It has been said often enough that stories are about conflict. Story structure is the tool to use to articulate that conflict and that eventually plays out in your plot with scenes and emotional values. But it’s easy to just get lost in all that those little details if you don’t have an inkling of how the grander conflict is playing out – the story at the macro level.
Quite plainly this is protagonist against antagonist in the proverbial death-match. A map to articulate their punch and counter-punches creates clarity for the audience and is a story lesson that has helped me plenty during writing.
It’s Your Story
Making sense of this got me pretty confused when I started writing. I also think it’s one of the big questions that plague writers. When you’re not adept to your own style yet and learning from the experts, there seems to be ‘a right way’ hidden between the lines of their words. It’s like the Da Vinci Code to getting your work in front of producers or publishers so you pay close attention, and I remember reading one guys comments about Robert Mckee’s book ‘Story’. He said he couldn’t write after reading it.
In my opinion it’s a dumb question we ask ourselves because they all are right. The only right way is your way because you’re the author of the story and obliged to carry it’s vision. Still, you could be reading this and I could unwittingly be damaging your creativity the way the guy above experienced if you gave me that power over your creativity. Surgeon General’s Warning: Don’t do it.
That said, make sure you know how to present the story to the audience sensibly, and the way you do that is articulating the grander conflict between black and white in your story. I say black and white because story is, in that way, blatantly judgmental. You have to tell your audience who the good and bad guys are, and then make them fight over whatever the story goal is.
The Audience POV
For instance if you’re writing a screenplay there are certain beats you have to hit at certain page numbers to make the story evident to the producers. They use that to gauge commercial viability, casting and production value. And similarly in the book publishing world, where story models are more forgiving, you’ve got to get the basics of conflict into your story. Things like what characters want, who’s fighting them for it, and what the stakes for each are is what the macro conflict is about. Without it, the audience is lost and your sixty thousand words wont be considered for publication, or worse not a story at all.
Now you need some form of structural tool to accomplish this, and I like the ones from Larry Brooks and John Truby best. The ‘Save the Cat’ beatsheet is also a great resource here if you see things in terms of a narrative rather than stray events stuck together with glue the way screenwriters do.
But no matter which you like, all these story structural models really relate to just one thing: conflict. It tells the reader what the conflict is, why its there, and how it’s playing out among other details. Think about it in terms of your own life. Life is uncertain and many times when you have decisions to make you may fetter some because you don’t have all the information you need to make those decisions. As in life, so in story. The audience needs to know and understand why what is happening is happening the way its happening…quite a tongue-twister that huh!
The tool to bloom that in the audiences mind is the desire-line of the story. You may know it as the inciting incident but it’s the most important part of your story because it sets up the desire upon which the whole conflict hangs. Frodo must throw the ring into mount Doom (Lord of the Rings) is probably the most obvious example I can think of. At this point the quest is defined and, no matter how things swing this way and that, by the end of the story the reader knows whether the character’s achieved what they set out to do or not. All conflict in story emanates from this desire.
Let’s shift to how this applies in real life by looking at the writings of enlightened masters. Zen is ultimately the quest to transcend the personality given to you by the outside world through cultural conditioning, habits and other rubbish you picked up along the way. Life can get pretty confusing when you know you want something but nothing you do to get it seems to work. There’s a conflict there, inner and outer in most instances.
But behind being, doing or having something (to quip the personal development chaps) is always a desire. It’s a strong feeling inside to get what you want because you believe that it’ll improve you or your life. Desires are the building blocks of your personality and skew true vision because they’re fixated on whatever it is you want so intensely that you can’t see anything else. You get tunnel vision, so its no surprise that desires themselves often stand in the way of you getting what you want, but that’s a different story.
The point is, in human nature at least, that what your desires represent is both what you want and don’t want in your life. Those judgments drive your actions. When you have a desire, you act in a way to move forward in achieving it. You battle others you perceive as standing in your way. You get desperate and sometimes slide morally in pursuit of it. Others may even criticize what you’ve become. All these episodes are elements of the conflict that make up story structure and is the content you hang on your story spine as you take your audience through the journey of accomplishing the character’s desire – or not. And that is how conflict plays out in stories, through desire.
When Alan Watts spoke about it, he said desire was the feeling of psychological stuckness people experience. In story however, these emotional values can only really be communicated well if shown in the context of a desire. So what if someone got hacked to death. Every day life is more brutal. But if the guy’s desire was to go rescue his child from an orphanage, then it’s truly horrific that he got hacked to death along the way.
So it’s because of human desire that conflict is a part of story. Conflict, inner or outer, reflects life in its spiritual reality or objective projection. Either way, it’s how we understand the world because that’s how things unfold in time. It appears as cause and consequence, and is how we make meaning of life. So when a guy has a desire to save his child from abandonment and travels to the orphanage only to get hacked to death along the way, you could use that sequence to emphasize what a cruel world this is. You could also use it to say that leaving your home is too dangerous, screw that orphan!
Also remember that your audience sees your story in the context of their lives and not otherwise. They simply don’t have another frame of reference to life unless your audience are fish or rodents or have the perspective of enlightened Zen masters. Structural models that help choreograph the conflict are achieving this for you.
Structural Models For Desire
For instance I love Larry Brooks model of a setup, a response to it, then an effort to achieve the desire, and finally the resolution. These four stages relate to different emotional states too. They are the orphan, wanderer, warrior and martyr respectively. Look at all those archetypes Joseph Campbell is talking about and its pretty much the same, just articulated into the hero’s journey which has 12 similar beats that detail it. Sid Field borrows heavily from that as does Robert Mckee. But others go into a lot more detail. The inventors of Dramatica for instance also use four parts of conceptual conflict while John Truby goes all the way with twenty two steps.
The basic are quite simple though no matter which model you use. A character is in a situation, thats part one, the setup. Then while he’s responding to the situation, and obviously not winning, he gets a punch in the gut from the antagonistic forces of the story. But that teaches him what he really needs to do to win and then, in the attack sequence, he counter punches. With the protagonist and antagonist more or less on even keel then at two thirds into the story the denouement is ready. Thats why no new story information is recommended to enter in the last part, because the reader already knows what’s what and who’s capable of it. Now the final fight is a battle of who they are, or their ideologies, or whatever is essentially at the bottom of the conflict.
Of course there’s a million little complications that you can add in, and still shape the conflict for a specific genre, but the fight, no matter what story you’re writing, is always the same because it’s reflecting human desire in life.
If you’ve been writing stories you also know that languages biggest strength is also its biggest pain. Words and ideas have multiple dimensions. They are malleable and can be shaped according to many needs. Too many options of course can drive you insane, and this what you’re narrowing down in the beginning stages of story planning. But if you look at a character through the eyes of what he wants, this becomes easier.
Writing It In
Crazy ideas inclusive, if you shape the story in relation to how it affects the desire of the character and where he is in the structural arc of the story, you simply need to shape it so that it advances or detracts from the desire of the protagonist (or main character carrying the subjective line of the story). That shows success or failure.
Ultimately, with a desire-line leading up to your story-goal, articulating the conflict is very simple. From desire onward, the structural arc of the story simply needs to show how the protagonist advances or detracts from his desire. That shows shows which direction he’s going and is a tool for tension. Then get him to the battle sequence and either make him win or lose, depending on what type of thematic premise you have.
If he succeeds in meeting his desire there’s a celebratory scene, a how the world has changed scene, and a finale. If not you’re looking a darker, more pessimistic, view and there’s a what I’ve learnt scene, a consolation, and again a how the world has changed scene. These tropes illustrate success or failure and can apply equally to the main character carrying the subjective line of the story rather than the protagonist.
Yes, you could say all this is prescriptive but I don’t buy that. It’s true value is a conceptual articulation of conflict and that can massaged any way you want. In fact as a writer, it’s your job to know how.