were lucky. We were not in the direct path of the hurricane’s center, only an outer portion of it, and the roof held.

And, of course, the infamous Chicken Salad Sunday.

I’m not going to list everything. We have all survived plenty of big events, close calls, challenges, threats and and near misses.

But these are some of the bigger ones I have lived through and/or witnessed, and while they’re interesting vignettes that I can share, they’re not very compelling. Because I wasn’t in that much danger.

The same holds true in fiction. What makes a story compelling is the danger we put our characters in, the challenges they face and survive. The danger doesn’t have to be life-threatening, but there should be danger.  When your characters are in the midst of turmoil, they need to be in the thick of things, to be affected by them, to be in deeper than a near miss.

Your characters’ brushes with danger need to be either up close, or personal, or both. They need to be impacted or at the very least threatened by what is taking place. That can manifest as physical or mental/emotional danger, but there needs to be a real threat to their well-being.

From death and destruction to heartbreak and loss to ostracism and embarrassment. The things we fear the most are the things we will worry over the most when a character we have gotten to know comes face-to-face with them. As long as we have access to what the danger is and how it will hurt the character, we will feel their fear, the edge-of-the-seat tension, and share in their desperation.

Readers want to care about your characters and once you have established a connection, putting them in danger will make your reader worry enough to turn the pages. And keep turning them, until they know the character is safe….or not.

And that’s what we want, readers to keep turning the pages, right?


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Published inWriting