Happiness is great, unless you’re writing a story. For a plot to exist, there has to be some conflict. And conflict arises when characters with objectives encounter impediments. This video introduces an exercise to help writers focus on conflict, objectives, and impediments.
Video transcript follows below:
Let me tell you something about happiness: Happiness is great, unless you’re writing a story: couple meet and fall in love? That’s not a story. Couple meet and fall in love but their families are enemies – that’s a story. Couple meet and fall in love but she is already married – that’s a story. Couple meet and fall in love but they’re both men living in a homophobic society – that’s a story. So here’s a fundamental point about stories: there must be conflict. Necessarily, always, for a story to work, there must be conflict.
By conflict, I don’t mean people must be shouting at each other or throwing punches. Rather, conflict arises automatically when your characters have objectives and face impediments.
Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’
And the basis of almost every story ever told is that someone wants something and they face some sort of impediment. The impediment could be an adversary – such as Professor Moriarty, with whom Sherlock Holmes fights his final deadly battle. Or it could be environmental circumstances – such as the icy Yukon wilderness that kills the protagonist in Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’. Or it could be something internal to the character – such as Bridget Jones’s insecurity and goofiness.
So there are two ways you need to think about this. First of all, make sure you know what your main character’s objective is at a macro level. What is her grand ambition that structures the whole piece of writing? Is it to catch the criminal, to survive the wilderness, or to marry Mr Right? Second, you need to consider what her objective is within each scene you write, and what impediments obstruct her path to achieving that objective.
For instance, suppose you’re writing a romantic comedy and the protagonist’s macro objective is to marry Ms Right or Mr Right or whatever. And after various failed dates she is sent to Cyprus on a work assignment with a colleague whom we realise is the one she should be with. It is the romantic beauty of the island that will be the setting for their blossoming love, and so you decide to describe the island through your protagonist’s eyes. You permit her to go for a walk, through large fruit trees, listening to the hum of cicadas, as the sun sets, and the shadows grow long, and the smell of azaleas mixes with the warm sea salt breeze. And then she emerges onto the beach and takes off her shoes off and feels the warm sand between her toes and– That’s all very nice and romantic, but it’s not a story.
It isn’t a story because she doesn’t have an objective. She is passively experiencing something without trying to achieve anything. Suppose instead you determine that she’s walking for a reason. She’s walking to a restaurant where she’s going to meet the potential Ms or Mr Right for a date. And the impediment to her achieving her objective is that she doesn’t know the village and can’t remember her way to the restaurant. You can still describe the beauty of the setting, she can still enjoy it at first, but now the descriptions take on extra meaning. The setting sun is a reminder of how time is against her. When she emerges onto the beach, finally in sight of the waterfront restaurant, that warm sand is impossible to walk on in her high heels, and so she has to pause and take off her shoes and run through the heavy sand barefoot. Eventually, the incident will be resolved; either she achieves her objective and gets to the restaurant only fashionably late, or she doesn’t achieved her objective and by the time she gets there her date has run off with the waiter.
Below this video you’ll find two grids I use to get writers thinking about conflict, objective, and impediments. All you have to do is fill in the boxes for any story you’ve recently experienced, be it a book, a film, or a play. As you’ll see, I’ve filled in some examples to give you the idea.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
(This video uses two photographs that are covered by Creative Commons licenses. The photo of Cyprus flora was taken by Monika Kostera, whose website is here: http://www.kostera.pl/; the beach photograph was taken by Martin Wippel, whose website is at: http://www.martin-wippel.com)