How To Create a Great Threat

by James Bonnet

In the two previous story course articles: The Threat and the Essential Elements of Story and The Threat and the High Concept Great Idea, we saw that the threat is not only the cause of the problem that brings the story into being, it is the force that creates the components that constitute the very essence of story – that without which there would be no story. And if that isn’t enough, the threat also makes possible the creation of a high concept great idea and an effective logline – which is to say, a compelling story idea that can be expressed in a few words, is easily understood by all, and can travel swiftly up the chain of command to those who actually make the decisions.

In this new article, I will show you how to create a great threat and make it powerful, fascinating and unique .

So, to begin, let’s say you have worked with the original fascination that inspired you and now know the subject of your story, the larger entity being transformed, and the problem, which is the central, unifying event that holds the story together.

In the case of Harry Potter, as revealed by JK Rowling, the original inspiration for her extraordinary story was  a powerful vision of a boy with a lightning scar on his forehead, which appeared to her while she was riding on a train. Everything else she had to discover on her own. Working with that original fascination and, no doubt, trying many different possibilities,  she discovered her subject –magic; the larger entity that is being transformed – the Wizard World; and the central problem – a powerful dark force that wants to dominate and control the Wizard World. The threat, the cause of the problem, is this powerful dark  force. But who or what exactly is it? Somewhere in the feelings, fascinations, images and ideas that JK Rowling was conjuring, the image of the dark Lord Voldemort materialized. She may have tried many other  possibilities, but guided by her feelings, she knew that he was the one. He wants to become the ruler of the Wizard World. And young Harry Potter, the boy who survived his killing curse and absorbed his power is the only one who might become powerful enough to stand in his way, and so must be destroyed.

So what is the threat in your story – the cause of the problem? Is it an asteroid? (Armageddon,) a disease? (Contagion,) or something ordinary like a misunderstanding? (Casablanca.) In Argo, it is the angry mob, inspired by the Ayatollah-controlled Iranian government that despises the United States for its past support of a cruel and ruthless shah, that storms the U. S. Embassy and takes its American staff hostage. In Flight, the worn-out part in the tail section of an airliner breaks during the flight causing the crash that brings the real problem and cause of the problem to light, the alcohol addiction of Denzel Washington, the pilot. In The Dark Knight Rises, it’s Bain and his army who have taken possession of Gotham City and are determined to completely destroy it. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s Osama Bin Laden. In The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey, it’s the dragon, Smaug, who has taken possession of the dwarves’ treasures and mountain kingdom and left them homeless. In Promised Land, it’s Matt Damon, a good hearted, but brainwashed sales rep of a devious, heartless and greedy natural gas company named Global. In Silver Linings Playbook, it is the infidelity and loss of Bradley Cooper’s ex-wife that triggers the problem. In Toy Story 3, it’s a cuddly bear who has become a tyrant and worst nightmare of the toys at a daycare center. InOrdinary People, it’s a deep seated resentment being harbored by a mother against her surviving, less favorite son.

To find the threat in your story, probe the fascination that inspired you, and all of the other fascinations you’ve discovered, seeking the cause of the problem – the force that will create the essential elements and bring the story into being. Explore a lot of different possibilities, until you find a threat that really fascinates you – a threat whose energy you really want to explore, comprehend, master, make psychologically significant,  and ultimately transform.

Then, if you want to make your threat truly great, powerful, fascinating and unique, take it to the quintessential – and make it the best possible example of that particular threat. Which is to say, you use the fourth creative technique, conjuring, to set the creative process in motion and strive to evolve Voldemort into the darkest, most powerful and diabolical wizard that has ever lived; Dracula into the most fantastic, noteworthy and immortal vampire of all time; and Hannibal Lecter, with his uncanny intelligence, hunger for human flesh, and thirst for Chianti the most mind-troubling serial killer ever. The dragon, Smaug, in The Hobbit is the most incredibly powerful, deadly and seemingly undefeatable beast. InArgo, the angry mob of fundamentalists storming the American Embassy  is a huge and virulent quintessential angry mob that is looking for any excuse to kill the American hostages. In Zero Dark Thirty, Osama Bin Laden is the quintessential terrorist, which he was, and the killer of thousands of innocent people. In Flight, after the tail section malfunctions, the airliner with 102 passengers on board experiences the most terrifying,  harrowing flying event in the history of flight, including a 300 mph nose dive straight toward the ground, managed by a pilot who is drunk on alcohol and cocaine, yet alert enough to see that their only chance of survival is to fly the huge aircraft upside down. In Lincoln, the Civil War President has to persuade pro-slavery congressmen, who are quintessential bigots, to vote for the adoption of the 13thAmendment, which will outlaw slavery in the U. S. forever,.

Besides the threat there are two other components of the problem that are useful to address – the terrible element and the state of misfortune. The terrible element is the thing without which the problem couldn’t be (or wouldn’t have been) created. In Promised land, it’s another employee of Global posing as an environmentalist and a super deadly, natural gas drilling technique called “fracking.”In The Dark Knight Rising, it’s the nuclear device that Bain will use to level Gotham City. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s the suicide bombers and their terrible weapons. Without them Osama bin Laden would have had only limited success. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it’s the fiery breath and awesome strength of the dragon. In Flight, it’s the alcohol addiction that Denzel Washington has to overcome to speak the truth that will redeem his character. In Silver Linings Playbook, it’s the bipolarism that creates Bradley Cooper’s obsession with his ex-wife. In a Bernie Madoff  story, it’s a Ponzi scheme that will separate even the most sophisticated $billion investors from their money. The states of misfortune are the intolerable conditions created in all of these stories that will motivate the anti-threats, the ones who will oppose the threat, to take the positive actions necessary to solve the problem.

Throughout this process, you are monitoring your feelings, which will confirm or deny the value and power of each of your ideas. Gradually, you will become aware of the intuitive feelings that are always in play while you are making creative decisions. Soon you will realize that the source of those feelings is designed to collaborate with you and help you create a really powerful story.

Trial and error, as always, is the key. If it feels right, it is making a psychological connection. If it doesn’t feel right, you keep looking. Thomas Edison tried hundreds of  different filaments before he found the right one for his light bulb. If JK Rowling took even half that many tries to find and perfect Voldemort (which I’m sure she didn’t) it would have been worth it.

Of course, you don’t have to take your threat to these extremes. But still, you need to feel the force of the negative energy in your stories – the presence of the threat that keeps the tension alive. And the problem has to be significant enough to grab our attention and hold our interest, and it has to be intriguing and relevant. In all of the currently successful or critically acclaimed films I’ve used as examples in this article, the presence of the threat and the problem are clearly felt.

Be that as it may, the more formidable the threat becomes and the more unsolvable the problem appears to be, the more the recipient of the story will wonder how on earth the problem is going to be solved. That sense of wonder will excite their interest and make them eager to find out how it will be done. And that will create a tension that will help make your clever solution truly satisfying and the experience unforgettable. Because deep down that’s what we all really want and need to know: how to manage and survive the worst possible threats this cold, cruel, and yet thrilling, world can deliver.

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In my next story course article, we will explore the real cause of the problem, which will take us inside the Golden Paradigm to the archetypal characters and major players who are motivating the threats to take the actions that will create the problems.

About James Bonnet