Writing

Some people don’t understand Snyder’s Save the Cat!

I love Blake Snyder’s storytelling book, Save the Cat!  I would say that it is a must-read for all storytellers, but I’m not sure every storyteller would necessarily understand it.  The patterns Snyder identifies are much more subtle than one may think when considering only the examples he provides.  A good reader would attempt to analyze films and stories on his own and look at how stories that are vastly different actually follow similar inherent structures.  That is, Snyder is not identifying arbitrary trends found in modern stories, he’s uncovering much deeper foundations that dwell naturally in the ways we humans process, relate to, and understand stories.  If you read his book as simply a how-to guide for writing a formulaic blockbuster, which you can, you’re completely missing the point.

This article says:

In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.

Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.

And whose fault is that?  It’s the fault of lazy screenwriters, uncaring directors, and cowardly producers.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that a lazy screenwriter takes his beat sheet as a formula and ignores the countless possibilities he has to express each beat in an infinite variety ways.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that directors accept the word of these lazy screenwriters.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that producers fund these projects, relying on a “formula” to generate a hit.

I don’t think this article is necessarily trying to blame Snyder; my point is simply that blaming Snyder is nonsense.

I found the above mentioned article on author Nathan Bransford’s blog, where he writes:

Save the Cat! doesn’t just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist’s problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.

It sounds like Bransford is commenting on a book he either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood.  Snyder does not “literally say what needs to happen on specific pages.”  He gives guideline page numbers for a 110-page screenplay based on where a beat should hit within a film’s overall structure, the page numbers naturally correlating to the time at which a beat would appear in a film.  If any beat is out of place in this structure, the story will risk feeling slow or rushed or both.  Good screenwriters and directors should naturally be aware of how their creative decisions affect story pacing, so I fail to see how giving page numbers is some horrible sin that dares to stifle creativity.

Furthermore, the “opening image” beat has less to do with setting up the “protagonist’s problems” and more to do with setting up the story’s tone and mood.  Read the book, pages 72 to 73.  Most storytellers naturally understand that the opening of a story will set up audience expectations, so delivering an “opening image” that promises a different sort of story than the one planning to be told will naturally risk alienating readers.

That the opening image and closing image should reflect each other should also be understood naturally, as the end of story will relate to its beginning in some way, either providing a great contrast or a more literal reflection.  “And the story starts again…”

Lastly, Snyder’s beats have nothing at all to do with guaranteeing success.  It is very easy to follow the beats and still create garbage.  But just as the sound of a toilet flushing will never suddenly be considered a beautiful symphony, no purposeful shunning and avoidance of Snyder’s beats will result in a surprise success.  Snyder’s beats are not arbitrary; they are ingrained in human psychology.  That a “formula” becomes recognizable in some big-budget modern films is entirely the fault of the artists working in the industry.  It’s still an art after all.

———-

ETA: I think Steven Spielberg’s fears about the film industry imploding has less to do with big budget films becoming formulaic and more to do with the marketplace for big budget films becoming overly saturated.  But I don’t know how the money flow goes in such a big budget industry.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music

That book on melody…

I started writing a book on melody back in 2008, I think it was. Maybe even a bit before then. But then I got sidetracked programming melody generators, namely my Android app and my online version. I learned quite a lot from these endeavors, so I’m glad I spent time with them before continuing my book; it made for fantastic research. I still plan on creating a desktop version of the melody generator, but there’s a lot of interface programming to learn. I really hate interface programming!

In the meantime, I’m returning to writing that book on melody. I’m starting it from scratch, though I have plenty of notes to work from that I made while programming the melody generators, so I have almost all the content I need. It’s just a matter of sorting it out and presenting it in an easy-to-follow way.

For now, I aim on having it done by the Fourth of July, and then releasing it as soon as I can after that. It will most likely be a self-published ebook, though I’m not yet sure how I’ll sell it. I’ll worry about that later.

And now I better turn off my computer… big storm above…

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

Christianity and science fiction

It’s almost Easter! So how about a little post on Christianity and science fiction?

I recently read this article: Christianity vs. Science Fiction

I must admit, with all the political correctness going on the sci-fi world (perhaps from the strange recent mainstream popularity of “geekdom”, mostly comprised on wannabes who consider themselves geeks because they have an iPad, use social media, and enjoy some sci-fi based thing (not that I mind sci-fi going mainstream in and of itself, only that the new crowds are helping to shape sci-fi’s future in ways I find inane)), I was expecting this to be an article about why Christianity is somehow incompatible with the enlightened scientific progress of sci-fi.

But, thankfully, no! The article reads:

On the other hand, I have to wonder where all this Christian animosity in Science Fiction & Fantasy has come from. Sure, I realize there are a lotta overzealous religious types spewing hatred on a daily basis, instead of the compassion and respect Jesus preached. But c’mon, has it really been that bad? No one alive today was ever tortured to death in the Inquisition (unless you believe in reincarnation) so why is it often used as an example of how bad Christians are? Shouldn’t non-Christians take the high road and not follow in the footsteps of history’s worst “Christians”? Get some compassion, not some contempt.

I’m digressing… the point here really is, where has Jesus gone in the Science Fiction & Fantasy world? He was once there, you know.

SF/F fans, what really is so bad about Christianity? (The Biblical teachings of Jesus, not the televangelist pleas for donations). There seems to be a recent trend to exclude or discredit Christianity in Science Fiction.

I think it’s really part of an ancient trend of trying to exclude or descredit Christianity in general.

But in terms of Christianity vs science (and sci-fi by extension), I think there are a few common fundamental misunderstandings of what both actually are.

“If Christianity teaches that I am a sinner, then it condemns me, and that is evil!” No, it calls you to recognize your sins in order to redeem you, because you are worthy of it.

“Science explains things!” No, science is a method of correcting incorrect explanations in order to do something useful, not a system of creating or verifying explanations. Science fiction seems to suggest that Science! somehow provides some magical systems in and of itself that makes scientific progress achievable. So if only more people would do some Science! life would be easier and there’d be more technology, and maybe more world peace. It’s a bit like thinking Math! will build skyscrapers. Sorry, no. Progress still relies on human ingenuity, imagination, and interest.

“Christianity doesn’t explain things!” No, it does not explain physical phenomena, nor does it seek to. It calls you to have faith in what you already feel in your heart: that love is real, that there is a real moral difference between right and wrong, and that you are worth something and will live forever. You will never be able to experience any physical phenomena that can prove or disprove this to you; you can only choose to believe it or not.

I reckon there are darker reasons Christianity is frowned upon, such as pride and self-righteousness and the worshipping of money, fame, the physical body, etc. They have to condemn Christianity lest they condemn themselves. And they are masters at self-deception, like alcoholics in denial, so they see themselves as the honest ones.

So the anti-Christian sci-fi author thinks: “We are smarter than people were hundreds of years ago, so in the future, people will be smarter still! So, since Christianity is obviously false, it will be much more apparent in the future. Either people will be smart and less Christian, or what Christians remain will be very obviously stupid.”

Which amounts to little more than a pat-myself-on-the-back “I told ya so!” story.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Computer games

Inklewriter

Some of my earliest games made in good old GW-BASIC were text-based interactive stories; choose-your-own adventures, but a little more complex than the in-print books; not that much more complex, I was only ten years old or so, but being able to use the magic of “variables!!” the story could remember player names and past choices. Unfortunately the games are now lost… so you’ll just have to trust that I was smart enough to do that when I was ten.

The point is, I enjoyed the art of interactive fiction.

So I recently read about an online program called Inklewriter which allows storytellers to quickly and easily write and test interactive fiction. I used it to quickly write a simple dialog story called The Movie Deal.

I’d like to try to write something more serious with it at some point. It looks like they’ve recently announced a contest that I think would be fun to try.

So, go have fun with it. And let me know about your work if you’d like me to check it out!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Writing

Quick novel progress update

I’ve got 11 more scenes left to write for my middle-grade fantasy novel. (Browsing the bookstore today, I concluded that my book is definitely more for the 7-13 year old audience than the teen audience. The main character is twelve years old, and I think the worst thing that happens to him is him getting kicked in the mouth in an early chapter. No violence any worse than that, and no real romance. No teen angst. (Well, Thravien has some angst, but I don’t think it’s exactly “teen” related.) So middle-grade it is.) I’m at about 60K, which might already be too long for a middle-grade fantasy, but I know I’ll be cutting stuff in my first revision, so I’ll worry about it then. Getting closer and closer… hope to finish the first draft in the next few weeks, or at least before the end of the month; there’s really no excuse for not finishing before then unless something really unexpected comes up.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Writing

Character chemistry archetypes

I’m continuing to work on my arbitrarily-ultra-secret cartoon idea, and this week I’ve been spending an enormous amount of time thinking about character and, more importantly, character relationships.  And I’ve had a sort of epiphany that none of the books on writing I’ve read seem to mention (not that I’ve read a ton), but it’s pretty obvious once you realize it: character chemistry is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So often books on writing or plotting talk about characterization as if characters are complete entities in and of themselves.  That’s the natural way to think of them.  But in a story, a character does not exist in a vacuum.  A story, and our interest in it, is born of the interactions between one character and another.

The best way to understand this is to think about your favorite character being placed in a world in which everyone was just like him.  Unless the character has multiple personality disorder, an interesting story is impossible because there’s no way to get any character contrast, no way for the character to be defined, and thus no way for us to get any meaning out of the character.  A canvas painted one color holds no interest; it is a specific collection of colors that attracts our eyes.

Many books on writing talk about character archetypes.  I still think those are valid, but I think they’re incomplete.  For example, the “old wise mentor” character archetype is useless without a student to teach.  It is not the “mentor” archetype that we relate to, but the mentor-student relationship we enjoy.  Both characters are necessary because it’s a relationship, not just a character sitting there by himself.

So I paced around and tried to come up with the main basic relationship archetypes we see again and again in stories.  Here’s what I came up with.  Let me know if you can think of any I might’ve missed:

 

The Straight Man and The Fool

AKA: The Annoyed and The Annoyer, The Serious and the Unserious, “The Double Act”

Examples: Shrek and Donkey, Squidward and SpongeBob, Bert and Ernie

This is definitely one of the most popular relationship archetypes.  One character says stupid things and acts annoying, and the other character gets angry.  We, the audience, laugh not at the fool (or at least not only at the fool), but at the relationship.  We laugh more when other characters react with serious looks.  The humor is born of the relationship.

 

The Hero and The Client

AKA: The Rescuer and The Rescued

Examples: Mario and Princess Peach, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Shrek and Fiona, Dr Alan Grant and the grandchildren

Another extremely powerful and popular relationship.  A character needs help, and another character agrees (often reluctantly at first) to help them.  Pretty easy to understand.

There are many stories in which a hero is on a mission to save a city or a kingdom or an entire world, such as Frodo destroying the One Ring or Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star.  I would not consider these quests to be part of this relationship; it’s not concrete enough to be a relationship.  Caring about such stories only works if, within those stories, there are other pre-established relationships we care about.  We really don’t care about an entire world for its own sake, we care about the specific relationships within it.  I think this is a very important point.  Character relationships we care about have to be at stake for the peril of the world to matter.

 

The Mentor and The Student

Examples: Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker, Gandalf and Frodo, Shifu and Po, Doc and Marty

Another age-old powerful relationship.  One character teaches, the other learns.  We, the audience, get to learn with the student, but we also get to observe his progress along with the teacher.

 

The Envied and The Envious

AKA: The Used and The User

Examples: Mozart and Salieri, Frodo and Gollum, Captain Hammer and Dr Horrible

A simple and understandable way to create animosity between characters.  Since we’ve all known the feeling of envy at one time or another, this relationship allows us to identify with the otherwise negative envying character.  When he wants something specific that the other character has, we understand his motivation for doing evil things.

I would also lump into this category relationships in which one character is merely using the other character as a means to an end.  There may or may not necessarily be any envy involved, but the character can’t achieve what he wants on his own, so he forms a relationship, perhaps faking friendship, to get what he wants.

 

The Noble and The Rogue

Examples: Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Christine and The Phantom, Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Wendy and Peter Pan

One character tries to play by the rules, while the other character’s moral compass is a bit harder to follow.  I think we, the audience, tend to gravitate our fascination toward the rogue character, but they’re at their most interesting when they’re playing off or arguing with someone whose moral compass is more like ours.  Note that the rogue character doesn’t necessarily have to be evil or have evil tendencies; his ways of doing things simply have to seem foreign to us.

 

The Guard and The Prisoner

AKA: The Ruler and The Ruled, The Boss and The Employee

Examples: Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, Vernon Dursley and Harry Potter, The Wicked Stepmother and Cinderella, Captain Stottlemeyer and Monk, Monk and Sharona or Natalie, Mr Krabbs and SpongeBob

This is basically an authority relationship; one character has the power to tell the other character what to do.  We immediately relate to it because we all have to deal with authority of some form, and I doubt any of us really like it.  It’s a relationship that naturally and constantly creates conflict (hopefully not as much in real life as in fiction).

There can be different degrees of this relationship, from the cruel wicked character keeping the other character trapped, to the friendly boss who works with an assistant.  The point is that we clearly understand the direction of the authority.

 

Dysfunctional love / friendship

Examples: If you can’t think of any, you have no hope

This is probably the penultimate relationship; it makes all the other relationships interesting, and it can be found in some fashion in almost every story.  Two characters somehow connect or fill a need for one another.  They care about each other.  While conflicts may force them apart, love or friendship is the magnet that keeps them coming back to each other.

I use this relationship to describe any relationship in which both characters care about each other.  It could a romantic love, in which the characters will probably want to eventually get married, it could be family love, or it could just be the friendship of two buddies who get along.

In many stories, this relationship begins as one of the preceding relationships, such as a Hero and Client relationship leading to romantic love, or a Straight Man and Fool relationship leading to friendship.

For most of the story, perhaps even for the entire story, the love or friendship must be dysfunctional.  We are not interested in love or friendship that is working fine.  The relationship is only interesting if it is being tested by one of the other relationships or outside conflicts.  Perhaps authority figures from the Boss and Employee relationship do not want the character to fall in love, perhaps there’s a love triangle and another character is envious, perhaps the characters in love have ideological differences due to a Noble and Rogue relationship.  The point is that it’s never perfect unless we’re past the story’s climax.

 

They’re all mixed up

Of course, within a story, characters can take on multiple roles in multiple relationships.

For example, in the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc is often the Unserious-Mentor-Hero while the young Marty McFly is the Serious-Student-Client.  Sometimes Doc becomes the Client while Marty becomes the Hero.  Their relationship is held together by Dysfunctional Friendship, and there are multiple Dysfunctional Love relationships throughout the trilogy.

Role reversals are also fun.  In the Shrek movies, Shrek is usually annoyed by Donkey (“You’re headed the right way for a smacked bottom”), but he sometimes becomes the annoyer himself as he makes his own jokes (“Well, sure it’s big enough, but look at the location!”) which are made funnier because Donkey doesn’t laugh, maintaining the Straight Man and Fool relationship.  As long as the characters stay in character, relationship switches can keep things interesting.

 

Conflict itself is not a relationship / Having a crush on someone is not a relationship

In the movie Jurassic Park, what relationship does the T-rex have with Dr Alan Grant?  Obviously none.  OK, that’s an easy one, since the T-rex is not a human.  How about the Joker in The Dark Knight?  What relationship does he have with Bruce Wayne?  Again, none.  He causes conflict, sure, but he has no motivations other than to cause conflict.  He might as well be an unconscious volcano.  (You might claim it’s a Noble and Rogue relationship, but I’d argue it’s not, because, like I said, the Joker has no desires or motivations.  Rogues do.)

You can find this with a lot of villain characters.  What about The Emperor and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars?  Obviously there’s some conflict there.  But, again, I’d argue there’s no relationship.  There’s just conflict created by the Emperor wanting Luke to turn to the dark side (maybe if they changed its name?).  What about Sauron and Frodo in Lord of the Rings?  Again, no relationship, just conflict.

My point is that just because a character acts as a conflict does not mean he necessarily has a relationship with the character (he may or may not).  But it is through these outside conflicts that Love and Friendship relationships are threatened and tested.  It is against these conflicts that Love and Friendship must remain standing (or not, if it’s a tragedy).

Similarly, if one character has a crush on another character, that is not a relationship.  It is just an interest.  Such an interest might play a part in the character’s already-existing relationships, and it might lead to another relationship, but it is not a relationship in and of itself, because it’s one sided.  And we, as an audience, probably don’t care much about it until some actual interaction takes place.

 

Simplicity

How many main character relationships can we find in stories?

I think books have the space to become as complex as they want to, but in TV shows and movies, I think it is usually kept quite simple; probably at most three for a single TV show episode, and at most four for a movie, and even that might be pushing it (I have yet to seriously analyze any films for this).  TV shows and movies can still have many small relationships that play out for a scene or two, but only a few will be important for the overall story arc.  (For example, in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I would not consider the relationship between Aragon and Arwen to be of prime importance to the overall story; hence the reason some of their scenes were edited out for the theatrical versions.  Nor would I consider the friendship between Gimli and Legolas to be too important.)

 

In Conclusion

OK, hope that was an interesting post.  You will now either begin to see these relationship archetypes all over the place, or completely forget everything I just told you.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

On giving too much credit to literary fiction…

This struck me as a strange blog post. You might have to read the whole thing to understand my response. It says:

In my worlds, metaphors have to be consistent with the worldview of a character.

Then I wrote a story (out on submission now) where a metaphor got a little out of hand – in a cool way.

I suppose you could think about it like a piece of art that has the same color in multiple places across the composition. It’s almost like hiding a beautiful pattern in the story for the reader to find if they’d like – not letting it be the whole point, or letting it take away from the main conflict, but picking something that will play into the main conflict and allow the different parts of the story to link together. Even if a reader isn’t consciously aware of it, their subconscious probably will be on some level, allowing it to contribute to the “feel” of the story.

Um … yeah … um … how is that “literary” as opposed to “science fiction and fantasy”? (I don’t understand why the word “literary” is used to describe a separate genre of writing, as if all writing wasn’t “literary” but that’s a different issue. I don’t cringe at the word “literary” but I do cringe at it’s sometimes strange use.) All metaphors should add to the mood and tone of the story and the worldview of the characters. That’s the point of metaphors! That’s not a device borrowed from “literary fiction.” Similarly, using “extended metaphors” or motifs or recurring themes or irony or any other literary device does not mean that these devices come from “literary fiction” just because some writer doesn’t see them often in his pile of pulp sci-fi stories. The notion that use of this “literary stuff” should be surprising, or would be considered to be mainly from the realm of “literary fiction” just strikes me as rather silly.

In films, there are quite a few storytelling choices that can (and should) be utilized to help tell the story: for example, there’s the music (use of silence, use of rhythm, use of harmony and melodic themes), there’s the sound (what we hear and how loudly we hear it), there’s the cinematography (how characters and settings are positioned in a frame, how much space they take up, where they’re looking in relation to the camera, how the camera moves), there’s the editing (how and when cuts are made), there’s the color, lighting, costumes, acting choices, etc. It all adds to the clarity of the emotion the director is trying to communicate.

A writer doesn’t have so many elements to worry about, but it’s still all about (at least on its most basic level) communicating emotion. A good writer of any genre will use every element he knows to effectively communicate the emotions he’s after. (Though that effectiveness will still be subjective, of course.)

Secondly, the blogger writes:

And I’m realizing that while we may not intend to give things extra meaning, a lot of times those meanings sneak in anyway.

In a sense, yes. I think all artists naturally tend to work at least hints of their life philosophies and interests into all their artwork. But I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that “meaning” can be added without intent. If you didn’t intend it, then it’s not meaning, at least not on your part. It might be a pattern, but it’s not meaning. That doesn’t mean that the audience can’t get meaning out of it. Just because I find meaning in a piece of art doesn’t mean that the artist put it there, consciously or subconsciously. This is because meaning doesn’t come from artwork. Meaning is inferred by the pattern-finding mind of an audience member. If we wish to communicate ideas to each other, such as directions to the nearest gas station, we must use a language we both have already established patterns for in our brains (that is, we both speak the language). You do not inject meaning into sentences; rather you order the words in a feedback loop, so that the meaning you intend to communicate is reflected in the words and order you choose. The listener can not know your intent; he has to guess it based on the words and order you chose using the pattern-knowledge he already has.

It’s really not that difficult of a concept, but most people don’t seem to think like that. Most people seem to think meaning is injected into artwork and then extracted by smart-enough audience members. But then what if people disagree on the meanings they extract? Either one of them is wrong (or both are), or the artist can be said to magically inject beauty and meaning without intending to. I don’t understand how anyone can honestly accept this notion.

Anyway, that’s a complete digression…

Let’s see, new novel, new novel. What’s it about? A guy who loses everything, but finds his soul in Canada. Alright, cooking now. And the whole book is an e-mail to his daughter who’s dead. And his name will be Norm Hull, ’cause he’s just a normal guy. But not everybody will get that. That’s just for the scholars a hundred years from now.” ~Brian on Family Guy

By S P Hannifin, ago
Writing

Novel progress

My YA fantasy novel finally passed the 50K word mark yesterday. Not much of an accomplishment for professional writers, but this is only the third time I’ve ever gotten this far, and the first time I’ve gotten this far while sticking very close to my original outline.

One of my previous stories to get this far was The Game of Gynwig, in which I veered way way way off my outline and the story turned into a complete mess. It was also horribly written, but looking back on it provides a good laugh. It was about a young boy who gets wrapped up with a group of wizards and witches who fight to oppose an evil wizard’s plot to take over the kingdom. I still like the characters and original story I meant to tell, so I might revisit someday. But no time soon. It has to be completely replotted.

My next attempt that passed 50K words was The Book of Harbringer, my 2008 NaNoWriMo novel. It was about a banished prince who returns to his kingdom to oust an evil king. Very Lion King-esque, but much darker. It was completely outlined and I stuck to the outline. Unfortunately it was just too long and complex. After 50K words, the story had still barely started. I had something like nine characters, and I was spending a lot of time introducing them all. It might still work with all its complexity, but it was just too much for me to tackle as a first novel. I still really like the characters and the story I meant to tell, so I’d love to revisit this someday. But I think I’ll need more experience first.

Third time’s a charm, I hope. This time I kept my outline much simpler and have made it a point to stick to it. My current attempt is called Moonrise Ink, and it’s about a boy who learns that he is the last wizard in the world and must use his powers to defeat a group of mysterious invaders. It actually takes place in the same world as those of the last two attempts, though I’ve edited the magic system a bit. There are references to names and places and magical items in those stories.

I’m not sure how much longer it will take to write this draft. My current guess is that 20K more words will do it, but it may be more. But I think I’m definitely more than half way there.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Screenwriting

Five types of conflict

I was reading Save the Cat! Strikes Back by Blake Snyder.  It’s geared toward screenwriters, but it holds a lot of great advice for any story creator out there.  Along with his original Save The Cat! book, I’d call it essential reading for any story writer.

On page 36, Snyder writes:

Conflict offers more challenge, especially when you’re having a hard time finding it in your scenes.  How many scenes have conflict in a 110-page screenplay?  That’s right.  Every.  Single.  One.  And yet finding that conflict in all scenes isn’t easy.  During an early class, the wonderful writer/actress Dorie Barton was working out cards for her L.A. thriller, Migraine, and we had a scene wherein the protag, a waitress hampered by severe headaches, explains to her boss what a “migraine” is.  It’s pure exposition, and the scene just lay there.  Why?  No conflict!  Well, to fix that, we shoved some conflict in.  We created a customer who, while the hero goes on explaining her condition, keeps banging on the counter.  “Miss!  More coffee over here!  Miss!  MISS!”  The forced conflict of that scene makes it play better – and reinforces the pained look on the hero’s face as her migraine builds.

stcsb I’m currently working on a fantasy novel, and I can now easily see why some of my scenes are boring.  No conflict!  Or at least not enough conflict.  I’m an outline-the-story-first writer, and as I look over my notes for my current fantasy novel, I see lack of conflict in many of my scene outlines as well.  For example, the point of one scene is: “The queen shows the old man that the telescope has been destroyed.”  The point of another scene is: “A man tells the queen that his village has been destroyed.”  Another scene: “The wizard arrives at the castle.”  I think these are fine descriptions for an outline; these things need to happen for the plot to move forward, and to give readers the necessary information to understand the plot.  But the purposes of these scenes are completely expository.  They only exist so that certain characters and/or readers will get certain information.  If I go to write these scenes with just these purposes in mind, I will be a bit bored as a writer, I will write a boring scene, and readers will also be bored.

The solution, of course, is to add conflict.

I could of course just do this naturally without thinking much about it, as I’m sure many writers do.  But I wanted to see if I could identify exactly what types of conflict a scene might have.  In school, I learned to identify types of story conflicts like “man vs. man” and “man vs. himself” and “man vs. nature.”  I think these are more thematic conflicts.  I’m thinking about conflict as something that manifests itself in a specific scene through specific character thoughts or actions.  That way, when I get to one of those conflict-free scene descriptions, I can look over my list and think about how to spice up the scene with conflict.  Here are the five I came up with.  If you can think of anymore, let me know, and I’ll add it to the list.

1 – Decision conflict

This is an internal conflict, when a character must decide what to do.  In a way, this could describe any conflict, because it’s usually a character’s decided actions that resolve a conflict.  But I think of this conflict as describing when the internal decision conflict is the main conflict, presented when the character has opposing desires, wants two or more things, but can only have one.  For example, perhaps a character wants to get his sick friend to a hospital, but he also wants to avoid being seen because he’s a criminal.  Or a character wants to tell her boyfriend that she loves him, but she doesn’t want to be rejected.  Or a character wants to kill the evil overlord, but he doesn’t want to get hurt or die.  This conflict happens entirely in the character’s head.  There are multiple roads to take, none of them are all that great, and the character must choose one.

In movies, you hardly ever get this conflict actually told to you in words.  Instead, you see it introduced by the plot itself, and how the characters respond to it.  It’s that look in an actor’s eyes when he sees something he wants but can’t have.  For a writer of literature, there’s always the danger of going overboard in presenting the decision conflict, of allowing the character’s inner dialog to go on and on.  “To be or not to be, that is the question.  Let me ponder it out loud for the next half hour.”  Meanwhile, the audience takes a nap.  Decisions can be vital conflicts, every story has them, but they don’t have to be analyzed to death.

2 – Physical conflict

This is probably the most natural and primal of conflicts, and I have a tough time thinking of many movies that do not include some form of it during the climax.  (Gosford Park maybe?)  This conflict occurs when a character’s body is in physical opposition with another force, usually another character.  The result of losing is often death, and the character must use his physical strength to stay alive.  But this conflict could also present itself less climactically.  Perhaps two characters are just having a small shoving match.  Maybe a character is trying to lift something heavy.  Maybe a character is reaching out for something that’s just beyond grasp.  Though point is, unlike a decision conflict, the physical conflict is completely external, manifested in physical action.

(One a side note, I think this sort of conflict works much better visually than in writing because it’s so movement-based.  Visually, it’s almost instantly interesting, almost mesmerizing to watch.  But a sword fight can’t look nearly as “cool” in a book, because there’s nothing to actually see.)

3 – Puzzle conflict

This sort of conflict is a bit like a decision conflict in that it’s mainly internal, but rather than having to decide something, the character is searching for a specific answer, a solution to some problem.  In essence, any sort of mystery for which the answer is important to the plot is a puzzle conflict.  This is obviously one of the main conflicts of most mystery stories, but it can present itself in smaller forms as well, such as Gandalf wondering how to open the Mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings (“Speak friend and enter” – what does that mean?)  J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is full of all sorts of puzzle conflicts, which create wonderful and thrilling suspense throughout the stories.  However, the storyteller must be careful that he has good (or, dare I say, clever) solutions for his puzzle conflicts, otherwise the audience may feel cheated.  If you’re a writer, you maybe to tempted to create puzzle conflicts before knowing the solution so that you too will share in the suspense of the story.  But if you can’t think of a good solution, it’s a waste of time to write much about it.

Many times puzzle conflicts present themselves over multiple scenes; a mystery is introduced in one scene, clues are gathered throughout other scenes (sometimes unknowingly), and the solution is found in another scene.  But a puzzle conflict could be introduced and solved in one scene, such as the aforementioned Mines of Moria entrance conflict.  Or perhaps a character must try to figure out how to get through a locked door, and realizes he can melt the mechanism with potions he has.  Or perhaps a character is looking for a code in a book, and realizes the last letter of every page form a secret message.

The point is: there’s a missing piece of information that is essential to the story’s plot, and the characters must puzzle it out and find the solution.

(You could probably also have a reader-only puzzle conflict.  The characters are going about their business happily unaware of any mysteries, but the readers, who are able to see the whole picture, are realizing that some things just aren’t adding up.  You just have to be careful, because you don’t want the audience to feel like their being cheated out of knowing stuff that a character does.)

4 – Character disagreements

This conflict is perhaps the most fun to write, though it can be challenging to do so believably.  It involves mainly dialog, so the writer must understand the viewpoints of each character well enough to argue effectively from his or her point of view.  As a writer, you must induce a sort of multiple-personality-disorder within yourself.  What makes this a conflict is rather obvious: characters disagree about something, and they let their disagreements known to each other verbally.  “Yes.”  “No.”  “Yes.”  “No.”  If characters are different enough from each other, and their arguments are interesting and unique enough, you’re bound to have an interesting scene.

Of course, it doesn’t have to involve dialog.  It could be a simple matter of a character turning the car radio to rock and roll, and another turning it back to classical, and the other turning it back to rock and roll and turning the volume up.  The point is that they disagree about something and act on it.

5 – Danger is lurking

In this conflict, nothing actually happens, but something bad might happen if the character doesn’t do something.  It’s all about what could happen, and what the character must do to prevent it.  Maybe the character has to run away from a dinosaur, or not move when challenged to a staring contest by a T-rex, all to avoid entering the animal’s digestive system.  Perhaps a character is sneaking into a castle and must hide in the shadows while the guards pace around or tiptoe past them as they sleep at their posts.  Perhaps the clock is ticking and a bomb is about to go off, and a character must either diffuse it or get out of a the building just in time.  The point is the character must do something and  be careful and/or hurry up!  It’s all about the tension of what could possibly happen if the character makes the wrong move at the wrong time.  Like a physical conflict, this sort of conflict often presents itself near the climax, and death is often a possible a result.

In conclusion

It probably goes without saying, but these sorts of conflicts do not have to present themselves exclusively.  That is, a scene could contain any number of possible combinations.  You see this in movies a lot, where characters are sword fighting and exchanging witty (or cheesy) dialog.  Or when characters are running away from danger and trying to puzzle out how to stop the bad guy with their limited resources.  No story (besides perhaps flash fiction) would ever contain just one type of conflict, right?

The interesting thing about adding conflict to an otherwise expository scene is that I think it actually makes the scene more expository, because readers then get to see how characters respond to certain challenges.

And no conflict is OK too, sometimes

In literature, there are some instances in which you just have to do a conflict-free info-dump.  As long as it’s kept as lean as possible, audiences usually won’t complain.

In movies, there can be mood-setting scenes or montages.  Usually music (which is often instantly, though perhaps subconsciously, interesting) accompanies the visuals.  The director can easily get away with showing montages of mountain flyovers to show off grand landscapes, or to show characters traveling through the wilderness, or to show a character’s otherwise long and boring rise to popularity, etc.  Opening credits often present themselves in collections of conflict-free shots that do little else but establish the story’s initial mood and physical setting.  As long as it doesn’t go on for too long, audiences will sit back and enjoy the meditative atmosphere presented to them.  Stanley Kubrick’s long boring shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey really test the durational limits of such montages.  Personally, I think he went too far and I dare to call his decisions idiotic and fast-forward-button inducing, but others praise the shots as an “innovation.”  In musicals, conflict-free song and dance numbers can go on for some length, as the music and the dancing entrance the viewers.

Anyway, the point is that you can get away with little or no conflict when it’s necessary.  But I think it’s extremely advantageous to know when and why you’re doing so, so that you’re not just doing so out of laziness or ignorance.

Hope that was an interesting post.  Writing it out has given me plenty of ideas for my own otherwise boring novel scenes.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music composition

Stuff I’m doing…

Been a busy week here. Animation Mentor semester 5 started this week. My mentor this semester is animator Jay Jackson, who has a very impressive 2D background. I’m very excited! Our assignment for the next few weeks will be to add facial animation to our last assignment from last semester, which I am both excited and nervous about… I’m afraid my work is going to stink. But I’m new to this, so I forgive myself in advance. Just as long as I don’t fail out! Anyway, our assignment for this week, which I haven’t done yet, is to shoot video reference and draw sketches planning out our work.

Novel-writing-wise, my novel is at around 29,000 words. The three main characters are currently traveling through the sky in an airship headed towards the kingdom’s castle. I am a few chapters away from the mid-point of the story, so my current guess is that the novel will end up being around 70,000 to 90,000 words total. We’ll see.

I also started writing some more music earlier this week. Not sure what I’ll call the piece, but it’s almost finished. Watch for it on YouTube this week or next week or the week after that… not sure when I’ll finish. It’s pretty standard Hannifin work, but I’m quite pleased with it. In fact, I’m tempted to offer myself much praise, but, being me, I’m quite biased towards myself, so I consider myself at an unfair advantage to receive such praise.

TV-wise, if you care, I started watching Person of Interest (mostly because it was created by Jonathan Nolan). I’m not exactly impressed, but it’s not horrible, so I’ll give it a chance; but if I get pressed for time as the Animation Mentor semester continues, it’ll probably be the first to go. I also started watching Terra Nova as I enjoyed the sci-fi-ish previews for it, but the pilot for that show I also found to be rather unimpressive, and, at times, downright awful. But it’s interesting enough that I’d like to see what the story will turn into. Fringe returned on Friday, which was OK, but not nearly as good as last season’s start. But the “Where is Peter Bishop?” story line should provide me with enough interest to continue watching. The first half of last season was excellent, but I thought the last few shows that ended the season were quite weak, and the cartoony-CGI episode was one of the worst TV-watching experiences I’ve ever had. I’d rather watch HR Pufnstuf several hundred times than suffer through that episode again. (OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far…) I’m looking forward to House starting on Monday. So… four shows for me this season, plus I’m still slowly working through Burn Notice season 2 on DVD, which is a great show. And Shark Tank will return for a season 3, but I’m not sure when. And we might get a DVR sometime next week, so that will be nice, but I can’t complain too much if I miss something, since Animation Mentor must be the priority… not TV.

Reading-wise, I’ve been enjoying Neal Stephenson’s Reamde: A Novel. Definitely more mainstream (so far) than Anathem (the only other novel of his I’ve read so far), but still quite captivating.

Oh, and in other news, I can now touch my nose with my tongue. I couldn’t do that before. Two decades of practice have finally paid off.

By S P Hannifin, ago