Tension and Intensity

As much as characters are the very heart and soul of fiction, none of them really matter unless they come across conflict. After all, without conflict there is no story, you would just be reading about people’s everyday lives. And why would you want to read that unless there were significant moments explored where these people took up the challenge of overcoming insurmountable challenges?

Whenever we experience a story, we put ourselves in a voluntary state of tension. It may sound a little masochistic at first, but when you really stop and think about it, you really are taking on the emotions of the characters. This of course allows us to empathize with them because we may have been in similar situations or have feared being in them, and getting to watch or read characters overcome obstacles inspires the hope that we can one day do the same.

Here is how you can inject meaningful conflict in you writing:

1. Opposing Opinions

Give your characters strong opinions about something, and then pit them against characters who are in the absolute opposite spectrum of the same thing. For instance, if you have a character who believes in animal rights and wants to stop the distribution of meat, their logical antagonist could be a butcher shop owner. One wants to end animal cruelty, while the other’s entire livelihood depends on this job they actually genuinely love.

2. Personal Philosophies

Now that you’ve got opinions established, it’s time to give these characters some motivations behind their opinions, along with names while we’re at it. Let’s call the animal rights activist Wendy, and the butcher shop owner Joe. Now it could be pretty easy to paint Joe as a horrible guy and make him the clear cut bad guy of this story, but I think if you gave him some redeeming and empathetic qualities, his conflict with Wendy could be more meaningful and insightful to your audience.

Perhaps Wendy wants to stop animal cruelty because she lived on a farm and she witnessed the slaughter of cows and chickens she grew fond of. Then on the other spectrum we got Joe who is just fascinated with the whole process of butchering animals, and serving them to happy customers in order to provide food for his children, and a roof over their heads.

In this story, Wendy’s goal would be to put Joe out of business possibly because her vegan restaurant is losing business due to Butcher Joe’s higher customer rate. And couple that of course with her moral stance on animal cruelty, you got yourself some grade A tension!

Point is: give characters believable and empathetic reasons for their beliefs so that you can understand them all, but make them so contrary to each other that it creates conflict due to those opposing opinions.

3. Secrets

Harboring dark secrets could also create tension in a story, especially if you reveal them after you’ve spent a good amount of time endearing the audience to your characters. There’s a weird feeling I personally get when I come to admire a character, only to find out about a secret of theirs that almost feel like a betrayal. Though it is a reminder that nobody is perfect and we’ve all got skeletons in the closet.

Secrets, and the threat of them being revealed, create tension the closer and close other characters come to discover them.

Maybe Wendy once ate her childhood pets and feels guilty for enjoying how they tasted, all despite the love she had for them when they were alive. If people found out about that, her activism in animal rights could be compromised and she’d be seen as a hypocrite!

Then maybe Joe, despite being a good family man and salesman to his customers, could secretly be an animal abuser. His endearing personality can make it forgivable to a degree that he cuts up animals for a living, but if it’s revealed that he takes a dark seated pleasure in murdering animals, rather than being stoic about it for the sake of the job, this could skew his public persona.

And maybe even in this case, the pleasure he gets is his way of coping with a traumatic event in his childhood where a dog attacked him. Who knows? I certainly don’t, I’m just making all this up as I go along!

4. Limited Choices

And lastly, to create some serious tension in a story, you could limit the choices available to characters. Situations where characters are forced to sacrifice their dignity or act against their own moral principles–sometimes for the sake of a greater good, other times with no clear benefit other than mere survival–these are the situations where we get to learn what truly matters to these characters.

We’ve all been in situations where we had to make tough choices and it wasn’t clear which one was the right one. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, rather there only exists the most sensible choice over the others where we lose the least of what we have. So then…

PLOT TWIST!

What if Joe and Wendy, amidst this public battle to reign supreme as the hot shot business of a sub-urban plaza, actually begin to fall in love with each other?

Yeah this just got weird, but bear with me here.

If there’s a turf war between a vegan restaurant and a butcher shop, there would obviously be customers who rally behind each respective business getting caught up in the crossfire.

Wendy ends up with the choices of either continuing the attempt to shut down Joe’s business, or give it up so that she can marry him and be the new mother to his kids because they’ve taken a liking to her.

Joe would then have to give up his life long passion and his stable income if he really wants to be with Wendy. Or he could just reject her, leave his kids without a mother figure, but at least keep his business going.

In Conclusion

Alright, so thank you for dealing with my craziness in this post. I hope you can forgive that and glean the value I’m trying to provide in exploring how you can amplify the conflict in your story, to not only make your story more entertaining, but also more meaningful and thought provoking.

If you have other tips of your own on how to amplify the conflict in fiction, feel free to leave a comment below!

Otherwise any other questions and feedback on this post are also welcome!

 

 

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The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters

Your story’s objective is only as powerful as the characters that convey it.

Each member of the cast must represent opposing sides of the main argument, thus providing several different angles to perceive your story’s philosophy.

130731-F-IP756-010

I’ve already written a couple of other posts about characters, both of which you can check out here for more:

Crafting a Character Series

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

–but for today, let’s focus on why characters  should be as extensively explored as I have in previous posts.

Me, Myself, and Who Am I?

Fundamentally, every story’s main character is on a quest to achieve self-knowledge. This goes for both putty characters and pebble characters. Think of throwing a pebble at a wall, the physical structure of the pebble remains the same, whereas throwing a blob of putty will cause it to reform.

That’s what characters experience; being thrown against a wall, so to speak, and they either change or don’t change throughout the course of your story. Either way, their purpose remains the same; to argue for one or several sides of the objective.

I know that there’s a plethora of stories where morality is ambiguous (and that they’re usually much more interesting), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s take the basic concept of Good vs Evil to illustrate how characters argue for each side. And by argue, that could mean verbal or physical combat, or in just the way that they conduct themselves.

Generic Good Guy is a law abiding citizen, doing some good for his friends, family, and community. Everything he does in the story is for the benefit of others or for himself without hurting anybody except possibly…

The Typical Bad Guy whose sole purpose is to watch the world burn. He causes destruction everywhere he goes, expressing his preference to be evil and not care about hurting others because it’s what he intends anyway. Generic Good Guy may hurt other people unintentionally, but he usually owns up to it, while Typical Bad Guy has no remorse for the pain he causes.

In this basic story dynamic of Good vs Evil, the argument is (usually) that good triumphs over evil, all the time.

chess_good_vs_evil_by_thewhysoserious91-d5tm81c

Who Would You Be Without Adversity?

To convey this, Typical Bad Guy will have to test Generic Good Guy on the grounds of his ethics, philosophy, strength, and integrity by throwing obstacles in his way. Perhaps Generic Good Guy’s objective is to a safe and adjusted life, but TBG is getting in the way of that by hurting GGG’s social circle and disrupting his day to day life.

It is through adversity where Generic Good Guy will discover or grow into a force for good. If he’s a putty character, maybe he’s a weak underdog type who has to train in order to defeat the almight Typical Bad Guy. Or perhaps he’s a pebble character that has strength and prowess, but hasn’t had the chance to exercise any of it because he hasn’t been challenged yet.

In either case, the end result is the same. The character has developed some level of self-knowledge by fighting for what he believed in, whether he won or lost against his opposition. He now knows what strength he’s capable of, or made himself capable of it through hard work and determination.

Pouring Some Sugar in Generic Brand Oatmeal

Now, that was a very very basic example I had to keep simple in order to elaborate on a more complex concept. Stories these days have many more layers in their examination of the objective, and even more layers in their characterization.

Ultimately, characters are meant to represent several sides of an objective, and they do that by trying to express their personal preferences, only to have them attacked or dismissed by the other characters.

The key ingredient to conveying Objective is having characters disagree with each other and fight over who gets to assert their preference, or if any common ground can be met between them in less black and white type of stories.It is through disagreements between characters that we are given the opportunity to passively experience different sides of an argument–and decide for ourselves which characters we agree with, if any at all.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 3: Setting…

The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 1: PLOT

You may be familiar with this basic outline of what a plot graph looks like, and it is nice for writing a basic outline for a story.

Basic Plot

However, this is just a skeleton and we should add some layers to give it some flesh and bone.

What Plot Stands For:

People
Location
Objective
Tenacity

Just like The Four Pillars of Fiction, these are The Four Pillars of Plot that uphold the structure. You need people in a location with an objective to tell a story, along with some tenacity to make that story worth telling.

Fundamentally, you need characters to exist in a physical space in which to act out their drama, and drama only unfolds because these characters have conflicting goals and motivations that prevent each other from getting what they want.

Objective

They may either deliberately want to prevent each other from achieving their goals–as is the case with the simple black and white, good guy vs bad guy stories–or they may even be of the same alliance with differing opinions and preferences that get in the way of them finding unity.

When it comes to your plot’s objective, what kind of message do you want to convey about the world? Is there an aspect of reality you want to capture and illustrate? Is there an ideal version of the world and human behaviour you want to propose? What is it that you want to say about our state as a species?

That is your Objective.

Creators of art, whether they’re conscious of it or not, will always end up injecting their personal philosophy into their work and use it as a tool to convey the different angles in which they perceive people and the world at lage.

There’s no way around it, characters will always have an objective, whether miniscule or grand, they want to accomplish something. Even a story about a guy who just lies around his apartment all day has the objective of…wanting to do nothing and there are some deep rooted reasons beyond “because he just wants to.”

Maybe he’s depressed and doesn’t want to go out, or he’s been out too much and he needs time to himself? Objective in stories are inescapable.

So to add that layer to our basic plot graph skeleton, it should look like this:

Plot With Objective

Tenacity

But that’s still not enough. A story needs Tenacity. Some high (or sometimes low) stakes to keep you at the edge of your seat, biting your nails, waiting to see what happens next.

The rule in life applies to fiction as well: no risk, no reward. The characters need to be at risk of losing something or we won’t be interested in them striving for anything. Surely, there are stories that are risk and conflict free, but with risk comes curiousity. Without risk and conflict, there really is nothing to be gained from it.

We want to be wondering how characters will survive dire situations because we consume fiction to not only root for these portrayals of the human ideal, but also to live vicariously through them. It’s through stories where we can safely experience what it’s like for someone to commit to their Objective and have the Tenacity to achieve it.

Compare these two stories:

“I went to work, did my job because I wanted to make money, and then I came home.”

vs. “I went to work hungover, it was very busy, I could have called in sick, but I need to make rent so I can lie around my apartment all day.”

What’s the fundamental difference between these stories? They both have goals and motivations, but the second one has conflict that requires some overcoming. That’s what we relate to when we experience stories.

This is what a true plot graph would look like with my full PLOT system in place:Plot With Tenacity

I’ll let the graph speak for itself, for there’s much much more to cover in the next three entries.

Let me know if you would like for me to elaborate on any of the additions made in this chart, and I’ll gladly save the exploration of them in a future post.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters…

 

The Very Heart and Soul of Fiction

fire-heartWhether your characters live on planet Earth or in a galaxy far far away, all fiction is really about is relationships. Conflicts arise in relationships due to the disagreements people have with each other’s goals and motivations, and the aim for good fiction is to avoid painting these conflicts in black and white.

What makes the most interesting character to character conflicts is when each party is (or believes they’re) right, but their opposition believes their needs and preferences take presedence over them. And I’m not just talking about the basic hero vs. villain dynamic: Hero wants to save the world, Villain wants to destroy it, big whoop.

Readers and viewers of fiction are drawn to moral gray areas because they allow the consumer to make their own decisions about who’s right or wrong according to their own moral code. It gives them the freedom to feel the way they want to about the events, instead of being spoon fed like melodramatic stock characterization so often does.

The Greatest Allies = The Greatest of Enemies

movie-xavier-and-magneto-chessSome of the best conflicts usually happen within the same alliance, as opposed to the standard “my team is better than yours,” spiel. Take the classic example of Professor Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men series, particularly the First Class storyline.

Sure, as seasoned veterans of the mutant war they each have their own teams of mutants on their sides, and are at constant odds with each other on what the fate should be for humanity’s relationship with mutants. But when they were younger men still discovering and developing their own respective abilities, they were friends. Together they formed the first team of X-Men that ended up dividing due to a conflict of interest.

Professor X wanted to train fellow mutants and help them understand their own unique powers, but wants to keep them blended into society, if not hidden from it completely. After all, the world would not have be ready to accept these strange individuals.

Meanwhile, Magneto wanted mutants to embrace their individuality and stand out from the rest of society. That they should be world reknown and a force to be reckoned with if they were met with disgust and indifference. This causes him to rile against a world that initially becomes afraid that such beings exist.

Professor X and Magneto admire each other’s abilities and tenacity, but this clash of values is what creates nearly a century long feud between the two. Yet despite of all the broken bones and epic fights between their factions, along with all the havoc and destruction the common populace has to experience amidst all this…the two can still kick back and have a nice little ol’  game of chess and chill like old times as old timers.

X-Men features a huge cast of different mutants, some more popular than others–

*coughcoughWolverine>Cyclopscoughcough*

and they all have their own ways in which they relate with each other.

How I Met Your Mother By Becoming a Better Friend

However, a personal preference of mine is to keep casts to a smaller number. A handful of characters is all you ever really need to write compelling fiction that’s rich with unique relationships between all individuals. Such is this case with one of my favourite sitcoms How I Met Your Mother.

Here’s a quick and digestable Mind Map I made to outline the value they each offered to the other.

himym relations

Fiction is Friction

Despite of the value characters can offer to each other, the assisstance in growth is always met with resistance from whom they’re trying to help, either intentionally or unintentionally. The most potent and blatant clash of values in HIMYM is between the hopeless romantic Ted and the womanizer Barney. They’re polar opposites, yet they’re best friends. Why? Because they have a lot to teach each other.

how-i-met-your-mother-season-9-spoilersBarney shows Ted how to have a good time, how to act instead of over thinking everything, and not be so stuck on finding “the one,” which ironically inhibits Ted from having any success. He’s got his head so stuck in the clouds that he needs Barney to pull him down to Earth.

Likewise, Ted teaches Barney the consequences of screwing around with too many women. He shows Barney that true happiness can only derive through monogamy as opposed to an endless string one night stands. Barney’s behaviour derives from a great place of hurt from his childhood and romantic history. Seeing his bestfriend Ted get hurt over and over again, but still have the hope that he could find his true love becomes, much to Barney’s detrement, an inspiration to him.

Ted and Barney undo each other’s illusions by pulling each other out of their extremes so that they can meet somewhere in the middle. But it’s not like they initially accept each other’s differences from the get go. It is usually met with messy and hilarious hijinx.

A Peephole Into Another Reality

Reading or watching a piece of fiction gives us the chance to eavesdrop on some of the most vulnerable exchanges between people. It cuts through the mundane day to day conversations about sports and the weather, and in turn, highlights the challenging and life changing conversations that most people tend to avoid.

We are drawn to stories because we get to sit back as objective and passive participants to watch how these characters maintain or diminish their relationships. Fiction helps illustrate how people from different walks of life can find common ground…or not. All fiction ends with either a resolution between people’s differences or an even wider divide between them.

What are your favourite ensembles of characters?

Do any of their relationships mirror some of your own?

What have you learned about relationships through your consumption of fiction?

How much more interesting can your fiction become if you focused more on character relationships and development instead of crafting a compelling plot?

I would argue that intense focus on character relationships and development CREATE compelling plots. Let me know wat you think!

Crafting a Character Part 3: A Better Tomorrow

We’ve taken a look at how our present lives are defined by our pasts, and to come full circle, we will delve into breaking the shackles of history and achieving freedom in the future.

As always, characters are driven by Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. All three keys play an important part into unlocking the potential that resides in all of us, fictional and real people alike. Here is how GMC is considered in a character profile:

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Main Desire: 

Desires drive all action, purpose, and intention. Having a clear understanding of your desires is fundamental to understanding what steps you need to take toward leading a fulfilling life, as well as providing value to the rest of the world.

Even if your initial desire is what propels you into action, the desire may change over time or evolve to something else based on how much you want to achieve. Sometimes you do get what you want and realize you desire so much more than you ever realized.

#16thingsithoughtweretrueSuch is the case for Morgan from #16Things I Thought Were True by Janet Gurtler. After her mother suffers a heart attack, Morgan gathers the courage and tenacity to ask about the biological father that was absent throughout her childhood.

At the start of the story, Morgan sets out to gain 5000 Twitter followers, while having 0 friends in the physical world because she feels alienated after having an embarassing video of her dancing in boy’s underwear going viral.

Due to certain circumstances, Morgan is forced to allow two of her co-workers, Adam and Amy, to accompany her on a road trip to seek out her biological father.

Although confronting him is her initial desire (as well as amassing a ton of Twitter followers), Morgan develops a bond with Adam and Amy; two co-workers she had barely liked or understood at a personal level before their heart warming–and sometimes gut wrenching–road trip together. Her true desire all along had been garnering connectivity, and it didn’t have to come from her long lost father.

What are your main desires? Have you achieved them only to realize there was something more meaningful out there? What steps are you taking today in order to achieve these goals in the future?

Major Strength:

Another important aspect of characterization is having strengths that contrast a character’s vulnerabilities. Many protagonists are victims of circumstance which drives us to sympathize with them, but in order for us to even want to root for them, they need to have major strengths that can help make them more appealing.

In the hit series How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby goes on a seemingly unending search for his soul mate. He starts off as a desperate lovelorn who just can’t catch a break because his desire often becomes a part of his major flaws.  Having this desire starts off as a way to avoid himself and have him develop the mentality that he is nothing without somebody to love.

However, throughout the course of this dramatic rom-com, we learn that he has a big heart and he’s deeply invested in his friends. The love that he provides for them transforms into love for himself and discovering his own value as an individual before meeting The Mother/Tracy McConnell.

Ted Mosby’s strength is his ability to love and his hopeful spirit, but it took transmuting it for himself and for what he already had in order to achieve his goal; meeting a woman who more or less resembles a combination of all his friends.

What are your major strengths? How do they play a role in helping you achieve your desires? 

Perpetual Passion and Main Mission:

The mark of a strong character is intertwining their personal desires with their major strength in order to contribute something to the world at large. People who want to make a difference in the world, or at least in their immediate world (interpersonal relationships), are always challenged by people who want to keep things the same and not improve the state of the world.

Having a mission and commiting to it is admirable because it’s the ultimate test of character to offer your gift to the world, despite of its initial reluctance to accept it–when ironically, the world may so desperately be in need of your gift.

Batman, despite all his violent brutality serves as a good example for a character rooted in their principles. He’s committed to fighting injustice, but will never ever kill criminals.

He believes anybody can be redeemed and sees the possible good in others all despite of the hatred he has for his parents’ murderer (which changes depending on which reiteration of the Batman story you read, watch, or play).

I could just as easily use a character who embodies the purist level of virtue, but I think Batman serves as the best example because he’s still fundamentally flawed being so addicted to enacting violence, and only stopping short of actual murder. It’s debatable whether or not he creates more villains than he puts away, but one thing is for sure: he is committed to his perpetual passion for fighting crime as his main mission.

What are you passionate about? What’s your main mission? What mark do you want to leave in the world and why do you think it’s important?

Crafting a Character Part 2: It’s All in the Past

In the previous installment of the Crafting a Character series, we took a look at how characters think and behave in the present. What usually shapes those behaviours and attitudes is their past.

Backstory is the cornerstone of all character development because it’s in the past where almost the entire identity of a person is formed. Whether you’re creating the backstory of a character, or looking at your own history, the past has a ton of answers for your questions about the present and the future.

 Why Can’t You Just Let It Go?

Main Shaping and Influencing Incidents: 

Usually in childhood, but not always, we’ve all had significant moments in our lives where our views of the world and of ourselves were changed forever. These incidents range from being tragic, comical, or inspiring. Either way, discovering the life changing events in your own life, or creating one for your character, can drastically improve your understanding of what may drive a person to behave the way they do in the present.

In a classic episode of The Simpsons, the family wants to go on vacation, but when their plane is about to take off, the family learns that Marge has a fear of flying. “Let me off the plane,” she says and then starts pacing down the aisle back and forth.

“Let me off! Let me off! Let me off!”

Marge starts going to therapy and at the end of the episode, she uncovers childhood memories she must have locked away for years.

She recalls thinking that her father was a pilot, and child Marge follows him into a plane to find out that he was a stewardess–which was a rare occupation for men in the 60’s–and the embarassment of her father working a woman’s job apparently traumatizes her into having a fear of flying.

There were a few more adverse memories she recalled, and those were the ones that seemed more logical in explaining why she had the fear, but I won’t go into detail about them here. Just watch the episode, it’s hilarious!

Can you recall any traumatic events that have fundamentally wounded you for life? Or do you have any memories of being significantly inspired by someone that motivate you to this day? How have any of these influencing incidents impacted the way you behave in your present life?

Relationship With the Family: 

Your family is your first experience of what it’s like to be in a social circle, particularly in your formative years. The way you relate and interact with your extended family helps you develop the social skills (or lack thereof) that which you bring in to the rest of society, be it at school, post-secondary education, work, and the market place.

More importantly, your parents’ marriage vastly influences your ideas of love, marriage, and friendship. And depending on the bond you have with your parents–whether it’s strong, weak, or non existant–you’re automatically subjugated to either replicating or replacing your experience of them.

The nameless narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk grew up, for the most part, without a father. So when he befriends the wise and witty renegade Tyler Duren, he looks up to him as a father figure.

When they start living together, Tyler gets into a sexual relationship with Marla Singer, a woman the nameless narrator met at a bunch of support groups. This becomes a recreation of the narrator’s childhood in that he never sees Tyler and Marla in the same room together, and becomes the middleman of their interactions–thus recreating his experience with his parents before they got divorced.

Furthermore, the underground Fight Club would not be possible had its members had their fathers around, or meaningful bonds with them if they were around for their childhoods. It’s well established among psychological circles that fatherlessness causes a variety of societal and psychological problems.

What template for romance have your parents imprinted for you? What relationship do you have with your extended family? How have these affected your mode of interaction with the rest of society?

Where They Grew Up:

From your country of origin, to your economic status growing up, and your childhood home, where you grew up also greatly defines how you’ll fit in to the rest of society.

The-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air-1x01-The-Fresh-Prince-Project-the-fresh-prince-of-bel-air-20895611-1536-1152In West Philadelphia, born and raised, is where the Fresh Prince spent most of his days. But as you know by the title sequence theme song, he got in one little fight and his mom got scared, so he moved in with his uncle and auntie in Bel-Air.

What made this sitcom so great was how Will Smith’s care free and eccentric hood mentality clashed with the prestigious and more “dignified” culture of upper class Los Angeles.

This made for an interesting conflict with Will trying to behave in a way that was acceptable to the culture, while also staying true to himself. Though, the funniest parts of Fresh Prince for me was when he was free to be himself around rich and pretigious people, and they welcomed him with open arms, thus showing that cultural division can be torn down if both parties are willing to be friendly.

Are your current living conditions different from how you grew up? If so, what has this contrast done for your sense of identity? If not, was it a conscious choice to remain comfortable with the familiar or do you intend on breaking the cultural barrier?

Stay tuned for Crafting a Character Part 3: A Better Tomorrow