Greetings, gang! On this page, I will be posting various articles I’ve written on the craft of writing. I’m pleased to say that several of them have received excellent feedback…
For my article on Showing vs. Telling, just scroll on down…
Here’s an update on a previous article. . .
Creative Writing 101:
Show & Tell
by R. Michael Burns
Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course or picked up a book on the subject has surely encountered the famous refrain: show, don’t tell! I certainly got that comment frequently enough during my days as a CW major at the University of Colorado. What I wasn’t so frequently told, though, was what exactly that dire entreaty meant.
If you’re as puzzled by this as I was, perhaps this article will help clear things up a bit. Since my work is primarily fiction, I’ll focus on narrative prose. Some of what follows, though, will also apply to other forms, such as poetry, creative non-fiction, and even journalistic writing.
Let me begin by saying what I believe fiction is supposed to accomplish. In this context, I’m not talking about high-minded ideals like dissecting the human condition or creating timeless portraits of complex and interesting characters — in other words, I’m not talking about going out and committing “literature,” whatever that might be. All of that is grand, and I’ve written about it in previous articles, but here I’m interested in something slightly more nuts-and-bolts-ish.
In my (never-too) humble opinion, fiction is all about forging an emotional link between the author and the reader. While many a great piece of fiction functions on a high intellectual level, the good stuff almost always works, first and foremost, viscerally. We are drawn into it because something there speaks to our deeper selves, gets inside us and takes hold. Indeed, fiction always has to sneak past the barriers our intellects erect, because (by virtue of the label “fiction”) we know that the stories we’re being told are fabrications. We call this feat of mental gymnastics “willing suspension of disbelief,” and good writers tend to help us accomplish it in two ways: by making their fiction as plausible as possible, and even more significantly, by blazing through the brain and going for the gut.
One of the best ways to do this is by creating vivid images that immerse readers in the world of the fiction — by not merely telling readers what’s happening, but showing it to them.
Let the Reader See It…
Basically, the distinction is this: telling merely catalogs actions and emotions, showing creates images in a reader’s imagination. It’s the difference between the laundry list and the laundry.
Here’s a very basic tell sentence:
Bob felt scared.
It’s unambiguous, but not at all evocative — Bob may feel fear, but the reader isn’t likely to. Consider this alternative:
Bob’s face went ashen. His breathing came in ragged gasps.
True, the second example is a good deal longer than the first — ten words as compared to a bare three — but you get a lot more bang for your narrative buck. Like the first, the second example makes it pretty clear that Bob is scared, but unlike the first, it creates a distinct picture in the reader’s mind. As an added bonus, it also gives us a bit of insight into how frightened Bob is, and how he handles his fear. It seems to me that this sort of insight is central to creating intricate, compelling characters — which many would say is the cornerstone of good fiction.
Emotions in particular are fertile ground for getting showy where it’s easy to lapse into mere telling. Compare the following two lines:
“Let’s go,” Mary said impatiently.
“Let’s go!” Mary snapped.
The first line merely tells us of Mary’s impatience. By changing the punctuation and choosing a stronger verb, the second version shows her impatience. This also helps you follow another common CW 101 caveat: don’t overuse adverbs. The stronger verb here eliminates the need for the “telling” adverb.
Be warned on this count, though: some editors out there vehemently dislike tag lines that use any verb which does not literally refer to speaking (i.e. “…he said” or “…she whispered” or “…they shouted”). They will not take kindly to expressions like “…the sergeant barked” or “…Lydia hissed…” Personally, I think this is nonsense — metaphor is the stock-in-trade of creative writing, and the more evocative a phrase, the better. But these editors are correct in wanting writers to eschew the trite, the hackneyed, and the absurd. As always, the best advice is: be aware of what editors like and what they don’t, and submit accordingly.
Use Strong Verbs…
The above examples also point to another great truism of modern creative writing: verbs should carry the weight of the description. One of the great things about the English language is that it has always borrowed, collected, stolen, and otherwise appropriated vocabulary from other languages. As a result, our lexicon is vast and immensely varied. This means that you typically have a fair number of verbs from which to choose to describe any given action. If you’re keen to make a sentence come to life, break out your thesaurus and dig around for the most vivid verbs you can find.
Consider the sentence:
Daniel walked down the street.
It gives us the basics, but it’s bland. By contrast, the sentence:
Daniel ambled down the street.
shows us a much clearer picture of Daniel and gives us a sense of his mood. He’s casual, in no hurry, maybe even a bit disinterested. All of that is contained in the more specific verb “ambled.” Compare that to the image created by the sentences:
Daniel strutted down the street.
Daniel slunk down the street.
Daniel shuffled down the street.
and you see how much impact a good verb has. Each version creates a significantly different image of our friend Daniel.
Indeed, the reason writers are so frequently (pardon my adverb) warned against adverbs is that many writers dress up sentences with adverbs when stronger verbs are in order. Rather than say:
Ethel wrote her name messily on the line.
Ethel scribbled her name on the line.
The verb “scribbled” contains the implication of “messily” and saves you from needing an awkward adverb to create a vivid image.
Let Readers Feel For Themselves…
Beware, too, of sentences that seem to tell the reader how to feel, particularly when writing in the third person. Take a look at a couple of short passages from two highly-successful novels by popular writers. Both involve startling turns of events, but the passages handle the surprise factor very differently. In the first, from The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the Druid Allanon is doing battle with an evil entity called a Skull Bearer. Writes Brooks,
Then, in a totally unexpected move, the black wings spread wide and it circled into the air…
The obvious problem here is that, by telling readers the move was “totally unexpected,” Brooks causes us to expect it. He seems almost to be instructing us to be surprised, but his language in this case lacks the immediacy needed to genuinely shock us.
Now take a gander at how Thomas Harris handles the same emotion in a line from his novel, The Silence of the Lambs. Here, FBI Agent Clarice Starling has just discovered a corpse in a bathtub in the basement of a serial killer’s home. Highly attuned to details, Clarice notices that the corpse’s watch is still running:
The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out.
I remember reading that line for the first time and actually jumping — and I’d seen the film and knew what was coming. The line is a shocker because Harris doesn’t tell us to feel surprised, he simply focuses our attention on a bit of creepy minutia then turns off the lights. Where Brooks’s language warns us of something unexpected, Harris’s delivers it. Where Brooks tells, Harris shows.
God’s in the Details…
Showing is also about relieving ambiguity. If a sentence says:
The man was well-dressed.
the reader may not have a good sense of what that means — the author’s notion of “well-dressed” may be rather different from the reader’s. If instead the line reads:
The man wore an ash-gray Armani coat over a linen shirt, a red silk cravat Windsor-knotted at his throat.
the reader can all but see the guy — or at least his clothes — and has an idea what the narrator considers well-dressed. It may seem a bit like a laundry list (which is exactly what it is) but this handful of details creates a clear image of the character and allows readers to decide for themselves that the man is well-dressed. And, again, this more specific description gives readers a stronger sense of the character — he either has money or wants people to think he does, and that “Windsor-knotted cravat” suggests an almost aristocratic air about him.
Similarly, a sentence that says:
The house looked old.
leaves readers wondering what “old” looks like as far as the narrator is concerned.
The house slouched in a yard choked with weeds, its paint faded and flaking, the lace curtains in its windows yellowed with age.
makes it clear.
Let the Dialogue Speak for Itself…
The content of dialogue, too, is a useful “showing” tool. It can give readers insight into a character’s intelligence and level of sophistication, can hint at his background and even suggest something about his self-image.
To take the last instance first, why simply tell readers that Dr. Wells is an egotist when you can show us?
“Once again,” Dr. Wells said, sighing, “I had to step in and save that quack Ingles. I knew I should have objected more strenuously when the board appointed him, but I let them silence me, despite my better judgment.”
Referring to a colleague as a quack and implying that his opinions are superior to the board’s makes it immediately obvious that Doctor Wells has a high opinion of himself. But his frequent use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me) can also carry this message, and more subtly, throughout the passage, even when he isn’t denouncing the people he works with.
The same is true for intellectual qualities. If you want a character to seem intelligent, let her say intelligent things. If a man’s not well educated, keep his vocabulary comparatively simple (though not necessarily the content of his speech — he might be highly intelligent but simply lack linguistic sophistication…). Don’t tell your reader that a character is inarticulate, show that character struggling to find the right words to express himself. You can do so even through simple interactions. For example, rather than tell a reader:
The two men exchanged greetings.
why not show us:
“Well howdy there, Jimmy,” Brian said, grinning. “Ain’t seen you in a coon’s age!”
“Hey,” Jimmy answered, giving Brian a small nod.
The little dose of dialect in Brian’s line hints that he might come from the American south somewhere. Jimmy’s curt answer and understated nod suggests that he might feel less enthusiastic about this meeting than Brian does. While dialect and regional clichés should, of course, be used sparingly, they often prove quite useful in showing readers qualities in a story’s characters, minor and major. Used well, they can also help delineate characters in a reader’s mind, making the whole narrative more vivid.
On the Other Hand…
There are, however, a few good arguments for telling, at least once in a while. The best is simple brevity. Showing almost always takes a good deal more words than does telling, and if an event is comparatively unimportant, you may want to mention it only in passing. (Of course if it’s really unimportant, you should probably consider simply leaving it out.) Likewise, if a character is recounting events with which the reader is already well-familiar, you may want to gloss over it with a tell line:
Jane explained what had happened.
You might decide that allowing the reader to hear some or all of the familiar events in Jane’s voice is worth repeating what the reader already knows, in which case — go for it. If not, this quick line gets the job done and allows you to move on to more immediate, active scenes.
Another, more treacherous argument for telling rather than showing is that telling is less emotionally charged — and therefore less emotionally manipulative. Certainly a litany of events — stripped of strong verbs and adjectives and the emotional baggage they inevitably carry with them — leaves more room for the reader to render his or her own emotional response.
To my way of thinking, though, fiction is about characters, and characters are bundles of emotions. It’s only natural that any story filtered through a character’s perspective, whether in the first person voice or in the so-called “fused” third person (in which an omniscient narrator shares a character’s thoughts and feelings), will take on emotional colors and overtones. Done correctly, this isn’t manipulative, it’s a genuine, shared response to emotional truths that run deeper than the fabrication of the fiction. And dry, unemotional narrative can often leave a reader cold, feeling detached from the characters and what happens to them.
So How Do I Decide?
When to show and when to tell is a balancing act every author has to manage, and no two writers will have exactly the same sense of how much of each is warranted. This is a significant part of finding your own style and narrative voice. There are, however, a couple of basic guidelines that I think are valuable in helping make the decision.
1. Show the things that point-of-view characters would notice or find important. If something would catch a character’s eye and be worth examining to her, it is worth showing to the reader in some detail. If there is no reason your character would focus on it, then it might not be important enough for the reader to focus on. But, that said. . .
2. Show the details that help put the reader in the story. This is where the specific verbs and nouns mentioned above come in, as well as carefully-chosen adjectives. Change the sentence, “Alex took the book from the shelf” to “Alex hefted the leather-bound tome from the shelf” and you create a very different image in the reader’s mind. Adding this kind of detail is especially important when the story takes place in a time or location with which the reader is probably unfamiliar. In those instances, you may need to show the reader things which the characters might not find unusual enough to notice. This is tricky, but generally a few well-chosen and specific words can suffice to provide the reader with enough detail to have a clear picture of what’s going on.
3. Show the things that are unusual, and that the reader won’t or can’t assume. It is perfectly acceptable, for example, to write, “Morgan drove home.” Most readers will be completely familiar with this process and so, unless something unexpected or significantly out of the ordinary occurs on the drive, we don’t need all the showy details. There’s no need to write, “Morgan unlocked the driver’s side door and got into the car. She put on her seatbelt and closed the door, then put the key in the ignition and turned it. . .” At this point, you’re just bogging the reader down with details that don’t add anything meaningful to the work. If, on the other hand, something unusual is about to happen, the showing becomes worthwhile. “She put on her seatbelt and closed the door, then put the key in the ignition and turned it — but rather than the soft grumble of the engine coming to life, she heard a muted ticking, like the kind a cheap alarm clock might make.” Now the mundane details contributed something to the story, because they stand in stark contrast to the next bit of information, which is not mundane at all, and suggests that Morgan could be in considerable trouble.
The Last Word(s). . .
Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention and draws them into your story — and showing your audience the action you create is a vital aspect of vivid storytelling. So, in order to avoid the pitfalls of “telling” rather than “showing,” remember these points:
— Use strong, specific verbs, and avoid overusing adverbs.
— Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing, don’t simply tell readers how to feel.
— Use well-placed details to bring scenes to life.
— Use expressive dialogue to show characters’ emotions and attitudes.
Keep these notions in mind and your writing is sure to be more powerful and compelling — the sort of thing that will keep readers coming back for more.
Copyright (c) R. Michael Burns 2013, 2015
Creative Writing 301:
All the World’s a Stage
by R. Michael Burns
It’s a mighty good thing that I write alone. If anyone were to watch me working for any length of time, they’d probably walk away questioning my sanity. Why? Well, for a number of reasons, really, but foremost among them is my tendency to stop typing, stare into space, and start talking to myself.
Those who have spent any time crafting dialogue are probably nodding their heads knowingly.
Let’s face it — sometimes you just need to hear that conversation out loud, to listen to its ebb and flow, and get a sense of whether or not actual human beings would ever talk like that. I even sometimes find myself getting up and acting out snippets of verbal exchange, perhaps a few actions as well, to get a feel for it all before I commit it to the page. This no doubt is at least partly because I started acting on stage well before I started writing (I was in my first big production at Colorado College when I was five). Over the years, the skills I learned as an actor have proven invaluable in my work as a writer.
Whether you’re a thespian or not, there are some theatrical techniques that could serve you well as a writer. Of particular use are the scene analysis techniques advocated by proponents of the Stanislavsky method.
Stanislavsky was a Russian actor who developed a naturalistic acting technique (method acting) that takes the emphasis off of feigned emotions and focuses on a character’s goals and tactics. (These are my own terms, chosen for simplicity and clarity; elsewhere you’re likely to find these approaches described using other vocabulary.)
The essence of the Stanislavsky method, as it concerns us as writers, is this: scenes should be understood based on the goals of the characters involved, and the tactics they use to achieve these goals.
At the heart of most memorable stories is are characters engaged in some significant conflict. While the most visible conflict may (and usually will) be something external, resolving it should require the character(s) to make internal changes. In strong storytelling, characters possess some intrinsic quality which makes them uniquely suited to solving whatever problem makes up the story’s central conflict — or which render them uniquely vulnerable to their inevitable failure, as the case may be. (This is as true in an imaginative epic like the Harry Potter series as it is in a much more intimate, character-based drama like The Great Gatsby. In both cases, the main characters must struggle with their internal conflicts in order to have any hope of resolving the conflicts going on around them.)
Characters Need Specific Goals
If you’re like me, you usually have a rough sketch of your story in mind before you sit down to put it into words. Ask yourself, even before you start writing, just who your main character is and what his or her goal is. (Lesser characters, too, can have goals, which may coincide with the main character’s goal, may be tangential, or may clash with that goal.) The goal may not be apparent to the character at the start of the tale — after all, goals often arise from circumstances which take shape as the story begins — but it should be on the horizon where you, the author, can identify it.
What’s important here is that the goal be specific.
“Live a good life” is a mighty vague goal, and one that doesn’t seem to engage the character on a deeply personal level. Any number of people could set this goal. “Win the approval of my estranged father,” is much more specific, and it is easier for the audience to see whether or not the protagonist succeeds. A character’s goal doesn’t need to be grandiose, only significant. It may not be earth-shattering, save-the-world stuff, but for the character involved it’s obviously significant. And it is a clear, specific goal. (Indeed, even when it is grandiose, save-the-world stuff, the character needs something more personal to make the goal matter to him and to the audience — so for example, Frodo must save the world from the evil of the Dark Lord Sauron specifically so that he can save his beloved Shire and his extended family and friends who live there. Frodo is fighting for the whole world, but he’s also fighting for the people he loves. Saving the world is personal. By contrast, reuniting with the estranged father may not save the world — may not have any real impact beyond the family — but if the audience believes that this is hugely important to the character, and if they like that character, they will care whether or not he succeeds. In any event, personal goals are always easier for an audience to relate to than are massive, abstract goals.)
Goals Must Be Fallible
This might seem a bit obvious, but a character’s goal needs to be fallible. If it’s guaranteed to succeed, there’s no tension, and nothing to engage an audience. Let’s imagine our estranged son (we’ll call him Junior, for the sake of simplicity and, more importantly, laziness) attempts to win over his father (Dad) by showing off how successful he has become. But the old man takes this as Junior’s way of overshadowing Dad’s modest lifestyle, and the rift between them grows wider. What’s more, Dad has been diagnosed with kidney failure, and there may not be much time left for Junior to work things out between them. Add to that a scheming sister (Sissy) who wants to make sure Junior doesn’t get back into dad’s good graces, and you have a number of entanglements that make Junior’s success a lot less than a given. The stakes are high and the pitfalls numerous.
By contrast, if a character’s goal is simply to go to the store and buy a quart of milk, there’s likely not much stopping her. (Of course, if the character lives in a war zone or her life is otherwise complicated, then the goal might run a high enough risk of failure to make for a compelling story.)
Once you’ve established the character’s goal, the next thing to consider is the tactic or tactics the character will use to achieve that goal. In most cases, the tactics will change a number of times. After all, if the first tactic works, the goal is achieved almost immediately and the story is basically over.
This is where a writer can really get to the heart of a character. Two characters with the same goal might use vastly different tactics to achieve it. The reader will learn a lot about who the characters are by the tactics they’re willing to use.
Consider a story about a missing child. A suspect has been arrested, but refuses to say where the child is. The story might feature a number of characters who all have the same goal: to get vital information from the suspect. But the characters would likely use very different tactics. One character might try persuasion, promises. Another might try threats, even actual violence. Another might plead, appeal to the suspect’s humanity. And any one character might use any combination of these tactics.
What’s vital is that the tactics fit the given circumstances — the imprisoned suspect, the missing child, and whatever else might effect the scene — and that the tactics reflect the character using them. The prison’s priest, for example, might appeal to the suspect’s humanity, his conscience, but probably wouldn’t resort to physical threats. On the other hand, if the priest did threaten physical harm, it would tell us a lot about this character — and something we probably didn’t expect.
Through-lines, Beats, and Caps
The character’s main goal in a story is the through-line, the thing that ties the whole tale together. Within each scene, a character may have other goals, little things they must accomplish to achieve the main goal. And within each scene, the tactics a character uses to accomplish these goals may change a number of times. Each shift in tactics marks one beat, theatrically speaking. The beat changes when some new reality intrudes to force the character to shift tactics. This could be a big thing (the priest threatens the suspect, the police officer rushes in to stop him), or it could be a small thing (the priests catches on to the fact that the guy wants to be beaten, hoping it will give him grounds for legal action, so the good father has to change his bellicose approach for tactics that don’t play into the suspect’s plans). Subtle or obvious, the new circumstance, whatever it is, inspires new tactics and shifts the beat.
Let’s revisit Junior, Dad and Sissy. In this scene, Junior is trying to convince Sissy that he’s not simply after Dad’s money. Accomplishing this will resolve the scene and, hopefully, take Junior one step closer to patching things up with Dad.
“Ten years you wouldn’t even talk to Dad,” Sissy said, shaking her head. “Now suddenly you’re itching to make amends. Right when he gets sick.”
Junior bit his lip, let it go. “You really think I’m just in this to worm my way back into Dad’s will? That’s nonsense and you know it.”
“Is it?” Her tone had a stony chill to it.
“Think about it. What’s Dad worth? By the time funeral expenses are covered, outstanding debt, whatever goes to you and the kids, what’s gonna be left for me? Anyway, I’m doing just fine, thanks. I don’t need Dad’s money.”
“So you say,” Sissy responded, turning to the sink full of dishes, her back to him now.
“When I heard about the. . . When I heard Dad was sick, it just, it put things in a new light, okay? Made me realize how stupid this thing between us is, this feud, whatever you want to call it. I just don’t want things to end this way between us.”
Sissy sighed. She slipped a plate into the drying rack beside the sink and turned back to face him. “Okay,” she said, not quite meeting his gaze. “I’ll talk to Dad for you.”
At first, Junior’s tactic is to dismiss Sissy’s accusation, but her stony reception compels a different approach. He then tries reason, but her physical response (turning her back on him) makes it clear that he’s pushing her further away, not winning her over. Finally, he opts for an emotional appeal. All three tactics have the same goal, but each one shifts the beat of the scene ever-so-slightly, in response to small but significant changes in the reality of the scene.
At the end of the scene comes what’s known as the cap, the moment at which it becomes clear whether or not Junior has achieved his goal. In this case, he has. Sissy has backed off of her accusations and agreed to help Junior out. Junior’s goal, “convincing Sis to help me reconcile with dad,” has been accomplished. Sissy’s physical actions — turning her back on Junior, then turning to face him but failing to look him in the eyes — contribute almost as much as what she says to telling the audience how well Junior’s tactics are working.
Now look again at this scene, and you may notice that perhaps Sissy, too, has a goal here, and tactics of her own. Perhaps her goal is “to discover Junior’s real motives.” By challenging and denying him, she tests him, and at the end of the scene, she too has achieved her goal. The cap is now firmly on the scene.
Another Sort of Tension
Another way to achieve tension in a scene is to give multiple characters the same goal, even a collective goal, but to have them disagree about the best tactic for achieving this goal.
In my novel Windwalkers, a number of people trapped in a church during a freak blizzard are struggling to survive a supernatural onslaught. Their goal, “to survive the night,” is a common one, but much of the tension comes from disputes among them as to how best to accomplish this fundamental goal. Some want to hide, some want to run, some want to fight. Each character develops the lesser goal of convincing the others of agreeing to his or her plan. So even here, where the goal is one the characters share, tension arises from goals and tactics.
Story and Structure
One nice thing about using these theatrical techniques in writing is that having them in mind helps keep a piece focused on the characters, and keeps them active. Story is all about characters in conflict, and by employing these techniques you can’t possibly neglect those two vital aspects. This isn’t to say that writers ought to avoid passages of backstory or description — both of those things flesh out a tale and help to create the given circumstances which shape the characters, their goals, and their tactics. But ultimately the characters themselves must step up and own the tales we tell.
Another benefit of using this technique is that it helps structure a story. Not sure when to end a scene? Look for the cap. When the cap is on, the scene is over. Anything much beyond that moment will probably drag, because the tension has been relieved.
Emotional Truths and “As Ifs”. . .
Method acting is about honesty, specifically about the emotional reality of a scene rising not from some necessity to emote, but from the situational reality of the characters’ goals and tactics. In each of the scenes described above, the emotional undercurrents come from the goals and the stakes of the scene, and manifest themselves in the tactics. For Junior and Sissy in the scene above, what’s at stake is their family. So Sissy’s turning her back on Junior is both a tactic and a believable emotional response to the gravity of the scene.
Actors use an “as if” statement to help them relate to a character’s emotional state in an honest way, and writers can employ the same technique. Often the tales we tell come from genuine personal experience, and therefore the emotional connection is immediate. But at least as often, we find ourselves putting characters in situations we’ve never been in ourselves. That’s where the “as if” comes in so handy. Returning to my snowbound characters in Windwalkers: I’ve never been in besieged by monstrous supernatural beasts, but I have been in a few situations where I was pretty concerned about my own safety. So I look at my main character, Nick Bookman, and ask myself what his situation is like to me. It’s as if I were rock climbing and found myself in a place where I wasn’t sure I could go up or down, and where a single false step would probably result in serious injury or a nasty death. That’s a situation I can relate to, and it seems to fit Nick’s circumstances well. Trapped, with only a glimmer of hope, and the certainty that the wrong action will be catastrophic. This helps me find Nick’s emotional center and also drives home the stakes of his reality for me. Now when I write how he acts, I can believe more confidently that his actions are honestly manifesting both his goals and his emotional state. The emotion isn’t arbitrary or imposed for effect; it arises naturally out of the situation.
Having put all this on the table before you, I now humbly suggest you forget it. Or rather, put it in the back of your mind. It’s my belief that good writing develops organically. Work too hard to fit your stories into a mold or pattern — even a good one — and you’re apt to produce stuff that’s rigid and artificial.
My advice — which I sometimes even manage to take myself — is to write that first draft naked and dirty, letting the characters and events fall out as they may. Then, when you do the rewrite, look at it with these considerations in mind. Odds are the goals and tactics are mostly there. Your task on the second draft is to clarify them, heighten the tension, and edit each scene to its essential beats. In this sense, you can think of writing as sculpting. In the first draft, you carve the rough shape from the hard stone. In the second, you chip away the excess and add the details that make the figure the Adonis-like beauty you always had in mind. You’re apt to have problems if you try to impose the finished form on the first draft. Let your story take shape, then use these techniques to perfect it.
And never be too shy to get up and act things out. Sure the kids and neighbors may think you’re a bit nuts, but they’ve probably already reached that conclusion. And if you’re a writer, they’re probably not far wrong.
Write on, my friends.
Creative Writing 101:
by R. Michael Burns
Okay, I admit it: there’s a certain extent to which I’m an old-fashioned guy. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m no Luddite — I’ve happily had stories published in e-zines and in a couple of CD-ROM anthologies, and my novel Windwalkers is available in both trade paperback and Kindle formats. The medium of a story doesn’t interest me. The content does. While there are some folks who like stream-of-consciousness, shapeless “experimental” literary meanderings, I — like the vast majority of editors and readers — would rather read tales that contain the old traditional elements which have driven storytelling for centuries: characters, plot, and conflict. (There are other elements, of course, but these are the Big Three.)
Very few writers — apart perhaps from some of those experimental folks — forget either of the first two elements. Virtually any time we dream up tales to tell, we find ourselves musing over characters involved in certain events. In a very real sense, that’s what we mean by the word “story.” The characters we invent may need plenty of shaping, the plots may need expanding, but those elements are virtually unavoidable to the writer with an idea in mind.
What surprises me is how often that third element — conflict — gets left out. Yet, I’ve found this problem in a number of the stories I’ve critiqued over the years . . . and, yeah, in my own work as well.
Readers and editors tend to like stories in which the conflict is clearly defined. But it’s surprisingly easy for even an experienced author to leave it out, or to leave it so deeply buried as to be invisible.
Fear not, though, because there are some fairly simple ways to avoid this problem, or to correct it where you find it.
What is conflict?
First, let’s define the term. For the sake of story, a conflict can be any problem the main character (protagonist) must overcome to resolve the plot.
Of course, that’s oversimplifying things considerably, so let me put it this way: Conflict is the heart of Story. It is the engine that drives the plot, and the force which shapes the characters.
So how can it be so easy to leave out? Because it is surprisingly easy to write a story in which any number of dangerous, exciting, tragic, or otherwise significant things happen to the main character without a specific conflict ever being defined. Too many writers — yours truly very much included — fall into the trap of mistaking plot (which is really just a laundry list of events) for conflict. They aren’t the same, and without conflict, a story is all but dead.
I know this problem only too well. Sometime back, I wrote a story called “Taghairm Close” — my own tiny contribution to the “Cthulhu mythos” patterned primarily after the works of H. P. Lovecraft. The plot went like this:
The young narrator receives a message from a friend who has unexpectedly moved to York, England. Drawn by his feelings for her, he rushes off to England to see her. In York, the girl — always fascinated by strange and dark things — reveals that she’s found an ancient book which discloses where, in York, a lost coven of witches performed brutal, forgotten rites. The girl leads our narrator to the hidden spot. As he watches, she performs a spell which opens a horrific realm of existence where an otherworldly being lurks. The creature captures the girl and, in a manner of speaking, makes her its own. The narrator flees in terror but can never escape the terrible insight he has gained about the nature of existence. . .
I was quite fond of the tale — it had the spooky settings, the grotesquerie, the ancient tomes and hard-to-pronounce names, all the hallmarks of a good Lovecraftian tale. On top of that, it had a hint of a love story and contemporary characters better defined than most of those in Lovecraft’s own works, if I do say so myself. Time after time I submitted it, and time after time it was rejected, usually without any comment at all. (One helpful editor did say that I hadn’t convinced her that New York was all that creepy — reasonable enough since my story takes place in OLD York, leaving me to wonder if the editor in question had ever done more than glance at the story.) Then at last a rejection came from an editor with just enough time to jot some personal notes on the tale, and what he wrote made me shake my head at my own stupidity.
There was no real conflict.
My protagonist gets his letter, goes to England, meets his friend, sees something terrible happen, and writes about. It’s a series of events — some pretty nasty ones — but look closely: there’s no real CONFLICT here. Things happen, but there’s no clear decision the protagonist has to make, no major obstacle for him to overcome.
The problem was serious, but the fix was simple. Already present in the tale was the narrator’s fascination with the girl, a strange mix of friendship, romance, and infatuation. I realized that the conflict, buried beneath the surface of the tale, was just how far the narrator was willing to follow her. At the last moment, would he run, or would he try to save her? That split-second decision would define the conflict and tell the audience all about the narrator — that love mattered more to him even than preserving his own life and sanity.
The actual changes were simple: I added a few lines here and there to suggest the narrator’s uncertainty about his feelings for the girl, and rewrote the last scene to force his big decision. With a minimum of changes, my protagonist went from being a bystander to an integral actor in the tale.
The next editor I submitted the story to bought it. It appeared in the anthology Extremes 5: Fantasy and Horror from the Ends of the Earth, where it received some very nice reviews. It has subsequently been reprinted in the anthology Cthulhu Express, edited by G. W. Thomas.
This approach can work for almost anyone. The trick is to look closely at the story, and ask four crucial questions:
1. What problem must the protagonist solve before the story ends? (The problem should be clearly defined enough that it should be fairly obvious to the reader whether or not the protagonist succeeded.)
2. What stands in the protagonist’s way — what threatens to prevent his or her success? (If nothing much stands in the protagonist’s way, there’s probably not much conflict, and therefore not much to really grab the readers’ interest.)
3. What crucial decision / action must the protagonist make to solve the problem? (This is typically the climax of the story — the protagonist must do something which tests him to the core of his being.)
4. What are the stakes if the character fails? (This is a vital question: if the stakes are low, it’s likely that the readers’ interest will be, too.)
Once you know the answers to those questions, you can make the adjustments to the story that will bring the conflict to the fore.
Of course, you’re better off if the conflict is apparent from the first draft. If you can answer those questions unambiguously before you put a single word on paper (or the computer screen), then you’re off to a good start.
Types of Conflict…
The nature of the conflict can be obvious or subtle, but it must be, on some level, very clear. Consider some classic examples. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins must make his way across strange and dangerous terrain to Mount Doom, the only place where he can destroy the One Ring which threatens to unleash the powers of darkness across Middle Earth. The conflict is huge and simple: Frodo versus the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron — or, more simply, good versus evil.
The title of Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” makes the conflict apparent from the start. The protagonist must build a fire or freeze to death in a frigid wilderness. In school, we would probably have defined this as a “man vs. nature” story.
Things get a tad more subtle in Shakespeare’s Othello. Although Iago is clearly the antagonist (the one opposing our eponymous protagonist), through much of the play, Othello doesn’t know this. So in an important sense, the real conflict becomes an internal one for Othello — will he give in to his suspicions about Desdemona (and, by implication, to his own self-doubt), or will he rise above it and put faith in those who are truly loyal to him? Since Othello is a tragedy, we have a pretty good sense which way the protagonist will go, but the conflict is compelling enough to keep us involved.
In each case, we can easily answer the 4 vital questions:
Lord of the Rings: 1. What problem must the protagonist overcome? Frodo must destroy the One Ring before the Dark Lord Sauron can claim it.
2. What stands in his way? The ring can only be destroyed by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, in the very heart of Sauron’s stronghold. And the ring has a powerful influence over anyone who carries it.
3. What crucial decision / action must the character take to solve the problem? Frodo must decide whether to destroy the ring, or to surrender to its will and try to claim its terrible power for himself. (In the end, Frodo succeeds not because he is able to make the right decision at the crucial moment, but because the creature Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off and plunges into the fires of Mount Doom, taking the ring with him. This might seem to take the critical choice out of Frodo’s hands (er, so to speak) but it’s worth remembering that Frodo makes the conscious decision to spare Gollum’s life, thereby making this ending possible.)
4. What are the stakes if the protagonist fails? If Frodo fails, Sauron’s forces will take over Middle Earth, enslaving and brutalizing all of the free people, including his own peace-loving kin, the Hobbits. (In the films, Frodo gets a glimpse of this future, driving home to him and the audience how high the stakes are.)
“To Build a Fire”: 1. What problem must the protagonist overcome? He must build a fire or he will freeze to death.
2. What stands in his way? The brutal elements — wind, snow, damp and frozen wood, deadly cold. His own fears and the weakness of a body slowly dying of hypothermia also make the challenge considerably harder.
3. What crucial decision must he make? Whether to surrender to the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or to keep trying no matter how impossible his task may appear.
4. What are the stakes if he fails? He’ll die.
Othello: 1. What problem must the protagonist solve? This one is a bit more subtle because Othello is, in essence, a character-driven piece, and thus the conflict that moves the story forward is really the internal one. Outwardly, Othello’s problem is that Iago is trying to lead him down a path of suspicion and ultimate self-destruction. So Othello’s conflict is between love and jealousy, trust and suspicion.
2. What stands in his way? Iago’s scheming, of course, but also Othello’s own fears — the fear that Desdemona may not really be able to love a Moore, the fear that his own power may be undermined if he seems unable to control those “beneath” him, including his wife, the fear that love may be blinding him to painful realities.
3. What decision must he make? Othello must decide whether or not he will let fear and suspicion overwhelm love and trust — specifically, whether or not he will kill Desdemona for her perceived unfaithfulness.
4. What are the stakes if he fails? Since Othello is a tragedy, we get to see what happens when Othello fails to make the right decision — the pathetic death of the innocent Desdemona, the demise of the somewhat-less-innocent Emilia, and end of the badly deceived Othello himself — a death which, due to Othello’s high rank, has larger ramifications.
In a long work like a novel or a play, the protagonist (or protagonists) may have several goals which change over the course of the story, but typically these smaller goals are part of the larger one — small battles in the war which is the main conflict. In dramatic terms, this is known as the through-line: the basic drive which unifies the work and defines the protagonist.
The Heart in Conflict With Itself…
Defining the apparent conflict is vital. But when we take a closer look at the stories I’ve discussed above, we see that there are internal conflicts as well as external ones. In Othello’s case, the internal conflict is obvious because it is central to the story. But such conflicts exist in the other tales, too.
Take our friend Frodo. His struggle against the forces of evil isn’t merely with Black Riders and orcs, it’s a question of his own strength and determination. How much is he willing to sacrifice to achieve his goal? Can he keep from surrendering to the terrible, corrupting power of the One Ring? There is a reason that only Frodo can succeed in destroying the One Ring, and it is intimately tied to his character as an individual.
Similarly, London’s character isn’t merely fighting the elements, he is facing the question of how much his own survival matters to him. Finding dry wood isn’t his only challenge — he has to find the willpower to keep struggling rather than surrender to apparently overwhelming adversity. (For an even more extreme iteration of this conflict, read Stephen King’s short story, “Survivor Type”.)
Indeed, as I’ve said in other articles, I believe that the best stories, however simple, usually use an external conflict as a mirror for conflicts going on within the protagonist’s mind and soul — “the troubles of the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner put it. A character might fight his way through a throng of enemy soldiers — external conflict — but if he does so without some sort of internal conflict (fear, remorse at being forced to kill, uncertainty about the validity of his mission, whatever) then the story will be far less engaging than it should be. The stories that last — the ones that keep getting reprinted, the ones that linger in our memories — are the ones in which the external conflict, whatever it is, ultimately reveals something about the nature of the protagonist. And that cannot happen if there is no internal component to the conflict. Storytelling is, first and foremost, about characters — and nothing reveals character like conflict. It is the crucible, so to speak, the means by which the essence of character is revealed.
It isn’t simply that some sort of internal conflict helps flesh the story out, though it certainly does that. I would actually go so far as to suggest that a story which lacks internal struggle is only half finished, and borders on being dishonest.
No person can face great external challenges without being challenged inwardly as well. Only the vulnerabilities of the heart and mind really make for compelling storytelling. If, for example, I were to write a story about a robot sent into a battle zone to retrieve an enemy weapon, the story would only really be interesting inasmuch as the robot’s builders were concerned. Their desire to recover the lost item might be compelling. The robot’s battle to survive long enough to achieve its objective would be only mildly interesting in itself because lacking the capacity to feel fear, ambition, urgency, or anything else, and lacking any emotional connection to its goal, the robot itself would matter very little to the reader. (I’m not suggesting that robots can’t make good protagonists, only that the robot characters which succeed inevitably possess very human drives and failings.)
Characters that go through stories like machines, systematically facing and overcoming one challenge after another, almost always leave a reader feeling as if something significant is missing. The internal conflicts are what make protagonists human (even if those protagonists are Hobbits, aliens, androids, or what have you) and their humanity is what ultimately makes them compelling.
The final, vital aspect of conflict is resolution. One way or another, the conflicts, external and internal, have to be resolved. Either Frodo destroys the One Ring, or he doesn’t. Either London’s protagonist builds his fire, or he freezes to death. Either Othello gives in to doubt or he overcomes it. The resolution is the climax of the story — it’s what the story builds to, what the reader waits for. It is the payoff.
I don’t mean to suggest that the climax has to resolve everything. A good story can leave a few questions open. But some change must occur, some crucial decision must be made. The protagonist’s problem must be clearly solved — or clearly fail to be solved. The after effects can be left open to question — now that she has what she wanted, is the main character happier or unfulfilled? Does the character who seeks revenge take pleasure in the accomplishment, or does he feel empty? Does the character who faced the monsters rejoice to be alive, or do the lingering nightmares make her long for the tranquility of death? Those sorts of ambiguities can enrich a story and significantly deepen the impact on the reader — but note that each one comes after the main conflict has been resolved. The vengeful one got his revenge. The monster-fighter destroyed the demon. The big questions were answered, and opened the door on a myriad of other questions.
The Last Word(s)…
Let me say it one last time: conflict is the heart of story. Before you submit a tale to an editor (or, better, before you even start writing) ask yourself those crucial questions. Keep the answers in mind as you work, and be sure that the conflict comes to some sort of ultimate resolution, preferably one that exposes some aspect of the protagonist’s personality. Follow these simple steps and your writing is bound to be stronger and altogether more successful.
Write on, my friends.
Copyright (c) R. Michael Burns 2013