The last writing lessons focused on reader expectations (genre conventions) and the four basic narrative elements (plot, character, setting, and point of view). Several popular books about making your novel or screenplay a commercial success (including those by Robert McKee, Scott Meredith, Steven Pressfield, Shawn Coyne, and many others) like to focus on plot–arguing that readers will not love your story unless you throw your characters into an engaging problem, with many complications, that leads to a crisis and then an ultimate solution (hook, build, and payoff). Once you’ve read one or two of these studies, you can get a pretty clear handle on what many agents and producers want to see in your stories.
As I’ve thought over these matters, I’ve discovered many of these elements can easily be associated with a word beginning with the letter C. So here is my summary and gimmick: stories should be about CHANGE. Authors, aware of the (1) CONTEXT, throw characters into a (2) CONFLICT that starts a series of (3) COMPOUNDING COMPLICATIONS that build to a (4) CRISIS when the character must make a (5) CLIMACTIC CHOICE that results in (6) CATHARTIC CONSEQUENCES and the ultimate (7) CONCLUSION.
(1) CONTEXT: This is another name for backstory. Authors should be fully aware of what has happened before Page 1 of their stories. Different writers tackle revealing this information to their readers in many different ways: dreams, flashbacks, or brief references in dialogue or description. Try to steer clear of any temptation for an “exposition dump,” for readers rarely have the patience, particularly in our digital era, to plod through pages that resemble an encyclopedia entry. It is crucially important, though, for readers to have some sense of where the characters stand at the beginning of the story because most stories are a journey from one place, emotional state, or intellectual awareness to another. Stories that engage us are fundamentally about risk and CHANGE.
(2) CONFLICT: Stories thrive off of conflict. We think back to our literature classes in high school: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. Readers relate to human beings who are having trouble, who face problems, who risk much, who wrestle with impossible choices. Although readers divide over what kinds of endings they want to find when they close the books they read, the majority will not love a story unless it has some sort of conflict to drive the plot forward. Many writing coaches will ask authors to think about a hook or an inciting event–something that will push a character out of her original CONTEXT and down the path that gives us the story. There must be a CATALYST to bring about CHANGE in the life of our characters.
(3) COMPLICATIONS: Of course, these CONFLICTS must challenge our characters. If there is an easy solution, then we’ll be writing flash fiction, not novels or plays! Of the authors who have written about the journey the hero takes, Joseph Campbell is most helpful is tracing the elements in building on the initial conflict (as Christopher Vogler demonstrates in The Writer’s Journey)–including such moments as rejecting the call to adventure, meeting a mentor, crossing a threshold, etc. Complications should not be disjointed and unrelated, but instead should build one upon the other, giving the reader more details about the conflict, raising the stakes with each event, and pushing the central character inexorably to a crisis moment.
(4) CRISIS: As I have already hinted, COMPLICATIONS push characters toward the unavoidable point where they have to make a choice. How are they going to face the problem arising when CONFLICT upends their sense of normalcy (CONTEXT)? Are they going to run from it? Many characters do run for a little while, but then they find they cannot live with themselves or they cannot run far enough; they must do something about the challenge that an antagonist or life circumstances or personal pride brings. Memorable stories dramatize the inevitability of the crisis, yet still surprise us with a twist when that central moment arrives.
(5) CLIMAX: Arriving at the CRISIS, the characters must COMMIT; they must make their CHOICES. Some writing coaches would lump CRISIS and CLIMAX together, and many stories do blur the lines, but I think it is helpful for authors to have a clear sense of the distinction. CRISIS is standing at the thresholds of several doors, but the CLIMAX is the walking through one of those doors. Ever since the CATALYST came on the scene and started the CONFLICT that drives the story, readers have been anticipating what the character would do. Will the man sacrifice a lucrative career to follow the woman he has grown to love (as Donovan must choose in Wolf Code)? Will the retired jewel thief pull off one last job to save the life of his daughter? Will a student turn in her classmate when she learns she cheated during a national spelling bee? Most often the character will face impossible choices between two wonderful options or between two horrifying options, and once the choice is made, there can be no going back.
(6) CONSEQUENCES: Now authors need to reveal the repercussions that CLIMACTIC CHOICE brings to the characters in the story. Frequently characters make some sort of sacrifice. Since we are finite beings trapped in time, we cannot go in both directions–as Robert Frost voiced it, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood….” Authors have choices in how to dramatize the effects of these major choices, but most often it is more satisfactory to offer two levels–the immediate consequences and the ultimate conclusion. Perhaps you have seen some of those experimental movies that leave you hanging, ending before you think they should. You’ve invested two hours in the story, and it resolves itself once the character has made a choice, with no development of any consequences, leaving you hanging. This method is, of course, a valid technique, but on the whole, a very risky one. As Aristotle describes of audience’s reactions to tragedies, readers who have invested in your story and participated in the buildup need a satisfying portrait of the results of the choice.
(7) CONCLUSION: Just as writing coaches often lump CRISIS and CLIMAX together, so they often blend CONSEQUENCES and CONCLUSION, yet again I believe authors should have a clear understanding of the difference even if it only means a page or two in a screenplay or half a chapter in a novel. Readers want to see the CHANGE the journey has brought to the characters. Once the woman has committed herself to beau number 2, then how is her life different? Once the scientist escapes those who have pursued him and has released his new energy source to the public, how does that reshape his life? When we come to the final images of the story, we often make a nod to where the story started. Orson Scott Card again reminds us of the importance of remembering what kind of story we are telling, particularly in how we create a certain type of expectation in the reader at the start of the story and then how we deliver on those promises in the final pages of the narrative. Openings and closings are crucial places for thematic material, offering to the reader a final vision of a possible larger context–how our story ties in to other stories that are already out in the world.
So this is another longish entry, but I do think it is helpful to discuss all seven points at once, to see how they all fit together. CONTEXT sets up CONFLICT which reveals itself in COMPLICATIONS and a CRISIS, but that crisis is the transition into the CLIMAX where the characters must make a choice and live with the CONSEQUENCES as the story comes to its CONCLUSION.
Hope you found this meditation helpful. Let me know if you have any comments. Also, I f you would like to see how these elements play out in a recently commercially successful television show, check my next entry, which breaks down the stages in the pilot episode of Carlton Cuse’s show Colony.
May your stories continue to challenge and inspire you!