How are we going to get out of this?

Dragon Smaug by Tim Kane“The best stories don’t come from good vs bad, but good vs good.” – Tolstoy

If you’re a plot geek like me, this quote is both interesting and instructive. It’s been pinging at me lately, because I think it holds an interesting nugget about the challenges of our times. And it speaks to so many things; Terrorism, Trump, Brexit, Egypt, Palestine, weight gain and tweets.

In stories that are good vs good the conflicts are more internal. Everyone is both a good and a bad guy in a way. It’s about how each of us has our reasons for doing what we do. These are the hard stories to write, because they’re about moving targets we all deal with every day. At their best, they are metaphorical or philosophical.

Plot lines that involve bad vs good feature a clear black hat vs white hat. Detective vs murderer. Superhero vs Dark Menace. FBI vs Terrifying Terrorists (or choose from a broad assortment of racial delineations).

I’m starting to wonder if the predominance of such clearly delineated conflicts has impacted how we all think. That perhaps, by scarfing down simplistic stories, our brains no longer recognize that moral lines are usually complicated and confusing. We yearn for simplicity in a complicated world, so we reach for what’s easy. There are bad people. Here are good people. There’s no in-between. Period. End of sentence.

Life is about change. Stories help us to rehearse for the emotional aspects of life’s challenges. At their best, they show us how to look beneath the easy surface answers. To recognize that a bully bullies because he was bullied himself. How one blow leads to so many more. How we are all human, we all need food and shelter and love and acceptance. That really, there is no “us vs them”. And when there is an “us vs them” (aka duality) we end up in dangerous places. And I think we’re in one of those places now.

In these conflicts, the black hat-wearing dame has a huge ego. She wants to rule or destroy the world and take all of the riches and keep them to herself. She is the dragon hiding in the mountain, sitting on her pile of gold.

But ya know what? The white hat is just as egotistical as his black hat wearing sister. Because although he doesn’t want to destroy the world or rule the world, or keep all of its riches to himself, he is adamantly certain of where to draw the line between good and evil.

It’s all about judgement: Above the line, below the line. Good enough, not good enough. In this climate, negotiation isn’t possible, because that would involve giving in to evil. Life is about competition not collaboration. Rules apply to everyone else, not me. In fact, they’re for dupes and need to be broken. The other side is always entirely wrong. Lock them up, they’re crazy.

Plus, because everyone is delineated as entirely good or entirely evil, none of us are allowed to make a mistake. One false slip and you’ve “gone to the dark side.” You’re garbage. Go away and hide.

A desire for simplicity, for clarity, has got us here. But it’s a mental habit that has obvious down sides. So, how can we get out?

The only answer I’ve found is to look for what is common between us. To find ways to stop thinking in judgemental ways.

What do you think? Do the stories we tell have an influence on our society? Has the predominance of stories featuring good vs evil as opposed to good vs good made us expect the same in real life?  Share below.

FYI: Comments involving partisan politics will not be published. This blog isn’t about that. We need some safe zones, right?

What’s the difference between a series of a events and a story?

You’re writing away, trying to create a roller coaster of a story and you think you’ve got it. Brilliant, funny things happen! Great characters! Stimulating dialogue! Thrills! Chills! Oh my! 

Then you read it and… it doesn’t feel like a story.

Why?

One possible answer: You haven’t found your story engine.

As audience members, we all know when the rumble of a story begins. It’s the point where you sit back, reach for the popcorn and settle in for the ride. But what does a writer do to engage us?

The engine that drives a story is a question the audience holds in their mind as they watch. It’s what keeps them there until they get the answer (the end). The events fall into place like dominoes, one after another, leading naturally to conflicts. Those conflicts explore an aspect of the original question.

Gosh it all sounds so academic doesn’t it? And it’s not. Okay then. Let’s try some examples.

By the end of the story, will the main character…

  • Destroy the evil force that threatens the land?
  • Claw their way out of poverty and be discovered for the wunderkind they are?
  • Win the prize?
  • Find love / get married / divorced / have a baby?
  • Arrive at their destination without killing someone?
  • Get back to where they belong?
  • Learn what it means to…?

In murder mystery, it’s when a body is found and the question becomes whodunnit? It’s like the point in the roller coaster ride when something grabs onto the bottom of the cars and you’re pulled up the first hill with a jerk. There’s no getting off now. You’re in for the ride. Hang on and enjoy it.

Now, one nit to point out: This question I’m talking about is not one the character is asking. It’s the question the audience is asking. They may be the same thing, but they may not.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz asks if she can fly over the rainbow to a perfect place where there are no evil neighbours who steal dogs. The audience question could be, Is there really a perfect world somewhere?

Your job is to find out what question your story poses for your audience. One questions that can help you is to ask, Well, what’s at stake here? If your character loses, what do they lose? If they’re not losing much, there isn’t much of a story, so go back to the drawing board.

How the heck does this help?

Once you have a question, consider if it’s a question you’re interested in exploring. If you were to see that question on the back cover of a book, would you buy it? Refine until you would.

To do that consider:

  • What other questions pop up from the question?
  • What actions does that lead to?

In The Bourne Identity, Jason is found in the ocean with a bullet in his back and no memory. He finds himself in beautiful European landscapes chased by people determined to kill him. As he tries to find out who he is, he discovers innate knowledge and terrifying skills.

So for this story I’d say the question is How do you know if you’re good or evil? Leading to more questions. Does a good guy…

  • Run from the authorities?
  • Have a stash of passports, cash and guns?
  • Kill people quickly and quietly with nothing but a pen?

Am I a monster or a well trained angel? What a terrifying question to ask yourself.

The questions will lead you to situations that show off the questions you’re asking. Which leads to another point…

Don’t ask Who? or What? ask How?

The question in genre fiction is inherent. In a romance, will s/he get the man/woman? Yes. In an overcoming the monster story, is the world saved? Yes. In a mystery, will the detective find the killer? It’s the butler.

In such stories, the ending isn’t in question. The question is the how.

  • Romance: How will she be convinced that he’s the one? How will she win him over?
  • Overcoming the monster: How will she kill that thing?
  • Mystery: How does the detective figure it out?

I argue that all story questions are how questions. Some stories can start with mystery shrouding the action. What is going on? But there is a point when we figure out where the story is heading. We can see the roller coaster rising and falling ahead. But we haven’t ridden the thing yet.

In Sol Stein’s book The Childkeeper, there is an early discussion with a real estate agent that ends like this:

"Could you come up Sunday, say at two?"

"Of course."

"You'll bring the children?"

"Yes."

Stickney was pleased. Children were part of his strategy.

As audience, we’re asking, What is he planning? But the tension created by that question can only last so long. Eventually we have to learn what he’s planning. Once we know, the questions becomes how.

In a murder mystery the body is found and we ask who did it, how they did it, what’s their motivation? But the overarching question is, How will the detective figure it out? 

The roller coaster is an excellent metaphor for a story’s plot. It is a ride that is constructed to give your audience an experience. You, as writer, decide what that experience will be. And if, at any time, the roller coaster stalls (when the question goes missing), your riders will jump off. You need to design those highs, spin them upside down and turn them around. That’s where the thrill is.

The biggest highs and dives of the coaster are confrontations with the antagonist. The question you select opens doors of conflict possibilities. Which means, you need to get in bed with your bad guy.

But that’s for next time…


TRY THIS:

  • As you read or watch other works, try to figure out the question they pose.
  • Fun alternative theories for The Wizard of Oz.