1 min read

Just how terribly wrong can it go?

Levels of conflict change the type of story you tell.

One final thought about Mary Robinette Kowal's quote:

What's the smartest thing my character could do to get to the next stage? How does it go terribly, terribly wrong?

I want to talk about those two mentions of terribly.

We could eliminate one of them, but it changes the meaning.

To me, terribly terribly wrong is the right choice for genre stories that hook into readers' emotions deeply and take them for a ride. Things don't just go terribly wrong, they go, "oh shit, what the hell are we going to do now!" wrong. It's big stakes, big threats, and big nail-biting drama.

But that doesn't mean we can't have something that only goes terribly wrong.

Terribly wrong is still bad, but I think it's more intimate and interpersonal. It's the story of relationships and human struggles. It is when communication and understanding break down, and we end up lost and confused. Still hard and still challenging, but in a quiet, more subtle way.

And finally, there is room for things just to go wrong.

These are missteps on the most personal level—but they can also be course-corrected. They are bumps in the road that inconvenience your character but are not significant conflicts. Stories can still be about these moments, but they are quieter gentler stories.

I'm not hard and fast on these ideas, but I do notice the difference that one, two, or no uses of the word change the level of conflict a character will face. I think you can mix and match these stories.

It's your job to decide just how terribly wrong things will go.