Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.

In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.