In Story Robert McKee talks about “the negation of the negation” (NotN). It’s not mathematical, the multiplication of two negatives leading to a positive. It is the end of the line in the emotional or moral value of the internal story.
Take the normal “worst case” scenario, and find the thing that’s so much worse it’s unthinkable.
In “living dead” stories, that’s often the fate worse than death: damnation, or living death.
McKee talks about four stages, from The Big Win through Not So Much to Real Bad and finally, the NotN. For instance, in a love story you can have true love, indifference, active dislike/hate, and the worst thing in a normal romance, hate masquerading as love.
Scifi adventure: success might be beating the aliens. The other end of the spectrum might be seeing your whole race enslaved by the aliens, in a manner which prevents mass suicide. Nope. You’re slaves, maybe even eternally because they gave you live-forever-juice.
For many stories, the NotN is going to be, if not unique, at east customized.
The lighter the story the less devastating the NotN. For instance, in my book A Long, Hard Look
- Success: Phil solves the case and gets the girl.
- The likely case is he doesn’t solve the case, but at least he gets the girl.
- Worst case, you’d think, is he doesn’t solve the case, doesn’t get the girl.
- What happens is he stands in a room full of his girl’s family and is helpless to prevent one from killing another, and in the end, his girl leaves because he reminds her of his failure and her family’s brokenness.
Not only does the case get solved too late to prevent another death, the girl despises him and runs away.
Figure out what your readers will assume equals “success” and if you choose a happy ending, deliver that and more.
Know, or define, what they’ll expect as the “less than success” the hero is worried will be his fate.
Know what your readers expect as a worst case scenario. That’s failure.
Make your protagonist suffer that failure, then give him a way out.
Then, come up with something so unimaginable your readers never saw it coming, couldn’t foresee it, won’t believe their eyes.
And aim it straight at your hero.