Poor Frodo suffered the most of any of the Fellowship. Not only did he endure physical pain like cold, hunger and giant Shelob bites but he suffered emotionally as well. He was a reluctant adventurer. He didn’t want to leave the Shire, but if he hadn’t there would be no story.


Lisa Cron talks about this in her excellent book, Wired for Story. Backed by neuroscience, Cron breaks down the elements of story that keep a reader glued to the page, and a major hook is a protagonist’s pain. “It lets us sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us,” she says.

The brain uses story as roleplay. More than entertainment, a story is tasked with creating what if scenarios, and the more difficult the better. Watching a heroine defeat a dragon gives clues on how to defeat a bully. If Frodo can take on Mount Doom, then surely Monday is survivable. Growing up, stories are passed on to us as cautionary tales. Don’t stray too far—there are monsters in the forest.

As a writer it can be tempting to pull our punches with our own protagonists. Often they are a facet of us, their creator. We know Frodo has to get to Mount Doom but did the orcs have to steal his clothes? Few things are worse than being on an arduous quest… nude. According to Lisa Cron, “A story is an escalating dare, and its goal is to make sure your protagonist is worthy of her goal.”


In Stephen King’s Carrie, the titular character has the odds stacked miles high against her: religious zealot for a mother, poor, adolescent, homely, awkward. Just when you think it can’t get any worse for this poor kid, she has her first period in a public  high school shower. But wait, there’s more. Because her mother is a zealot, she hasn’t been educated about this feminine coming of age moment so she panics and begs her classmates for help only to be bombed with sanitary pads and derision.

Whether or not a reader has ever experienced menstruation, we all feel the pain of humiliation, terror and being unloved. It’s the vulnerability and suffering of Carrie that draws us to the story. We empathize, we care and we want her to find justice. If King had let up on the poor girl, her story wouldn’t be remembered now, nearly five decades later.

Pain doesn’t have to be physical to be effective. When I read about poor Frodo stripped naked in front of his captors, as a body-shy teenage girl I cringed. To me, that was the worst thing imaginable. You could have burned me alive but I would bet money my adolescent defiance would have won. Make me stand naked before my enemies, however, and I would’ve spilled the location of my secret base in exchange for a baggy sweater. Tolkein was relentless in ratcheting up the pain for Frodo, even to the last scene. Because of this, generations all over the world are still reading about Hobbits..


When your characters figure their way out of one terrible situation, make it a doorway into the next. Take their suffering, salt it and then slap on another layer. Readers will devour the results. A good example of this is The Natural by Bernard Malamud. The story centers around a gifted baseball player named Roy Hobbs. His worst fear is realized when he loses his spot in the big leagues through no fault of his own. Physically attacked, he loses his ability to play the game he loves, and the only thing he’s really good at. But wait, there’s more!

Malamud knew that was a surface level tragedy. To really keep the reader hooked, he layered the suffering. Later in life the down-and-out ball player has a chance to play again but it’s tainted when he’s offered a huge amount of money to throw the game. Guilt, shame, derision, disappointment…Hobbs suffers. At the last moment he has a redemptive moment. Perhaps a happy ending? Nope. His attempt at redemption fails as well and he walks away a completely broken man. No career, no possibility to regain his honor and one last, fat failure… and readers have been turning those pages since 1952.

Think about this whenever your own characters face discomfort. How can you ratchet it up? If your hero has been stabbed, twist their ankle as they evade. If they are hungry, let them find a box of cookies that turns out to be empty when they open it. Better, let it be their favorite cookie that brings back memories of the one time they were happy. The empty box is a soul crushing moment. Knock them down so low they can’t possibly go on… but they do. 

That’s what makes them a hero… and worth reading repeatedly.


Next week we will be ready to outline a story using all the things we’ve learned up to now. Start thinking of the type of story you would like to write and how it affects your career (WHY WRITE?). If your goal is to make money, research what’s trending right now to boost your product salability. If it’s to inspire or teach, consider how you can add that content into this project. Then consider what parts of you would make this story unique? There’s nothing new under the sun, but only you can tell your story (YOU ARE THE SECRET PLOT TWIST). Finally, decide if there is a way to weave significance into your story. Is there a message you’d like to pass on to the world to make it better? How about a warning, a judgment? When you shine a light on what you think should be seen, sometimes it can shine a lasting light on your work (WHO WANTS TO BE READ FOREVER?)

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

By Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is a third-generation Ryukyuan-American, award-winning poet, author, and publisher with 20+ years in newspapers. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), two-time Bram Stoker Awards® Winner, and HWA Mentor of the Year, she shares Authortunities, a free weekly calendar of author opportunities at authortunities.substack.com.


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