Monday, March 16, 2009

Conflict Boxes

Scene Level Conflict Boxes

This month (March 2009) over on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum in Writer's Exercises, we're talking about scene level Conflict Boxes. If you want to participate by posting an exercise and commenting on the work of others, hop on over there. Here is what we're working on:

One way to increase tension in a scene is to ensure there is an appropriate conflict lock between the scene protagonist and a scene antagonist, obstacle or opposing force. In other words, in every scene your protagonist should have a goal, and there should be some person or thing which is working in opposition to that goal.

Jennifer Crusie and Michael Hauge refer to this as a Conflict Box, and it looks something like this:

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on scenes where there is a protagonist and a scene antagonist operating in conflict. Recognize that in some scenes it may be a non-human obstacle or opposing force, but let’s ignore those scenes for now. Also note that the scene antagonist may not be the same as your story antagonist. A scene antagonist may be your protagonist’s best friend, side kick, mentor, ally, etc… or a complete stranger. The scene antagonist is simply the person who is preventing your protagonist from meeting his or her immediate goal.

Tension in scenes is increased when there is a conflict lock between the protagonist and the antagonist – when the protagonist’s attempts to achieve his/her goal directly blocks the antagonists attempts to achieve his/her goal.

In the Protagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the PROTAGONIST takes to block the antagonist. In the antagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the ANTAGONIST takes to block the protagonist.

Using a story we all know (and a story level rather than a scene level conflict), in the first Indiana Jones movie, the conflict lock looks like this:

You could replace the word "Conflict" with the word "Action" to show the dynamic nature of the conflict box. Conflict occurs when two character's actions block the goals of the other.
Indiana Jones’ goal of obtaining the ark is in direct conflict with the Nazi’s goal of obtaining the ark. The actions of the protagonist block the antagonist from achieving his goal, and the actions of the antagonist block the protagonist from achieving his goal.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when determining if you have a conflict lock in your scene:
  • Conflict locks are best used when the protagonist’s goals are external, concrete and specific. If your protagonist’s goal is internal, try to find a McGuffin, something physical, to stand in as the external symbol of the internal struggle. A concrete, external goal is something that the reader can visualize. It may stand-in for an inner emotion.
  • The scene antagonist should also have a goal he/she is willing to fight for. In other words, the antagonist is not just there to block the protagonist, but he/she also has something he/she wants.
  • The protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals must conflict. There is no obvious way for both to win. For one character to obtain their goal, the other character must loose. Their goals are mutually exclusive.
  • What the antagonist is doing to obtain his goal is also what he is doing to block the protagonist. If the antagonist wins, the protagonist fails.
  • The protagonist and antagonist do not have to have the same goal. For example, imagine there are two teenage siblings who share a car. The conflict lock might look like this:

  • So, either both characters have the same goal (the ark), or they have different goals which are in direct opposition (both teens want the car).
Remember, in terms of storytelling, your protagonist has a goal in the story. Each scene in your story provides either progress or a setback. Your job as the writer is to set up barriers and obstacles, through the use of antagonists, to make your protagonist’s job harder. This adds tension to your story and your scenes.
Examples:As examples of conflict lock, let’s look at some scenes from fairy tales – since most people are familiar with these.

Example 1: Goldilocks and the Three BearsSet-up: After a vigorous walk, and a filling breakfast, Goldilocks decides to take a nap.

Analysis: Papa Bear prevents Goldilocks from meeting her immediate goal – getting a nap. Goldilocks prevents Papa Bear from his goal – keep his family safe by keeping strangers out of the house. Goldilocks cannot meet her goal of getting a nap if Papa Bear won’t let her stay and sleep.

Example 2: Hansel and Gretel
Set-up: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods. The children are hungry when they stumble upon the witch’s gingerbread house and begin to nibble.

Analysis: The witch prevents Hansel and Gretel from eating her candy house by locking them in a cage. Once locked in the cage, Hansel and Gretel have no immediate way to satisfy their hunger.

Example 3: Jack and the Beanstalk
Set-up: Jack finds some magic beans and climbs the resulting beanstalk to the giant’s home in the sky, where he steals various items of value in order to keep his mother out of poverty.

Analysis: Jacks wants to save his mother from poverty and keeps stealing from the giant. The giant wants to protect his valuable items, but Jack keeps outsmarting him. Jack only wins when the giant looses.

If you’d like to post a good example of a conflict lock, either from a book you’ve read or from a movie, feel free to post as a reply to this thread! If you disagree with something I've said above, let's discuss it!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey

Wow! Sorry for my long absence from blogging. I guess I'm either on or off.

My son was home sick today and so I decided to rent a classic - 2001: A Space Odyssey. We've talked about this movie in the past, and I thought it might be fun to watch. I was right, but certainly not in the way I expected.

I've gotten in the habit of studying the structure of movies as I watch them. It's so much easier to dissect a movie than it is a book, particularly movies I've seen before. My apologies in advance if 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of your sacred cows - you may want to stop reading now - but IMO, boy was this a good one to tear apart as an example of what NOT to do in storytelling.

The film opens with almost 5 minutes of blank screen with strange music in the background. No title screen. No opening pictures. Just blackness. Okay, it's a space movie. But 5 minutes?

Next, the film shows 20 minutes, TWENTY MINUTES (no exaggeration), of footage of men dressed up in gorilla suits and going about their typical day, until one day when a monolith appears in their neighborhood and suddenly one of them gets the great idea to use an animal bone as a weapon and promptly kills an enemy gorilla. This is progress.

Cut to the future. For another 20 minutes (NO LIE!) we see footage of special effect models - various space vehicles moving and rotating about in space, culminating with an extended scene of a pen floating about in space inside a space shuttle/airplane, while its owner SLEEPS! Riveting. Really. Even allowing for the fact that in the late 1960's, the idea of space travel was new and perhaps needed a bit more set-up than current times (for those who weren't Star Trek fans), twenty minutes was a bit much.

At this point, my 13-year-old son is about to crawl out of his skin, and I'm about ready to end my repeated assurances of "just wait, it gets better". Forty-five minutes into the film, we get our first dialogue. After a brief teleconference with his 5-year-old daughter (presumably to humanize our temporary hero - as nothing else relevant seems to come out of the discussion), our MC of the moment, Dr. Heyward Floyd, speaks to an assembly of scientists on the moon explaining in his monologue that an object estimated to be 4 million years old has been found buried on the moon. All go to investigate and are presumably killed, including the man who until now has been the main character. So much for humanizing him with the daughter. We never really had a chance to care about him as a character.

More long, drawn-out images and we eventually meet our dual heroes, and the infamous HAL. They are on a mission they know almost nothing about. Neither of them seem to have known Dr. Floyd and feel no sense of mission to solve the question of why he had to die. In fact, with the exception of the monolith tie-in, it could be an entirely different movie. Almost all the dialogue is contrived to tell the audience information that needs to be conveyed, rather than showing it in an interesting way. The dialogue is stilted - a third grader could probably be more creative. At this point, my daughter has returned from school and the two kids are rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all. I'm wondering how the film ever became a classic, but keep saying - "Just wait... it'll all make sense in the end."

At no point is Dave (the remaining hero) ever angry at HAL for killing off the crew, nor is he nervous about his ability to succeed in disabling HAL, nor does he run into any real stumbling blocks - HAL is ineffectual at doing ANYTHING to even slow Dave down, and his pleading attempts (in monotone voice) of "Stop Dave. Stop Dave. Stop Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. The world is getting dark Dave. My mind is fading Dave." had the kids laughing so hard it was hard to hear the next line of dialogue.

Next comes an extended psychedelic tunnel (perhaps another 10 minutes? I don't know the exact time. It did seem to go on and on. We were laughing too hard at this point for me to keep track). The special features included with the DVD stated they spent a lot of time with glue and solvents building the models. This explains a lot!

At this point I tell the kids, "the scene explaining it all is coming up soon now. You'll recognize it by the famous Space Odyssey music?" So we sit through weird, inexplicable scenes of Dave growing older and older in some sort of drug-induced dream, until he comes upon the monolith floating is space. Cue music.

The "famous" scene I remember that explains it all - it was all in my head. It's nowhere in the movie. I must have dreamed it. I can't even blame it on drugs - I was only 5 when the movie was released.

So, what does this movie have to teach about storytelling:

  • When the writing books say "make the beginning exciting. Draw people into the story." they don't mean you need explosions or car chases on the first page, but 20 minutes of gorilla footage may be a bit much. Gorillas get a paragraph, maybe two. Check your opening pages - are they full of gorillas?
  • Create 3-dimensional characters that your readers care about, doing things that matter to the story. A floating pen may be a cool feat in a 1968 film, but if it's not relevant to the story, nobody cares. Check your writing. Does it include beautifully written descriptions that don't really matter in the end? Either make them matter, or send them away.
  • Show your readers what's important in the story. If a strange monolith has been uncovered, take us to the archaeological dig. Letting your character tell the story in monologue is heavy handed and uninteresting. Showing takes longer than telling, but if you cut out the gorillas, you'll find you have more time to engage your readers in the story!
  • Give your characters a mission, something they want to accomplish, something they care about. Astronauts going about their daily business is not particularly exciting. Astronauts trying to solve the mystery of an unexplained monolith, and possibly save mankind - that matters. What is your MC character trying to accomplish? Is he or she simply moving through history, showing off the signs of the time, or is there a purpose to their actions?
  • Provide obstacles, real obstacles, for your character. Being shut out of the spaceship is not particularly frightening if your first solution gets you back in. Shutting down the main computer hardly seems challenging if all that happens is some useless background prattle that hardly seems distracting. What's at risk once the computer is shut down? If he can't get home anyway, what is he accomplishing by shutting HAL down - everyone else is already dead? If it's a suicide mission, should we care if the remaining character lives or dies? How about for your characters? What choices must they make, and what are the consequences of those choices? What are they giving up to reach their ultimate goal - i.e., saving the world.
  • What's it all about? Make the end matter. My mind has filled in all sorts of details for the end of this movie that just aren't there - vividly illustrated in my mind. Perhaps there was a "making of" show, or something similar, that provided the footage I so clearly remember. Perhaps the beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey to it's fans is the ability to apply your own interpretation. In the story in my mind, new life, a new civilization, was saved from mankind to grown and prosper in its own way without interference. But in your story, make sure there is a payoff for the reader. Even if your message is big and important, give your reader closure on at least some piece of the story - a troubled character made whole again, some wrong righted, hope for the future. Don't leave the ending of your story untold.

If you have a different interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, feel free to disagree here! If you have a "favorite" movie that has illustrated well writing principles (both good and bad), do share! I'm always looking for examples.