The Numberone Ingredient And Some Thoughts About It

Conflict is the first, most important, and trickiest ingredient by far. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is a social reason. The first time I was told by a writing teacher that nothing happens without conflict, I went home and wrote a story, working conflict in at every turn, making everything difficult for the characters in every possible way. How do you think I felt after making all that trouble? I was worn-out. Working the conflict was stressful beyond the usual struggle of writing. That story was applauded in the workshop, but it had been a real strain to write.

Why was it such a strain and why will it be until you get used to it? Ask yourself how you get along in society, how you survive when you're out in the world. By making as much trouble as possible every chance you get? No, you survive by avoiding conflict, by playing it safe, by being careful, by doing the exact opposite of what you need to do to write exciting stories.

Writing compelling stories goes against the grain of all our socialized, civilized training. Creating fiction is an antisocial act. You, the author, are the one who must make all the trouble. And you must be merciless if you are going to incite your characters to the kind of action that is revealing and dramatic. This will be difficult when the time comes to pressure, to assault, to attack your character, a character that you have put your heart into creating and are attached to. But you must, because the more pressure you put on your character, the more he must use himself, reveal himself, so that we are able to experience him.

If you take the easy way out, which you will be prone to do, consciously or unconsciously, because of your civilized nature and your affection for your character, if you take that easy way, your character will not act in a compelling way, your story will sag, and the reader will leave. So you must be cruel to your characters. It's the only way.

Remember, the whale didn't kill Ahab. Melville did. The betrayed husband didn't kill Gatsby. Fitzgerald did. In Gone with the Wind, the tragic death of Rhett and Scarlett's little daughter falling from the horse wasn't ultimately from the fall. The author, Margaret Mitchell, had to kill her by making her fall from the horse. Why do that? Why cause such pain to Rhett and Scarlett? Pushing them to their limits was the best way to reach them on the deepest level and to reach us also—to reveal character, to create identification. So, you, the author, are the ultimate cause of all the trouble in the story and all the pain suffered by the characters.

We're capturing life on the page, but we do it in a way that could only be seen as perverse if we were doing it to real people. The more real your characters become to you, the more you must fight the urge to make life easy for them. To create compelling stories, you must develop and exercise SADISTIC LICENSE. As I said earlier, fiction is not polite society—even when you're writing about polite society. Happy lives make lousy novels. Because trouble is dramatic, fiction is the downside, the gory details, the worst-case scenario—always. The thing you must be ever wary of is your tendency to hold back, to go easy, to let up at the very moment when you should bear down. It's a great paradox that this antisocial process produces this most social and personal creation.

OK, shying away from using conflict is one problem. The other problem is not understanding what conflict is and what it isn't. We all know what conflict is, right? Your wife calls you an insensitive slob. You get cut off on the expressway on the way to work. Your boss tells you that your work is below par. Your mother disinherits you.

Well, guess what, not one of those is conflict, our kind of conflict—dramatic conflict. Oh, those examples are troubling, disturbing, upsetting, but not one of them is what's needed to set a story in motion. They 're false conflict. Trying to create a story from false conflict is like dragging a dead horse around a racetrack: you might get to the finish line, but you'll never win the race.

What we think of as conflict in everyday experience—disagreements, arguments, insults, shouting matches, even fistfights—are not our kind of conflict—not dramatic conflict. They can be turned into dramatic conflict—anything and everything can, once you know how—but dramatic conflict is a different creature entirely. Dramatic conflict is made up of several elements. Get one wrong, and no matter how brilliantly you write, your story falls flat.

All right, so what exactly is dramatic conflict? In the last chapter, I defined it as want + obstacle. That's good, but not precise enough to keep you focused the way you need to be. We need to pin it down so there is no doubt you have a dramatic want and a dramatic obstacle, which are both needed to create dramatic conflict.

Want: How do you know if you have a dramatic want—enough of a want to incite the character to propel the story forward to a dramatic finish? For a want to be dramatic the character must feel that satisfying it is a matter of life and death. That doesn't mean that it is a matter of life and death, but the character must feel that strongly, must believe that deeply that things must change, that he or she can't stand to go on with life as it is. A wife who has been browbeaten for years and taken it quietly, for example, could feel that her husband's abuse this particular morning was so vicious and demeaning that she can't take it any longer, that she can't live with herself if she puts up with another moment of it. He must stop treating her with such contempt, he must change, or she will leave him. She must be determined, driven, desperate to make things change. She will settle for nothing less. (Now, that doesn't mean that she won't be forced to compromise, but only after waging an all-out battle, after using everything she has to prevail.) There's urgency, a sense of crisis. If she can live with things the way they are, if she has a choice, you have a false want, which will make for z false conflict. The want must be overpowering and pushing the character to the limit. She has come to a point where she can't stand it any longer. Her neighbor might feel differently. "Twenty minutes of abuse a day, for all you've got. I'd trade places with you any day." But our wife can stand it no longer. If she did nothing, she could not live with herself. She would have no self-respect. This would eat her up from the inside. Now, of course, there are gentle, subtle stories that may not go the limit to this degree. But even the best of these follow this form. At a minimum, they have a sense of urgency, an encounter/confrontation, and a resolution. But don't get distracted by that now. Your job is to learn to create drama. Once you can do that, you can do anything.

Obstacle: Following immediately on the heels of the want must come the obstacle. But how can you tell if you have enough of an obstacle, a dramatic obstacle? Well, first, the obstacle must be as determined, driven, and desperate to block or deny the want as the want is driven to overcome the obstacle. If they are not of equal determination, you have an uneven match and a false conflict—one that will be resolved quickly. The best way to measure the want-obstacle relationship is to consider what would happen if the character ignored the obstacle. If you have a dramatic obstacle and the character ignores it, if he does not act, he will be seriously harmed or destroyed—emotionally, physically, socially, financially ruined. If the character can do nothing and still suffer no injury, you have a false conflict or no conflict—no drama, no story.

Obstacle First: Now, a person's want often doesn't get fired up until it's thwarted. The obstacle often appears first, as in Hamlet (the ghost of Hamlet's father appears out of nowhere) or in my Larry scene (my wife kisses Larry). The want is there. It's understood, but it's dormant. We assume Hamlet wasn't longing to have the problem of avenging his father's death dumped in his lap. So, he doesn't give it a thought until it is. We assume that I don't want my wife cheating on me by kissing Larry, but it doesn't cross my mind until it happens. Often it's easier to dump a big problem on the character to get things moving than to try to work up a want first. Or you can create an obstacle, then start your story before the obstacle appears and build up the want that the obstacle will threaten or deny. Whether it's want-obstacle or obstacle-want, they need to appear as close together as possible.

Action: Activity is not action, not dramatic action. A character can be doing all kinds of things (ranting, raving, thrashing around) that are not to the point, not an attempt to make something happen. For action to be dramatic, it must be either a direct attack upon the problem or a defense against it. Trying to convince someone to loan you money so you can pay off a gambling debt is a direct attack upon the problem. Hiding behind the door with a baseball bat to club the juice man who's coming to break your legs at eight o'clock is a defense against the problem—a problem that's coming to you. In both cases the character must assert himself in a major way.

Thinking: Thinking can be action. Thinking that involves wrestling with the problem and planning an attack or a defense is action. The mind is a dramatic place. The written story is the only story form that can do the mind well, that can portray it to its fullest. All great stories involve the workings of the mind and the internal conflict, the character's struggle with himself. The mind is the deepest, most intimate connection that we can make. But all writers do not go into the mind to the same degree—mainly because it's the most difficult part of the craft next to using conflict. Portraying a character's thoughts is difficult and complicated enough that it needs a chapter of its own, which will come later.

WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION Your first line of defense. The never-fail tools.

The holy trinity of story.

Want, obstacle, action are the one, two, three of dramatic movement. If you get those three elements in place and working properly, your story will have the dramatic energy to propel it to a strong ending. The first questions to be asked when reworking a story or a scene are: 1. Who wants what? 2. What's the obstacle? 3. What's the character doing (action) to overcome it? If you don't check these elements first, if you fuss around with other concerns, you'll waste a lot of time and energy trying to fix things that can never make up for a weakness in these elements. If the want, obstacle, action aren't absolutely clear, if you can't find them on the page, that is what you must work on first—always. Nothing begins, nothing moves dramatically, until they are working. Never let yourself be distracted from working these elements first. They are what determine all else in your story.

Resolution: The ending. Many writers say they have trouble with endings, but the ending is rarely the problem. The major cause of difficult endings is: There is no real beginning. The fact that you have a lot of words and pages doesn't mean that your story has begun in the dramatic sense. Technically, until you have a dramatic conflict (want + obstacle) and a character acting to overcome the obstacle, your story has not begun. If those elements don't emerge until page 60, your story doesn't start until page 60. Some stories never begin.

The rule is: the end is in the beginning. This means that if you have two forces of equal strength struggling to conquer each other, you have a beginning. The story will end when one prevails after an all-out struggle. For example, it's easy to see what the end of my Larry scene and the eventual end of the story would be. The end, the resolution of the conflict, is merely a victory or a defeat. Romeo and Juliet are defeated. Hamlet is defeated. Ahab is defeated. Scarlett loses and wins. Now, reality is not so cut-and-dried, so the ending doesn't have to go all one way. There can be mixed victories, compromises, accepting less, just as it might happen in real life, but again, only after an all-out struggle. It can never be easy. But there can be moments when it can appear easy, which brings us to an important point.

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