Ok Imagine this:
A beautiful Japanese spy is sent a Versace dress in a box. In it is an invitation and the instructions for her mission. It says she should wear the dress to the party and infiltrate the upper VIP level where the mark she has to kill sits.
This dramatic situation came out of a story a friend of mine is writing and, as we discussed his story problem, the sequence kept on changing. This happens often in writing because you’re trying to tailor the story facts, the conflict essentially, to serve the broader plot. When it works, the magic happens in the audience’s mind. When it doesn’t, well, you start believing the old adage that you need to sweat blood to put worthy words to paper.
It doesn’t have to be that way, it got me thinking. A strategic mind can solve these story problems and there’s a lot to draw upon from the wisdoms of other story architects. But more on that later. How we solved my friend’s story problem was managing the way we generated ideas.
You need four story ingredients to design conflict.
All stories are about conflict, and a plot really just tracks that conflict all the way through to the end of the story. But if you don’t do that in a manageable way, you could lose your audience very quickly. So try this now. Imagine:
- The lovely Japanese spy infiltrates the party and gets to the VIP, whips out her infinitesimally small gun from her bra and is about to shoot the mark when there’s an earthquake.
- Or she jumps through all the hoops that the mark’s security put up at the party and finally confronts him, only to realize that the mark is her long lost lover.
Even though we’re using the same characters, the same setting and dramatic situation, things change quite significantly each time. If you break it down, what you actually have in each is a few ingredients that are tweaked in different ways each time to produce a new outcome. What you have is:
- A character or set of them.
- A plot, or dramatic situation that’s unfolding for the reader.
- A thematic implication, or simply what this means for the characters.
- And lastly a setting in which this is all happening, in this case the la-dee-dah party.
Now lets play with this. What if the spy wasn’t the lovely Zhang Ziyi (she’s Chinese btw) and was actually James Bond instead? That would change things, for instance Bond probably wouldn’t bat his eyelids at the bad guys henchmen to get into the VIP. He’d use his fists. That’ll change the way this scene plays out.
Similarly, what if the spy infiltrated her way past the henchmen guarding the mark, only to get there and realize that they let it happen. It was an ambush. That’s a far richer plot since it also exposes the mark as a clever guy in his own right. Now it’s good spy wits against bad spy wits.
And most people will expect the party to go up in flames as they shoot at each other. People running around, pandemonium. But an earthquake is totally unexpected. Of course it’s also coincidental in this instance since seismic tremors haven’t been setup in the story yet but we’ll ignore that for now.
But if it was an earthquake and the spy faces the mark, who looks right back at her, and they both say at the same time that life is too short for this, the theme of the whole story sequence changes. They could become pals now, well in those last moments before the earth swallows them up. If they survive, they could join forces and bring down the big guys, whatever.
The point is that if you can see your story through these four basic ingredients, it’s much more easier to generate plot possibilities that help you express your theme. You don’t have to pull your hair out of your head because you have a story framework that you can tweak accordingly.
These four principles are common to most of the writers you’ll read on the subject of story. Larry Brooks for instance includes them as part of his story engineering framework. Brooks has two more, scene execution and writing voice, which are equally important and make up the presentation stage of story planning. With these four basic principles however you have the planning framework to articulate the conflict.
What is a story except for a well-articulated conflict? Even if you go back to the Greek storytelling models that Robert Mckee and others borrow from, what they’re really telling you is that the arc of a story in plot and subjectively is simply a situation, rising conflict to resolve it and finally the denouement in which the situation is resolved.
John Truby makes this more clear in his take on story structure. He says that the denouement of a story, what he calls the battle, is so charged with impact that the story world cannot remain the same. It must change qualitatively from when the story began. Truby is also one of the writer’s on story structure that includes the storyworld, or setting, as part of the dramatic choices you can use to generate conflict.
Think of stories with natural disasters like a tornado or hurricane. The antagonist in those stories is the natural disaster sometimes and sometimes not, but tweaking the setting variable in your story can really help to create conflict at a much higher level that just having characters beat themselves up.
Eventually the conflict is what makes the audiences toes curl, and that is why they read your story in the first place. They want that experience, and conflict is the tool to make or release tension. A story is an emotional machine and that’s what you need to design it to do.