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

Wednesday, August 20

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap


As many of you know, I’m reading Robert McKee’s, Story. It seems like each page—certainly each chapterhe looks at an old concept in a new way, one that reveals fresh and previously unsuspected dimensions of the writer’s craft. Today, I want to talk about a concept McKee introduces, one related to but distinct from try-fail cycles: the gap. 

Try-Fail Cycles and The Gap


Try-fail cycles


We’re all familiar with try-fail cycles. The protagonist wants something. He tries to get it. A complication is thrown in his way. He circumvents the complication and forges ahead seeking the object of his desire. Another complication gets in his way. And so on until the end of the scene when the character either achieves his object of desire or is denied it. 

You see the pattern: desire, action, result. The protagonist desires something, tries to get it several times, fails each time because of a complication he didn’t foresee and then, finally, either achieves his desire or fails to do so.

The Gap


I think the gap is a part of many, if not most, try-fail cycles. Here’s how McKee explains it in Story:

“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective point of view the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected.

“This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen between his sense of probability and true necessity.”

An Example of The Gap at Work: The Matrix


Mckee uses the script from Chinatown to illustrate the gap, and it is a terrific example, but I’m not going to use it. Why? Because McKee used it in his book of course it’s a great example! Of course it works! Instead, I’m going to look at one of my favorite movies, The Matrix.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Matrix where Trinity is sitting in a room with police officers encircling her, their guns drawn, ready to shoot. Remember it? That’s the scene I want to talk about.

There aren’t a lot of try-fail cycles in this scene. Police officers try to arrest Trinity (as their lieutenant described her, “one little girl,”) and she kills them. Further, she kills them by doing things like running along walls and using visually stunning martial arts moves. (Later on she discovers that agents—beings who can kill her—are after her, but that’s later in the sequence.)

There are three perspectives we can view this scene from: Trinity, the police officers and the audience.

The expectation of the POLICE:
The police officers assume that, though this particular situation may be a little strange, they can handle it. After all, it’s only “one little girl.” 

The reality the POLICE find:
The police find a young woman who has a fondness for black plastic, one who is a killing machine.

The expectation of the police and the reality they find are way off. There’s a huge gap. That’s part of what makes this scene interesting.

The expectation of TRINITY:
Trinity is suspicious that her line was tapped but she believes Cypher when he says it’s clean. She expects to receive the call that will allow her to escape the Matrix.

The reality TRINITY finds:
Not only doesn’t the call come, but police officers surround her, guns drawn. She’s not worried about the police, she knows she can handle them, but now she knows the line was tapped. How is that possible? What does it mean?

The expectation of the VIEWER:
The first time I watched The Matrix this scene was an eye-popper. I suspected Trinity was much more lethal than she seemed, but I had no idea what form that would take. 

The reality:
The entire scene was extreme. First, it is not very often that one of the good guys kills police officers. That was shocking. Second, the way she killed them ... I don’t think anyone had seen anything like it before. The combination of martial arts moves and special effects was cinematic eye candy.

In the end, what matters is the reaction of the audience, but the reactions of the characters feed into this. As we watch, we process the reaction of the police officers. We understand the gap between what they expected and what they found. We also understand the gap between what Trinity expected and what she found. This all goes into our reaction, it adds depth to it.

Summary


One of the things I like about McKee’s way of looking at scene building—his notion of the gap—is that it emphasizes the inner world of the character. It focuses the writer’s mind, as well as the readers/viewers, on the character’s thoughts and expectations. In so doing, it emphasizes that this inner world is going to be at variance with the world of the story. After all, if everything was exactly as our characters imagined there would be no story; at least, not an interesting one.



Photo credit: "trinity river, fort worth, texas" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.