I’ve never told anyone this before; not when it happened, not since.
When I was 13 our cat had 9 kittens. They lived in a box in my sister’s closet. When they were about a week old, a visiting child took them out of the box and put them on the cold tile-over-concrete floor to play with them. They all got sick. One by one over the next week 6 of them died, one every day.
I cried myself to sleep every night for a year. More than 45 years later it’s still hard to think about.
When I found out he had two weeks to live, I didn’t go see him. Not that I don’t know what to say; I’ve had training in dealing with bereavement and grief and death.
I should have gone. But one time I thought about it, I felt like I didn’t know him well enough to matter. Another time, I let the unorthodox family situation stop me; wasn’t sure who’d be there and how they’d be feeling or acting. Another time, I felt overwhelmed because though we weren’t close, I’d thought we would be; he was a good guy, smart, good conversationalist, sense of humor.
Talked myself into it. Excused myself out of it. Talked myself into it. Waited too long.
In the end I just waited too long to do the right thing.
They say heroes dash into burning buildings or flaming cars to rescue people without thinking. They act before they have a chance to get scared. My first impulse when I heard was, I have to go see him.
But I gave myself time to think, and I kept thinking until it was too late.
In Story Robert McKee talks about “the negation of the negation” (NotN). It’s not mathematical, the multiplication of two negatives leading to a positive. It is the end of the line in the emotional or moral value of the internal story.
Take the normal “worst case” scenario, and find the thing that’s so much worse it’s unthinkable.
In “living dead” stories, that’s often the fate worse than death: damnation, or living death.
McKee talks about four stages, from The Big Win through Not So Much to Real Bad and finally, the NotN. For instance, in a love story you can have true love, indifference, active dislike/hate, and the worst thing in a normal romance, hate masquerading as love.
Scifi adventure: success might be beating the aliens. The other end of the spectrum might be seeing your whole race enslaved by the aliens, in a manner which prevents mass suicide. Nope. You’re slaves, maybe even eternally because they gave you live-forever-juice.
For many stories, the NotN is going to be, if not unique, at east customized.
The lighter the story the less devastating the NotN. For instance, in my book A Long, Hard Look
Success: Phil solves the case and gets the girl.
The likely case is he doesn’t solve the case, but at least he gets the girl.
Worst case, you’d think, is he doesn’t solve the case, doesn’t get the girl.
What happens is he stands in a room full of his girl’s family and is helpless to prevent one from killing another, and in the end, his girl leaves because he reminds her of his failure and her family’s brokenness.
Not only does the case get solved too late to prevent another death, the girl despises him and runs away.
Figure out what your readers will assume equals “success” and if you choose a happy ending, deliver that and more.
Know, or define, what they’ll expect as the “less than success” the hero is worried will be his fate.
Know what your readers expect as a worst case scenario. That’s failure.
Make your protagonist suffer that failure, then give him a way out.
Then, come up with something so unimaginable your readers never saw it coming, couldn’t foresee it, won’t believe their eyes.
As he scrambled through the underbrush the jagged tear in his leg soaked his boot and, worse, left a clear trail for the monster on his trail.
The same question circled his brain over and over: loop back and get behind the creature, or drive like a madman straight away from it?
His inability to decide stemmed from his unfamiliarity with the beast. Was it sentient, reasoning, a strategic foe, or simply a mad animal looking for a meal?
Pushing through the dense jungle since waking before dawn to the stench of the taloned thing behind him, he fought the mental fog brought on by lack of sleep. The animal had dogged his trail for a week, if his count of the days was right.