I vividly remember the moment when J.K. Rowling killed off Dumbledore. I thought, “She’s capable of ANYTHING!” It was the perfect set up for book 7 because I honestly didn’t know if she would kill Harry or not. I really believed Rowling might—which I guess she did :)
That is the kind of writer I want to be—the kind capable of anything. I don't want to write the kind of story where nothing bad happens and all of the characters are perfectly safe. If this is something you want too...I have tips.
Don’t pull your punches. If you write your characters into a bad situation DON’T bail them out at the last second. Let them show you what they are made of. They may surprise you.
Fears. Find what your MC’s greatest fear is and MAKE them confront it. Is it death, betrayal, abandonment? When confronted with our worst there is nowhere to go but up.
Consequences. Don’t skip the consequences, they are the unbreakable rules. If you do X than Y happens. If you do X and A happens you might lose readers. I know we love our characters and don’t want to hurt them, but if they don’t have to own their consequences the story can feel unjust. And injustice can alienate readers fast.
Write terrible things. If bad things happen to good people, it will keep your readers unsettled. They will never know what you are going to do. They won’t be able to trust your happy ending—and that will keep them reading.
Insert maniacal laughter here :)
Now just in case you think I’m a serial sadist, I want to say—I’m a fan of happy endings, with one huge caveat. HAPPY ENDINGS MUST BE EARNED!
If everything is all butterflies, unicorns, and rainbows, the happy ending is much less satisfying. But if your MC struggles, fights, and makes hard decisions—then the happy ending moves us.
How did you feel when Harry and Ginny put their kids on the train to Hogwarts? I’m not ashamed to admit I cried—see I’m not heartless.