Have you ever been disappointed in a book or movie, but not been able to say why? This short intro to storytelling might help you figure that out. Revised from an earlier, ever evolving post.
At the center of any story is at least one conflict. A person can be at conflict with him- or herself; a town can be in conflict with a corporation or a bully or a plague; every relationship, ever, has experienced conflicts, small and large.
Of course, not every conflict is interesting.
Universal storytelling truth 1: Well adjusted, happy people do not make interesting fiction.
Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. Take Ellen, for example. She’s been obsessed with the granddaddy of a trout her father could never catch. Woman vs. trout? Or maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe Ellen has a hard time of letting go of relationships, has regrets about her last conversation with her father, or is having second thoughts about shipbuilding school.
A place can be at conflict with nature. A town and a river; a farmstead and a drought. A conflict can be very obvious and in-your-face (he loves her but she loves somebody else) or very subtle (can he face the truth about himself?).
Universal storytelling truth 2: The conflict on the surface masks some larger conflict. “I want you to pay my parking ticket” might really be “I want you to accept responsibility for me and everything I am.” “You never take out the garbage” might be “I’m angry at you for messing up my life and I’m going to make you pay.”
Universal storytelling truth 3: Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal in some way. It might not look on the surface to be the case, but they are. A woman incapacitated in a wheel chair, unable to feed herself, hardly able to talk, can be a powerful presence in the life of a young, healthy daughter.
Power takes many forms.
Universal storytelling truth 4: Conflict moves. The power in any relationship is not static; it shifts back and forth, and the friction is what moves the storytrain forward. This is how tension is created. This is why the reader turns the page.
Take for example the classic fairytale of Cinderella, and her story arc. But where do you start? Here’s a way that works for me: I sit down with the primary characters and ask them some questions, the most basic one of which is simple: an interview.
Me: Hey, Cinderella! What’s important to you at this point in your life? What do you most want, right now?
Cindy: I’d like a pretty dress.
Me: And why do you want a pretty dress?
Cindy: Because my step-sisters have pretty dresses. You need a pretty dress to go to the ball.
Me: So, go out and get yourself a dress.
Cindy: I have no money, and my stepmother won’t give me any. And anyway, I have all this housework to do.
Me: It sounds like your stepmother is a bitch.
Cindy: It’s all my father’s fault for dying.
So we started with the dress, but we ended up with a lot more. The bottom line is that Cindy’s life has been miserable since her father died. She misses him. She’s furious with him. She feels powerless in the face of her stepmother’s cruelty and stinginess. And she’s not especially smart or willing to think. So that’s one main character. We know quite a lot about Ella of the Cinders now, but we don’t know the stepmother.
Another interview will be necessary.
Me: What is your name anyway? I’ve never heard it mentioned.
SM: Of course not. Of course you’ve never heard my name. It would be inconvenient for me to have a name, then you’d have to think of me a a person. My name is Georgia.
Me: Georgia, can you tell me what you want right now?
Georgia: Yes. I want to be free of this house and responsibility for these teenage girls. They’ll drive me to drink. My own two are bad enough, but then there’s Henry’s girl. Married a week and he drops down dead, leaves me with this old junk of a house and his kid. I can just see myself in twenty years with three cranky old maids whining for more bonbons and Manolos.
Me: So really what you want is…
Georgia: I’m so angry I don’t know what I want. I’m so angry that every time I look at Cindy I want to pinch her. She looks just like Henry, you know. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t keep her here unless she’s willing to earn her keep. I need all my energy to find husbands for my two, or I’ll be stuck with them forever. Wait, I know what I want. I want to open up a kiosk at JFK. Perfume and makeup. I’ll get all free samples, and I’ll look good all the time for all the pilots and businessmen who go through the terminal. I’ll find a healthier husband. One with a lot of money, but no kids.
One more interview.
Me: We never really get to hear much from you during the story. What are your goals for yourself by the time it’s all over?
Prince: Look, I have to get married and produce an heir. And you know, this royalty business isn’t easy. Every day it’s something else: supermarket grand openings, new bridges to be christened, speeches made to Young Mothers Against Violence in Fairytales, the list goes on and on. I need a wife who can help me with all this. Somebody organized, who can prioritize. And who won’t ask me a lot of questions.
Me: Really, that’s all you’re hoping to get out of this ball? A wife-business partner-mother-of-your-heir? If that’s the case, let’s imagine for a minute that the fairy godmother comes to you. What would you ask her for?
Prince: You’ll laugh.
Me: I will not. I promise.
Prince: I want to go to college to study medieval German literature. You know, old those old Norse myths. Brunhilde and the Nibelungen, can’t get enough of that stuff. I want a library card and a peaceful life so I can read about Siegfried and Loki for days at a time.
Me: Um. So you don’t want to be a prince at all?
Prince: Hell no. But a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.
So now we know three of the characters. We understand why Cindy and Georgia are in conflict. The underlying anger, the resentments, the dashed hopes. Of course, unless we decide to give Cindy a backbone and a real personality, we’re going to have to inject another element to even out the playing field. We’ll have to bring in fairy godmothers or good witches or something to make up for Cindy’s insipid self.
If we pursue the story as traditionally told, we now have the option of continuing on past the marriage vows. And things don’t bode well. Insipid Cindy is going to end up with a husband who really wants a social secretary — something she has no training for — who will give birth once in a while and otherwise leave him alone. She’s a little dim, but she’s not going to be happy for long. And Georgia will have the last laugh.
Unfortunately, this interviewing of characters isn’t as easy as it might look. Characters aren’t always forthcoming. You can’t just ask the character what they want; you’ve got to figure out why they think they want what they say they want.
One tool you can’t do without: patience. This is not something that will happen in a hurry.
So now you’ve got the core of the story, and the story arc comes next. The basics:
Almost always, a satisfying story has three basic elements: conflict, crisis and resolution of the conflict. This is true of stories on a screen or stage or on a page. Think of: Romeo & Juliet, Terminator, Moby Dick, Emma, Clueless, The Help, The Time Traveller’s Wife.
With those points in mind, have a look at this simple schematic of how tension and story arc work together is adapted from Janet Burroway’s classic text on writing fiction, now in its sixth edition (click on the image to enlarge).
If you study it, you’ll see how power moves back and forth between the forces of good (Cinderella) and evil (the Stepmother). Kinda like capture the flag, but without the flag. You can take any novel or movie or play or episode of television and look at it in these terms to figure out how it’s structured (or where the narrative begins to lose its rhythm).
One of the movies I sometimes use when I teach this stuff (specifically because it is seriously flawed) is Notting Hill. If you think through the points above and try to fit that movie into this schematic, you’ll see where it goes wrong. An important point: sometimes a novel or a movie goes wrong, but you forgive it because some other element you truly admire (the acting, the cinematography, something) convinces you to overlook the flaw. But the flaw is still there, and figuring it out will help you with your own writing.
You could sit down and think up conflicts all day long. When I taught creative writing I had a little store of games that generated conflicts where you wouldn’t expect to find one. What conflict could there possibly be between a grandmother and a kitten? Between a soccer coach and the old deaf lady who is his neighbor? If you’re starting with a new character or a character you know very well, you still have to figure out the underlying conflicts — both the bigger and the smaller ones.
Good, balanced, healthy people in happy situations are sweet, but boring. You want to be related to them, but you do not want them populating the only novel you’ve got to keep you busy on an eight hour flight.