Case in point: there’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Holocaust film Schindler’s List that bears this out exquisitely. A wealthy Jewish couple has just been evicted from their comfortably opulent flat in Krakow by the Nazis, who want to make room for their various cronies and hangers-on, Oskar Schindler among them --- who, in a nicely ironic turn of fate, is the recipient of the Jewish couple’s recently vacated flat. While Schindler wanders around the flat, appreciating its luxury and well-appointed fittings, we see the wealthy Jewish couple also disbelievingly exploring their new home --- a single, dilapidated room in a crowded, filthy tenement building inside the Krakow ghetto. As Schindler lies on the bed, he happily proclaims, “It could not be better.” And cutting immediately back to the Jewish couple, the wife, God bless her, in a valiant effort to put an encouraging face on things, finally turns to her husband and says timidly, “It could be worse.” The husband, who has held his tongue throughout the odyssey, finally (and understandably) loses it. “How?” he shouts angrily, hurling their suitcases onto the floor for emphasis. “How on earth could it possibly be worse?!”
Oops. Never ask that question. Never, ever, ever. Don’t even think it. Not even if it’s entirely warranted. Perhaps especially if it’s entirely warranted. Because, like I said at the beginning, the universe appears to be only too willing to show you, frequently in sadistically torturous detail, just how it can be worse. Anxious to show you, in fact. And mark me, it always can be worse.
In the case of the Jewish couple… right after the husband flings his question, ostensibly to his wife, but in reality, to the universe… the universe is happy to reveal how it could be worse: a small crowd of working class Jewish refugees, all of them politely murmuring, “good day” to the couple, file in to the room… and we instantly discern that the single dingy room is no longer the residence of just the wealthy couple. Nope. Now, it’s the home to a small army of refugees.
I’d say there’s only one time you can ask this question with impunity, one time when I’d actually encourage you to ask this question --- and even then, we need to be clear that you’re not really asking it for yourself: it’s when you’re writing a story, and you’re asking the question on behalf of your characters.
When you’re writing stories, “how on earth could it possibly be worse?” is pretty much the exact question you want to be asking. As a matter of fact, it’s the perfect question to ask. You want to make things worse for your protagonist. You want them to experience the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In great and glorious detail. In full Technicolor. (Do they still do films in Technicolor, or am I just dating myself?) On behalf of authors everywhere, I’d like to extend blanket apologies to every protagonist ever created --- but the unfortunate reality is, if things roll along swimmingly for protagonists, if everything around them is sweetness and light --- then there’s no story. Or at least no story that most readers would want to read, because it would be mind-numbingly dull. The ironic thing is, happiness and lack of conflict is what most of us want in real life… but it’s not what we’re looking for when we read stories (or watch films). We want to throw rocks at our protagonist, as I wrote in another post (which you can read here if you’re interested).
So, as Will said, cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war… and on behalf of your hapless protagonist, go ahead and ask just how things could be worse.