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How to manage Rising Conflict in Stories

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

 

Staying with the work of Lagos Egri on how best to manage rising conflict in stories, this post specifically examines the role of transitions between emotional states.

Egri informs us that there are four such types:

Handling Rising Conflict

1. Foreshadowing (good)
2. Static (bad)
3. Jumping (bad)
4. Slowly rising (good)

Foreshadowed conflict should occur near the beginning of the story and should point to the forthcoming crisis.

In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are already such bitter enemies that they ready to kill each other from the get-go.

Static conflict remains unchanging, spiking for only the briefest of moments and occurs only in bad writing. Arguments and quarrels create static conflict, unless the characters grow and change during these arguments. Every line of dialogue, every event, pushes towards the final goal.

In jumping conflict, the characters hop from one emotional level to another, eliminating the necessary transitional steps. This is also bad writing.

Avoid static and jumping conflict by knowing, in advance, what road your characters must travel on:

Fidelity to infidelity
Drunkenness to sobriety
Brazenness to timidity
Simplicity to pretentiousness

The above represent two extremes—start and destination.

Transitioning between less sharply seperated emotional states indicates slowly rising conflict between characters. This is the more desirable type of conflict in stories.

Supposing a character goes from love to hate. Let’s imagine there are seven steps between the two states:

1. Love
2. Disappointment
3. Annoyance
4. Irritation
5. Disillusionment
6. Indifference
7. Disgust
8. Anger
9. Hate

If a character goes from 1 to 5 at once, this constitutes jumping conflict, neglecting the necessary transition. In fiction, every step must be clearly shown. When your character goes through steps 1 to 9, you have slowly rising conflict. Each level is more intense than the previous one, with each scene gathering momentum until the final climax.

Summary

Rising conflict that transitions from level to level is the best way to manage the strife between your story’s characters.

Conflicting Characters Sell Stories

Conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

A study in conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

The noted teacher and dramatist, Lagos Egri, provides some sage advice of how conflicting characters help sell your story.

Remembering that stories need to hold our interest from the get-go, he suggests we start at a crisis point—the turning point in our protagonist’s life.

In Ghosts, by Ibsen, for example, the basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which formed the premise: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” Every action, every bit of dialogue, every conflict in the play, arises out of this premise.

Egri states that the correct way to start a story is to involve your main character in conflict. Conflicting characters not only drive the story forward, but they reveal their true selves in the shortest possible time.

Forcing conflicting characters together is the best way of exposing them to a reader or audience. Opposing characters should be militant, passionate, and active about their positions. Egri calls this process orchestration.

Recepies for creating conflicting characters:

Optimist vs. pessimist
Miser vs. spendthrift
Honest vs. dishonest
Loyal vs. disloyal
Believer vs. non-believer
Agapi vs. Erotas

Diametrically opposed values make conflicting characters inevitable. Two perfectly orchestrated characters will oppose, or, perhaps, even destroy each, other depending on circumstances, making your story a page turner.

Although conflicting characters form the foundation of any good story, you should first determine why they can’t simply walk away from each other, while the conflict rages. Determine the precise nature of the unbreakable bond that keeps them together until the climax: is it revenge, hate, jealousy, pain?

Summary

Conflicting characters generate story interest when they are forced into an unbreakable union. As they struggle to break their bonds, they generate even more rising conflict that drives the story forward.

Character Motivation in Stories

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

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In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge examines the important topic of inner and outer character motivation in relation to story structure.

It’s important to note that much of the knowledge developed by the likes of Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and others, is aimed at the screenplay, but is, nevertheless, of direct benefit to novelists too. It is my opinion that some novels would benefit from the injection of pace and a deeper understanding of story structure.

Character motivation à la Hauge

Hauge reminds us that motivation exists on two levels. Outer motivation is the goal that the character, chiefly the protagonist, strives to accomplish by the end of the story. It is the answer to the question: What is the story about. Solving a puzzle? Catching the murderer? Winning the love of a beautiful woman? These questions and answers are all visible, plot orientated, outer journey motivations.

Inner character motivation, by contrast, is related to the inner journey of the protagonist. It is the answer to the question: Why does the protagonist strive to achieve her outer motivation? The answer always involves, at least in part, the protagonist’s desire to gain self-worth and an understanding of her place in the scheme of things.

Because it belongs to the inner journey, it is, by definition, invisible and exposes its presence through the outer actions of the character. Inner motivation is more tightly related to character growth and theme than it is to plot, although it motivates, explains and impacts plot.

In The Matrix, Neo strives to understand why the world he inhabits feels wrong. He seeks to answer the question: What is the matrix? Having been given the answer to that question, he then strives to discover whether or not he is The One. Both these questions are fundamental to his growth as a person and inform the decisions and actions he makes.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s character motivation stems from his obsession with proving that time travel is possible—this in order to correct the error that led to the death of his wife. It underlies his every thought and action.

Here, then, are the chief aspects of inner and outer motivation, à la Hauge:

Outer motivation is visible, desires outward accomplishment, is revealed through action, and answers the question: What is the story about?

Inner motivation, by contrast, is invisible, seeks to secure self-worth, is revealed through dialogue and action, and answers the question: Why does the character desire the goal?

Summary

This post sheds light on character motivation as aspects of the protagonist’s inner and outer actions.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

Writing Dialogue Subtext

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

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Dialogue subtext, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning lurking beneath the obvious.

Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo. It is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

There are many techniques for generating subtext. Here are two more:

Dialogue subtext: the lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. Breaking Bad’s Walter White’s verbal interactions with Jesse are fraught with lies, denials, and tricker as he tries to keep Jesse under his control.

A lie generates dialogue subtext by creating a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, and the like.

So, when one character asks another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that a lie is involved because the answer is evasive—-it fails to answer the question directly, parrying instead, with another question.

Dialogue subtext: manipulation

Another useful source of subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well, It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred manipulates Jack into suspecting that Jack’s wife might be playing around. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are common generators of dialogue subtext. Use them to add depth and complexity to your characters’ interactions.

Thanks

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

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We’ve heard it again and again, character conflict is essential to writing stories that are page turners. It is what drives the story forward. Without conflict the story stalls and falls off the high-wire.

But how is character conflict achieved? Here are some reminders:

Character conflict checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem? Stories about a race of some sort contain such conflict.

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonist’s inner and outer goals? In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos has to resolve his inner conflict resulting from the suppression of past memories in order to survive a category five cyclone.

3. Is the character conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be? In Scarab the protagonist has to decide between tempting the wrath of supernatural forces and the love of a woman.

Unlike in real life, character conflict forms the basis of most interactions between the story’s players. It gives rise to the polarity between the “good” and the “bad” events that creates the story itself.

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best? Having a bomb set to off at a specific time, or a runaway train set to derail at a certain point on the track, raises the tension and conflict in the story.

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation? Having a character killed off to silence him can have consequences that increase the conflict between characters.

6. Can you implement the opposition to the goal in a more dangerous, powerful way? Instead of having the antagonist try to stop the protagonist from attaining the goal by going after him directly, he goes after his family instead.

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the antagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal? In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s disturbing childhood memory of lambs being slaughtered allows Hannibal Lector to get inside her head.

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that increase the friction between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but this is a good start.

Summary

Character conflict forms the basis of all drama. Using a combination of two or more of the above-mentioned techniques will ramp up the conflict in your stories.

The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento

The fabula and syuzhet in Memento

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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

Every Hero Needs a Nemesis

The nemesis in Crash

Matt Dillon is a strong nemesis in Crash

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ONE of the chief functions of the nemesis in stories is to force the hero to evolve. Without the nemesis’ constant prodding, the hero’s effort to achieve the story goal is doomed to failure.

The Model Nemesis

Die Hard‘s John McClane is in a bad marriage. He is separated from his wife and is headed for divorce before Hans Gruber enters the fray, kidnaps a bunch of people, including John’s wife, and forces him to step up to the mark. By having to rescue his wife from the arch criminal’s clutches, John realises how much he truly loves her and what he has to do to save his marriage, which he does. Thank you, Hans Gruber.

In The Matrix, Neo is riddled with self-doubt. Is he indeed The One? The answer remains unclear until he faces and defeats his nemesis, agent Smith. But for Smith, Neo might still be vacillating over this world-saving question.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine is self-serving and unlikable, until he gives up on the woman he loves in order to contribute to the war effort. This is a huge shift for him. Were it not for Ilsa Lund, the opponent who turns his world upside down, he would not have grown through this sacrifice, remaining static and selfish — someone of no moral consequence.

In Crash, Terrance Howard has to deal with a series of problems concerning his wife, as well as with the specter of racism. But having to overcome Matt Dillon’s constant harassment, causes him to emerges a stronger and better man. Here again, no Matt Dillon, no personal growth.

Although the clash between the hero and the nemesis ostensibly occurs at the surface level, the level of actions and events, it is the effect on the hero’s inner landscape that marks its true significance.

Summary

The nemesis is the hero’s polar opposite and forces change in the hero. Ironically, and unintentionally, the nemesis teaches the hero the skills and values he needs to learn in order to achieve the story goal.

Actions in Stories

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

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IN HIS BOOK, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Telling actions need not only be about Godzilla crushing cities underfoot, or King Kong swatting helicopters from the sky. They can also arise in the most seemingly mundane or non-threatening scenes.

Small actions, large impact

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male, one female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up eating in a dining hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring.

Is the fidgeting an attempt to hide his marital status from the women? We suspect so.

Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger, clutters loudly to the floor, and begins rolling away. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring.

So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women from whom he was he was trying to hide the ring in the first place!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with large action in stories, there should be a liberal sprinkling of smaller, well-observed action too.