A crisis is a decision your protagonist must make. Plain and simple.
It answers one of two types of questions:
- A best bad choice (like the “Would you rather…?” game)
- Irreconcilable goods (Should I do what is good for me, or for another?).
Robert McKee stresses the importance of the Crisis Decision by identifying it as the moment that reveals not only the protagonist’s true character, but also the primary value of the story. It’s the ultimate test of your character’s will and the dilemma they face to achieve their Object of Desire.
The crisis is the third rule of the 5 Commandments of Storytelling and it is the way you hook readers.
Not only must your overall story contain a compelling Crisis that puts your protagonist through the ringer, each subunit of story (scene, sequence, and act) must contain a crisis.
Crises throughout your novel create forking roads down which your characters travel, and each choice alters the route for everyone. If the central character in the scene does not face a crisis, most likely the scene won’t go anywhere and your characters won’t face the change they need to to develop. To get your readers to emotionally connect with your character and your story—and thus review it, recommend it, and keep the story alive through others—you must show vulnerable characters. You must hook readers with a great crisis. Characters who drive a story by their action, inaction, successes, and failures. This all comes down to crisis choices.
It bears repeating that stories are about change. How do people experience true change? By making a choice when faced with two or more options. By staring in the face of “this feels good to me, but it is not good for someone I love or for society”; or confronting the two (or more) evils that force them into definable action. We go to stories to learn how to address the painful crossroads in our own lives, to experience how making small choices along the way changes our course of action. It’s the catharsis of consuming stories.
THE CLIMAX OF THE STORY FOLLOWS A CRISIS SCENE
Most readers and viewers can identify where the climax of the story occurred—and we complain loudly when it is not strong enough. Perhaps the worst feedback to get of a story is that “It was anti-climactic.” The climax is the peak of the story that the whole audience has been reading for, the moment the author promised when they hooked them in. The moment Katniss volunteers as tribute in The Hunger Games, we know the climax will be when she is crowned victor in the Games. There’s a lot of ground to be laid in between, but we keep turning the page to get to that moment. It’s inevitable, but it must be surprising. The progressive complications must ramp up to an Ultimate Crisis Moment for Katniss that pays off with a twist on the expected climactic event. As the story ramps up, and we learn more about Katniss’s character, and as she forms a relationship with Peeta, the suspense is even greater. Now the moment is so much more costly, because not only must she kill to get there—she must go through Peeta to be the sole victor.
The climax of a scene, of a subplot, and of a story as a whole, is the outcome of the choice the character has made at a crossroads.
But identifying the crisis that led to that may be more obscure. Once it comes down to her and Peeta (regardless of whether their Love Story is genuine at this point or not) Katniss faces her true test: Will she kill Peeta, or will she lay down her life—or find another way? The progressive complications along the way have made a more intriguing crisis, leading to a more complicated climactic event. The climax is when she games the system, makes President Snow especially angry, and saves them both. Without this crisis, the climax would have been less surprising. Even though it abides the inevitability of the promise made in the beginning hook.
EACH SCENE MUST HAVE A CRISIS TO HOOK READERS
Earlier in the Fundamental Fridays series, Lori Puma and Rebecca Monterusso taught that great scenes must shift. How do you make a scene shift? You challenge your characters to a crisis: a decision of either a best bad choice or irreconcilable good. If you feel your scenes are falling flat, or a reader or editor has told you so, a great place to start is to ask yourself: What decisions have my characters been making? How have they been affected by them? How have those decisions driven the momentum of the story globally?
“Action is character. The other stuff are characteristics; somebody’s hair color, the kind of clothes they like to wear, how smart they are. Those are characteristics. That’s not character. Character is making a choice under stress and the results of that choice.” Shawn Coyne, “Ratcheting Up the Tension”
HOW DO YOU WRITE GREAT CRISES THAT EMOTIONALLY CONNECT WITH YOUR READER?
Ask yourself these questions:
1. What is my GENRE?
What KIND OF story am I telling? This will inform the expected climax, and thus the crisis that leads to that inevitable yet surprising climactic event. Here’s a podcast where Shawn lays out the 12 Content Genres. Knowing your Genre also shapes the most innate Object of Desire for the protagonist.
2. What is the OBJECT OF DESIRE for my protagonist? What do they want, and what do they need?
Kim Kessler shared a handy chart on the “Gas Gauge of Need” in her Fundamental Fridays post, “Vetting your Book Idea.”
Les Misérables: Jean Valjean is a guilty man redeemed and on the run. This is a Morality/Redemption Plot. Will Jean Valjean save Marius, the love of Cosette’s life, at the front lines (Self-Transcendence) or take his opportunity to flee Javert again (Safety)?
To Kill a Mockingbird: This is a Worldview/Maturation Plot with an External Content Genre of Crime/Courtroom, as the kids’ coming-of-age occurs in the context of their father’s legal case. Atticus Finch wants JUSTICE, but an ironic justice. He wants his neighbors to really debate the issue and not arrive immediately at the inevitable conclusion of declaring Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, guilty. He wants an APPEAL. He prays that his kids would not develop the “disease of Maycomb,” i.e. racism. Jem and Scout want their dad to WIN; they NEED to see their dad FAIL in the strictest sense to understand the NUANCE of ironic justice and social progress. As a Maturation Plot, their true object of desire is to have their naive view of the world shaped into SOPHISTICATION.
3. What actions does my character need to prove who he/she claims to be?
Back to the Hunger Games example. Something we—and the Capitol—know about Katniss is that she is willing to sacrifice herself for someone she loves. She’s done it before, with Prim. Can she live with herself if she kills someone who trusts her and is weaker than her (Peeta is injured at this point) to get home? But her most primal instinct is to make it out alive. These two values go to war within her, and she must find a solution.
An important distinction here: The inciting incident that leads to the Crisis can be causal (an action by a character) or circumstantial (action outside his control; e.g. the weather)—but the climax is always a choice in reaction to the events in the scene. So the Crisis is the question of how to react to events within or out of his control. The Hunger Games is a fact of Katniss’s life; 2 contenders are always chosen from each of the districts. But she chooses to take Prim’s place (climax of Beginning Hook). There must be a victor at the end, but when the third man standing is killed, as one of two left, she has a say in how it ends.
4. What levels of conflict are present in this scene?
Is there internal conflict, interpersonal conflict, or extra-personal (e.g. societal) conflict—or a combination of two or all three—present in this scene?
Harper Lee wove a great crisis at multiple levels of conflict into every scene of her classic coming-of-age story. A child protagonist, Scout, makes countless choices in the games she plays, the way she interacts with other kids and adults, whether or not to bother Boo Radley. She struggles with how she views herself; as a lady, as “one of the boys,” as a daughter of Maycomb. The crises ramp up as Atticus takes on Tom Robinson’s legal case: questions of hypocrisy and racism come up in her classroom, townspeople turn on each other, and their family is personally threatened. At the exact midpoint of the book (chapter 15), a clear crisis scene with multiple levels of conflict arises as Atticus is personally guarding the jail to protect Tom from the vengeful white men who want to kill Tom before his trial.
Scout, Dill, and Jem sneak out after Atticus in the middle of the night. They see a mob advancing on their dad. Thinking this is a group of friends similar to the group that tried to talk Atticus out of fighting Tom’s case the night before, Scout faces a decision: Should she and Jem run back home and leave their dad to handle it, or should she go to his side? Best bad choice, right? If the kids go home, she’ll miss out on playing a good joke on her dad—and if this mob means business, he could get hurt or even killed. If they interfere, they might make Atticus mad (at best) and put themselves in danger (more likely).
She decides she’ll surprise Atticus and the group will break up. She doesn’t read the situation right and runs to his side.
When she gets to him, she realizes she’s made a mistake. There’s fear on Atticus’s face. His hands are trembling. He does not want her there. These are not friends of Atticus. These are “outsiders”; they live outside town and don’t care for peace. They have hate on their faces and reek of alcohol and carry weapons. They seem to have no qualm hurting a child.
Worse, Atticus is now required to protect her. Now Atticus, Jem, and the gang must make intentional choices. Scout making this choice—perhaps picking the worst bad choice—has ramped up the expectation on Atticus as well as the danger to himself and his family. Perhaps Atticus was willing to die to protect Tom. But he must die protecting his child, if it comes to that. And now Jem must come to their aid as well. She has put her whole family—and Tom—at greater risk than they were at previously.
She has made a mistake. She is afraid. There is no running back to bed now and pretending it didn’t happen.
5. What will take me from Beginning Hook to Middle Build to Ending Payoff?
EACH ACT (BEGINNING HOOK, MIDDLE BUILD, AND ENDING PAYOFF) MUST HAVE A CRISIS
Download a Foolscap page here to fill out for your own story or a masterwork in your genre.
Crises should progressively complicate in terms of irreversibility—meaning the protagonist can’t change his mind and go home. Alternate your crisis decisions from BEST BAD CHOICES to IRRECONCILABLE GOODS. Change up your crisis intensity between more subtle decisions of action and inaction, e.g. speech and silence, and earth-shattering questions of conscience and life-or-death. By the time you get to the Middle Build, these crises must demand irreversible decisions.
THIS is how you hook readers.
Beginning Hook: Focus on setting up your characters and their ordinary world.
Hunger Games: Prim’s selection as tribute is a Punch in the Solar Plexus kind of Inciting Incident. Katniss must decide how to save Prim. This is a Best Bad Choice dilemma. While there are many actions she could have taken, the only true choice is to find a replacement for Prim, or let her sister go to almost certain death. This scene pits Katniss’s most primal values against each other: Personal Safety v. Love for Her Sister.
Middle Build: By the time you get to the Middle Build, these crises must demand irreversible decisions.
Les Misérables (the musical): Since Jean Valjean has been given another shot at life, he’s been living his life on the run, and has been protecting himself. However, he also feels the great debt of his salvation and spends the rest of his life trying to pay back that debt. When Javert reveals that he has caught a man that he believes to be Valjean, the true Valjean has a very moving solo in which he agonizes over his Best Bad Choice dilemma: Will he protect himself and let this guy take the fall for him (Safety), or will he reveal himself and save him (Redemption)?
Some scenes and stories will have more subtle crises, particularly in Internal Genres such as a Worldview/Maturation Plot like To Kill a Mockingbird. After Atticus has lectured her on learning to fight with her head instead of her hands, Scout faces multiple tests in the face of family and personal dishonor. Irreconcilable Goods: “Should I walk away from a fight, with Cecil Jacobs calling me a coward, and please Atticus? Should I beat him up and defend my family and personal honor?” This reveals Scout’s struggle to mature, the metamorphosis from a black and white view of handling conflict physically to “jumping into another’s skin and walking around a while.”
6. What is the ultimate test of willpower for my protagonist?
Ending Payoff (spoiler alerts!): This is where you should put your Global Crisis, setting up the Overall Climax of the Story. Robert McKee says this must be a true dilemma of the character’s ACTUAL potential actions, the ultimate test of their values for their object of desire. “At Crisis, the protagonist’s willpower is most severely tested.”
Mockingjay: “Whom can I trust, President Snow or President Coin?” In these last few scenes, the tension ramps up as Katniss prepares to be the executioner of the traitor. The climax is when she herself decides who’s the true traitor in the greater plot, and takes her shot.
Les Misérables (the musical): The zealous Javert (the antagonist) also has a redemption scene, in which his mortal enemy, the criminal he has pursued for decades, has an opportunity to exact revenge but instead releases him. Javert’s crisis is “Can I live with myself, having been saved by Jean Valjean?” Best Bad Choice: Can Javert let Valjean free and live with the debt to a criminal, or take his own life to preserve his code?
Do you see how these scenes show the primary value of the stories, and define the character by his or her actions?
LEARN FROM THE GREAT CRISES IN YOUR GENRE
1. Read (or watch) 3 masterworks of your genre. Jot down some notes on your favorite scenes, picking a couple from the beginning, 3-4 from the middle build, and a couple in the end.
2. Fill out a foolscap page for each of the stories. What is the External Genre? What is the Internal Genre? What are the objects of desire for each Genre? Armed with those answers, see if you can identify the protagonist’s (or protagonists’) CRISIS for the global story, and for each act. (You can find a sample Foolscap Page here.)
3. Go back to those scenes you pulled out that really grabbed you. Write down the decisions the characters made in those scenes. If it’s hard to spot, identify the CLIMAX of that scene and back-track from there. What set up the big moment in this part of the story? It could be something as minute as a surprising response in a conversation, or as intense as a character picking up a loaded gun.
SHOULD I WRITE A BOOK? SHOULD I KEEP WRITING THIS BOOK?
You as a writer have faced a great crisis as you deliberated whether or not to write a book.
Irreconcilable goods: Will I keep going with my normal daily routine, or will I give voice to this story within me?
Best bad choice: Will I tell the story that may cause me to lose friends, or will I keep silent and risk not helping another person in this same situation?
You continue to face crises as you commit to the pain and beauty of storytelling. Will I make sacrifices to write a book, or will I succumb to Resistance? Is this story one to continue with? Be encouraged that you’re not alone: this is the crisis at the center of Tim Grahl’s journey on the Story Grid Podcast! Shawn coaches Tim through the crisis of keeping at a writing a story that works.
This is a vital tool of developmental editing. If you’re going through your scenes and are stumped by why they are falling flat, or why the overall story doesn’t seem to provide that satisfying, inevitable but surprising payoff, consider hiring a developmental editor to coach you through this. Story Grid Certified Editors are trained to work on the macro and micro story to address and work through the pitfalls. After all, the writer isn’t the problem—the problems are the problems.
McKee, Robert. Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. Harper Collins, 1997.
Austen, Jane and Shawn Coyne. Pride and Prejudice: Story Grid Edition. Black Irish Books, 2017.