Digging Holes Without Shovels

I’m back in the classroom after a long, lovely leave of absence. For the past four weeks, I’ve met with students and sent them–one after another–back to the drawing board when they’ve brought me plot outlines.

I feel like a gardener who’s returned home to find the flowerbeds choked with weeds. Earlier this month, I finally got around to pruning two of my crepe myrtles, shrubs that I’m training into trees. They’d developed numerous side sprouts and were growing into the wrong shapes. As soon as I snipped and shaped, it was perhaps less than a week before new shoots were sprouting where I’d pruned.

My students are exactly like these rebellious sprouts. They’re trying to plot while assiduously ignoring one of the most basic tenets of fiction writing.

A. You need a protagonist.

Not just any character in the cast will do. You need someone to stand up, stand out, take action, and by-golly DO something, right or wrong.

B. You need an antagonist.

Not just a guy with a dark mustache who lives in a remote castle and broods over the townspeople he wants to harm. But an antagonist to the protagonist.

This means an opponent, someone actively thwarting whatever the protagonist is trying to do.

Without this competitor, this obstacle, this individual who’s really in the way, we have no hope of cooking up a viable story.

So why do the inexperienced writers want to dispense with this individual?

Is it because I’ve said the antagonistic character must exist, and a little rebellion is at work?

Is it because newbie writers no longer understand the concept of a villain? How can that be when the world is filled with villains? We see them on the news every day.

Is it because there’s a misunderstanding about the way stories work through opposition?

Ah ha! Perhaps that’s the reason.

You think up a protagonist. You even figure out what the character wants.

Good, so far!

But then, why shouldn’t we want the protagonist to achieve that aim, that desire?

Because it’s dull. There’s no adventure, no excitement, no suspense, no entertainment if Biff the Hero proclaims, “I’m in love with the princess and I want to marry her and live happily ever after.” And the princess’s father says, “Biff, you look like a handsome young man. My blessings on you both.”

End of story in three sentences.

A story needs conflict in order to move from start to finish. It can’t achieve conflict without the antagonist. It’s that simple, that basic.

Are we as a society so entitled, so privileged these days that the concept of having to work toward something, of having to strive for delayed gratification is simply inconceivable?

I don’t know. Story construction–once the veil of mystery is parted–is so simple. You just have to trust it, and if you do, you can write stories.

Without the conflict between two directly opposing characters, there’s no uncertainty of outcome that spins the story across twenty pages … or two-hundred.

“But I’m writing a romance story,” someone might protest. “I don’t have a Snidely Whiplash villain to carry off the girl. There’s just my heroine and the hero, and if they don’t like each other how can they fall in love?”

Well, duh. Let’s consider the construction a moment. Girl meets guy. She likes him. Her inner voice whispers, He’s THE ONE. She smiles at him in encouragement, hoping he’ll show interest in her and ask her out. She may even be bold enough to ask him out to dinner.

Where’s the conflict? Where’s the opposing goal?

From the guy, of course. If she’s thinking, He’s THE ONE, then he should be thinking, Cute girl, but I won’t be caught. I don’t want to be THE ONE to anybody.

There we are. The goals are in direct opposition, and as the story progresses the characters are struggling between that conflict plus a growing attraction despite all the setbacks.

Or it can be the guy who’s smitten and the girl who’s uninterested at first. Think of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, where they both take an instant superficial dislike to each other. Then Mr. Darcy is the first to reconsider. Think of GONE WITH THE WIND, where Scarlett and Rhett are made for each other but so rarely in sync. Think of the Tracy/Hepburn film, ADAM’S RIB, where they’re deeply in love and happily married, until they take opposing sides in a trial.

Now, if we’re writing a mystery, what are we to do? It’s not a thriller, where good guy and bad guy are face-to-face, waving guns and shouting at each other. We don’t even know who the bad guy is!

Well, let’s see. An off-stage villain, a hidden, shadowy character.

This is the perpetrator, the one whodunnit. This individual doesn’t want to be caught, and so this character is concealing evidence, lying, and manipulating.

We have an investigator, the sleuth. This individual wants to catch the perpetrator and make him pay for his crime. This person is sniffing around, asking questions, seeking and searching, circling ever closer to an increasingly desperate villain.

Even in these two genres, the principle of opposition is still in play.

Directly opposing goals and their setup is not rocket science. It’s a basic foundation of plotting.

Ignore it, and you might as well be scratching at the hard ground with your bare hands, thinking you’re going to dig a hole without a shovel. You might achieve a slight depression, but you’ll never gain a well.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Digging Holes Without Shovels

  1. Hahaha! Sad but true.
    “Not just a guy with a dark mustache who lives in a remote castle and broods over the townspeople he wants to harm.”
    ^ Love that!

  2. Are there some tools to create sufficient anticipation so the reader will stick with a story until the shadowy concealed villain is at last outed and confronted?

    Presumably the villain’s confrontation isn’t available immediately in an overt form from page one, when the villain’s scheme is so thoroughly concealing that the protagonist must take steps to discover the misfortunes befalling the Good Guys™ is actually the result of a concealed villain that must be discovered ….

    Solutions? (Do they come from secondary plot-lines and conflicts until the quest for the villain is in full swing?)

    • Yes, secondary plotlines have to keep the conflict spinning until the main villain comes forward.

      Think of the first Harry Potter novel. Voldemort is mentioned in the opening chapter. The danger and evilness of him is established. But then Harry must deal with a lot of other issues until the showdown of the climax.

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