conflict, change, loglines and novel ‘hooks': talking about the heart of your story

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In articles and books on writing fiction, we have a tendency to isolate the elements from each other and talk about them as if they’re independent entities: this is how you make a plot, this is how you build a character, this is what a theme is, these are the different kinds of conflicts, this is the difference between tension and dramatic suspense, and so on.

We also say things like, Conflict is the heart of storytelling, and Without conflict there is no story. But what does that mean, exactly?

Earlier in this blog I wrote about my attempts to find a ‘logline’ or ‘elevator pitch’ for the book that I’m currently working on. I saw the logline as a kind of sales tool, a way of describing what the book is about in terms that might intrigue. The difficulty of the exercise and the questions it forced me to ask about my still-developing novel made me realize that everything crystallizes and expresses itself through the story’s central conflict.

In other words, a logline is not just a sales tool. Nor is it indicative of a simplistic or formulaic tale.

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The elements of fiction are so interdependent that a good, strong logline suggests a novel so well-woven, with meaning and purpose, that you can glimpse the whole of the thing within a single sentence (or two).

The fact that a good logline means a novel can be more easily pitched and sold is, I think, a nice side benefit.

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The logline embraces the story’s central conflict, which expresses the values of the novel. How this conflict gets resolved reflects the author’s philosophy or worldview.

(The logline I’m working with right now, for any of you who might be curious: A young dancer’s involvement with two older men triggers memories of a past life in which one of them may have killed her.)

Conflict takes the theme of the story – which by its nature is something abstract, like the difference between love and obsession — and casts it in specific and dramatized forms of action. (In my case, a love triangle: a woman is caught between two men, one of whom loves her, and one of whom is obsessed with her.)

The story’s central conflict defines the parameters of plot, indicates what needs to be set up in the beginning and resolved at the end. The conflict establishes a struggle, a goal, and the obstacles that must be overcome to attain that goal.

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Plot is the purposeful progression of events that organizes itself around the central conflict. As Ayn Rand points out in her book THE ART OF FICTION: Plot is a concrete manifestation of theme. It is a way to isolate the particular meaning you want the events to illustrate by presenting that meaning in stressed action form.

Conflict not only reveals theme, it reveals and expresses character. In a lot of ways, conflict is character. This is where I think we do ourselves a disservice by thinking in terms of plot OR character, or plot VS character, or asking whether a story is plot-driven or character-driven.

Storytelling, at heart, tends to be about transformation. Stories are symbolic of life: we grow and evolve in direct relationship to the conflicts and obstacles we face (or run away from) and overcome (or don’t) in the real world.

In other words, character depends upon conflict in order to keep creating itself. Rather than saying conflict drives character or character drives conflict, I like to think of them as a symbiotic relationship. Remove one, and the other dies.

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Conflict forces characters to make choices and take action, which in turn shapes the nature of the conflict. Their choices and actions are shaped by their values and beliefs, and set in opposition to the values and beliefs of one or more other characters.

When the conflict is clear and strong – as in all the great stories – the characters are locked in what Dara Marks in her book INSIDE STORY: THE POWER OF TRANSFORMATIONAL ARC calls “a unity of opposites”. This is the unbreakable bond between protagonist and antagonist, who each represent the opposite values of the other. The ‘unity of opposites’ is whatever binds them together and compels them to interact, to clash. There can be no compromise. Resolution comes only when there is a change in the dramatic situation — or in one of the characters.

(Keep in mind that ‘antagonist’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean one individual. ‘Antagonist’ can mean all the forces that prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her goal.)

Often this conflict can only end in the ‘death’ of one of the characters, which doesn’t have to be literal. In storytelling, a character’s ‘death’ is often symbolic, a destruction of a dominant trait or quality or belief system that has thrown them, and even the world around them, out of balance.

In life, we develop defense mechanisms and survival mechanisms as children that allow us to navigate through life – until they don’t. What helped us cope as children often damages us as adults, keeping us in static holding patterns that interfere with our ability to connect with others and grow toward wholeness. Life is a continuing cycle of psychological deaths and rebirths – a.k.a. ‘coming of age’ or ‘identity crises’ – and one of the purposes of storytelling, one of the reasons humans have such an innate driving desire for stories, is to show us how to grow and change through our involvement with the characters.

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We live in a world of action and events, but just as importantly we have an internal reality where we process those events and give value to them. How we inscribe these acts with meaning, how we react to them and process them into our sense of ourselves, defines who we are as individuals.

So it is with our characters.

For a story to be truly effective, there must be a strong connection between the external conflict and the internal reality of the characters. The conflict must have true impact on the character’s inner life and force him or her to grow and evolve (unless it’s a tragic, cautionary tale in which the character’s failure to change is more or less the point of the story). Otherwise a bunch of stuff happens that, in the end, doesn’t really mean anything. These are the stories that just evaporate from your head as soon as you turn the final page. Even if the reader enjoys them, he or she is often left wondering what the point was.

If there’s too much internal life and not enough external action, the story is stagnant and boring (and often what we accuse of being “literary”).

If there’s too much external action and no corresponding internal action, the story is superficial (and often what we accuse of being “plot-driven” or “genre” or “commercial”).

It is the character’s growth and change throughout the story, induced by the central conflict, that gives the character the ability to resolve this same conflict. In the beginning of the story, he or she is not capable of finding resolution. He or she must grow toward that ability.

Without conflict, there is no growth.

Without growth, there is (often) no story.

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Jan 5, 2010
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16 comments · Add Yours

Have you read Robert McKee’s Story? The ideas in this post seem similar to those in his book.

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I read that book years ago and remember it being fairly mechanistic. I was much more influenced by THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, which is probably a reason why I liked Dara Marks’ book so much, since she is using the idea of the ‘hero’s myth’ as metaphor for psychological transformation, which makes a lot of sense to me. Ayn Rand says some smart, sharp things about fiction (particularly plot, theme and what she calls ‘plot-theme’ but what I just referred to as ‘logline’) in her book THE ART OF FICTION.

Then again, a lot of the same ideas just get expressed over and over again, in different ways — we’re all groping our way towards our best individual understanding of them.

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I have a different set of tools in my toolbox to reach the same ends.

I’d replace what you call reality, with the word “desire” (whether they can understand and/or express that consciously or not).

Conflict, for me, comes from forces that are in opposition to that desire, whether directly or indirectly, internally or externally.

Obtaining that desire can be as shattering and life changing as never getting it, but as long as I always know what the character wants I can push the story forward, and tell something worth telling.

And then I can begin to externalize that as a metaphor, or even manifest their desire as a character and then put them into conflict with *that*.

It also makes my rules for writing a good logline pretty simple:
Who is this story about?
What do they desire?
Who or what is getting in the way of them achieving it?

“A priest on the verge of becoming a cardinal discovers the woman he loved and lost is now divorced, and has joined his congregation.”

“A gunslinger on the verge of retirement realizes that the ‘masked bandit’, the most valuable bounty in all the west, is actually his partner.”

Those are both half-baked, but you get the idea.

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Justine,

I’ve really been enjoying these posts in which you synthesize these ideas, even though I disagree with many parts of the arguments you make and the conclusions you come to (sometimes, LOL, to the point of YELLING AT YOU THROUGH MY COMPUTER SCREEN. So far my dog agrees with most of my counter-arguments, so I’m one up on you.) You’re very good at laying out these ideas clearly and opening them to understanding. Well done.

Also, there are few places outside of blogs where you would have the opportunity to publish this kind of writing (particularly without passing through the filter of an agent or an editor). So, brand-platform-building aside, I’m very happy that you’ve taken the time to write these posts.

I haven’t read Dara Mark’s book, but I know Vogler’s well — it’s one of those essential texts, like John Gardner’s Art of Fiction. (Vogler has, as you probably know, gotten rich working as a script consultant.) I think it’s valuable, though, to remember that the structure of the heroic journey — protagonist/antagonist, conflict/change — isn’t the only narrative structure, and it certainly isn’t the only good narrative structure. It’s ancient and so deeply ingrained in our culture that’s it’s difficult either to imagine or to respond to alternative structures. The fact that readers respond to stories that fall outside this familiar container with a feeling of “what’s the point?” is not any kind of an objective measure of the success or failure of the story, and that’s something to be worried about. I have been so overexposed to heroic journey narrative that my ability to find meaning and value outside of that structure has atrophied. That isn’t a good thing. Everyone believes that there is no market for stories outside the heroic journey narrative, so they are not written or published or filmed or sung, to the point that if there is an emotional response to be found, there’s no opportunity to find it.

Also, I think the transplantation of the heroic journey narrative from art to life is one of the hallmarks of American culture right now. We each have been taught to think of our lives as heroic journeys, with conflict creating learning and changing and presumably ending with self-actualization. This is very problematic. I guarantee you that my dog is happier than I am, and he is in no way on a heroic journey except in his desire to pee on the tree higher than all other dogs. These ideas — including the idea of “conflict” itself — is something that is constructed, not given. Eastern “narratives” (I’m wincing here, as I’m sure you are) turn the western heroic journey narrative completely inside out, and afford great emotional satisfaction in doing so.

If I were writing a novel for publication or certainly a screenplay, I would do exactly as you describe here.

Good post!

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No no no no! — I don’t agree that I’m saying some of the things you think I’m saying — I think I said a few words that triggered a whole bunch of assumptions on your part…

I think psychological change is just that — change. I think it’s necessary not to achieve Heroic Quests but for basic. fucking. survival. The ‘hero’s journey’ (unfortunate choice of words) is about detaching from old things (beliefs, etc.) and integrating new ones. Introspection, moral choices, the consequences of those choices. That’s the only ‘narrative structure’ I’m talking about.

And any novel — I mean, c’mon, I read as much literary fiction if not more than the next person — is about change and challenge on some level — and by ‘meaning’ I don’t mean some simple message wrapped in a bow — and by ‘external actions/events’ I’m not talking about Hollywood explosions. It could be a conversation with your neighbor. It could be a bird landing in a freaking tree.

ANY published novel is going to be ‘about’ something. I’m not saying you lay out the entire story in a logline, or plot-theme, or whatever– I’m saying you get across what the central conflict is that generates the story or the storyworld — you evoke, indicate, suggest. Any book that ‘hangs together’ is going to have that.

I regret that I don’t seem to have conveyed that, or that you think I’m writing about “writing for publication” — because I know the type of writing-about-writing you’re talking about. But here’s the thing — I think it’s easy to get snobbish about some of these concepts because it’s easy to treat them superficially and dismiss them (or use them to create bad fiction) — or it’s easy to reduce them to formula — like memorizing a math sequence instead of reaching beyond that sequence to understand why it works in the first place. Which is why the Hero’s Journey thing has gotten such a bad rap among, ahem, certain individuals. Of course there are different narratives. The Journey thing itself is much more flexible and fluid and open to different interpretations than you think, and it’s also possible to take parts of it and turn those into complete narratives in themselves.

Conflict happens on so many levels, in such a myriad of ways, including subtle ones. I mean, c’mon, what I’m saying is so — commercial?

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Nice comment.

Aren’t we talking about the same things here? Desires, wants, needs, goals, etc. — which, by the way, might start out as one thing and shift into something else (reflecting a change or growth in the character). Anything the character desires (or thinks he desires) is going to say a great deal about the kind of person he is and what he holds important — what he values. We don’t just want to know what he wants, we want to know why he wants it — why he struggles for it.

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I’m not sure what you’re saying “no” to (four times!).

I do think you’re saying that the heroic journey model is the fundamental way of telling a story, and it is so because it reflects the structure of human lives. This sentence of yours leads me to this: “All stories, at heart, are about transformation. Stories are symbolic of life: we grow and evolve in direct relationship to the conflicts and obstacles we face (or run away from) and overcome (or don’t) in the real world.”

Stories of transformation are compelling, but it’s not the case that all stories are about transformation, anymore than it’s the case that survival requires transformation, or change, or evolving, or detaching, or integrating. That’s just a set of beliefs, one of many ways of constructing either a survival strategy or a story.

I’m as drawn to the heroic journey narrative structure as anyone else, as a reader and as a writer. It can be done well and it can be done poorly, but that still doesn’t give it status as the structure that is at the heart of all stories that “work” as stories. It doesn’t define what a story is. If you set out, in your life or in a story, to put change at the center of the narrative, then you require all of the things you describe in this post — absolutely true. But that’s very different from saying that without change you don’t have a story that works.

My dog gives me this round. What’s your dog say?

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I don’t think there’s change in every story; I think there are stories where the characters don’t change (but their lack of change is more or less the point of the story and usually to the character’s detriment and/or downfall). I certainly think transformation can be small, subtle, but happens nonetheless, which is why I’m having trouble with your argument — if a story is about people, relationships, human activity, whatever — about two different forces encountering each other — something happens. Something changes.

And I do think life requires change — growth *is* change — and stories reflect that. Maybe we’re just defining ‘change’ differently — as far as I’m concerned you have an insight, an epiphany, and it changes you. Even those who try hard *not* to change — can’t help but change (and look ridiculous for their attempts to freeze time).

I also think different things — entities — whatever — can stand in for ‘protagonist’ (or ‘antagonist’).

I say *no* because I have the feeling you’re grouping me in with a certain formulaic way of writing and thinking (including thinking about the quote-unquote Hero’s Journey).

My dog thinks your dog is nuts. But wants to play with him anyway. :)

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I have always found my stories refuse to let me separate all the elements out. I do have a point of entry, the character or the world. But you express it so beautifully here why those are ONLY a point of entry. Stories are interwoven: story grows out of character, character grows out of story. Each IS the other, affects the other. And both grow from the world that they are in.

I write science fiction/fantasy, so I often have to dig deep into languages and cultures to understand how my characters think the way they do, but whenever I flesh out my characters, follow their lives, study the way they react to the things I put them through, I always learn more about their language, their culture, their worldview, the way they will always do things because of their language, their culture, their worldview. And likewise, when I started digging into how to render language on the page in English the other day, I found myself digging into my character’s past, her present, the themes of the novel, the necessary conflicts, tensions, and telling actions that were going to unfold.

It surprised me to find out just how thoroughly all the pieces of the novel relied on each other to exist.

This was a well-timed post for me to read. It helped me crystallize just what I have been learning from digging into my own writing process and trying to figure out why I was having such a hard time with this book. Thanks for a Eureka! moment. I need that.

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Thank you for such a thoughtful and well-written post. Now I’m intrigued about your novel.

The chance to invent, explore other cultures — god, I love that about fantasy.

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I’ve been taking Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course and it really is in the eye of the beholder what word you would like to use.

She uses the words protagonist, conflict, antagonist, twist, and setting, but defines them so you can figure out your own.

I use the words person with a need, counter to the need, change, and setting.

The whole idea of conflict is simply that someone has a need or desire and something is running counter to it.

It’s all the same.

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Dan — now I want to write a post just for you. :) What kind of question or subject would you like to see me attempt to wrestle with?

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We may have arrived at a point of mutual-agree-to-disagree and putting away of the exclamation points. The Hero’s Journey IS a formula. A powerful one, a great tool, capable of making great art as well as explaining great art, but it’s too reductionist for the world I live in and for my own journey through life. It’s also been co-opted terribly by consumer culture — it’s the world’s most powerful marketing tool. It’s an excellent tool for making stories, and great stories can come from it. You’ve unpacked the mechanics of it very skillfully — I admire what you’ve done in this post, for Christ’s sake! I was adding another dimension to the quote conversation unquote. I am genuflecting as I back out of the comment church, with my dog.

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You know what I like, darlin': write another post about going out to lunch with Dude, where you went and what you saw and what it made you think of.

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Hi Justine :)
Thank you very much for sharing your writing wisdom here. I cut & pasted it into my writing folder so I may study it over & over.
Thank you again,
RKCharron

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By the way: like R.K. Charron, I also clipped your post into my Evernote notebook. It’s that good.

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