Lucky Breaks and Tough Shakes

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Lucky Breaks and Tough Shakes

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Readers, if you spend any time at all on the blog you know that I love to analyze story—and I think everything is story.

So allow me to tell you one, if I may, about my little tempest in a teapot I’ve been teasing for a couple of weeks, which I hope illustrates something useful about plotting, stakes, and suspense and tension. I will try not to bore you with too many details.

I mentioned last week that I’ve been grassrootsing a community issue along with a number of other neighbors. Here’s the overview: A faction of our community, let’s call them Team Red, is in favor of extensive development of our only open common area, a small park in the center of the neighborhood.

Another faction, we shall call us Team Green, prefers the park to remain as it is, lovely, pristine, and quiet—and opposes the hefty price tag that Team Red’s vision would require.

This drama has been going on for a couple of years now, and it’s been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs and uncertainties. In life we tend not to like such things, and this issue has been a source of much preoccupation and stress for me and a lot of other neighbors.

But in fiction this kind of unrest is pure gold. Let’s dissect my community’s tiny soap opera to see how you can use uncertainties, setbacks, and triumphs to give your story layers and levels, raise stakes, and deepen reader engagement. 

A Tale of Two Teams

More than a year ago, as I grew increasingly concerned about the way Team Red was approaching their goals, I asked to join the HOA park committee to help explore the proposed projects, and so that neighbors might have some insight into what was being discussed. The main driver of Team Red—let’s call him their captain—tried to redirect me to the Christmas-light committee—tough shakes for me.

But I pushed hard enough to finally be admitted to the park committee—a lucky break because it was this insight into the development plans on which much of our Mr. Smith Goes to Washington movement has been based.

As events progressed in the leadup to our annual HOA meeting in January of this year, a few of us became concerned that Team Red might be counting on neighborhood apathy to push through their projects with a minimal number of votes, trusting that people can’t usually be bothered to attend to the day-to-day minutiae of local governance—tough shakes for Team Green, who believed that most neighbors didn’t support these plans.

But then the crazy ice storm came that literally froze all of Austin, and forced a rescheduling of our annual meeting. Suddenly Team Green had a month of bonus time to get the word out to neighbors and make sure they knew what was being proposed and showed up for any vote—a lucky break.

The Plot Thickens

Meanwhile at a regular quarterly board meeting that took place a week after the originally scheduled annual meeting, Team Red abruptly removed the chairperson of the neighborhood architectural committee, and the entire committee was replaced on the call with three previously unannounced hand-picked appointees by the Team Red captain. Tough shakes for us, as the ACC is the body responsible for approving any park developments.

But the meeting was shared via Zoom, with a number of neighbors logged in and watching, and they were suddenly made aware of some behavior and actions that had been going on quietly behind the scenes that raised their concerns—a lucky break for Team Green.

The fact that the park was a main issue on the table was another lucky break. Neighbors have strong feelings about both the development of the park, which would have deleterious effects on noise, traffic, trash, and other concerns, and the attendant hike in our dues and the pricey special assessment it would entail, so between that and Team Red’s actions at the Zoom meeting, it was a lot easier than it might otherwise have been for us to galvanize neighbors and get them involved.

I wrote last week about our ensuing door-to-door effort to engage the neighbors, and how successful it’s been: 87% of them opted into a database we created to enable residents to communicate directly with one another, and by the night of the annual meeting, 75% of neighborhood households were represented—a staggering showing compared to previous meetings. At that meeting, many of these concerns were thus presented in view of the majority of the neighborhood, making neighbors fully aware of issues they may not have known had been brewing in the background. 

By the end of the meeting, a sizable chunk of neighbors petitioned for a special meeting at which we would vote to put an end to Team Red’s plan. Lucky breaks—it looked like things were fully going our way.

But then an administrative snafu created a technical hiccup with the vote that broadened its scope, worried many neighbors, and challenged their support for the matter on the ballot. Our property management company said that for technical reasons the issue couldn’t be fixed and we had to move forward under those less-than-ideal circumstances. I was distraught, and it looked like the whole thing was going to fall apart—tough shakes, our blackest moment.

Two days later, after neighbors expressed strong concerns about the snafu, the legal department realized that the problem actually could be corrected. They sent out a new ballot that was more palatable to neighbors, and we were back in the game—a lucky break.

As I write this, we are a day away from the final vote, and while we on Team Green feel pretty good about the direction things seem to be going in, none of us are counting any chickens. For the moment we live—as we have throughout this saga—in uncertainty.

It’s Schrödinger’s vote until tomorrow, where we both may and may not have a park development. It’s that unknown that creates the suspense and tension we are all feeling right now, again not the most pleasant sensations in life, but juicy as grapes in writing story.

If you’re still with me, and I do hope you are, you may have noticed how the back-and-forths and ups and downs of our little hullaballoo—two steps forward and one step back; one step forward and two steps back—create the story of this little miniature saga we’re living. It turns it from a one-line dull summary—our neighborhood is dealing with two opposing visions for its future—into hopefully a somewhat engaging tale.

So how can you keep these ideas in mind in writing your story?

What I’ve mercifully limited myself to here are simply the highlights of this saga, the highest highs and lowest lows, but it’s the alternation between them that turns this from dry summary into (maybe?) engaging story.

Stories need obstacles, setbacks, dark moments where your characters believe all may be lost, or where they lose hope or resolve, or fall apart. And yet a relentless series of setbacks in story quickly grows wearying and melodramatic to readers.

Smooth sailing is narrative death. Stories need obstacles, setbacks, dark moments where your characters believe all may be lost, or where they lose hope or resolve, or fall apart.

And yet a relentless series of setbacks in story quickly grows wearying and melodramatic to readers. We need moments of triumph and progress so we can keep rooting for our heroes, and so that the protagonists can keep the faith in their cause and continue striving toward their goals.

And what I’ve excluded here (for the sake of not glazing your brains over) is that throughout this process there have also been innumerable little baby gains and setbacks between the bigger ones, which have kept tension and uncertainty high for us all. Remember, smooth sailing is deadly dull in story, so even between your major tsunamis, keep some chop on the water throughout.

Notice, too, that the stakes may seem objectively minuscule—do any of you really care if our three-acre park in a small neighborhood in central Texas is developed?—but to those of us who are players in the story, they matter immensely. This issue is deeply important to the neighbors whose community, quality of life, and pocketbooks will be directly impacted. For us, stakes are high—and that is heightened by the continual jeopardizing of our goals as well as the advances that move us closer to them.

We don’t know yet how this story ends—whether our plucky heroes will triumph. (And in my version, of course, we are the heroes—just as most characters are in their own minds and stories, including your antagonists. In Team Red’s version, I have no doubt that we are the villainous benighted villagers halting progress.)

But it’s those peaks and valleys—the lucky breaks and tough shakes—that make you feel (hopefully) at least slightly more invested in the outcome of this little brouhaha than you otherwise might, just as they do in story (including real-life stories like mine, or like this one).

Keep your characters constantly teetering on a knife edge between achieving their goals and losing it all and you’ll draw readers deeper into your stories, make them care, and keep stakes and momentum compelling and strong throughout. Good news, bad news—who can say?

Epilogue: The very next evening, Team Green carried the day with 93% of the vote, peace returned to the land, and they lived happily (hopefully!) ever after, the end (for now).

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16 Comments. Leave new

  • Wow, 93% of the vote, that’s brilliant, well done all. Something very similar is happening here. And probably in a thousand other places sadly. So good to hear the story of your triumph, I was on the edge of my seat reading about it. I have written ‘Smooth sailing is narrative death’ in the front of my writing notebook to remind me. The tricky moments make victory so much sweeter. Loved this post.

    • We were thrilled with the turnout, engagement, and of course the result! The power of organizing–for what it’s worth, that’s my suggestion if you find yourself in a similar situation. Once all the neighbors were connected and aware and talking, the rest fell into place. And yes, I hear things like this are pretty common–but it gave me a sense of efficacy to be able to do something about it here, when so often we can feel it’s overwhelming or futile on a larger scale. Glad you took something useful from our little tale, and found it not too dull. 😀 Thanks, CJ.

  • Wonderful illustration on breaks and shakes. “Keep some chop on the water throughout.” That is gold.

    Congrats to Team Green! 🥳

    • Glad it’s helpful, Dawn! And thanks–it was relief and reassurance that Team Green carried the vote, and the lovely silver lining is a new sense of involvement and connection among our already close-knit neighborhood. Thanks for reading.

  • Deborah R Dakins
    March 30, 2023 2:52 pm

    Appreciate this on so many levels. First, it helps me reset my thinking about obstacles and setbacks. They don’t need to be gigantic. Second, it’s a great example of “because of that” action. Third, just love your story about the teams and the park. I engaged in something similar several years ago (speed bump petition) and could relate to your ups and downs! Thanks for this!

    • I’m hearing this is a much more common situation than I realized! And I love that you took from it what I hoped to convey–first, that stakes don’t have to be major (save the world, life-or-death) to propel a story, as long as they matter intensely to the protagonists; and second, that “but/therefore” progression of story (courtesy of Matt Parker and Trey Stone) that is so effective for momentum and flow and cohesion. Thanks for the comment, Deborah!

  • Kimberly Glassman
    March 30, 2023 3:00 pm

    You got 93% of a group of people to AGREE on something?! I doubt you could get that kind of consensus on whether the pope is Catholic. Well done, you! (And nicely braided into the storyline of Story and Chop.) Thanks for these letters.

    • RIGHT?! We knew there wasn’t a lot of appetite in the neighborhood for development of our common open area, but that was even more support than we expected or hoped for. This is a very cohesive neighborhood, though, and very live-and-let-live, so it wasn’t a total surprise that there was such engaged turnout on this issue. Thanks for being here, Kimberly.

  • I love a story with a happy ending! I was rooting for Team Green all the way. Open space is so important. I’m sure it gives you comfort to know you live amongst people who feel the same way.

    • PHEW, me too! It was touch-and-go at times…but that is what made it exciting (in a nail-biting way) while we were going through it. And yes, it’s lovely seeing how much solidarity and commonality there is here in how we regard our community–and it’s brought neighbors even closer, and engendered a lot of engagement in neighborhood affairs and projects, which is great! Imagine what people could do on a national or global scale if they would only get involved.

  • Tiffany,
    You are the hero of that story. Even in the days when I had more passion and the energy to act on it, I was never able to transfer my enthusiasm to others as you did. 93% is the equivalent of a standing ovation. Congratulations on protecting what you value from those Philistines.
    On lucky breaks and tough shakes, I’ve completed an MS of a mystery/detective story, about which I’m optimistic. Your post made me realize some of the opportunities missed to make it more up and down. As always, many, many thanks.

    • It was a complete team effort–so many people did so much. It was really something to see. I wish we saw more of it on a state and national level too. And it was lucky that so many others cared about the same issues we cared about. Glad the post was helpful in strengthening your story, Bob! Thanks as always for being here.

  • Doug Gilmore
    March 31, 2023 6:52 pm

    Congratulations! Outstanding!
    Great story and I appreciated the writing education along the way.

    Your benighted villager,

    • Ha! Everything is story, right? And thanks, my fellow benighted villager–I was awfully happy we “little guys” won the day and no one paved paradise to put up a parking lot (or in this case, a pavilion).

  • Ann C. Averill
    April 5, 2023 11:53 am

    Happy for the salvation of your neighborhood oasis. Thanks for the practical illustration it portrays for how to keep a reader engaged in your plot. The narrative arc is what I am wrestling with now in the draft of my memoir. Chronology alone is not enough to keep a reader turning pages. It’s the chop, as you say, in the progress of the readers goal and character transformation. Now I have to do some more editing!🥰


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