A devoted father takes his four children out for a pontoon boat cruise on one of Florida’s wild and scenic rivers. The oldest son is nearly twelve. The youngest is only 18 months.
The trip is lovely, but somewhat uneventful, so he lets the oldest pilot the boat. Then the father, who grew up with Florida wildlife, sees a large alligator near the riverbank, which is dense with foliage and Spanish moss hanging from ancient trees. He tells the oldest son to cut the engine and drift toward the bank so they can get a closer look at the gator.
All’s well and good until they near the bank and the lone daughter yells “hornet’s nest” and points to a tree, directly in the path of the pontoon boat’s canopy. The canopy and the nest are destined to collide in seconds.
The father is faced with a terrible decision. In the water somewhere nearby is a twelve foot alligator. Seconds away in an inevitable collision with a basketball sized hornet’s nest, visually swarming with life. What should he do to protect his children? Should they jump into the water to escape the inevitable attack by the hornets, or should they stay in the boat to avoid the alligator?
What would you do?
What would a writer do with this scenario?
The best story/scene/novel ideas begin with characters who are forced to make momentous choices in the midst of great conflict or turmoil. While this story is true, let’s pretend we’ve created it in our imagination. What are some of the possibilities for incorporating the scene into a novel?
Let’s begin with a character, and the oldest of the passengers, the dad, although this could be a scene replayed in the past in the point of view of any of the children as an adult, or even as a scene in the present in a children’s book.
Back to Dad, though. Perhaps he’s a single father who only gets his children one weekend a month, and his vengeful wife is looking for reasons to isolate him further. So, in addition to gator and hornets, the dad also knows that if anything happens to the children on this trip, he will be giving their mother ammunition to keep him from seeing them again.
More conflict, right? As if there wasn’t enough.
Let’s add even more. What if the mom isn’t a good mother, and Dad’s fighting hard for full custody of his children. What if he knows that Mom won’t take good care of them and without his watchful eye and steady hand, they will suffer? He must get custody.
We’ve increased the stakes, which is what good writers do.
Or let’s play devil’s advocate. . .
Mom could be the good parent, forced by the courts to allow her irresponsible ex-husband to take the children for the occasional weekend if he feels like it, which he doesn’t very often. When he shows up this time she is reluctant to allow him to take them in his new boat, purchased with money that should have gone for child support, but she has no control.
When she learns what happened . . .
Do you see how a simple scene becomes part of a high stakes drama?
Because I’m sure you want to know what really happened?
In real life the dad (who happens to be my husband still as well as then) yelled to my oldest son, “Turn on the engine and put the boat in reverse.”
And he did. Just in time.
Thanks to my daughter’s good eye, my son’s good coordination and my husband’s good thinking, they avoided both the gator and the hornet’s nest and gave all of us something to talk about at every gathering of the clan.
Luckily for us, the real story wasn’t as dramatic as the writer-me could have made it. No single parents, no custody disputes, just a family story fondly (after the fact) repeated still. But the difference between memoir and fiction is our ability, even our duty as writers, to increase the stakes, then increase them again. Learn how to do this and you’re well on your way to writing a compelling piece of fiction.