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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.

Summary

Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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The strength of language

Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.
Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.

SOME of the most useful writing advice for harnessing the strength of language comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially insightful book, The Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete. Among the greatest practitioners of this skill are the immortals— Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is powerful because their words render up experiences that are just that—specific, definite and concrete.

“Harness the strength of language by studying it diligently in the authors you admire, but also through inspirational gems such as Elements of Style.”

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known, but accomplished writer:

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the use of concrete and specific language. This language can not only evoke a felt experience in short stories and novels, it can also do so in the ‘action block’ of screenplays. Here brief, specific, and concrete description adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

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Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

Strength of language

How symbolic ascension makes your story universal

A story replete with symbolic ascension!

What is symbolic ascension?

Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent. 

If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly. 

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills. 

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken). 

Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

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Symbols – how they operate in stories

The power of symbols is clearly in evidence in Shutter Island
The power of symbols is evident in Shutter Island.

Symbols are narrative objects that have significance over and above their denotative presence in a story.

They manifest as audio-visual images, which recur throughout the story. Each iteration is an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your tale. These images function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story (denotative), but they are also reflections, or symbols, of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape (connotative).

In Shutter Island, symbols add resonance and depth to the story by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

“Symbols are representations of elements that have significance beyond their denotative aspect.”

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of his inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders in all of us.

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them. The piano perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.

Summary

Symbols are images in narrative that point to a significance beyond their denotative aspect.

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How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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Multidimensional conflict in stories

In his book, Story, Robert McKee writes that multidimensional conflict arises as the protagonist moves from the inciting incident towards the turning point at the end of act one.

The conflict persists in act II, but the second act, being the longest stretch of the story, needs to add complexity to the conflict in order to sustain and escalate it.

But how is complexity added, and what is it, exactly?

Complexity, according to McKee, springs from the interaction between three layers of conflict: inner, personal, and extra-personal.

“Complexity arises when a character undergoes multidimensional conflict.”

In Kramer Vs. Kramer, for example, Ted Kramer, whose wife has left him and his son, is torn by inner conflict. He loves his son, but is afraid that he is in over his head. Can he bring up the child on his own? 

Additionally, he experiences, at least initially, a personal conflict with the boy who is terrified that he will starve without his mother to feed him. Ted has a hard time pacifying the hysterical child. The personal conflict will increase later when Joanna, Ted’s deserting wife, reappears on the scene and demands her son back.

Ted, also experiences extra-personal conflict—conflict with his enviroment. The kitchen, for example, is presented as a dangerous, alien place for the inexperienced father. Ted does his best to feign confidence. Things, however, degenerate rapidly as is he tries to fry eggs for his son. 

As the ill-equipped Kramer struggles with these internal and external forces that threaten to defeat him, comedy turns into pathos.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, too, is beset by complex internal and external conflicts. Years of deep-seated guilt, an almost intractable mathematical problem, and an approaching category-five cyclone threaten his life. As the cyclone rages around him he tries to resolve se complex conflicts in order to survive.

Summary

Narrative complexity arises when a character experiences inner, personal, and extra-personal strife, resulting in multidimensional conflict.

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How to humanise animals, toys, and objects.

Toy Story is a master class on how to humanise non-human characters.

We sometimes need to humanise non-human characters in the stories we write—animals, toys, robots, piggy banks.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that we achieve depth in human characters by highlighting their human attributes. 

But if we were to highlight the non-human attributes of, say, dogs—barking louder or digging faster to get a buried bone, we would not make them more likable. To achieve that we would have to give them some human characteristics.

We would need to do at least three things:

1. Choose one or two attributes that help create character identity.

2. Understand the associations the reader or audience brings to the character.

3. Create a strong context for the character(s).

“We humanise non-human characters every time we have them reveal values, traits and emotions that we recognise as human—even if they emanate from teapots, clocks, dogs or cats.”

In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this clever move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.

A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He has a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehension of the unknown.

In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, evokes the same sort of fear, mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel. 

Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is crucial in creating and positioning such characters in your stories, and in the market place.

Summary

Humanise non-human characters by having them act in a way that reveals human emotions, values and actions.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

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The kind of writer I want to be …

Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?
Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?

One of the most important questions to ask yourself as you commence your pursuit of writing excellence is what kind of writer you want to be?

If you can’t answer this question off the bat, then ask yourself, what type of movies and novels do you enjoy? Art films and literary novels, or action-packed, genre-driven stories? The Piano and The Spire, or Fast and Furious and Gone Girl? The answer to this second question will nudge you into answering the first one—at least at this point of your writing journey.

“Don’t try to imitate writing that is popular, but is not to your taste. Write what you love to read or watch.”

Generally speaking, popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey—the visible struggle of the hero to attain some tangible goal: to save the world or his family; to uncover a hidden treasure; to overcome a difficult challenge and be rewarded with fame and fortune. 

Literary writing, by contrast, focuses on the inner journey—the hero’s struggle to achieve growth while being pitted against outer challenges, which lack the spectacle of, say, an alien invasion, but are nonetheless hugely impactful to the hero. John Steinbeck’s 1974 novel, The Pearl, for example, tells of the discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in.

Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between literary depth and an exciting plot. Lord of the Rings is a good example of this.

For those of us who enjoy a good, rollicking yarn, but yearn for some deeper meaning, striking this balance is helpful. Enjoying stories that excite us through spectacle and momentum does not mean that we can’t delve into the human heart and spirit, too. A balanced approach invokes characters who dream, suffer and hope, as much as it invokes exciting and imaginative action.

Summary

Discover the kind of writer you are, then be guided by the sort of stories you like to watch or read.

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Layered writing

Layered writing in Moulin Rouge
Layered writing in Moulin Rouge

A common weakness amongst student writers is a lack of layered writing. In its place is an indulgence of dialogue and action that plays off on the surface, at the level of plot—with more telling than showing.

Typically, this is external action without the sense of an inner life. To remedy this weakness I advise that writers create internal conflict as something that the reader or audience is made aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, or fear because they will be privy to something that the character may only become aware of later.

“Layered writing means that a story is driven by the inner life of the characters as much as it is by their external challenges.”

My advice to new writers, therefore, is to write scenes where the action is motivated not only by external goals, but by secrets, wounds and suppressed desires, too, though the characters themselves are often unaware of the truth, creating dramatic irony.

In Moulin Rouge, Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, he might be murdered by the Duke who wants her for himself. So, to protect him, she lies to him, declaring that she does not love him, but will marry the Duke instead. The audience knows that this lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, who is devastated by this.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American mathematician, dreams of one day solving an equation that proves that time travel to the past is possible. But as we realise that Benjamin is well past his prime and is unlikely to ever achieve this, our compassion for him grows.

In both examples, it is what lies under the surface that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the external action is supported by the inner life of the characters makes for engaging stories.

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