Beware the Twilight Zone

You’re writing a scene or chapter that you’ve meticulously plotted and planned ahead of time. You know where your story is going. You know what you want your characters to do. As soon as you finish with this plot event, you know where your story will go next.

You are–in effect–prepared.

Then something weird happens. An unseen force reaches out from the blinking cursor on your computor monitor and enters your brain. Your plans go fuzzy. The character dialogue becomes circular. The plot bogs down and will not move forward. You fume and strain and retype, and still you cannot advance. The next plot event seems to be receeding from your grasp.

Why, you wonder, won’t your characters go there?

The reason is, my friend, that you have fallen into an alternative dimension of writing, where the best-laid plans go awry. This strange place is a trap, where your words become as meaningless as the angry buzzing of a fly bouncing into a glass windowpane again and again … and again.

Baffled and frustrated, you check your outline. There’s nothing wrong with your story. Your events are sequential, with no illogical gaps. You check your characters. Each is well drawn and outspoken. In fact, your characters are talking too much. You seem unable to stop them. What they’re saying is rather witty.  Yet the story is not advancing.

How can you escape? Is this some type of advanced writer’s block? Has your story sense abandoned you? Have you developed some mysterious variety of writer’s blight?

No, my friend. You have omitted the element of “Connected Conflict” and utilized “Random Conflict” instead.

This problem is usually caused by the absence of a key character–the central story antagonist.

This individual has a vested interest in thwarting your protagonist’s actions, and this individual is strongly–and logically–motivated to stand in your protagonist’s way.

Yes, yes, I know all that, you may be saying. But for the first five chapters, my villain needs to be in Hoboken.

Especially when writing series fiction, it’s easy to fall into awkward plot situations where the central antagonist is off-stage for a large section of the story. This leaves your protagonist to deal with incidental or minor antagonists instead.

It looks like it should be okay. You’ve designed conflict. You’ve got arguments and the kind of story action where characters are moving here and there to some degree of urgency.

But if you’re honest, you’ll realize there’s something phoney about the whole thing, something contrived, something that doesn’t quite click the way it should when scenes are crafted well.

But the story has to BE this way! you may be insisting.

Does it?

Without the connection of antagonism between protagonist and antagonist, the story will quickly devolve into incidents loosely strung together. You lose the internal logic of cause-and-effect. The plot begins to soften and bog down. It becomes more realistic and less constructed. As a result, you’re left with author contrivance and a series of episodic skirmishes between randomly appearing individuals.

This will shunt you into the spongy dimension of bad story dynamics faster than you can realize you’ve exited the road.

Solution?

Stop.

Back up.

Figure out exactly where you left the central antagonist behind.

Plot a way to re-incorporate this character actively into the story.

Watch the knots in your scenes untangle and see how the story zooms forward once more.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Beware the Twilight Zone

  1. Well-written, well stated.

    I think the connection you are expressing can exist, even when it is the discovery of the identity of the villain that is the theme of the book. I like to remind myself that the reader is allowed to know more than the characters, and I can actually show the machinations of the antagonist in broad light, while only allowing the protagonist to get the ripples of the effect.

    There are, too, minions, and sub-battles, steps along the way.

    A story concept I’ve always liked is to discover that the big horrid villain is actually working for someone bigger and more horrid… and then perhaps that person is, too!

    The old SciFi writer, E. E. “Doc” Smith used to do that with great skill.

    I’d be interested in getting more from you on how you would accomplish this, especially in a “bad guy discovery” tale.

  2. Yes, I do like those plot twists where the big villain is a front for someone far worse. Doc Smith did it, as you say. J.K. Rowling used the technique in reverse in her Harry Potter series.

    You’re right in pointing out that in some stories the identity of the true villain isn’t known until halfway through or possibly near the end. But the sub-battles and minions are still connected to the plan or machinations of the hidden villain. Reading the story, you get the definite sense of this shadowy force at work, and there’s a cohesion that just doesn’t happen when a writer falls into random conflict.

    Dick Francis was a master at presenting what initially appeared to be random conflict in the first chapter or two, but it’s always quickly apparent that the problems confronting the hero are connected.

    –Deb

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