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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.
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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