Rules of Thumb

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, A Thousand Acres, Master and Commander, The Hours, The Help, The Hunger Games.

Conflict, crisis, resolution.

Ozzie and his Harriet
Ozzie and his Harriet

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

Well adjusted, happy people do not make interesting fiction.

A problem (conflict) is what makes a story. There’s always SOMETHING in conflict. Two people fall in love, BUT their families object… he’s black and she’s white…she’s old and he’s young….she’s got a PhD and he’s got grease under his fingernails…she’s married…she’s democrat and he’s libertarian…he’s a professional violinist and she’s Deaf.

The conflict can be between people, or not. Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. (It looks like the conflict is between Sue and this granddaddy of a trout that has been eluding her for so long, but it’s really about…. her inability to let go of relationships that are over; her lack of faith in herself; the doubts she has about going to shipbuilding school).

It's a Wonderful Life but he's a terrible buy guy.
It’s a Wonderful Life but he’s a terrible bad  guy.

Consider Mr. Potter here from It’s a Wonderful Life.   Mr. Potter is a flat character; we have no insight at all into what makes him the man he is. Good novels are full of bad guys who are complex characters.  You don’t have to like or admire a particular character; you can find that person repulsive, but you should at least have some insight into how that person came to be.

Sometimes a person or persons will be in conflict with a place, or the idea of a place. Other conflicts might be: A man and a machine; a woman and a horse; a town and a river. 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 his drinking?). But almost always, the conflict ON THE SURFACE is masking 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.”

Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways.

It might not look on the surface to be the case, but your primary characters have to be (at least potentially) equal. The power passing back and forth is what fuels the engine. It’s what creates tension and keeps the reader interested. 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.

A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal
in some way, and have some kind of power over each other.

With these 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 (see the reading list at the end of this page). If you study the diagram, 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.

conflicts come in all shapes and sizes
Sometimes a novel or a movie goes wrong, but you forgive it because some other element you truly admire (the beauty of the prose, 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.


Somehow, somebody changes. Maybe Mr. Deshpande now understands that he’s never really been happy as a sign painter; maybe George has lost his faith in the Goddess or the Mariners or himself; maybe Frannie goes on to make a life for herself without connections or money, because she knows now that this is possible; maybe a little girl has a sudden and unhappy understanding of what money means in the world; maybe Juanita decides to marry Ralph, full knowing that this is the wrong thing to do. Change is not always good or positive. Remember, healthy people who make good decisions are rotten candidates for fiction.

A license to lie

A good writer knows how to lie. What’s the sign of a really good, inventive, successful liar? Detail.

Question: So what’d you do for your summer vacation?

Answer: Oh, I worked as a roadie for Garth Brooks.

(Now, how do you pull this off?)

A. It was really cool, riding around in that bus.

B. I can’t talk about it, he swore me to secrecy.

C. My only job was to keep his hats in shape and ready to go. He’s got this whole setup in the bus, just for the hats. Brushes, spot cleaners, molds, the whole thing. And it was my job to have them ready for him, off stage, for when he soaked through a brim — you would not believe how that guy sweats. I almost got fired in Amarillo when a huge guy –must have been three hundred pounds, and he smelled like a dog kennel– barged back stage waving a toilet plunger and nabbed Garth’s favorite white suede ten gallon cowboy hat, the one Little Richard signed on the inside. I thought he was a janitor but it turns out he’s this nutcase who follows the band around Texas, just begging to Garth to let him play in the band. His name is Hewey Red Dog Cross, and he makes music with that plunger, you’ve got to hear it to believe it.

Writing good fiction is about developing an eye for the right detail.

Perfection is the enemy

Nobody writes beautiful, interesting, good stuff on the first go or even the second or fifth. You have to be willing to rethink and to rewrite what you’ve rewritten. Again. And again. You have to be willing to take constructive criticism and use it well. Get the words down on paper, and then the real work begins.