The Most Important Question for Plot Development

by Emily Wenstrom | 16 comments

Let’s be honest. Plot development is not always fun. Sometimes it’s really hard.

Sometimes, your story gets stuck in a rut, backed into a corner, or just gets flat and boring.

plot development

The Most Important Thing to Ask Yourself for Plot Development

There are tons of articles out there that want to give you long lists of your plot development problems and detailed steps to take to resolve each. But as I drafted my first novel, which is releasing next month, I found that a single question was enough to get my creativity going again. This one question got my story back on track every single time.

So what’s the question?

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Why It Works

You’ve probably heard before that to tell a good story, you’ve got to torture your characters. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given.

Why is it so important to make your characters suffer? If your characters don’t struggle, if they don’t have to sacrifice and make hard choices and have something real at stake, they’re just coasting along through time.

If your characters are just coasting…well, where’s the story in that?

Characters need something to fight for. Your readers are counting on you to establish real stakes. Without those stakes, you won’t hold readers’ attention for long.

The question, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” has been my most effective tool in establishing high, compelling stakes for my writing.

How To Use It

This question is a simple and seriously effective tool for plotting. Don’t reserve this question for your hero alone. I use it for supporting characters and for my antagonists, too. I use it as much for world-level events as I do for individual characters.

I apply this question any time I feel my plot development is lagging, or a character (even a side character) is losing its punch. It’s never failed me. Use it as frequently as necessary—lather, rinse, repeat.

One-Up Yourself

Sometimes, the answer to this question will seem immediate and obvious. But don’t stop there. Mull on the question for a while and brainstorm as many different possibilities as you can.

Sure, one idea may be really terrible…but can you think up something even worse? One-up yourself. Really wreck your character. See how truly terrible you can be. Embrace your inner sadist.

Tie It Together

Up until now, we’ve focused on just creating the worst situation you can for your story. Now, it’s time to weave it into your story.

How does your story get to this terrible low point? How do your characters respond to it? What do they do to fix it? This is the really fun stuff, where you take your craziest, most sadistic ideas and fold them into the fabric of your story.

This question never failed to supercharge my creativity and get my story’s momentum back to full speed. Let your imagination run wild, and I’m sure it will do the same for you.

What helps you when your story gets stuck in a rut? Share in the comments!


Struggling to keep your story’s stakes high? Pull it out and review it, then ask yourself—what is the worst thing that would happen? Write for fifteen minutes and share your sadistic practice in the comments! If you don’t have a work in progress, take inspiration from last week’s writing prompt to create a premise, and then use this same question to plan out your plot.

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.


  1. rosie

    “What’s the worst that could happen?”
    This is also Pixar’s sixth rule for great storytelling. They have a list of 22 rules for storytelling, which is absolutely great! For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to an explanation:
    Call me corny, but I love Disney and Pixar movies, and we can learn a lot from the writers behind those stories. I cried at the end of Inside Out, and I don’t cry easily!

    • Kate

      Thanks Rosie, that is a great article, coming from the ultimate story tellers. I love Disney & Pixar too, along with Dreamworks, because they really do know how to tell a great story and it’s clever, a lot of their movies have appeal to kids and to the adults at the same time. That is an art for sure.
      The tip ‘make things happen to your character’ is a good one, I for one have an active imagination so I can work with it, it also allows for good character development, letting them learn and grow as the plot goes on which can also make the story more interesting.

  2. Andressa Andrade

    Yeah, I’ve seen that advice before, and it DOES work very well. I have used it a few times and I do recommend it. Another question that works very well for me (writing a dystopian adventure) is “What does your character WANT?” and also “What do they NOT want?” Those questions showed me that a lot of my doubts about what my characters should do next had pretty obvious answers. Also, the second question helps a lot because you can use that thing that your character absolutely does not want to happen as the answer for “What is the worst thing that could happen next?” Make that happen, and you will create a lot of tension, which is great. 🙂

  3. Annie

    I’m currently trying to write a novel, and plot is a little hard to keep going, so I used this technique. Here goes nothing:

    Mutiny. With all of Abigaile’s superiority, she never expected such a thing to occur under her command. The scientists had put down their tools and left, but she had never dismissed them. Fury built up in her mind, threatening to spill out in a fit of rage. It took a few breaths and just one thought of what was at stake for Abigaile to regain control of herself. There are worse things that could have happened; at least that’s what she thought.

    Pulling a gun from her utility belt, the alpha was still fuming. The nerves of inferior humans surprised her. She had never even thought this a possibility. Up until this point, everyone has obeyed her, been afraid of her even. But something had changed. Someone had managed to convince everyone to disobey the commands of a highly superior being. And Abigaile was not happy about it. Gun in hand, she walked purposefully down the empty hall, listening for any noise in the distance. A squeak and a sharp intake of breath was all Abigaile needed to hear. Feet pounding against the cold linoleum floor, she sprinted to the exact place the noise had come from. What she found upon opening the door of the supply closet was the last thing she expected or needed. A tall man, well built and tan, was staring back, and he too was holding a gun.

    • ThoughtDog

      Present tense would make this feel more intense and get the reader involved, it’s good but the reader needs to be in the characters head and shoes not watching from a camera.

  4. nianro

    I’ve tried this method, but it’s harder than it seems. Usually the very worst thing is something along the lines of “the hero is struck upon the head by an errant meteor and dies.”

    And that’s if I’m being extremely gentle. Things can get and be a lot, lot worse than most people can even conceive, let alone consider. Most people float upon this placid idylls of blissful naïveté, whereupon nothing truly horrible ever happens and the worst thing that could ever really happen to you is bone cancer or mortgage default. When somebody asks me “what’s the worst that could happen?” in casual conversation, I reply with “a car hits me and breaks my spine and I have locked-in syndrome and the doctors don’t realize I’m still conscious and a man with a bone saw rips out my organs one by one without any anesthetic,” which is why I no longer check the “organ donor” box on my drivers’ license.

    You’re never further than a bad step away from being tortured to death. A roof can fall on anybody’s head.

    Obviously the audience wants the characters to be miserable, but I’ve yet to master the fine art of exactly how miserable to make them. Getting the protagonist up a tree and tossing rocks at him is good. Taping electrodes to his eyeballs and shocking him for sixty seconds every time he blinks tends to turn people off.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      I’d have to disagree that the worst thing would be the death of your hero. What would be worse than death? Finding out that what he’s been fighting for is wrong, or doesn’t exist at all? That he’s been fighting for the wrong side? That his assumed way of fixing the problem is completely wrong? If you hit a wall with your first answer, try thinking up some alternatives. Don’t limit your answers to what would be physically worst for the hero’s well-being … what about his emotional world, or his psychological well-being? What about side characters? What about the world your book is set in?

  5. LilianGardner

    Thanks so much for your post and awesome proposals of how to get out a rut.
    This is what I do when I’m stuck, and it nearly always works.
    I leave the story for a few days and try my hand at writing something quite different. However, in the hush of night the characters in my story ‘haunt’ me, and I invent actions and situations involving them. This process goes on for a few nights, and suddenly I hit the nail on the head.
    I’m working on a second edit of a novel. Since it is a true-to-life story, I don’t need to invent the drama in the lives of my protagonists, (yes, there are two), but I need to put the facts in order. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
    Congrats for your first novel.

  6. Amy Reade

    This was a great post, and exactly the reminder I needed today to jump-start my work. Congratulations on your March release!

  7. Pete Morin

    Maybe this has something to do with why there are so many novels about serial killers.

    It also is a more comprehensive explanation of Elmore Leonard’s oft-invoked notion: When in doubt, blow something up.

  8. Dina

    I had made that dangerous walk and for the first time I’d walked it alone. I knew all the dangers. This was Ikhrania, the Relic ran wild here but I didn’t care. My vaccination had long worn off but I didn’t care. I couldn’t think clearly enough to. I nearly tripped on the half gravel remains of what used to be a road. I shrugged it off increasing my pace. The wind blew cold as it always did in Ikhrania even with the sun high above. My sweater was light. I wondered if my blood would draw any Relic near, if maybe one of them would be her. That would save me the walk. But sadly I knew Dimenya, she preferred to buy her blood. It was safer that way, easier. She liked things easier, most Relic tried to adapt in the woods, I had known some of my clients who had even integrated but not Dimenya. Dimenya preferred to stay in a stolen once dust ridden home until she’d starved herself with only an ounce of energy left to come straddling in at Dalton’s Estate with just enough money for just enough Ucratsian blood to get her back home. That’s how I first met her, dead pale, eyes almost translucent and weak. She was so weak. That’s how I expected to find her now. It had been a month since she’d sent me away. A month since she’d had any Ucratsian blood. A month since I’d been dragged screaming and crying by the two Relic guards my sister had bought and paid for with blood and kept loyal with the ever present threat of vaccinated blood; and a month since my sister held me down and injected me against my will with the lower but still effective dose of the vaccine. I’d scream that entire month in my licked bedroom, when I wasn’t puking from the adjustment my body was trying to make with the vaccine. I had screamed and cried and ignored the remarks from the other girls. I had felt like I was slowly dying inside, and maybe I was going crazy like they all had said. But the truth was that maybe I was just as bad as Dimenya, just as addicted. The only difference was that while she couldn’t live without my blood, I felt dead without her. She had taken care of me once. I thought we could live like that forever. She could have all the blood she wanted free and I’d have someone to love. But she’d pushed me away. She had told them. I didn’t know how or why but she didn’t want me anymore. But I would make her want me. Even if I had to contaminate all of the blood in Dalton and inject all the girls myself but first I would try this. Because Dimenya, for all I wanted and needed and loved her, she was weak. She was like me. A month without something she couldn’t live without had to be killing her.
    I turned the door handle. Relics didn’t lock doors. The house smelt of dust again. I walked suddenly nervous, I could hear my heart in the dim room. “What if she didn’t need my blood”
    I pushed the door to her bedroom, I felt a rush of breath in my lungs and my heart felt heavier. She had turned to look at me translucent eyes, rimmed a painful red. I reached out to her. Her fangs came out.
    Didn’t she leave at all since she called them back for me.
    I still went to her. It would be ironic if I was scared of her fangs. Although she didn’t look jalf as beautiful with them out.
    I took more steps toward her. She turned back towards the window. I reached out and touched her arm. I wanted to hug her but she could break me in two before I had a chance to seduce her with my blood.
    She lightly removed my hand and sat weakly on her bed. She just stared at me. If I hadnt already decided to give her my blood, I would have still walked up to her as I was doing now. Her eyes looked so lost and hopeless. That was how I felt a month before I ever saw her. Now she was my purpose.
    I was standing before her my legs touching the side of her knee. She looked so defeated. I smiled at her. Happy to be with her. Two lost and useless souls.
    She whispered so lightly. Closing her eyes and turning away.
    “Its okay”
    I said, brushing her dark brown hair from her face. She stiffend and I saw her fangs again, even before I’d taken the knife from my pocket.
    “LynZ, please don’t”
    She backed away from me before I could kiss her cheek. I felt a pain in my heart again. It was so real. As if the shear moment of rejection was literally slicing into it and leaving me to bleed out on the inside. I looked her in her stealy eyes. They seemed as sad and defeated and pleading as my own. I took the knife out. She made a gesture for me to stop. But I knew if had really wanted to she could’ve snatched the knife from me.
    This time I really hoped she was starved enough to kill me. I didn’t want to do this anymore. I could lie to myself all I wanted but my body knew I couldn’t. All those aches and pains and migraines of the last month. The pain I was feeling now, that had nothing to do with the sharp knife I sliced across my wr…,
    My arm, just as I was about to cut she pushed the knife slightly above so that nw it was my arm that blood was seeping from and dropping to the floor. On her cream sheets.
    As that tortured look left her face and was replaced by one of feral hunger.
    I couldn’t watch her choose my blood over me anymore. I need her to take everything this time. I silently prayed she would as she took that first bite.
    And then…
    As I felt her teeth surge through my skin and that first faint feeling. I felt her shake.
    I froze.
    My heart was racing frantically.
    “What was happening…”
    I could see black lines arising all over her.
    And she was shaking.
    And I could feel tears as I shook her and looked at the blood coming from my hand.
    I screamed as her eyes started to turn that deadly shade of grey to black. Her skin felt grainy now as I squeezed her.
    I could her myself screaming and screaming.
    I was shaking too. Bit it was from fear.
    I had seen this before. But I shook my head frantically.
    No she couldn’t leave me.
    I stared shaking from her to my blood.
    My vaccine had worn off.
    Why…did she look like she was dying from blood poisoning.
    I screamed as I held onto her tighter trying to stop it but feeling her get colder and colder and darker and I couldn’t lookaway or let ago and then I felt just as cold.
    As if my own heart had stopped. I was dead. I couldn’t feel anything anymore.
    I was dead as I looked down at her lifeless form and I buried my face in her body. I couldn’t feel anything. But the tears on my cheeks, the ching in my throat and the raw edges of my heart.
    What had happened!

  9. Dina

    Oh and when I get stuck, I usually leave the story alone for about… A few months, start a new one and find my way back.
    This option seems a lot better. Cruel and harsh, but better. Thanks!!!

  10. Kess Raisor

    I love this idea so much! I’m knew to this stuff though, so I chose something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. More on a mental/social/emotional level than a physical level of “How bad can this be?”
    Of course, the rain wasn’t what was bothering her on this particular evening.
    Sanja wasn’t certain what was drawing her to the grove of trees in the dark, but there was something in the air — something — that told her, “It’s here. Whatever is responsible for the murders, it is right in these trees.”
    So with the rain pouring down from the black sky, stars unable to break through the thick blanket of clouds, she went to the grove. A small cluster of pine trees, behind a local garden in the small DC park, she knew something was horribly amiss. Something was wrong. She could see it in the air, embodiments of vengeance and justice mingled together, anger and fear — it was part of her gift. Part of Sanja’s magic was this simple ability to just know things.
    She was uncertain at first, afraid even, when she broke into the soaked pine trees. It was the rough, gasping breaths led her to the scene — something alarming, something she could hear even over the pounding of rain on the ground. She knew that whatever was happening here was terrible. Someone would be dying. Perhaps they were already dead. She couldn’t possibly tell from where she was. Pulling her soaked, dark hair away from her eyes, she peered through the shadows. But she wasn’t prepared for this.
    His back was to her, but she could never mistake the slope of his shoulders or the shade of hair, his build — hunched there in the dark on the ground, a mangled form beside him, was one of her best friends.
    “…Aidan? What…?” Sanja’s voice failed her at first. Hands shaking, fear swelling in her, she fought the urge to run, to ignore this, to pretend she hadn’t seen anything. “What are you doing?”
    There was a long silence, and she didn’t move closer. Then Aidan spoke. “…I’m burying the evidence.” His voice was dull, the gentle sound cutting through the rain-soaked air, and Sanja couldn’t think what to do.
    “So… You mean…” She shook her head. “You killed them…?”
    He turned to look over his right shoulder, not turning to face her altogether. Sanja forced herself to move closer, staring at the mangled form. In Aidan’s hands was a garden spade, dark with dirt and what she assumed to be blood. The body was almost unrecognizable from the damage he had done with it. “You wouldn’t have gotten to him.”
    She couldn’t tear her eyes from the gristly scene. “What do you mean, Aidan? How could you–?” When she finally managed to look at him, horror sinking into her, she realized she would have to arrest him. She worked with him — he was no older than her. She was an intern, this wasn’t something she was willing to do.
    He stared back at her. “He deserved it. They all did.” There was a silence and Sanja sat in the dirt, staring blankly.
    “…I have to send you in for this. I have to…” she began flatly.
    “Will you?” Aidan leaned forward, a challenge tinging his voice. “Will you, Sanja? Can you? You know I’m right — you know what they were accused of– they were gang leaders. Rapists that you and your — our! — department couldn’t possibly pin down. Someone had to do it.”
    Sanja began to realize something else then, staring into his face. The side was soaked dark, not from rain. “Aidan — you– your eye–”
    “He took far more than that from others,” Aidan cut her off shortly. “I took more from him. Will you keep it a secret?”
    Sanja stayed silent, staring at him. How could she? But how could she possibly turn him in? She knew what this was. She could see what had happened. There was ample DNA on this scene. All she had to do was call it in and this would be over — the murders would stop. But she’d lose one of her closest friends — someone she knew she felt more strongly even than that about. “…I…” She stared blankly, hardly registering anything more. “…Yes. I… I think I can. I won’t breath a word.”

  11. Chris Harries

    Structure is something that each specialists, editorial manager, distributer, Hollywood official, open speaker, advertiser and story teller discusses, to the point that it can appear to be convoluted.Visit Our website

  12. Kimberly

    I seem to have a problem with this. I want to figure out where I plan to go with my plot before continuing with my story. What do you recommend? Do you have any other questions I can ask myself to help thicken my plot? I am really stumped.



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