Showing posts with label try-fail cycle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label try-fail cycle. Show all posts

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

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 a lottery ticket! 

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.

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if 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. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally 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, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)


Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, January 20

Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles

Writing a genre story: Try-Fail Cycles

Try-fail cycles are the key to writing engaging prose because they structure conflict in such a way that it creates suspense.

Try-Fail Cycles and Conflict

Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

Yes

Yes, BUT

No

No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes

People love it when they get what they want but, let’s face it, hearing about how you won the corner office is probably not a story other people are terribly interested in. I love it when I get what I want, but it makes a boring story. “I wanted a new phone for my birthday and then I got one!” 

Think of it this way, when families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? Who got divorced, who lost their job, who is drinking too much. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to your family, friends and neighbours.

Being told that, “Yes, the hero will succeed,” won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

An Example

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.

Boring.

Even if we give Bruce some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bruce’s wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bruce was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bruce jumped into his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

Still boring.

2. Yes, BUT ...

A hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull. Let's give Bruce a few obstacles. 

Bruce jumps into his car but it won't start. He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bruce heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bruce peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. 

His neighbor is being robbed!

Bruce tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bruce ponders this the woman turns and sees him. She is startled and screams something at him that Bruce can't hear through the thick glass. She pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bruce is terrified. How had a simple errand to get waffles turned into a scene out of Die Hard?

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bruce hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No

Answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. 

Imagine this scenario:

Bruce woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bruce tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bruce climbed back into bed. The End.

That’s just terrible!

4. No, AND ...

This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist fail to achieve what he set out to do but another complication is thrown in his path. The question is: will Bruce get a jump start from his neighbor? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.

Setbacks Create Conflict

Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: give your main character setbacks. This can be difficult! It is easy for me to get attached to my characters. I want to let them sleep in and eat ice cream, I do not want to create a fire breathing dragon to roast their behinds as they flee in terror. But no one said writing was easy! 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie Indy and Marion escape from the Well of Souls and Indy decides he and Marion must stowaway on the plane the enemy will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts are memorable. Let's examine the scene.

No, AND

Question: Will Indy sneak onto the plane undetected?
Answer: No. Indy is spotted crawling up the plane toward the pilot
Complication: AND a fight begins.

Yes, BUT

Question: Will Indy win the fight?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot spots Indy and starts to shoot at him).

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

No, AND

Question: Indy is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like Indy has no chance of winning. Will Indy, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Yes, BUT

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, Indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy, on the ground below, fights the Man-Mountain.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

Steaks Go Up

One more thing. The hero’s stakes gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge man he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire. At the very end of the scene a pool of gasoline rushes toward the burning gas canisters while the impossibly huge man continues to beat Indy to a pulp. Then the canisters explode and the whole camp, all the bad guys, rush to investigate. It's quite something.

The stakes go from high to higher to very high to insanely high and, finally, to something truly spectacularly high. 

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, pick a scene that captured your imagination and write it out. Dissect it to see how it works, how the effect was created. (It’s okay to dissect scenes, they can be put back together again. Just dust them off, give them a bit of milk and they’re fine. ;)

Thanks for reading! I'll have another post up in a few days, I'm trying for at least one a week. I hope to see you then. In the meantime, good writing!

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Saturday, April 26

Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles



One of the most useful tools or techniques for writing engaging prose is the try-fail cycle. The try-fail cycle lies at the heart of how to unfold a conflict in such a way that it generates suspense.

The nuts and bolts of the try-fail cycle.


For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four possible answers:

1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND

Let's look at each of these.

1. Yes.


Although in real life we love it when we get what we want, this is boring for others. When families get together at Christmas what's the gossip about? It's all about who got divorced, who lost their job. It's about the bad things--or at least the sad things--that have happened to the people in our lives.

Being told that, yes, the hero will succeed won't generate conflict. It's not interesting. 

Imagine someone told you the following story:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob promptly got up and took himself over to the nearest waffle house and ate a hot, flaky, buttery, waffle. The End.

Boring.

Even if we give Bob some motivation, it still doesn't help matters:

Bob's wife, Cindy, woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Cindy was seven months pregnant and hadn't had any appetite for the last three days. Her doctor was worried. When Cindy woke up wanting waffles Bob was overjoyed. "You wait right here," he said, "I'll get you a stack of the fluffiest, most mouth watering, waffles you've ever had. Be right back." 

Bob jumped in his car, got the waffles, and gave them to his wife. She scarfed them down in no time and everyone was happy. The End.

See? Still boring.

I won't write it out, but what if we gave Bob a few obstacles? What if Bob jumped in his car and it wouldn't start? He investigates and discovers his battery is dead. Bob heads over to the neighbor's house hoping he'll help jump start his car but his neighbor isn't home.

Bob peers through the neighbor's window hoping the man just fell asleep on the couch. Instead of seeing his neighbor--an ancient relic who shuffles about, his underwear sagging dangerously--he sees an attractive young woman he doesn't recognize. She's moving around the living room putting valuables into a sack. His neighbour is being robbed!

Bob tries to call the police on his cell but can't get a signal. He wonders if he should bang on the window or say something to the intruder to scare her off. As Bob peers through the window wondering what he should do the woman turns and sees him. She screams something at him he doesn't understand (it's muffled by the glass), pulls a gun from her pocket and points it at him.

Bob, a spike of fear raising goosebumps along his arms ...

And so on.

That's not as boring. I might be able to do something with that. And it's all because we didn't give the hero what he wanted.

2. Yes, BUT ...


As we've seen, a hero needs setbacks because if what he desires were handed to him that would be dull.
With "Yes, BUT" we give the hero something he wanted but introduce a complication. For instance, in my story, Bob's goal was to drive to the waffle house and buy his wife some waffles. Is Bob able to get into his car? Yes! BUT his battery is dead. That's the complication. 

By setting up goals and obstacles and making Bob hop from one to the other, getting in more trouble each time he fails, the story becomes more interesting. Why? Because character is revealed through adversity.

3. No.


For fictional characters, answering the question, "Will the hero get what he desires?" with "No" is almost as bad as answering it with, "Yes." We don't want to see our heroes fail. We want to see them triumph over adversity, or at least make some progress toward triumphing. Imagine this scenario:

Bob woke up Wednesday morning with an overpowering desire for waffles. Bob tried to drive to a waffle house but his car wouldn't start. Dejected and waffle-less, Bob climbed back into bed. The End.

Not interesting.

4. No, AND ...


This is very common. Not only doesn't the protagonist achieve what he set out to but another complication is thrown in his path. We saw it above. The question is: will he get a jump start from his neighbour? The answer: No, AND he has a gun pointed at him.
I'll talk more about this in a minute.

Conflicts & Setbacks


Your main character has goals, he wants things. But if he got everything he wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them. 

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the best sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indy finds the ark. 

Question: Does Indy find the ark?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT Indy is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it has been established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be that many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Question: Do Indy and Marion survive the pit of snakes? 
Answer: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay.
Complication: BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Question: Do Indy and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Answer: Yes, Indy crashes a pillar through a wall providing them an escape.
Complication: BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that seem to come alive.

Question: Will Indy and Marion escape the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indy needs to get it back.

Notice that after every goal Indy achieves there is a setback.

Another fabulous sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie occurs a little after the midpoint when Indy decides he and Marion need to get on the plane that the German's will be using to fly the ark out of the country. 

Indy fails in the end (the plane blows up) but the sequence of goals and conflicts create a memorable scene. Let's take a look.

Question: Will Indy commandeer the plane?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Indy is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Question: Indy and a bad guy fight. Will Indy win?
Answer: Yes.
Complication: BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indy (AND the pilot sees indy and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Question: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indy. Will Indy escape being hit?
Answer: Yes, Indy dodges the pilot's bullets.
Complication: BUT the pilot keeps shooting. 

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

Question: The pilot takes aim at Indy, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indy survive?
Answer: Yes, indy survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious.
Complication: BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indy fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Question: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Answer: No.
Complication: AND Marion gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I leave this chapter is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indy just wants to board the plane, then he gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indy to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's quite something.

Try-Fail cycles are present in every story. The next time you read a book or watch one of your favorite TV shows, look for the try-fail cycles.