As we discussed in last week’s blog, there is a lot more to being a writer than sitting down and pounding out word count. Make no mistake, sitting your tuchus in the chair and getting your work finished is of utmost importance, but those words need to be quality or then you are back to wasting your time. There are other activities we as writers can do to make our story-telling muscles stronger. The fastest and easiest way is to watch movies.
Today, I am going to talk about a critical element missing in many of today’s movies. This is an element that is as vital to good fiction as oxygen is for brain function. It is easier for me to point out in movies for a number of reasons. First, it is easier for you to go watch a movie and see my point than it is for you to make time for another 400 page book. Also, writers are delicate and I am not going to be responsible for a tragic OD of chocolate and pink Peeps. I figure those in the movies make good money, so my little critique has been properly compensated.
So what is this missing element?
Angst (generally found in conflict).
We need angst. The reader/audience needs to be on the edge of their seat from the inciting incident. That is what turns pages. Lose angst and you have just provided a place for a nice fat bookmark because we are no longer worried.
We will use movies as an example.
I just recently watched the remake of Alice in Wonderland. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it. Now I think there was no one better that Tim Burton to make this movie, and Johnny Depp was born to be Hatter. Yet, despite the mind-blowing imagery and world-building, the movie, to me, fell flat. I felt as if I was slugging through scene after scene after scene. I was mildly entertained by what widget or gizmo would greet me around the bend…but I was never worried. Alice could take off right into the lair of her enemy, and no one seemed overly concerned.
Nothing was clearly at stake. Alice didn’t have to face the weakest parts of herself in order to be triumphant at the end. Her only change was to…make up her own mind? Ok.
See, there was no clear vision of what would happen if the Red Queen won. We all kind of got the idea that life was miserable, but it didn’t seem, in fairness, all that bad. And it didn’t appear as if it would get that much worse. Heck, the White Queen apparently just had to move to a different castle, and the only downer was that her old gardens got toasted by the Jabberwocky and she lost some of her favorite help. Bummer.
And the choice presented to Alice made her utterly unlikable if the choice had been made clear. Fight the Jabberwocky—or—scamper off like a coward and save your own skin (but everyone dies and there is no way home). So effectively there was no real choice that would have afforded genuine conflict, thus creating angst. There were no other champions (according to the Oracle), so therefore, no real choice.
To create genuine tension Alice required two choices equally appealing. Then the audience would sit on the edge of their seats hoping that Alice would choose to fight the Jabberwocky because it is the right thing for our heroine to do.
This was done brilliantly in The Return of the King.
Other heroes could have taken the ring to the fires of Mt. Doom. Thus, for Frodo to choose to finish the mission was one of ultimate sacrifice. Samwise could have taken the ring for his friend, but Frodo will not let him because he doesn’t desire the ring to poison more souls than it already had. This makes Frodo truly self-sacrificing.
We, the audience, witness the perils ahead and wonder how little Frodo and Samwise will make it to Mt. Doom in the first place. They are in constant peril physically and emotionally. We see the effects of the ring taking a deepening hold and wonder at every turn if Frodo will give in to the darkest parts of himself. Thus, as an audience, we not only worry that Frodo will not make it to Mt. Doom literally–he and his crew must make it past the Black Gates then face off against orcs and giant spiders all the while evading detection by the ever-watchful Eye of Sauron–but we also worry whether Frodo can make it there emotionally and psychologically.
Will the ring poison him too much before they can reach the fires of Mt. Doom? Can Samwise’s love and friendship conquer the greed and lust of the ring? We see the mounting pressure in the faces of our Hobbit friends as they struggle with physical injury, starvation, and stress…all against a ticking clock.
Then, the camera cuts to the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They are fortified at Gondor, terrified and staring at potential extinction. We see the stress has aged even the spry Merry and Pippin and witness the morale steadily eroding as they keep their eyes fixed on Mt. Doom for some sliver of a sign that the ring has been destroyed. We, the audience, twitch in our seats even though, logically, we know the little Hobbits must eventually win or we would have heard of the tomato-throwing mobs at movies around the country.
Yet, we still worry. Will Frodo destroy the ring before it is too late?
Alice? She had no affect through the entire movie. First, she spent far too long believing she was dreaming. But once she realized she was in another entirely different world, she never freaked out or demonstrated any signs of fear, which killed her authenticity. She was never really worried or concerned through the entire movie, and everything had a way of working out just peachy with very little effort on her part. When placed in situations that could have been fodder for great conflict, a nice contrived coincidence was there to bail out little Alice. Victory came too easily and defeat didn’t have a high enough price tag. Thus, aside from brilliant Depp and amazing special effects, I was bored.
What is a shame is that, had some adjustments been made in the story, this movie could have been another Return of the King. I feel the screenwriters forgot about story-telling and became more concerned with world-building. Fiction writers face the same challenge.
To create riveting fiction we must put our characters in real danger continuously. They just about solve one problem only to realize they opened a door to a new and even worse problem. At the beginning they must fail because they are flawed. This flaw will be fired out by trial and tribulation by the end of the book. Our characters must be continually presented with two roads. One road ends the story and the other keeps our hero going toward the goal. But, the choices must be real choices.
In The Return of the King Frodo had numerous opportunities to hand over the ring to others who seemed more qualified to use it to defeat Sauron or take it to Mt. Doom. No one would have blamed the injured feeble little hobbit for handing the evil ring to another healthy Hobbit (Samwise) or a wizard (Gandalf) or a human fighter (Aragorn). Boromir even makes a good argument for using the ring to defeat Sauron. Our hobbit friend is in pretty bad shape at the time. He could have given into the logic very easily, but it is through character and the intervention of his allies that he makes the right choice…the choice that leads to his potential destruction.
Your big battle at the end must be something your hero/heroine could potentially lose. And the higher the stakes, the better the victory and the more angst you will create.
Those supporting your protagonist must also be genuinely worried as we see in The Return of the King. Alice’s allies didn’t show enough true worry that she would not be their champion and free them from the Red Queen.
Conflict creates angst which fuels the forward momentum of a story. World-building, setting, and description are all ancillary. I know it is hard to throw rocks at the characters you love. You, their Creator, desire to protect them. Don’t. The audience/reader needs to care about your characters in order to be vested in your story and root for your heroes. For truly great stories that stand the test of critics and time, your hero/heroine needs a tangible goal and a battle that could mean the end.
Exercise: Think of movies that you love.
- Why did you love them?
- How did the screenwriters create conflict?
- How was the scene-and-sequel presented?
- What are some ways you could use that in your own story?
Happy writing! Until next time…
Need more ways to grow in your craft?
As always, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit for great writing instruction. Also recommend his warrior Writer Workshops for teaching the business and mindset of the professional author.