Temples are places of worship, sanctuaries of knowledge, and monoliths to that which has come before. In this series, I will be exploring the elements that make up the pillars of storytelling. No figurative stone of the storytelling temple is more important than another, and they all work together to make something, that alone, they could not. Join me for the finale of this multi-part series into the temple of storytelling. Part One: World Building, Part Two: Character Creation, Part Three: Plot Development
Think of stories your friends or family have told you about where they work. What about you? What are some of the stories you tell people about where you work? Is there one that you know will always have people's attention?
If you have worked in retail and the food industry like I have, you absolutely have some stories.
When I was still a server at Applebee's, I always had a new tale for my friends about the kind of people that populated this world. There's a few that still stand out.
I remember there was a customer who demanded that she have a teaspoon to stir her coffee (we only had soup spoons). Apparently, she couldn't stand the extra girth of metal for such a task. She didn't tip me because I couldn't provide her the proper stirring device.
Another customer ordered a well-done steak, which had grill marks, of course. It wasn't overcooked or undercooked (which many times did happen, to be fair), it just had grill marks. The customer told me that, if it was burnt, she would get "the cancer." Well, you ordered your steak well-done, so it's just going to be dry and flavorless, but that's how you must like it! But she began panicking because I didn't understand the danger I was putting her in. I ended up taking the steak back, flipping it over because the other side had fewer grill marks, returned it to her table, and she ate it happily.
Two customers would come in regularly and find something to complain about every time. Once, they demanded our restaurant get a register at the front of the store so they wouldn't have to wait to pay for their check, even though I waited while they placed their card inside the checkbook to get them out of my hair. By the time I charged their card, they were already at the door, wondering what took so long (90 seconds tops), and they yelled at the manager to install cash registers.
Besides the fact that people have very strange realities for themselves, what do you notice about all of these stories? What about the stories you have told and hear from other people in your life?
All the stories about work, that were worth telling, had one thing in common: conflict.
The same goes for fiction writing. If there is no conflict, then your story is just a 300-page to-do list.
“Heroes need monsters to establish their heroic credentials. You need something scary to overcome.”-Margaret Atwood
When I wrote about plot development for the last pillar, I said that plot wasn’t just things happening in the mundane “this happened, then that happened” way. This is because there has to be conflict. No one wants to hear about how you made it to work safely (I mean they do, they probably care about you). The engaging tales are the ones where you got a flat tire, or swerved like a badass out of the way of logs, escaping the semi hauling them, as they bounced all over the freeway. Which always seems to happen in car commercials…and Final Destination.
The point is, story is about the struggle to overcome something that is in the way. We connect to it because we all have conflict in our lives. Readers want to see characters, that they have related to, problem solve and persevere to overcome the challenges they face. It's that piece that helps an audience feel like they can go back and handle their problems too. It's community. Story tells us we aren't alone.
To go even deeper, meaningful story is derived out of meaningful conflict. Even kid's educational TV shows have conflict. Dora has to overcome that Choco Mountain…it's a real bitch. Obviously, if you are writing children's books, then you need to write appropriately for that audience. Still, the best children's stories have a deeper conflict.
This doesn’t have to be some cataclysmic event, either. One of the problems I have with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is every story has to do with saving the whole planet, or universe, from some unstoppable thing. There’s only so many times the unstoppable force is stopped before I start to wonder if anything really poses a threat anymore.
Complex conflict has an emotional weight to it. There's a real cost to it. The characters change, for better or worse, the world is changed around them. Even if the world itself doesn't seem to change, the perception of it might. When you are writing your conflict, you need to ask what the costs are for your characters. If there isn't any, then it's time to go back and rethink what your characters are facing.
This is what ultimately makes a great protagonist. They deal with conflict that has a cost to it. If it was something easy, then what kind of character are they? They may have been something great, but we don't get to see them prove it. That's why Margaret Atwood's quote above is so perfect. She sums up exactly why conflict is so important, to the protagonist especially.
This force that stands in the way of the protagonist is usually represented, or at least caused by, the antagonist. The word literally means someone who opposes, an adversary. Go back to my character pillar where I talk about the antagonist in more detail. When your readers understand your antagonist, it makes the conflict that much more complex.
Complexity is a good thing. You want a deep story that allows your audience to peel back the layers of the narrative. A brilliant example is the movie Moonlight. The story shows a boy, Chiron, growing up in a rough Florida neighborhood. There is the conflict with bullies, the struggle to feel connected to a father-like character, the hostility from his mother, all while being poor. Then, as Chiron gets older, he struggles, trying to identify who he is. Is he actually gay like all the bullies make fun of him for? This turmoil is layered on top of more issues with his mother and the past death of someone that he admired. Finally, we see him as an adult where he lives a life that could land him in prison, if someone doesn't shoot him first. He denies his own sexuality while we get to see his real identity fight to break through the facade he creates for himself. This paragraph doesn't do justice to the amount of conflict happening in the movie, but you see just how interwoven it can be.
Conflict can be symbolic, as well. Stephen King's The Gunslinger is the first of the Dark Tower series, featuring his lone protagonist. Much of the early scenes involve the Gunslinger trekking across a barren wasteland where he barely meets any other characters at all. The challenge is the wasteland itself. Even the descriptions of the setting contain conflict in them. One of my favorite lines in the entire series is a description of the wind sounding like a witch moaning with cancer in its belly. The prose themselves contain a conflict to them.
Conflict is so important that your readers need to see it early on. The quicker it is introduced, the better. Now, I know that you have a complex story with deep characters and wonderful world building, so you can't just go full speed in the first sentence! Take the lead from Stephen King, like we just explored. Set up your conflict through symbolism or something minor. Maybe your character just doesn't want to get out of bed because it's too cold. It's simple, but it helps establish that your characters will be challenged and the story will center around those oppositions. It's like writing a contract with your reader, making sure they know that the story is worth reading because it was worth telling.
Now, go back to your friends and family. Tell them all of the usual things that happened to you today. Tell them in detail how you woke up, had your wake up routine run smoothly, how there was the standard drive to work, how you got through that day without much thought, tell them how lunch was perfectly fine, and the coffee in the break room was at a normal temperature. See how long they last, see their reaction when you get to where they think you must have a point to all this. See how confused they get when your normal elaboration of the day was all there was to it. Can you even tell that story?
It's hard to tell a story that has no conflict, and it's even more difficult to watch one unfold. Make sure your story is a story at all.
Your world needs monsters.
And now you have a complete Temple of Storytelling:
I added some clarification on your foundation there. Proper sentence structure and good grammar should be, obviously, what your story is founded on. No matter how good the story is, poor grammar will see it sink into the sand. (I shouldn't need a full post for that!)
Thank you for joining me in this series, I hope that it was helpful and guides you to write a more well-rounded story. For more on storytelling, fiction pieces, and the latest updates, please sign up for my newsletter at the top and bottom of this page.