Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Worst Mistake You Can Make

Fiction begins with a crisis, from which future action grows. The worst mistake you can make is also the most common mistake writers make — failing to immediately plunge a sympathetic character into a crisis. Ordinarily, this will be the hero. In any case, the hero's crisis can't be solely somebody else's problem: it must affect, and be affected by, the main character.

But what about television dramas in which an ex-con goes straight and helps others with their problems?

Good question. That is episodic fiction. Think of the episodes as non-consequential chapters. In the first episode we learn why the hero solves other people's problems: for redemption. In the opening of each subsequent episode, we are reminded of this in flashback. So, the hero's need for redemption is his crisis. His ongoing struggle for it is the (open-ended) core conflict. He purposes to help somebody else in each episode as a step toward achieving his goal. Otherwise he would be a flat character, one viewers wouldn't get deeply involved with. The series wouldn't attract and hold a regular audience.



Friday, July 14, 2006

Creating Conflict with a Crucible

It's human nature to avoid conflict. Certain characters (ordinarily bad guys) may seek conflict as a tactic for aggression, but most of your characters won't. In fact, even when confronted with conflict by a bad guy, it's often in your character's best interest to turn his back on the conflict and walk away. If the reader asks herself why your character doesn't just walk away, you're in trouble. Her suspension of disbelief is at stake. So, you need a device to believably keep your characters locked in conflict.

A powerful device for doing so is the crucible.

A crucible is a piece of laboratory equipment you probably remember from high school chemistry. It's a small dish with a pouring spout, a dish that can withstand extremely high temperatures. Chemists use a crucible to heat solids to such high temperatures. For example, you might melt sulfur in one over a Bunsen burner. Or you may combine different substances in one and meld them together in white hot heat.

In the vernacular, a crucible is any severe trial people undergo.

As a literary device, a crucible is a relationship imposed by place or situation that bonds antagonistic characters together while their conflict heats up. The situation may be emotional or physical — moral or material. Characters caught in a crucible won't declare a truce or quit or walk away. This is either because they are trapped or because the motivation to continue opposing each other is greater than the motivation to walk away. A crucible can hold characters in it for a scene or a series of scenes, but usually it holds them throughout the story.

A marriage, a jail cell, a family, a lifeboat, a foxhole, a military unit, and the workplace can be such a crucible. Intimate blood relationships are a crucible. Dependency is a crucible.

For example, in Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita, Humbert loves Lolita, a young girl who is still a child. For most of the story they are in a crucible because she is dependant on him and has nowhere else to go. But dependency can also be entirely emotional or moral. The victim of abuse by a pedophile priest is in such a crucible. Similarly, a school and its rules become a crucible for a bully and a child he picks on. That child cannot avoid conflict, because he must present himself for abuse daily or be punished for skipping class. An abusive lover typically manufactures a crucible by cunningly and ingeniously isolating a woman and gradually making her both financially and emotionally dependant on him. Then the abuse begins.

Needless to say, nothing heats up a conflict like a crucible. The result is a bloodbath. Soldiers are fragged. The child commits suicide. Ten or fifteen years later that priest is murdered. Either the wife kills her husband or is murdered by him. Fortinbras enters and gasps:

This quarry cries on havoc. O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?

There is one kind of crucible that even the death of an antagonist doesn't crack. It's the relationship between parent and child. This is because we acquire our self-image (self concept) in the mirror of our parents' eyes during the first few years of life, while our personality (person-hood) develops. We internalize their voices and carry them inside for the rest of our lives. Hence nearly everybody's "unresolved issues" with a parent. Narcissistic injury by a parent at a tender age invades and plunders the child's permanent relationship with himself. The internalized voice of that parent becomes a demon that torments the child forever, even after the parent's death, till the day that child dies. The relationship among siblings can be almost as formidable and destructive a crucible.

A crucible is an important component in planning a whole story, but you can also create a crucible to improve a scene. Just put something in the characters' background that locks them together. Such a lock increases the stress in their relationship.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Creating Conflict: The Actors' Studio method

To create conflict in dialog, Sol Stein recommends the Actors' Studio method for developing drama: Two actors get brief instructions on what a scene is about and what they want — except that these instructions don't match. Then they are told to ad lib, and the fun begins. Conflictual, dramatic dialog results.

For example, one actor is told that he portrays the principal of a private school that has expelled an incorrigible boy who disrupted every class and disregarded repeated warnings that he would be expelled if he didn't behave. This principal is about to meet the boy's mother, who surely will try to get him reinstated. The principal must hold his ground at all costs. The other actor is told that she portrays the mother of a bright and well-behaved child, whom the principal is prejudiced against and has treated shamefully. She mustn't let him mistreat her son.

You can imagine what transpires then when these two actors meet on stage to ad lib their conflicting scripts in pursuit of their conflicting desires. The audience loves it. They laugh and take sides, immediately involved. If actors can thus create drama, imagine what writers can do with nothing but conflicting "scripts" for their characters.

The Actors' Studio Method does nothing but remind actors (and authors) that they must assume the character's point of view, not the audience's. They must never forget that characters are behaving just as the mother and the principal in this example do.

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