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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Fish Tale: Plotting Trouble

I’m at the beach this week and taking a little time to work on plotting. I’ve been wondering about trouble, as in how to make trouble for my protagonist, and then I remembered a fish story.

Many years ago, I was sitting in a lounge chair on the beach, when a boy, fishing in the ocean, pulled on his line and started yelling.

And so his friends came running, and the boy heaved and heaved, and the line bowed and bowed. A crowd started to gather, watching this boy trying to pull in whatever was on the other end of that line.

The line began to drag the boy down the beach. He splashed through the water, running parallel to the shoreline, block after block, always pulling on the line. He looked like the Pied Piper of Hamelin in surfer shorts, with little kids and big kids, moms and dads, old-timers and me, too, following behind him, shouting and asking, “What is it? What could it be?”

Until finally, we saw it, skimming the top of the shallow water—a stingray’s wingspan—and it was huge! The gray behemoth’s barbed tail flashed, and then suddenly, it flicked those wings and with a snap, the line broke. The boy fell on the sand, exhausted.

That was some kind of high drama, and I’ve never forgotten it. And working now on my plot, I’m reminded that if I want good drama, I need bad troubles.

Every story has a protagonist that wants something. The boy on the beach, for example, wanted to bring in the fish on the other end of that line. Lots of kids and adults were fishing at the water’s edge that day, wanting the same thing. But I’ve remembered that particular boy for one reason: he had a whole lot of trouble reaching his goal.

He slipped and slid down that beach, playing out his line, matching wits with the unknown. He hollered to his friends for help. The strain on his face, the tension in his biceps, was visible testament to his refusal to give up! He was absolutely compelling in his quest, and that made his story compelling.

So don’t make it easy for your protagonist to reach his or her goal. Make that protagonist work! Throw in obstacles, ramp up the troubles!

I guarantee you’ll land one whopper of a story.


  1. That's a fantastic illustration of a tip we hear all the time. But your story brings it home. Also, our protags may not always reach their goal on the first try. We shouldn't give it up too easily!

  2. Awesome analogy! I think of fish stories and how the teller embellishes truth to make it more appealing to the audience. "I caught a fish" is a lot less enticing than the slow unraveling of a tale complete with cloudy skies, circling hammerheads, and one shrimp to hook that night's dinner for the family. Thank you for reminding us to add tension/trouble to keep readers "hooked". :)

  3. It's hard not to be jealous when I read the first line of this post. . .Hope you are having fun at the beach. :) Thanks for giving us food for thought.

  4. What a great hook; wish I could spend time on the beach.

    You are right about putting up obstacles before a character can achieve a goal. The stronger the desire and the higher the stakes, the more intense the drama--and the more interesting the story.

  5. This is great advice! As I've been editing stories for a publisher, I think a lot of people forget this single element of storytelling. It's a matter of building tension and making the reader wonder if the protagonist will ever reach a goal.


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