Several years ago a friend and I got lost driving through New Orleans. Eventually we pulled over so I could ask a gas station attendant for directions.
He rattled oﬀ a set of instructions in a Cajun accent, ending with, “then take the Hoopalong.”
I looked at my road map. No Hoopalong. I asked him to point it out to me. His ﬁnger tapped a section of my map while he repeated his directions, this time with a hint of impatience. I looked again. Still no Hoopalong that I could see, but he’d moved on to another task. I shrugged. I ﬁgured we’d follow his instructions as far as we could, then watch road signs for this mysterious “Hoopalong.”
Which is how I soon thereafter found myself being driven across the Huey P. Long Bridge (identiﬁed by some as the “scariest bridge you’ve ever driven across”) by my shrieking, bridge-phobic friend. By the time the two of us had realized where the attendant’s directions were taking us, it was too late to do anything but keep driving forward.
I once heard author Laurie Halse Anderson tell a group of writers that we should “lead our characters deep into the forest.” I’ve heard other authors refer to it as “throwing our characters in over their heads.”
To phrase it slightly diﬀerently, we need to somehow trick our characters into crossing the scariest bridge they’ve ever driven across.
Keep drumming this fact into your student writers’ heads: a story doesn’t become compelling until you heap trouble upon your characters. Trouble is what makes a reader want to keep reading.
As for the students, they’ll learn one of the biggest satisfactions a writer can have: the fun of ﬁguring out how you’re going to teach your character to swim after you’ve thrown him or her into the deep water.