Posts Tagged story structure
Happy Monday, my peeps. Today we are going to talk some more about the antagonist. The antagonist is THE most critical element of our fiction. Yes, even more important than the protagonist. Blasphemy! No, I’m serious. Our protagonist cannot become a hero (heroine) without the antagonist. No opposition and no story.
Yet, every time I blog about the antagonist, I get the same comments:
But what if nature is the antagonist?
But what if a belief system is the antagonist?
But what if my protagonist and antagonist are the same person?
Most of the time, questions like this alert me that you have slept since high school or college English. Do not feel badly about not knowing this stuff. The English we are taught in school is not meant as preparation for a career in commercial fiction. I struggled with this stuff, too, which is why I am using this blog to help part the fog of confusion.
Today we are going to talk about Man Against Nature, since many new writers believe that bad weather, a hungry bear or a Shark-Clown can be the antagonist (or the BBT if you read last week’s post). Yes, they can, but uh, not really. If we want our story to have more depth than a Hollywood B movie, we need to really understand this Man Against Nature thing and how to make it work.
But First, Man Against Man
Man Against Man is fairly straight-forward. This is probably the simplest form of story antagonism to see and understand. In simple Man Against Man, we have an antagonist who has a goal that conflicts with the protagonist’s goal.
In the Chronicles of Riddick, Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead because Riddick is the last Furian male, and a Furian male is prophesied to bring Lord Marshall’s end. Riddick, however, wants Lord Marshall dead because Lord Marshall wiped out Riddick’s planet trying to kill all the Furian males so that he could stop the prophesy.
A smidge of irony there.
So here the conflict is pretty clear. Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead and Riddick wants Lord Marshall dead. Only one of them can be dead at the end of the story, lest this become a French film and be hailed as genius at the Cannes Film Festival.
Everybody died, even the houseplants! It was brilliant!
Thus, all of Lord Marshall’s actions are to capture and kill Riddick. All of Riddick’s actions are to avoid capture but press closer to take out Lord Marshall. It is this tug-of-war that creates the story tension.
Ah, But What About Man Against Nature?
Okay, to start. How many NYT best-belling novels have we seen where the protagonist is fighting bad weather for 400 pages? And how can a protagonist ever really win against the weather? It isn’t something we can control, so is the weather really the BBT (Big Boss Trouble-Maker)?
Yes, and no.
Often Man Against Nature will also generate a Man Against Man and a Man Against Himself story.
I know. It’s okay. Breathe in a paper bag and trust me. First, understand that even if a storm or a shark-clown is the BBT, we need a corporeal antagonist to generate much of the conflict.
Humans don’t do so great with existentialism.
Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle. What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself? There will often be a flesh and blood representation of that ugly nature.
The Perfect Storm
The Wolfgang Peterson film The Perfect Storm is a great example. Was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride and greed (Man Against Himself).
George Clooney plays Captain Billy Tyne who is desperate for money. Tyne convinces the crew of the Andrea Gail to go fishing during a dangerous time of year to preserve his business and his pride (and frankly, the men agree because they are desperate, broke and trying to preserve their manhood).
The crew presses out beyond their normal fishing grounds, leaving a nasty developing thunderstorm behind. Their luck seems to improve when they hit the Flemish Gap. The men bring in the haul of a lifetime…but then ice machine breaks.
Of course it does!
There are but two choices—go through the storm of the century to get home before the fish rot OR go around the storm but lose the haul and their dignity. A fight breaks out among the crew (Man Against Man). Some want to take on the storm. Others know it’s a fool’s errand and no money is worth dying for.
Ultimately, it is the captain who makes the final decision to risk his men for the fish. He is the physical proxy of greed and pride. He (mistakenly) believes believes that their skill will be able to triumph over the perfect storm, and he is wrong and everyone dies…which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.
But, notice how the storm doesn’t directly generate the story problem. The captain is broke. He is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. The men are broke. They are fighting with loved ones over bills.
It is pride and greed that propel the men out into the ocean during the most dangerous time of year. Pride and greed drive them beyond their normal fishing area. And, in the end, pride and greed lands them at the bottom of the ocean.
It is the captain who leads the way, and that is why HE is the proxy of the BBT. It is his decision to go fishing during a dangerous time of year that changes everything. If Tyne had declared bankruptcy and taken on selling hand-painted garden gnomes, there would be no story and the men would have lived.
Yes, this can be a mind-bender, but practice this enough and it gets easy.
Man Against Hungry Critters
Another great example of Man Against Nature is the 1997 survival story The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays braniac billionaire Charles Morse who becomes stranded in the wilds of North America when the small prop plane he’s traveling in crashes. Charles is not alone. Though the pilot is killed, two photographers–Bob and Stephen–survive with Charles.
If this were a simple Man Against Nature story it would still be good, but what makes it great is the story doesn’t stop there.
Charles is aware that photographer Bob is having an affair with Charles’s wife (a supermodel). He also suspects that Bob deliberately invited him out into the wilds to kill him. This agenda is, of course, put on the back burner due to the fact that Bob is a total city boy and he needs Charles’s photographic memory if he hopes to survive.
***Charles loves reading survival books and Bob is in a pickle without that information running around Charles’s noggin.
Man Against Himself
Charles is a billionaire, a man with the Midas touch. His mind is what has helped him amass a fortune, but he’s never really had to get his hands dirty. When he crash-lands in the wilderness with a man he knows wants him dead, can he do what it takes to come out alive? Nature is what will test this.
See, Nature becomes the catalyst–the brutal weather and sparse food of the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and add in a hungry man-eating bear and now we have the perfect test for Charles, to see what he is really made of.
This movie isn’t scene after scene of fighting off a bear and keeping warm–though there is a lot of that. The fighting the weather and evading the bear really drive the Man Against Man story. Charles vs. Bob. Only one man can walk out alive.
Thus, I hope you can see that Man Against Nature is doable. Mother Nature is a viable choice for a BBT, but she does need help for our story to have any depth. In The Edge, screenwriter David Mamet could have written a script where characters outran a bear for 90 minutes…but he didn’t, and THAT is why the movie rocks.
Next week we will explore some more unconventional antagonists. Did this help? Are your brains now the consistency of scrambled eggs? Any questions? What are some questions or troubles you have with the antagonist?
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April/May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April/May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note–My plane got in late and I didn’t get to bed until midnight. Will announce the winner either Wednesday of Friday. Thanks .
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Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.” Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian filing cabinet where they would come back as really bad novels. …oops, I digress.
Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot.
Today we will address two especially nefarious writing hazards that like to lurk below the wittiest dialogue and most breathtaking description:
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc).
That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them. Yes, kill them dead. No burying them in the Pet Semetary, also known as “revision.” Killing means killing….as in delete forever. Or at least cut them cleanly from the story and hide in a Word folder to give yourself time to grieve and move on with the real novel. Yet too many times we hang on to those favorite characters or bits of dialogue, reworking them and hoping we can make them fit…at the expense of the rest of the story.
Th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.
Let me explain why it is important to let go.
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.
In a last ditch attempt to spare a darling, a writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way.
Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario.
We notice emergency lights ahead. The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.
Now… You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.
Before you cared…now you are connected.
That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.
I have had to pry many, many darlings like these away from desperate writers “parents” unwilling to take the scenes off of life support. They wrote opening scenes of car accidents and hospitals and death and child abduction so vivid they couldn’t read their own work without tearing up. I did the same thing early in my writing journey. The problem, however, was this…no one but us cared.
We hadn’t done enough development of the story to make the readers just as vested as we were. And, because we were so determined to keep these gut-wrenching scenes, we never dug in and did the real work that would have made the audience cry too.
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. In fact, back in February at the DFW Writer’s Workshop Conference, I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of new and hopeful writers in between classes I was teaching. I would ask them what their book was about and the conversation would sound a bit like this:
What’s your book about?
Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…
Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?
What is her goal?
Um. To find out who she is?
These conversations actually made me chuckle because now I know what Bob Mayer felt like the day he met me . My first novel was so complex, I don’t even think I fully understood it. But back to the conference. Most writers wanted to land an agent, yet, out of everyone I talked to, only two could state what their novel was about in three sentences or less.
The tragic part is that most of the novels did not have a genuine conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict. Great tactic taught by Bob Mayer in his Novel Writer’s Toolkit. It is my opinion that all these writers, deep down, knew they were missing the backbone to their story—CONFLICT. I think they sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why their plots grew more and more and more complicated.
They were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice. How do I know this? I used to own stock in Plot Bondo.
The problem is, complexity is not conflict. We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.
And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complex. We frequently get too complex when we are trying to b.s. our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out. Um, it won’t. Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we get complex to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.
I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death.
Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. And then kill them dead and bury your pets for real.
You have rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.
So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
This week’s winner of 5-page edit is Marilag Lubag. Please send your doc (1250 words) to kristen @ kristen lamb dot org.
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Until next time….