I knew what you were thinking, not because I read your mind, but because I led you there—with story. I gave you an experience that hooked you in. Fine, so far, but where do we go from here? We left me standing there, watching my wife talking to Larry. What's next? Well, I've raised your expectations, so I have to give you what you want—or something better. Let's go with the kiss. My wife says something. Larry laughs, opening his arms. They embrace and have a nice long kiss.
What now? She kisses Larry. End of story. Yes? No? Why not? I'm sure you know in your heart that it's not over. Your heart is a good guide. It might be enough for an obvious example like this—might be. But when it's not obvious, when the problem gets subtle and tricky, when you get lost, it's not enough. To be a successful story-teller, you have to know in story terms why a story's not over. So, what has to happen to complete this story, to give it a bang-up ending? How about this:
I figure, Heck with it. What do I care? Everybody cheats. Look at Clinton. Then I go in, we have a nice dinner, smoke cigars, renew our friendship, and wind up good friends just like before. A satisfying ending? Maybe the characters are satisfied, but we are not, and no reader will be either.
What I'm doing is playing around with the active ingredient, the one I'm trying to get you to see by putting it in and taking it out, by connecting you and disconnecting you—something you'll be able to do by the end of this chapter.
All right. If this story is going to hold anyone, I have to care, to feel betrayed and go in and do something about it. It could go like this:
"Hi, guys," I say happily as I come in. "Here're the smokes."
They thank me and both light up. Larry pours himself some Scotch.
"How'd it go while I was gone?" I say, flopping into a kitchen chair.
"Fine," my wife says.
"How about you, Lar? Enjoy yourself in my absence?"
He glances at my wife quickly. "I did," he says.
"Good. I was worried you might get lonely. But when I saw you through the window, I could see you didn't need me to entertain you."
"Well," Larry says. "We both missed you, and we're glad you're back."
"That's right, honey," my wife says. "It's not the same without you."
"Of course not," I say. "Say, hand me the butcher knife, darling."
"Butcher knife, what for?"
"No reason. I just feel like holding it."
"Don't be silly," she says.
"No, really. Indulge me."
"Will you stop?" she says.
"Stop what? You don't trust me with a knife? What is this: no sharp objects for the lunatic?"
"Very funny," she says.
Larry stares at me, smiling weakly.
"Afraid I'll hurt myself—slit my wrists—or my throat? What do you think, Lar? Can I be trusted with a knife in my own kitchen with my best friend and my loyal wife?" "Of course you can," Larry says flatly, then downs his Scotch.
"Damn right. Hear that, angel? Larry trusts me. He trusts you. We all trust each other. So pass me the knife, sweets."
THE CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE (Lifeblood of every story-and every writer)
All right, let's stop. The story's not over yet. (How we know it's not over, and what's needed to bring it to a satisfying ending, we'll get to later.) It can go in many directions. Each writer will do it his or her own way. The possibilities are endless. But no matter which way it goes, it must fulfill the basic story requirements, or it will fail.
For now, the question is: what's the difference between this last version and the first. It's not details. It's not dialogue. It's not emotion. It's something else, something I mentioned earlier, but sidestepped so you could experience it first. The first version—happy, happy, happy—left us cold. The last—trouble, trouble, trouble—got to us. What does that tell us?
FICTION IS A DIRTY GAME (No conflict = No story)
The difference between the first, dead version and this version is conflict. Conflict made the difference, but conflict isn't important so much for what it is as for what it does—what it makes happen. So, what did conflict make happen? What did conflict do? What difference did it make in the story? Can you tell? The answer is at the very heart of storytelling, and it's what makes or breaks every story. What conflict does is make the characters act. It forces them to use themselves—to act in a way that reveals who they are. Nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their troubles. Action is character. Whether they want it to or not, conflict draws them out. And that draws us in.
All right, it's time to pin it down, to give you a working model you can use to shape any idea into a story. This is what I was talking about in chapter 1, what I've spent years distilling into this simple, complete form—a form that's important not just for what it includes, but for what it excludes—for what's left out, for what you don't have to bother with.
In its purest form a story is just three elements: conflict, action, resolution. Someone is faced with a problem (conflict) he must struggle with (action), and he wins or loses (resolution). From climbing Mount Everest to asking for a date, from Romeo to Ahab to Scarlett O'Hara, the story form is the same. Romeo loves Juliet, but their families are enemies (conflict). They marry secretly and try to find a way to unite (action). Each commits suicide, thinking the other is dead (resolution). Ahab is obsessed with avenging himself against the whale. He must overcome his own madness and the sea (conflict). He sets out across the sea to find the whale (action). When he finds the whale, he loses the battle (resolution). Scarlett loves Ashley Wilkes, but he marries Melanie (conflict). Scarlett pursues Ashley anyway (action). When she realizes she cannot have Ashley and that she loves Rhett, it's too late (resolution).
These story elements are what you will spend your writing life working to master:
CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
All right, how about an ending to the scene with Larry. Is it hard to figure an ending? No. It's clear what has to happen. That's because the story has a real beginning, a dramatic beginning—a conflict. So, how are we going to end it? The first thing we need is a scene ending (resolution). How are the characters going to get through dinner—assuming they do. Then, after Larry leaves, the husband (me) has to hash it all out with his wife. That can be a scene resolution or the final resolution if it's the end of the story. How I work it out with my wife in the long run or fail to is the story ending (resolution). The story ends when the problem is solved, when the conflict is resolved. It ends with closure.
When you're having trouble ending a story, it's because you don't have a real beginning, a true conflict. The secret to endings is: The end is in the beginning. If the ending is your problem, look at your beginning. If the beginning is set up right, the characters propel the story to the end.
So, stories are about adversity (flu, alleys, cheating, knives)—always. Happiness is not dramatic. It never was. It never will be. Happy lives make lousy novels. Dealing with happiness is not the issue in life. Achieving happiness is, but not happiness itself. No one goes to a shrink because he's too happy. Happiness can be the resolution to a story, but not the story itself. When happiness does show up, we don't need much of it. How much happiness is in Cinderella? A bit at the ball (with the stroke of midnight looming on the horizon), and the moment when the slipper slides on, then cut to "And they lived happily ever after." That's enough. We don't care where they lived happily. We don't care how. Happiness takes care of itself. There is little room for happiness in stories.
So if a woman says, "My husband is totally loyal. He never flirts. He never looks at other women. He never has an unfaithful thought. Even in his dreams, he dreams of me. I never have to worry about him. He'd never cheat on me in a million years," what does that tell us the story must be about? His cheating. He has to —and he has to get caught. Otherwise, what's the point? You have a devoted husband? Fine. Good for you. We're not interested, because we want some action, and that requires conflict. Trouble, adversity, crisis get us every time. When happiness shows up, don't dwell on it. Remember: If the characters are having a good time, the reader is not. If it's going well, it's going nowhere.
To create conflict, the kind that's needed to move a story, you must have two elements—a want and an obstacle. Someone must want something and there must be an obstacle to be overcome to satisfy that want. Scarlett wants Ashely. Ashley is marrying Melanie (obstacle). Romeo and Juliet want to unite. Their families are enemies (obstacle). Ahab wants to kill the whale. The whale and the sea (obstacles) must be overcome. Both want and obstacle must be determined to overcome the other. If one is weak, you have no conflict. If Ahab got lucky and came upon the whale napping in shallow waters and harpooned him to death before he knew what hit him, no obstacle, no conflict, no story. Or if Ahab wised up and realized it was crazy to be risking his neck chasing the whale all over the sea (he's already lost one leg—did he want to lose another or worse?), again, no want, no conflict, no story. If Romeo decided Juliet was a fabulous girl, but not worth risking his neck for, no want, no conflict, no story. So, it's want + obstacle = conflict. You must have both, and both must be strong. These are obvious examples. It's not always so clear. One of the elements can be present but weak. When that happens, you will be straining and struggling to keep things going and never get there. The story must be driven by the energy and determination of the characters, not the author. The author creates the want and the obstacle and they do the job.
Conflict, action, resolution make up the story form. Someone said, "The form is the killer." It can be, but it doesn't have to be. For sure, it will be if you don't take time to learn the craft.
The craft includes two other basic elements:
Emotion: Since this is where the ultimate connection is made, the payoff, where we become the character (feel what he or she feels), we must know at all times what the character is feeling. If we don't know what the character is feeling, we won't know what we're feeling. The emotion can be suggested or implied. It doesn't have to be spelled out, but we must know what it is at all times. Now, the character may not know what he is feeling, may be trying to figure out how he really feels. Confusion. That's fine. That's where the character is, and we're there also. But if we don't know, the character's not there, and neither are we. Emotion is the most complicated part of stories. We'll come back to it for a full treatment later (chapter 6).
Showing: If I wanted to give you the definition of homely, I could go to the dictionary and find a definition. "Homely, adj. Lacking in elegance or refinement. Not attractive or good-looking." That's the idea of homely. Not particularly moving, is it? If I wanted to give you an experience of homely, to show it, I would have to put it in personal terms, to give you a specific person's experience of it. For example:
"She's a homely girl. I don't know where she gets it," my six-year-old ears overhear my mother saying to my Aunt Beth. I don't know what "homely" means, but I know it's bad. I run to my room, bury my head in my pillow, and cry. Eventually, I learn what homely really means. It means to be taken to the dentist for my buckteeth: "Can you make them straighter?" To the plastic surgeon for my nose: "Can you make it smaller?" It means I am dragged to walking classes, talking classes, and posture classes: "Chin up. Shoulders back. Enunciate. Smile." Homely means that everything I put in my mouth is carefully weighed, measured, and calculated beforehand so I don't take up more space than I already do. "Will she ever lose weight, Doctor?" my mother asks. "She's just a big girl," says Doctor Chen. Homely means that you see a look of disdain on the face of a mother who wishes her daughter could be a beauty queen. You see that look every day of your life.
There you have it. Which hits home? The idea or the experience?
If I say, "It was the worst day of George's life. He was so miserable, he went home and blew his brains out," do you feel for George? No you don't. Not because you're unfeeling, but because I haven't given you enough of George to make you feel. I've generalized George—given him to you in the abstract. I've given you the idea of George, but not George himself. I've told you about him instead of making him live, instead of making him happen before your eyes. I told you he was miserable. I told you he killed himself. But saying it doesn't make it so. The reader will take your word for nothing. You can't simply tell the reader. You have to show him.
If we're going to connect (identify) with George, I have to give you the experience of George. Show you what he's going through—how he's mistreated by his boss, by his friends, by himself. Show you how he struggles to have a life. I have to take you through his day so you can live it with him and think his thoughts and feel his misery. Only then can you become him, only then, when he puts the gun to his head, can you feel, No, George, don't, and shed a tear for George. Giving you the full story of George would take too much time here, but you should get the idea. We'll have more examples and exercises throughout the course, and chapter 7 is devoted to showing.
So, these are the five critical elements of storytelling: CONFLICT, ACTION, RESOLUTION, EMOTION, SHOWING. The first three define the shape of a complete story. Emotion is the critical ingredient. Showing is your basic technique to make your story come alive.
OK, let's see how it works. How we can use it to figure out what's working and what's not. We're going to go through three pieces of writing and see how to use these tools. As you read, relax and pay attention to your reactions, your emotions. That's your best guide always. Here's the first one:
Do spiders worry about sex?
A man on the television was talking about the way the world watches us, about how paintings are sizing us up, examining the brushstrokes on our souls. This may be why, in the presence of great beauty, we feel a vividness, a clarity, a recognition—because the beauty has found us, discovered who we truly are.
All right, stop for a moment. What's your level of involvement, from 1 to 10? How moved are you? Most people are on the low end at this point, at 3 to 5. Why would that be? Why isn't it at 8 to 10? From what we've gone over, can you tell what the issue is—what's not there and what needs to be there to get you hooked in a major way? What single writing technique might turn this piece into a gripping one? Remember telling versus showing? Ideas versus experience? These are ideas. Unless you really love these particular ideas, you're neither here nor there about them. You're neutral, and that's not high involvement. Of course, if they rub you the wrong way, you're set against them already. So, this is a good example of telling and not showing. Let's see where you go with the rest of it.
You notice her hair first. Not that you wouldn't want to spend hours in the warm lagoon of her eyes or learn the future by tracing her delicate hands. But it is her brown hair that men might spend hours devising ways to touch. A shade of brown that makes you long to be buried in leaves. An exquisite scent that forces you, against better judgment, to shut your eyes and savor. Hair that can keep a man from waxing the car, juggling, or building cathedrals. Your hands want nothing more than to touch it. But the beauty finds you first.
Do spiders worry about sex? Not yet. Not so far as anyone can tell.
That's all of it. How did the second part go? Did it get to you? If so, what did and where? Most people connect more with this second part. Why? Can you tell? First, because a person appears. We experience best through a person (even animal characters or Martians are personifications of ourselves). Also, there are a few striking images—"buried in leaves" and "waxing the car, juggling, or building cathedrals." Those are striking images for most people. They're real and visible. That brings us to another important point. The written story is a visual medium. Yes, good fiction is just as visual as film. Anytime you don't have a picture in your head, you're in trouble or will be soon. Stories are about the specifics of experience that we can see and touch. That doesn't mean you have to be highly descriptive or describe everything. You just have to give the reader enough so he can picture it. If done well, a few choice details can create a whole scene.
This short piece, as much a poem as a scene, is a good example of the difference between telling and showing. But what about the spider stuff? How does that tie in, or does it? Most people don't relate to it. It doesn't really tie in closely to the rest. It's a provocative idea and might go somewhere in its own right or be made to work if it were woven through the piece. If that were done, some literature professor might be assigning a paper on the meaning of the spider and how it relates to the rest of the piece (the black widow who devours the male after mating?).
This piece was written as a short exercise piece in one of my seminars. This writer had a knack for images and liked spiders. Another sample of his work is at the very end of this chapter.
Here's the next piece to examine:
I walk into the kitchen and every goddamn white-enamel, European style cabinet door is wide open. Pots, pans, dishes, bowls, glasses, paper towels, silverware, even the junk drawer has opened its mouth and let me inside.
All right, where are you with this one? Are you related, connected, identified? Most people are, and their level of involvement is on the high side-8 to 10 level. Why would that be? Well, does the character want something? Yes, a neat kitchen. Is there an obstacle? Yes, the place is a mess. Want + obstacle = conflict. Do we know what the character is feeling (emotion)? Yes, "every goddamn" cabinet door and "Shit!" express it. So, we're up and running with conflict, which promises action, and emotion we can relate to (identification). This scene is moving in just four lines. You don't have to get going that fast, but you should know how, and you should do it if there's no reason not to. So, your level of involvement is high. Let's see where the piece goes with the next part. The character is facing a kitchen with cabinet doors wide open.
I barrel into the room and slam them shut one at a time, enjoying the stinging in my ears as each bang echoes through our tiny apartment.
David is in the living room. I know he is. I know he knows I'm mad. But, I'm not supposed to say anything. He said if we were going to make it living together, I would have to stop nagging. And I agreed.
All right, are you still with it? The same amount? More? Less? Most people are even more involved. Why? First, because the character took action against the problem. Second, because the plot "thickened," as they say. "Thickening" means the trouble gets worse, more threatening. What makes it worse is almost always another person, in this case David. Here's the next part:
Most days I could do it, not nag that is. Even if an irritable mood is out there itching to sneak up and grab me, I can push it away. But when I see every goddamn cabinet open, I lose it. I just can't take it. It drives me wild.
All right, where are you? The same? More involved? Less? Most people are sliding away with this passage if not a good deal less involved. There's a writing reason for it, always—a craft/technique reason for every problem. Can you figure out what story technique is at issue here? How about telling? Ideas versus experience, remember? Let's go over the piece bit by bit so that you can see what's working and what's not.
"Most days I could do it, not nag that is." "Most days"? Why is the character (author) taking us off into "most days." We don't care about most days when we're right in the middle of this day and this tense, high-energy scene. Next: "Even if an irritable mood is out there itching to sneak up and grab me, I can push it away." This again is an idea (telling), but even more abstract and intangible. It further interrupts the scene, which was unfolding so well. Last: "But when I see every goddamn cabinet open, I lose it. I just can't take it. It drives me wild." These lines are ideas, general statements that tell us what we've just seen happening with out own eyes. We've lived it, so we don't need to be told what we've just experienced.
If I were editing this piece, I would cut this passage, this telling, out. I left it in because we learn most from mistakes and from fixing them. It's important to understand that every writer does this. Every writer tells, overstates, drifts off into the abstract, points out the obvious. There's no way to prevent it, because you can't control what flows out of you without getting in the way and getting stuck or blocked. So, don't try. Just pour it on the page and then go back and rework it later. And the telling is certainly no reflection on this writer, who is doing a fine job. Here's the last of this piece:
It's worse than white Jockeys or Gold Toed socks hanging out of the dresser drawer. Just one nudge of the finger is all it takes to make everything neat. Just one nudge. But I guess that's too hard.
"David," I say as I lean against the kitchen door, arms folded in front of my chest like a shield.
He looks up from his TV chair with cool, watch-what-you-say eyes. "Yes," he says.
His eyes spook me, and a shiver trills up my back.
How was that stretch? Are you back into it? Most people are, in a major way. Why? What's going on in that stretch that wasn't before? Action again, but directed at the real cause of the problem (obstacle), at the more threatening part—the person himself.
That's all there is of this scene. But we can still work with it—not only with what's there, but with what isn't. The question is, Is it over? Of course not. Can you figure out a possible ending? It shouldn't be hard, because you have a real beginning (want + obstacle + action). When you have a real beginning, the ending almost writes itself. "The end is in the beginning" is the old writing rule. What that means is you have two forces (want + obstacle) pitted against each other. One wins, and one loses (resolution). In this case, some possible resolutions are: they split up; he agrees to be neat; she agrees to put up with his messiness; or they both agree to try to be more flexible—to name a few. It's a victory or a defeat for the main character, the woman, or a mixed victory.
In terms of this character's emotions, she's angry and upset and worried. But the words angry, upset, and worried were not used. Her emotions were expressed in her thoughts and her actions. Here irritation and frustration come across nicely with: "Just one nudge of the finger is all it takes to make everything neat. Just one nudge. But I guess that's too hard." We don't need to be told what she's feeling, we need to be shown it in scene, in action. Scene is the purest form of showing. Scene is experience happening in real time, moment by moment, word for word, right before our eyes. Here's the beginning of the last piece:
Ever since I told her I was a lesbian, my mother has taken to talking about me in the past tense.
How are you with this piece? A provocative opening? Most people are with it with this first sentence. Why? Because there are a want and an obstacle—a mother who is not pleased with her daughter. Here's the rest:
"You were such a beautiful baby," she says, her large, sea green eyes filling up with a lethal mixture of nostalgia and longing.
"You were the very essence of femininity." Her voice trails off dramatically. I begin to tap the toe of my cowboy boot very lightly on the tile floor beneath the kitchen table, bracing for the assault.
She shrugs, and in the sagging folds of her Eastern European face I see a ragtag clutter of disappointment and despair. Her mouth, which is usually bow shaped and generous, tightens slightly as she looks at me.
"Your walk, your voice, your body . . . everything about you was perfectly feminine." She shakes her head as she ponders this and the tap tap tap of the tip of my cowboy boot begins to pick up speed.
"For God's sake, mother, this is an absolutely ridiculous theory—and it's easily the third time you've presented it this month."
"Please hear me out," she says and I sag under the intensity of her conviction.
As I lean back in my chair, she leans forward and puts her hand—a smaller, more time worn version of my own—on my arm.
"I believe we—your father and I, that is—gave you a perfectly healthy endocrine system."
I can feel the slight pressure of her hand on my arm as I close my eyes. Through clenched teeth, I give her one last chance to explain her "theory" of my lesbianism before I explode. "What's that supposed to mean, 'a perfectly healthy endocrine system'?"
"Well, it means, it's not our fault," she says, letting her hand slide off my arm and hit the table with a small thud. She shrugs again, heaving her bosom. "So, the warp must be in your psyche. It's the only possible explanation."
That's it. How did it go? Whatever problems you might have with it, it's a strong piece that takes hold of most readers and hangs onto them as these two characters struggle with each other.
Let's look at it from the story angle. Who wants what? The daughter wants to be accepted as she is. The mother wants a straight daughter, ideally, but short of that, the mother's going for something else. What is it? She wants to be guiltless—free to blame the daughter, the daughter whom she's trying to convince (action) has a "warp" in her "psyche." The daughter is putting up with her, for exactly what reasons we don't know. So we have want, obstacle, action. There is no resolution yet—neither scene resolution nor story resolution. Can you figure out where this is going? You should be able to, since it's already going in that direction. Victory, defeat, mixed victory.
So, that's the story form and technique. Conflict (want + obstacle), action, resolution, emotion, showing, just five elements. If you stay focused on these five elements and don't let yourself get distracted or sidetracked, if you master these five, no matter what else you do wrong, you will succeed. You will succeed, because you'll be creating strong stories. The world—agents, publishers, editors—will bend over backwards for a strong story. Stephen King, for example, can be a sloppy writer (he himself says that his writing is like a Big Mac and an order of French fries), but he's one hell of a good storyteller.
All right. This has been a long stint. I've hit you with a lot. Conflict is tricky and elusive, so we'll revisit it and its finer points in the next chapter. For now, you need only be aware of these elements, to understand how they work and relate. But remember, awareness and understanding aren't mastery. Mastery takes practice. It'll come soon enough if you stay focused. The main thing is, don't expect too much. Just write and let whatever comes flow onto the page. You're just creating some raw material to work with, to turn into a compelling story—eventually, once you master the craft. For now, it's just practice.
So, it's time to try it, get loose, let go, warm up a bit. I want you to put something (anything) down, throw some words onto the page. But I'm not going to desert you. I'm going to give you some scene setups to help you get going.
Now, if you have something you're working on and want to use that, do so. The main thing is to write for 30 minutes. If you don't have 30 minutes, or you run out of energy, do what you can (5 minutes, 10,15). When you have time or you feel up to it, come back and do some more until you've written for a total of 30 minutes. If you have no time and you're not going to have any time, go to chapter 12 and find the time plan that's workable. Use that plan to do these exercises or something from chapter 12 if you like that better.
Was this article helpful?