Showing posts with label conflict. Show all posts
Showing posts with label conflict. Show all posts

Monday, November 3

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

It seems to me that there are six general ways to open a story. The first way, as I discussed last week, is with description. The second way to open a story is with conflict.


We are told this over and over again: every story needs some conflict. Many times, when we think about conflict we think about violent action. For example:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” (The Gunslinger by Stephen King)

No bullets were fired but one feels it wouldn’t go well for the the man in black were the gunslinger to catch him.

Another example:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (The Trial by Franz Kafka)

Being arrested when one has not done anything truly wrong is not good. We have an immediate sense of the stakes: life and death. Also, though, one wonders: If he didn’t do anything truly wrong, then what was the charge? Why was he arrested?

Or even:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. (Murphy by Samuel Beckett)

There is no violence here, not even implied violence. But there is conflict. This sentence seems to imply that the protagonist lives a boring life in a boring world and longs for something that will interest him or give him pleasure. The question: Will he find it?

The Purpose of Conflict

Why does a story need conflict? Or, to put it another way, what does conflict do for a story, why does it keep folks turning pages? I think it’s because conflict raises questions in a reader’s mind. It makes us curious

Conflict, by its very nature, implies a goal and so asks a question: will the goal be attained? If I walked into a room and two people were at fisticuffs I would wonder: 

- Why are they fighting? (motivation)
- What are they fighting for? (goal)

The reason for the upset could be as mundane as one fellow spilled his drink on the other. In this case the goal might be the satisfaction of having exacted payment for the infraction.

Not the most exciting stuff, granted, but—just thinking about it now—I can’t think of any conflict that wouldn’t bring questions along with it. (Perhaps you can, though. If so, please leave a comment!)

Conflict raises questions and questions create narrative drive.

Asking questions is what writers want readers to do. Why? Because it generates narrative drive.

As Lee Child says, if a person is presented with a question they’ll tend to stick around until it’s answered. We can’t help ourselves! It’s the way we’re wired. (Okay, maybe not you, but most people.)

For example, let’s say that before a commercial break we’re asked who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. We might not care who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, but chances are more people will stick around because the question was asked than if it hadn’t been. (BTW, the recipient was Doris Lessing.)

Here’s how Child put it:

"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued." (Lee Child at Thrillerfest 2012)

That’s it for conflict! Next time we’ll look at puzzle openings. (Or should I say, “Will we look at puzzle openings next time? Who knows! Stay tuned.)

Wednesday, July 23

Spice Up A Boring Scene With Conflict

Have you ever written a boring scene? Of course! We all have. It’s called a first draft. Today, though, I’m talking about scenes that have snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions and yet are better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

When presented with a scene like this a writer has two choices: cut it and send it to the great recycle bin in the sky or make it work. One way to make a lifeless scene work is to add conflict.

On Monday, I began looking at how conflict can add interest to what would otherwise be a boring scene by examining a scene from Michael Bay’s movie, "The Rock." Today I’m going to talk about Chris Winkle’s article: “Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story."

1. Put the good guys and gals in a jar and shake!

Give the protagonist’s allies deep and abiding differences. Give them differences that can make it impossible for them to work together, even though they're both--theoretically--on the same side.

The classic example here--it even has a trope named after it--is Leonard McCoy and Spock. These characters embodied two opposing states or qualities: Reason/logic versus emotion.

For example, this is a familiar scenario from Star Trek: A member of the away team has beamed down to a hostile world. He is in trouble. If the Captain doesn't intervene, he'll die. The problem: If the Captain uses advanced technology to rescue the team member, then he will violate the Prime Directive. (Like that hasn't happened about a zillion times!)
Spock: You can do nothing, Captain. To interfere would violate the Prime Directive. Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. The crewman must be sacrificed.

Bones: Spock, you pointy-eared hobgoblin, do you have ice water for blood?! He is our crewman; we can't just leave him out there to rot. It's not civilized, it's not human.

Spock: Doctor, I fail to see what his species has to do with it.

Kirk: Gentlemen!
Or the difference could be more light-hearted, Bones looking forward to the diversions of a pleasure-planet versus Spock's complete disinterest.

2. Ramp up the protagonist’s inner conflict.

Protagonists are just like your average human--even when they’re from another galaxy. They want things that are mutually exclusive. For example, they want their parents to be proud of them but they also want to live their own lives as they see fit. Sometimes these two goals coincide--often they don’t.

Spock’s father wanted him to attend the Vulcan Science Academy but Spock chose, instead, to join Star Fleet. His father was not pleased. It made those rare times when he stayed on the Enterprise especially interesting.

3. Have a strong rivalry between the protagonist and the scene antagonist.

Winkle writes that what is important in an enemy is that “their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s.”

For instance, if a scene is dragging but you don’t want to cut it then think about introducing an enemy, one whose goals and methods are opposite to those of the protagonist.

Winkle suggests that to amp up the interest you could make the scene antagonist someone who the protagonist hurt in the past or vice versa.

4. Cripple your protagonist temporarily.

Take a proverbial crow bar to your protagonist’s kneecaps right when he needs them the most. (This is what happens at the Major Setback.)

For example, perhaps the hero has something, perhaps a magical gem, magical powers or perhaps a person (for instance, his mentor) he counts on to help him achieve his goal. Take this away, take away his support system, and take it away at the worst possible moment. (for example, when Obi Wan Kenobi dies in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”)

Or you could disgrace your protagonist socially. Perhaps your protagonist is the CEO of a company that needs the goodwill of its investors to bring her plans to fruition. If she is disgraced, this backing will disappear. Alternatively, perhaps the protagonist is about to sign a lucrative, life changing, contract with a large company when pictures of her posing beside dead exotic animals surface.

5. Bring on the destructor!

Winkle’s subtitle for this point is “Unleash Disaster,” which is a much better subtitle, but I re-watched “Ghostbusters” last week and couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever played “SimCity,” you know the unholy glee of unleashing a disaster on your unsuspecting Sims. It can be entertaining to sit back and revel in the destruction, comfortable in the knowledge you’ve saved the game.

The same thing goes for your story. Winkle writes:

“There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are traveling. They’re also a great option if you need a conflict that only shows up once, then disappears.”

Well said! And it can be a good way of killing off unnecessary characters.

Natural disasters can transform a setting in short order, mixing things up, introducing multiple sources of conflict: food and water shortages, different and more severe weather patterns and of course all sorts of wild and hungry beasties wandering around.

Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story,” by Chris Winkle is a terrific article, one I highly recommend.

That’s it! If one of your scenes drags, how do you fix it?

Photo credit: "max" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 21

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Today I want to take a look at Michael Bay's movie The Rock and examine how Bay uses conflict to keep our eyes on the screen.

The Importance of Conflict

At the time The Rock (1996) was released several critics were less than kind. Though generally positive in his comments, Roger Ebert pointed out that the movie borrowed from: The Fugitive, Bullitt, Escape From Alcatraz, The Third Man, Alien, Die Hard and Pulp Fiction.

Nevertheless, Ebert concluded his review of the movie by saying:

"No matter. Director Michael Bay ("Bad Boys") orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense. And it's interesting to see how good actors like Connery, Cage and Harris can find a way to occupy the center of this whirlwind with characters who somehow manage to be quirky and convincing. There are several Identikit Hollywood action stars who can occupy the center of chaos like this, but not many can make it look like they think they're really there. Watching "The Rock," you really care about what happens. You feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that's part of the ride."

Roger Ebert, to my surprise, gave The Rock 3.5 out of a possible 4 stars.

I agree. I watched this movie to be entertained. Well, that, and to try and understand why Michael Bay's films work. (And, despite what his numerous critics say, they do work, especially at the Box Office.)

Here's why I think Michael Bay's movies work: Conflict. Namely, the expert management of sustained conflict. 

(That, and keeping the viewer slightly off-balance, not giving them a chance to look away. This, though, is more about cinematography. By the way, one of my marvelous Google+ contacts, +Chris Pitchford, shared this link to what I thought was a valuable, thoughtful, analysis of what makes Michael Bay's movies work: Michael Bay: What is Bayhem?)

In any case, as I watched The Rock I thought about Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and thought about how these tips/tricks could be seen in Michael Bay's work.

For example, Winkle writes: "Conflict is what makes a story interesting."

And I think that the success of The Rock supports that point.

For example (spoiler warning) the last scene of the movie has Stanley Goodspeed (played by Nickolas Cage) running from a chapel towards a beaten up old car. The car has a "just married" sign taped to the back and tin cans have been attached to the bumper via string. Stanley's bride--still wearing her white wedding dress--is behind the steering wheel watching for her husband. Stanley bursts out of the chapel pursued by a cleric who passionately accuses him of filching something. Cage hops in the car and his bride floors it. The car shoots forward, trailing streamers and a host of tin cans. As the car pulls away Stanley examines the package he absconded with: a roll of microfilm. The tiny package holds the governments most guarded secrets: Who shot JFK? Do aliens exist? And so on.

The scene is very short. The needed information is communicated--Stanley found the microfilm--but what could have been a fairly dull scene was turned into a spectacle, something that didn't give the audience the opportunity to look away--not that we wanted to.

And how did Michael Bay accomplish this? Through conflict. Through spectacle. The conflict: the cleric pursuing Stanley. The spectacle: a cleric chasing a groom out of the chapel he was just married him. Their getaway car trails paper streamers and tin cans. That has to be the worst getaway car in the history of movies! But that's just it, the whole thing is over the top. 

Cage finding the microfilm could have been dull. It's not like at the end of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where we see the warehouse that seems to stretch to infinity, providing another (similar) hint of mystery. It is as though the movie says: here are the secrets worth knowing. And then they are placed beyond our reach.

In my post on Wednesday I'll talk about Chris Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and explore how inserting conflict into an otherwise lackluster scene can help make it pop.

Photo credit: "Kidzilla Babysitting" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 16

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

I’m always looking for new ways to include conflict in a story.

As you know, a basic theme of any story is the conflict that exists between characters--as well as between characters and the setting/environment itself. One effective way of generating this conflict is to set up two sides with opposing beliefs. Today I’d like to talk about two such opposing beliefs: Harmony and Discipline.


According to the excellent article, Harmony versus Discipline over at,[1] those who believe in Discipline hold that:

People should seek to gain “a measure of control over themselves and in so doing the world around them.”

Discipline is “the belief that mankind can and should master themselves and their environment for the betterment of all. Be it through mastery of the self through rigorous mental and/or physical training, study, exploration or with laws and civilization, this rigorous pursuit usually advocates science, progress, capitalism, Magic in its intellectual aspect, religion in its intellectual and organized aspects, innovation, urbanization and curiosity. Discipline believes that Harmony is too focused on preserving and accepting, and is in fact defeatist by not trying to improve things, this is why Discipline tends to be active.”

But everything has its drawbacks. People who believe in Discipline can be prone to the following errors:

- Interfere where they shouldn’t

People who live their lives according to Discipline often don’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Develop a God complex

Sometimes a person can feel they know so much about the world around them and how to control it that they are, in effect, god—or at least a god. This is never a good thing.

- Sacrifice today for tomorrow

All we ever have is the now, today. Occasionally the followers of Discipline ask others to sacrifice their todays for tomorrows that may never come.


Those who believe in Harmony hold that:

People “should accept themselves and the world as it is, seeking not to control either but to coexist harmoniously with the forces in their environment.”

Those who believe in Harmony hold that “untamed nature, be it physical, natural or mental, is preferable and that mankind should not try to dominate or change the environment in which it finds itself. It [Harmony] believes that doing so is Prideful and unnatural, leading only to heartache and calamity. It believes that it is nature (be it Mother Nature, plain old nature, Sentient Cosmic Force, The Lifestream, magic, or even human impulses) that binds us all together into a greater whole that knows how best we should all coexist. Because of this outlook, Harmony tends to be reactive, correcting problems rather than seeking to prevent them.”

Like Discipline, Harmony has a dark side:

- A door to chaos

“Harmony tends to have a wild, uncontrollable and potentially destructive side. It's (usually) completely without malice, but that's cold comfort when a tornado or magically augmented mastodon tears through your house.”

Harmony vs Discipline: Increase Conflict & ‘Hook Into’ Setting

These beliefs relate to how a person should live their life—that is, what the best possible life would be like—and how the world should be. 

Interpersonal conflict as well as societal conflict

The dichotomy between Harmony and Discipline presents a way to amp up conflict in your story; furthermore, this is a dichotomy that science fiction and fantasy writers have been using for decades. For example, think of pretty much any episode from Star Trek, the original series (This Side of Paradise, The Apple, What Are Little Girls Made of? and so on).

Conflict between characters (as well as societies) and the world in which they live.

We all know that to tell an immersive story one’s characters must be ‘hooked into’ their environment—in other words, into the setting—and working with the themes of Harmony and Discipline is a great way to do that, one that many science fiction writers have used for years.

Example: Jedi vs Sith

Do you let The Force “flow through you and enact its will upon the galaxy? Or chafe at the ‘chains’ so imposed and bend it to your will?”

Question: Have you used the Harmony vs Discipline dichotomy in your own writing?


1. All quotations in this article are from Harmony Versus Discipline over at

Photo credit: "At The Water Hole" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict

What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes

To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question

When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary

Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

Monday, April 14

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

This post concludes a series I began in my last post: What is a Scene? 


E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, writes:

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development."[5]

Let's examine these two sentences.

a. The king died and then the queen died.
b. The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.

What does (b) have that (a) lacks? In a word: conflict. 

(a) is simply a statement of events. As Forster writes, all that a reader can ask--or wonder--in this case is "What happens next?" But, that said, I can't imagine that there could be any sort of genuine curiosity. One could continue by writing, "Then the page died and the cook died." And so on. One could relentlessly take out the entire royal court, but it wouldn't make an interesting story.

(b) is more than a simple statement of events. One can imagine that the queen had a goal: not dying. Something interfered with that goal. What was it? Her grief at the death of the king. (Here we have an antagonistic force--grief--rather than an antagonist.)

Conflict is what moves a story forward. If a story were a car then conflict would be its engine. 

There are various ways conflict can occur but any kind of conflict will involve someone or something who is being prevented from attaining what they desire. 

I think this is why some storytellers hold that the antagonist, rather than the protagonist, is the most important character in a story. But not to the reader. The reader is rooting for the protagonist (or should be). No, the antagonist is the most important person to the storyteller. Why? Because the antagonist is going to create the conflict that drives the story forward.

If nothing prevents the protagonist from getting what they want then all we have is a series of events. Alfred wants a piece of cake and gets it. Beth wants a cup of rich black coffee and gets it, and so on. Boring!

Without something to prevent the protagonist from getting what she wants a story would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The conflict should be unique.

Although we do want conflict--lots of it!--we don't want to go with easy conflict. We want conflict that is unique to our protagonist. 

For example, in every episode of the TV series, Monk, there was conflict. Lots of conflict. One of Monk's two main goals was to get back on the police force (the other was to find out who killed his wife, Trudy). Unfortunately, he was his own worst enemy. His obsessions, his compulsions, his multitude of fears and quirks would get in his way and prevent him from achieving his goal. 

One reason that television show worked so well was because the conflict was unique. It was a unique, believable, situation.

Internal Opposition

In order to have a conflict that is unique the opposition to the character's goals must be unique. In Monk's case, the unique opposition was internal. It came from his own limitations, his multitudinous compulsions and phobias. I mean, the man was scared of milk!

Monk was his own worst enemy. His catchphrase said it all: It's a gift and a curse. His uncanny abilities of observation were a direct result of his many phobias, his obsessions. If he lost them he would be normal, sure, but he would no longer excel at solving crime.

So if we see Monk's fears and compulsions as his internal opposition, we see that this did not change through the series. These were the same in every single episode.[6] That said, these fears, these compulsions, were challenged and explored in new ways each episode. The show was kept fresh and interesting because the external opposition Monk encountered varied from episode to episode.

External Opposition

Anything external--exterior--to the character, anything that stands between them and the acquisition of their goal, counts as external opposition. The man who gets punched by a boxer to prevent him flirting with the boxer's girlfriend has just encountered external opposition.

But this external, opposing, force doesn't have to take the form of a person. It could just as easily be a tornado or an illness. Or, as we saw in the beginning of this chapter, grief.

In a television show like Monk the external opposition usually came from two sources: the murderer and someone from within the police department who, for whatever reason, didn't want Monk on the case. These obstacles--both of which were strongly linked to the internal opposition Monk faced (his phobias and compulsions)--combined to form the storytelling engine that drove the episode forward.


The overwhelming majority of scenes end in disaster. Given this, why do readers keep turning pages?

It may seem counterintuitive but, as I've said, readers are drawn through a story because their hopes for the protagonist are constantly thwarted by the antagonistic force. 

Try-Fail Cycles

That seems depressing and perhaps a wee bit fatalistic, doesn't it? If the protagonist is constantly thwarted, if he never gets what he's going for, if he never achieves his goal, why don't readers just write him off and give up? Why don't they close the book and stop reading?

Here's why:

1. The reader keeps turning pages because the stakes keep increasing. 

It's ghoulish, but when there's a wreck on the side of the road people slow down to look. Even if it's nothing but a crumpled fender people slow down. Remember in school, if a fight broke out there was no shortage of onlookers. Similarly, in the circus, why do you think some trapeze acts used to be done without a net? Because it upped the stakes and, in so doing, increased the level of excitement, of curiosity.

2. The protagonist only failed because the antagonist was so strong, so brilliant and, perhaps, because the antagonist wasn't playing fair. 

In other words, it's not the protagonist's fault. The deck was stacked against him. 

Which is not to say that the protagonist should ever make this excuse. He shouldn't. He mustn't. He needs to blame himself for the failure even if there was no way he could have avoided it. Only the antagonist is allowed to whimper and shake his fist, spluttering: It wasn't fair!

3. It isn't so much that the protagonist has failed, it's that he almost succeeded. 

I don't have the space to go into them here, but in another chapter I will give examples of try-fail cycles. But, briefly, think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Lately I've been watching more contemporary movies, movies such as The Winter Soldier, in an effort to give you more up-to-date examples, but if there was one thing that Raiders excelled at, it was try-fail cycles.)

The hero doesn't fail dismally, he almost succeeds. He's so close to succeeding you could taste it. If it wasn't for something completely out of his control, if it wasn't for bad luck, he would have pulled it off.

4. Though the majority of scenes end in disaster and the major goal is never won before the end of the story, minor goals are achieved.

There's a sequence in the middle of Raiders that illustrates this nicely. Indy is trapped in the Well of Souls which has become a snake pit. There are a lot of snakes. Keep in mind that Indy is scared of snakes, that's his minor flaw, his comical--ironic--quirk. His goal in this sequence is to get out of the Well of Souls. 

That goal, to escape the Well of Souls, is what I'll call a sequence goal. A number of scenes and sequels are daisy-chained together, one flowing into the other, and his goal in all of them is to escape the Well of Souls. 

He does. (There was really no question that he wouldn't, it was only a question of how.) After Indy escapes--immediately after--he takes up pursuit of the story goal: finding the ark and bringing it back home.

Throughout the movie Indy achieves many of his sequence goals and he seems to get closer, at times tantalizingly close, to achieving his main goal. But he never does, not until the end.

As soon as the story question is answered, as soon as the protagonist saves the girl, finds the treasure, solves the mystery, that's it. The story is over. Done. Before that happens, though, the protagonist will have all kinds of mini-goals. He'll fail to achieve most of those as well, but he will succeed a few times. But only a few!

I'll talk more about try-fail cycles in another chapter and we'll look at a writer's tool I use often: Yes, BUT; No, AND

Thanks for reading! This post is a rough draft of one of the chapters in my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I welcome any and all questions and (constructive) comments. 


5. P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, reproduces Forster's passage, above, and then comments:
"To that I would add, "Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat." That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development." 
P.D. James' comment has more to do with plot and the respectability of the murder mysteries--the genre--as literature, but the quotation was just too good not to include in a footnote!

6. That's not quite true. In at least one episode Monk lost his fears, his compulsions, due to medication he took. Also, in certain episodes his fears became very much worse. But for the most part, his fears and phobias--his psychological condition--did not change. 

Saturday, April 12

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Jim Butcher describes a scene as the place "where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal [...] he is engaged in a SCENE."[2]

Dwight V. Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer that a scene is a "blow by blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."[1]

Jack Bickham in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us a warning. He holds that one of the most important aspects of a scene is its continuous nature. A writer develops the "action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story."

What elements do these three descriptions have in common? I think it's this: a scene centers around an uninterrupted conflict between two opposing forces. One very important thing: in a scene there is no exposition. No flashbacks. No information dumps. The action is uninterrupted.

The goal of the scene is to draw your readers into the story, to capture their interest, to get them to ask not only what happens next but to wonder why it happened.

Here's how Dwight V. Swain sums up the core, the essence, of a scene: 

Goal --> Conflict --> Disaster

Let's look at each of these.


Every scene needs two opposing forces, a protagonist and an antagonist (or, more generally, an antagonistic force).[3] Each scene needs someone who wants something desperately as well as someone, or something, who is just as desperate to stop them getting it. 

The goal should be specific.

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy lottery tickets! Or, if you're writing a crime story, perhaps the protagonist figures out a way to rig the lottery.

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The goal should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the scene.

The protagonist's goal should be clearly spoken or demonstrated at the beginning of the scene. There are two things here: first, the goal should be clearly and simply expressed and, second, such expression should occur at the beginning of the scene. As I wrote that sentence it seemed too obvious to state but then I remembered all the stories languishing under my bed in which I didn't follow that advice. 

The scene question.

Every scene should, implicitly, ask the question: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving their goal?

In a scene, any scene, the protagonist sets out to do something. Something specific. Something concrete. But his efforts are opposed. The antagonist has a goal too, and she can't achieve that goal if the protagonist does. So there's a problem. There's conflict.

This is good because now we've created uncertainty. The reader is (hopefully) wondering whether, and how, the protagonist will circumvent the opposition and get closer to achieving their goal.  If so, we've created suspense. It is this opposition between the major characters, this uncertainty, that will create suspense and keep readers turning pages.

The protagonist (and antagonist) must want something desperately.

Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer notes that characters, like people, have three kinds of wants: to possess something, relief from something or revenge for something.

P.D. James in her marvellous book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."

Whatever the character wants, they must be willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it; possibly everything. Their sanity, even their life. Why? Because as a story progresses the opposition the protagonist faces must increase. At a certain point the protagonist's pursuit of their goal will lack plausibility unless they have a strong desire, and a strong motive, to achieve that goal. 

This is where character development is so very important. If what the character wants grows out of who the character is, out of their deepest desires and drives, then--when these drives are linked up to the goal--it will be plausible that the character will be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that goal.

I'm going to leave off here. On Monday I'll finish this post and talk about the roles of both conflict and disaster in creating a scene.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)


1. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
2. Jim Butcher, Scenes, on
3. I didn't want to launch into an in-depth explanation of terminology at the beginning of this article since that would be akin to giving an information dump at the beginning of a scene! But I do have a few things to say. In my book this part will likely end up in a glossary. 
- "Protagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and simply means "chief actor." Today, we use the word to indicate the primary character in a story or the main actor in a play. That said, many stories are told through different points of view (POV). Each of these POV characters is the protagonist of their own story. In this way we could talk of a "story protagonist" and a "scene protagonist." I tend to shy away from using these terms as I think they could be confusing. 
- Like "protagonist," the word "antagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and means "opponent, competitor, enemy, rival"[4] and is used to refer to the nemesis or main rival of the protagonist; the character who stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist often isn't evil or even bad (if they are then the antagonist is often called a villain). Strictly speaking, the antagonist is just someone who stands between the protagonist and their goal.
- The phrase "antagonistic force" refers to anything that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal, whether human or not. Tornadoes, diseases, and so on, are examples of natural phenomena that have been used as antagonistic forces.
4. Antagonist, Wikipedia.

Friday, April 4

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Suspense. Every story needs some. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Suspense enters with the question: Will the character get it?

Suspense is an emotional state created in a reader/viewer when an obstacle is put in the way of a character, one they care about, achieving something they desperately want or need. 

In Gravity (2013) Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) wants to return to earth. Alive. A number of complications put this outcome in question. At one point in the movie:

"High-speed debris strikes the Explorer and Hubble, and detaches Stone from the shuttle, leaving her tumbling through space. Kowalski, using a Manned Maneuvering Unit, soon recovers Stone and they make their way back to the Space Shuttle. They discover that it has suffered catastrophic damage and the crew is dead. They use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station (ISS), which is in orbit only about 1,450 km (900 mi) away."[2]

Unfortunately "As they approach the substantially damaged but still operational ISS, they see its crew has evacuated in one of its two Soyuz modules. The parachute of the remaining Soyuz has deployed, rendering the capsule useless for returning to Earth."[2]

In my previous post, Three Ways to Create Suspense, I mentioned that Lee Goldberg held that three things were needed for suspense:

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Gravity has all three. The space debris provide a cascading series of dangers to Ryan. Usually, though her situation is desperate, one feels there's a chance--perhaps a vanishingly slim one, but still a chance--to escape the danger. Also, there is a finite amount of time in which to do so because she is running out of oxygen.

Great setup.

I think this shows us something else: Suspense (a state created in the reader) is created through conflict. That is, suspense is created through a character's efforts at getting what they need/want being blocked. 

So lets look at the different kinds of conflict we can set up in our stories. What kind of conflict do we want? Is conflict 'one size fits all' or are some kinds of conflict compelling and other kinds less so?

Before I go on to examine that, though, I'd like to take a step back and quickly point something out about MacGuffins.

The Care and Feeding of MacGuffins

If you're not familiar with the term "MacGuffin" see my article The MacGuffin: A Plot Devise from Screenwriting or go to the article on

A while ago I read through the articles in Uncle Orson's Writing Class (I highly recommend it) and--though I can't remember which article I read it in--came across something to the effect that a MacGuffin was a thing that one's characters cared about (and, of course, something that doesn't need much of an explanation; treasure, jewels, and so on). 

The only reason I, as a reader, care about whether the character gets the MacGuffin is because I care about the character and the character wants it. 

Granted, if you're anything like me, many times the MacGuffin takes on a life of its own. For instance, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the golden falcon in The Maltese Falcon. But that's beside the point. Those movies work because what I care about is the character achieving their goal. I'd care about that even if I had no interest in that goal for myself.

Kinds of Conflict: Complex vs Simple, Unique vs Common, Interesting vs Boring

I made that digression--the one about MacGuffins being something that the character cares about--because I think it lies at the heart (or at least very near the heart) of what Lee Goldberg says about suspense. 

In a recent Google Chat Lee Goldberg said:

"You have to be careful that you're not going with easy conflicts. It's easy to have someone with a gun walk in, it's easy to have a hurricane or earthquake or monster. Those are cheap conflicts. The best conflicts are the ones that truly come from character.

"A cliched version would be the guy who is afraid of heights and has to go to a high building to rescue someone. You want a conflict that is based on character not conflict that could arbitrarily be applied to anyone and would work for anyone. You want conflict that is unique to the characters that you are writing about. That's how you want to invest the audience in what happens to them [the characters]. You don't want a conflict that is wholly exterior and homogenous, a conflict that anyone would find [scary]." (Lee Goldberg)

At first I was surprised. We don't know who our readers are going to be so it would seem a good idea to find a conflict that anyone could relate to: one's spouse and children being killed by a bomb that a terrorist set off, for example. Who couldn't relate to that?

Here, though, Goldberg argues the opposite. Later on in the talk he uses Monk, a character with an obsessive compulsive disorder who is afraid of ... well, pretty much everything! ... as an example. Not everyone is terrified of walking through sewer water. Yes, this is something we'd like to avoid; the idea is revolting; but for Monk it is terrifying. 

My point is that Monk has desires and goals and fears that no normal person--and certainly the lion's share of the series' readers--have. And yet it was a popular series, filled with suspense. 

Here's the key, the takeaway: Remember what I said about MacGuffins. We, readers, don't need to care about what the character cares about. (There's probably a better way of putting that!) We only need to care about the character achieving it. And if the writer has gotten us to identify with the character, we will. (I've written about how to get a reader to identify with a character here and here.)

A Technique To Build Conflict: Cross-Cutting And Point of View

Before I end this post I'd like to talk about a practical technique Lee Goldberg mentioned for creating suspense.[1] 

Third Person

Imagine a camera cutting between the hero and the villain, then between the villain and the hero. Cross-cutting in third person allows a writer to share information with the audience--in our case, the reader--that other characters don't know. Lee Goldberg says "You can control point of view to create suspense."[1]

First Person

Lee Goldberg continues:

"When you write a book in first person the essential element of suspense is understanding the conflict within the lead character. You have to establish who he or she is, what they want, what they're afraid of, what they stand to lose. And then create a situation where all those fears and risks come to a head. So if you are in the heart and soul of the hero or heroine and you see the events that are happening around him or her you feel the suspense that they feel.

"There it's a manipulation of the information you share about your hero combined with the conflict you put them in that's going to make that information have relevance.

"That's a harder thing to pull off. Suspense--I believe--is much easier to do third person than it is first person."[1]

Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg recently teamed up with Janet Evanovich to write the New York Times bestselling books "The Heist" and "Pros & Cons" and is now a #1 New York Times bestselling novelist. 

Lee Goldberg is a rare find, a senior writer who has done it all, and who still takes the time to pass along his thoughts on the craft of writing.

Well! That's it for now. If you'd like to sample Lee's writing wares, sign up for his newsletter and he'll send you a free electronic copy of "McGrave." It's a fast paced, engaging, and (of course!) suspenseful, thriller. 


1. Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:
2. Gravity, Wikipedia.

Photo credit: "The Race" by Vieira_da_Silva under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense

What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?

Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:

In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense

In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.

What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.

In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: raise a question

When we talk about creating suspense we (of course) are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where the suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, sure, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 15

Narrative Setting: Part Three

Yesterday I mentioned I'd read The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby. 


Truby has an excellent section on developing your story's setting. Even though I wanted (really really wanted) to finish this series today, I'm going to tack on another article and go into Truby's insights on how to develop a setting that will make any story more engaging. Here's a peek:

Truby writes: 

"To sum up this part of the writing process [developing a setting]: you start with a simple story line (the seven steps) and a set of characters. You then create the exterior forms and spaces that express these story elements, and these forms and spaces have the desired effect in the hearts and minds of your audience."

I'll go into what Truby means by a story line, the seven steps, and so on, in the fourth (and final!) part of this series. (The previous parts can be found here and here.)

Today, though, let's get back on track and talk about how setting can introduce, and increase, story conflict.

3. The setting of a story can be used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Let's look at what conflict is. Simply stated, I think of conflict as what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed/frustrated.

Many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is another character. But the environment can do this as well.

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains for it.

Big problem! Hanks family recently moved from the sunny, sandy, beaches of Sunnyside to Montreal ... and it's winter! Hank can't train for the competition so he's sure to lose. 

That sets up a problem, an obstacle Hank must solve, and all because of a change of setting.

Many times I forget to take advantage of opportunities to introduce, or increase, conflict the setting could provide. 

An example of using setting to increase conflict

Have you ever watched Mr. Monk? That show was fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict.

In the third episode of season one, Monk is introduced to the police commissioner--an important person and someone he will have to impress with his detective skills if he is ever to get back on the force, and getting back on the force is Monk's great overriding goal.

Monk's desire: to be on his best behavior, appear normal, and impress the man.

Problem/obstacle/complication: the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket.

Conflict: Monk wants to brush the crumbs off but he knows that's not a good idea.

Outcome: Monk can't help himself and brushes the crumbs off anyway.

Here the crumbs were used to provoke an action that not only shows Monk's obsessive-compulsive disorder but it also introduces conflict. 

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: a waiter stumbles, spilling scalding coffee into the protagonist's lap when he needs to be on his best behavior. How he handles this situation will reveal his/her character and could introduce conflict.

Does he turn it into a joke? Is he gracious? Arrogant? Condescending? If it happens just before a job interview how does he explain the stain to the interviewer? Does it fluster him? Does he shrug it off? Does it make him so distracted he can't complete the interview? Does it make him so angry he makes a terrible impression?

The trick is to always be on the lookout for opportunities to use setting to introduce, or increase, conflict.

Example: How setting can affect mood

Here's another example. Let's say we're writing a horror story. What mood do we wish to evoke in our readers? We wish to horrify them. What evokes horror?

In a sense, fear is acknowledgement of, or recognition of, the imminence of danger.

So, what evokes horror?
- Recognition of the imminence of death. Your death as well as the deaths of those you love.
- Recognition of the imminence of pain.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown.
- Recognition of the imminence of disfigurement. (Think of slasher films like Saw. Gorn.)
- Recognition of the imminence of confinement, of imprisonment. Of being at the mercy of an imaginative and well-equipped sadist.
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment. The imminence of destructive revelation.

What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? 

The Dark

The dark hides things. It makes the familiar alien. It manufactures the unknown.


The isolation of the hero means no outside help. They are stranded, all alone. If the hero wins and escapes the horrors, they will have to do it relying on only what is within them.


I think the best monsters--(for me) the scariest--are normal things that have been twisted in some way. I haven't been the same since I watched Pet Sematary

Speaking of the twisted, just yesterday, +John Ward sent out a link to this article about creepypasta. Here's an example of twisting a familiar setting to create horror:
‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

By the way, that's also an excellent use of the seldom used second person POV!

I thought that piece of microfiction nicely illustrated how important setting is to evoking emotion. 

The setting used in the above story is familiar. Intimate. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour, and the exchange took place while the child's parents were busy preparing for work? I don't think so.

Surprise & Disorientation

Surprise and disorientation are used to generate a feeling of horror and, often, setting is instrumental in this. The dark, the isolation, the monster under the bed. Think of the last part of Alien when Sigourney Weaver makes her way to the shuttle, running down the twisting hallways, expecting danger at every turn. For me, it was the most suspenseful part of the movie.

By the way, IMHO, a movie that did a terrific job of using setting to communicate mood, and using both mood and setting to demonstrate character, was Pi.

Okay, that's it for now. Good writing!

Photo credit: "2014-006 blue monday morning" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 31

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Chuck Wendig has written what is, I think, his best post on writing so far, and since he has written quite a few fantastic posts that's saying something. Here's his post (adult language -->): Ten Thoughts On Story.

Chuck Wendig's post has ten points, mine only has five and they don't necessarily map onto his points 1-to-1. In any case, there's a lot of great stuff to cover so let's jump in:

1. The three C's of storytelling: Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Here is how Chuck Wendig describes the essence of storytelling:
"[A] character you like ... wants something ... but can’t have [it] ... and goes on a quest to answer that interrupted desire ..."
I put the ellipses in the above quotation because CW refers back to his account of his son's first story. (It's a touching account, I do hope you read CW's article.)

Here's an example of what this looks like:

a. Desire/goal

Protagonist desires something. This something is/becomes the story goal.

Example: In Indiana Jones And The Raiders of The Lost Ark Indiana Jones desires the ark.

b. Complication

Something/someone comes into the picture that/who will prevent the protagonist from achieving their desire. Another way of saying this: someone else wants the same thing the protagonist does but only one person can have it.

Example: Rene Belloq, a rival archeologist, also desires the ark.

c. Conflict

The protagonist and antagonist are pitched against each other in a series of conflicts.

Example: Indiana and Rene enter into a contest, a battle of wits/wills, to find the ark and bring it back to their sponsor/patron.

d. Consequence

The consequence of the conflict. Usually there are three possible outcomes:

i. The protagonist achieves his goal/desire.
ii. The antagonist achieves his goal/desire.
iii. No one achieves their goal/desire.

Example: Rene is killed by the thing he wishes to possess, Indiana takes possession of the ark and delivers it to his patron in the US though, as it turns out, the patron is not allowed to keep it.

2. The essence of plot

This is how Chuck Wendig describes plot:
"[T]he actions of many characters hoping to gain what they desire and avoid what they fear and the complications and conflicts that result from those actions. A character-driven story rather than one driven by events."

3. Your character's motives, their stories, are the most compelling

Chuck Wendig uses Star Wars as an example:
"At the end of the day, the big story is subservient to the little one. The Empire and Rebellion are just set dressing for the core conflict of Luke, Leia, and their father. Or the loyalty of Han. "

4. Every character has to want something

Chuck Wendig writes:
"Money? Love? Revenge? Approval of estranged father? High score on rip-off arcade game, Donkey Dong? Motivation is king. It moves the characters through the dangerous world you’ve put before them. It forces them to act when it’s easier not to. It gives them great agency."

5. The scene: Yes, BUT .../No, AND ...

A story is told in scenes. In that sense, scenes are the atoms of story. (Chuck Wendig touches on this point, but I thought I'd expand on it.)

In each scene characters have desires, often conflicting desires, but there will be one thing in particular--some goal--they're working toward. By the end of the scene that goal has either been achieved or not (probably not). If not, then another goal has likely taken its place.

(Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.)

An easy way of remembering this is: Yes, BUT .../ No, AND ...

Yes, the hero achieves his goal, BUT there is a setback. No, the hero does not achieve his goal AND there is a setback. Here are a few examples from Indiana Jones taken from my article Making A Scene:


Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

(A bit later in the film ...)

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Scenes are chains of conflicts and setbacks followed, at the end, by some sort of resolution/consequence that (unless it's the end of the story) spawn further conflicts and setbacks.

As I said at the beginning, Chuck Wendig's article (adult language -->), Ten Thoughts On Story, is a must-read.

Photo credit: "Smoking Stonehenge" by Bala Sivakumar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.