Writing a story is like unraveling a skein of yarn.
I crochet and I am one of those people who doesn’t make balls of yarn – I just pull from the skein. If you do this right, you’re in for a smooth ride. However, there’s always that one skein that is full of bunches of knots that aren’t really knots. It’s really just a loop that tightened so much around a bunch of other loops and, if you’re patient, you can easily free the bunch.
Once in a while though, there will be a knot. One that you have to yank a good deal of yarn out of the skein in order to work the knot out of the yarn. This isn’t the same as painting yourself into a corner, though. You aren’t trapped, you’re just waylaid. You can use this type of analogy in your writing.
Put an obstacle in front of your character, a problem that they have to work at, think about, and be patient in order to solve it before they can move on towards their goal. When you paint yourself into a corner, you have no choice to but to sit back and watch the paint dry or leave footprints that will have to be painted over. This is a great way to force your character between a rock and a hard place. Are they able to wait or do they have to ruin all that hard work?
The absolute worst thing you could make a character do is break their moral code. The one thing most hookers hate? Cutting the yarn to get passed the knot. Then they have to weave the yarn in, or make another knot, depending on the project.
Everything has a breaking point.
Sometimes you’ll pull on the yarn to find it frayed, close to breaking through. What will cause your character to do the absolute worst thing they could ever do in their entire life? And, if they do it, whether by choice or against their will, how will they overcome the guilt they shoulder after the deed is done?
Before you can push your character to the breaking point, you need to know what will break them. You also need to know if, like a broken bone, they can heal. Hopefully, they’ll not just heal, but come back stronger and as a better person. This doesn’t always happen, however. That’s how we end up with villains after all. Is your villain truly evil, or are they doing the things people perceive as evil out of the goodness and love in their heart? (Example: Melisande from the Kushiel Saga by Jacqueline Carey.)
What about a villain who reforms to do true good in the world to make up for all the sins they’ve done in their past? More often than not, there’s only one person who actually believes they’ve changed while others are not so easily swayed. What happens if that former villain does something evil to help the good guys win – something the villain knows they are incapable of doing, but won’t blacken their soul more than it already is? Will the one person who trusted them continue to do so or will they feel misled or betrayed?
There are so many ways to write a good story that has as many twists and turns as a skein of yarn, the difficult decisions made, such as where to find a good hand or foothold when free-climbing, and what the consequences will be once everything is said and done. If you do something truly evil to win, does it still count as a win?