Cinderella Revisited: The prince speaks

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.

Drew Chial on Characterization

Chial is a new name to me. I have to look up his work because of this weblog post of his:  Why the best characters overshare

Really clear, excellent advice about characterization. An excerpt:

Launder Envy

We all know jealousy isn’t something to be proud of. So we code it when we vent. We’re envious of the beautiful person who nabbed our position. We just happen to notice how little they did to get what we wanted. We have a front row seat to an injustice. Sure that injustice came out our expense, but we witnessed it all the same. If anything we’re the most qualified to give criticism.

Perpetually envious people aren’t particularly likable. Socially adjusted people know this, but jealousy is just part of the human condition. The more a character works to rationalize their envy the more they reveal how much it consumes them.

His Twitter feed is full of interesting bits and pieces.  

PS His comments on characterization reminded me of an old post:

Shake my hand. Come on, I dare ya about distinguishing between author and character.

Ethan, once more

Recently I’ve had quite a few emails with questions about the Wilderness series. They are maybe four or five questions that keep coming up, so I’m posting this first, to provide some general insight into this phenomenon, and second, to point people to answers.

Here’s my philosophy about questions arising from a novel: if the author has to tell you, she didn’t do her job very well, OR, you need to think about the questions some more on your own. Because for every question you can ask, there are many answers. Every reader takes away a different reading, and it’s not for me to agree or disagree. So for example, many people have written to me asking about Ethan and the ‘secret’ that brought him home to Paradise and then motivated his proposal to Callie.

It’s not really a secret. All the clues are there, but for me to tell you would be forcing a reading on you that should be your own. I know what I meant, but you are free to read the story, read the clues, and come up with an answer of your own. This is the kind of question that makes a good book club discussion point.

Now, do people sometimes get the wrong end of the stick? Yes. If somebody tells me that Ethan was clearly abducted by aliens and suffering post-traumatic stress, I would say: huh. Really not what I was going for. I might go so far as to say that that person did not read very closely. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Having said that, there’s an older post that does go into more detail, and you’ll find it here.

Finally, here’s my general explanation of things: authorial confessions.


Digging down to Conflict

Update: I spend a half hour or an hour every day sorting through old weblog posts in an effort to bring some order to the chaos (for example, if you care to have a look, the FAQ section is actually starting to come together). But every once in a while there’s a post that’s been culled somehow from the herd, so I have to either do some research to figure out where it originated, or repost it. Today time is short, so I’m reposting this, after some editing.

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The nature of conflict in a story is so complex it’s hard to talk about. I’ve rarely run into a teacher or book that does a good job of laying out the very subtle manouevering that goes into establishing and building on conflict. There’s a good chance I won’t pull it off either, but I’m going to try.

People who are just getting started with writing fiction often take things too literally. Yes, you need a major conflict. A couple married seventy years who are thinking about divorce? Yes, excellent conflict. But how do you put that idea into actions, into a story that makes the reader want to turn the page?

You might set the whole story at the breakfast table, your two characters arguing and fighting — but that’s very restrictive for you as a writer, and really hard to pull off well. Your characters will give you an idea of where to start.

Imagine them sitting at a table with you. You are interviewing them.

Writer: Sam, can you tell me why after seventy years of marriage you want a divorce?

Sam: She’s too damn picky. She never lets up. I’m ninety-two, I think I deserve a little peace in whatever time I’ve got coming to me.

Sally: Aren’t you going to ask me?

W: Of course. What’s your version of this story, Sally?

Sally: Sam is selfish. He never thinks about anybody but himself. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a cup of coffee. Does he think to ask me if I want coffee? No. If I ask him will you bring me a cup too? — He makes faces like he’s got a sore tooth. For seventy years I have put dinner on the table. You know how many meals that is? 40,320 meals! And that’s just dinner! And he makes faces about bringing me a cup of coffee.

W: Any response, Sam?

Sam: There was that week I went fishing with Marty, you didn’t cook that week.

Where are you now? You know quite a bit about your two characters’ personalities, but you still don’t know what’s really up. Ask them one more question.

W: But you’ve been coping with things that irritate you — both of you have been coping — for seventy years. Why now? What set this off?

Sally: Mind your own damn business.

Sam: See, now she’s got nothing to say.

At this point you have the backbone of the story. Something happened before the curtain opened. We don’t know what. Sally is defensive about it. Sam is resentful. Maybe she lost all their money at roulette. Maybe she revealed an affair she had fifty years ago. She might want to move to Argentina, while Sam is comfortable outside Santa Fe. As the story unfolds, you’ll start to understand how these two communicate, and a lot of that won’t have anything to do with talking. So I could narrate a scene:

At dinner Sally puts a big pot of Carbonada Criolla on the table. It’s her mother’s recipe, which Sally brought with her when she came from Argentina eighty years ago. She serves Carbonada Criolla only when she really wants to irritate Sam, because she dislikes it as much as he does.

This narration would be the absolute wrong way to handle this scene, but for the moment I just want you to think about what’s the conflict of the moment. Any conflict of the moment has to feed the big conflict, or it doesn’t belong in the story. Does this scene about Carbonada Criolla move the story along? It could. Carbonada Criolla can serve as a big fat symbol for what’s wrong between them. Sally insists she wants to go back to Argentina, and she won’t stop harping about it… but on some level she’s counting on Sam to talk her out of it.

On the other hand, Sam always wanted to travel, and he likes the idea of Argentina — but after seventy years of saying no, he’s got to find a way to say yes that will save his pride. In this chapter or story, there will be very little direct discussion of Argentina, but you will see conflict on an every-day-to-day level. And each scene with its conflict of the moment moves us closer to a crisis in this ongoing struggle of wills.

I’m going to jump over the crisis for the moment and get straight to the resolution. You could be lazy. You could send them off to Argentina, and wave goodbye. But isn’t it more interesting to let the reader participate? If you followed the story of the HBO series The Sopranos, you probably heard all the controvery about the ending. It left everything up the air. Maybe a hitman was going to come through the door and shoot Tony; maybe the FBI was going to arrest him on some charges that he won’t be able to sidestep; maybe he’ll just have a dinner with his family. As the viewer, you take everything you know about the characters and what’s happened thus far, and draw your own conclusions.

In a nutshell: The resolution doesn’t have to be a summary about Sam and Sally’s trip to Argentina. You can lead the reader up to that point, and if you are devious enough, you can leave the question for them to answer. Here are some possible very symbolic final scenes to this story — each of which provides a very different idea of the story that went before it:

Sam goes into a travel agency and asks for brochures about visiting Sweden.

Sally calls her awful sister in Argentina and says she’s sending her a first class, one way ticket to Sante Fe.

Sam opens a book to find a photo of Sally when she was twenty-one.

Dinner time, and Sally puts Carbonada Criolla on the table.

Sam buys a bathing suit.

So what we’ve done here is: we’ve got our characters fleshed out and moving around. And we’ve got the resolution. With only this much, a whole story can blossom into being. I realize this may not be very clear at this point, but bear with me a little longer.

Yesterday you put down some thoughts about a character based only on a photograph. Today you’re going to think up five possible symbolic resolutions — not for your character, but in isolation. These symbolic resolutions may not be huge or emotional events; they may not be completely passive, either. Here are some examples:

(character unknown) …. buys a red velvet cape. …. jumps the stile instead of paying the subway fare …. takes a half eaten sandwich out of a public trash bin and tucks it in his/her pocket

resolutions that won’t work: Character X gets run over by a train (too big); brushes her teeth (too little).

Tomorrow I’ll pair the characters with yesterday’s exercise with resolutions from today’s. You’ll be astounded at what pops out of the Story Machine.