Conflict as Gap

Stories begin when an event disturbs the balance of forces in a character’s familiar world. Each event that follows directs the character’s conscious desire on a quest toward a goal that should, if achieved, resolve the disturbance.

This Saturday afternoon, Feb 22nd, 4:00 PM at Village Books in Bellingham, WA (1200 11th Street, 98225 / 360-671-2626) I will teach a workshop designed to explore how that disturbance and the quest that follows are connected to your character’s desire and value.  

Village Books, Bellingham, WAHere is a taste of the banquet (I hope) that will be served in the workshop.

First problem to solve:  how do you bring conflict into your character’s world? Without conflict, there is no story. Right? Seems obvious, too obvious perhaps to mention. Without conflict, your character races to the goal and achieves success. Disturbance nullified. Back to the familiar world we go, complacent as a clam in mud.

What happens if your disturbed character, en route to an interim goal, an early lap on the track of this quest, finds that where she ends up is well short of where she expected her action to take her. What now?

Between where she is, and where she’d hoped to be, there is a gap. (For more discussion of this issue, see Story by Robert McKee.) What stopped her? Forces of opposition. A competitor, a disapproving authority figure, envious friends, an angry spouse, bad weather, equipment failure, internal doubt. What does she do? Lose resolve? Well, possibly, but back home at the starting blocks there is this disturbance that won’t go away. Her familiar world isn’t such a fun place to be anymore. She’s this far. Might as well keep going. She uses up a resource.  No one gets ahead for free. She covers the gap, meets that interim goal. Okay. Now we’re going somewhere. Next goal set. The end prize is not quite yet in view, but she can feel it, smell it, taste it. Opposition renews its efforts to dissuade her from her quest. She struggles. This time the gap is broader. This time two resources must be deployed. Her quiver of weapons is nearly depleted. The risk of failure has ratcheted up. Conflict magnified. Last chance to call it quits.

An example. In Better You Go Home, reacting to the arrest of his sister, my narrator visits a prison to negotiate her release.  He has an appointment with the main bad guy, who has the power, if sufficiently motivated, to facilitate her release. Chico hits the first gap. Jungmann doesn’t show at the meeting room. Chico could quit, could leave, but there is too much at stake in the outcome of this meeting to give up so easily.  He allows himself to be ushered, under guard, to an interrogation room. He receives rough treatment that borders on torture. Another gap. The lawyer in Chico rears its head. He demands fair treatment and calls upon the international treaties that govern such situations. For this lapse in judgment, he is severely beaten. Yet another gap. By the time Jungmann shows up for their meeting, Chico has been reduced to a quivering mess.

Inspecting the old orphanage0001Let’s back up. There is still a problem to solve. How do we know that disturbance was sufficient to send him on this quest to begin with?  When gaps arise, how do we know he can’t simply decide it’s too much effort and walk away?

Three words: value, vulnerabilities, and strengths. If the disturbance arouses a value that attaches to the character – like wanting justice for the sister his father long ago abandoned – then he will have to react.  But he has flaws, fears, contrary desires, subtextual pressures –vulnerabilities – that pull him away from this dangerous quest. He has serious health issues to deal with. His own father might be somehow complicit in the reasons Jungmann has had his sister arrested in the first place. In order to achieve his goal, he realizes he might very well have to take the wrong side in a paternity issue that was largely responsible for him embarking on this quest to begin with. He has been warned that he could be arrested as well.  With his deteriorating kidneys, that could be the end of him. But he has strengths. Jungmann wants something from his father, and Chico now, finally, has his father on his side. Chico knows the law and how it works. His main ally is even then negotiating a human rights trial designed to put Jungmann behind bars and stop this corruption.

Arouse his most enduring value, weaken him with contradictory pressures, arm him with assets that would give him a reasonable hope of succeeding. Now, when gaps appear, story on.

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