The Author’s First Novel

[Originally posted on April 21, 2011 by David Sheppard]

Note: Might want to reference my chapter in Novelsmithing titled “The Psychology of Creativity” before reading the following.

I’ve been reading Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, and last night I ran into the following quote:

The “personal unconscious” must be dealt with first, that is, made conscious otherwise the gateway to the collective unconscious cannot be opened. [page 62]

I found this to be a startling statement. A little further on, Jung discusses a dream where reaching “the seventh” references climbing a stairs. Jung says,

If this interpretation–that the “seventh” represents the highest state of illumination–is correct, it would mean in principle that the process of integrating the personal unconscious was at an end. Thereafter the collective unconscious would begin to open up… [page 63]

A well known phenomenon in publishing is that an author’s first work is generally a coming-of-age novel and autobiographical. This is certainly true of me. My first complete novel was The Escape of Bobby Ray Hammer. It is set in my hometown and during my high school years. It’s a first person narration. The main character is much different from me, and yet, also very much me. I wrote this novel during my five years of psychotherapy. I had started the novel as an exercise for a creative writing class taught by the poet Renate Wood who had suggested that we write a short piece about someone as different from ourselves as possible. Of course, that immediately opened me up to my personal unconscious, my shadow. I was in a really “hot” psychological state while writing that assignment, and I expanded it into the novel I recently published. I’m rather certain that writing that novel is what threw me into psychotherapy.

Shortly after completing therapy, I lost my job and instead of finding another, I elected to stay unemployed and immediately began planning a trip of several weeks to Greece. I’d felt that my therapy was somehow incomplete. I had been introduced to Carl Jung’s writings (again by Renate Wood), and I thought that constructing a personal mythology might bring it all to a close. At the end of three years from the time I got laid off, I completed my travel journal that I titled Oedipus on a Pale Horse.

I then set to work on another novel titled The Mysteries, A Novel of Ancient Eleusis. But the point I want to get across is that this new novel was not about me. It was a historical novel set in Ancient Greece. I believe that, just as Jung stated, I had integrated my personal unconscious, and that my collective unconscious had begun to open up. I believe all novelsmiths go through this process in one form or another. Our first works deal mainly with leftover stuff from childhood, and our later works deal more with archetypal phenomena. My belief is that we are always dealing with a mixture of both the personal and collective unconscious, but that we deal more with the personal in our early works and the collective more so in our later ones.

Reimagining a Scene

Ever run up against a scene that just doesn’t work? Perhaps it seems lifeless or is so disorganized that it can’t take shape. You can’t get the images and words to work together. Well, you’re not alone. I’ve been there and done that many times. As a matter of fact, I have the problem right now.

I’m in the initial stages of creating a major new novel, one set in Old London. My protagonist lost his right arm to a cannonball aboard ship during a sea battle. My problem envisioning my character is that I keep saying that it is his right arm that’s missing but visualizing it as his left. The image is working against the words. I believe I know how this came about, and my problem illustrates not only what can lead to confusion in a narrative but also the degree to which we sometimes associate our characters with ourselves, to the detriment of the story. But it can also lead to deeper insight into your characters, who always of course force the action.

The visual image I have of the event that cost my protagonist his arm is of him standing on deck, seeing a puff of smoke from an enemy ship in the distance, being thrown backward by the concussion when the cannonball hit, and then seeing his arm lying on deck with the ship’s cat licking blood off it. The images are very specific, and it is his left arm that’s blown off, not his right.

But the words keep coming out that it’s his right arm, and I have difficulty relating to it being the right instead of the left, which the images keep telling that it is. Now, I’ve been having some problems with my right arm. My elbow has a lot of pain when I use it and keeps me awake at night. I have been taking aspirin to decrease the inflammation in my elbow and not using the arm whenever possible. I believe my personal situation is trying to override the images that have been spontaneously generated by the Unconscious.

If you’ve read much of Story Alchemy, you realize that images are the most basic function of the creative mind. The author takes those images and listens for words associated with them and shapes this creative material into a narrative. All authors do this even if they work from intuition and don’t have insight into the process.

Once I realized that the initial images of the scene that had spontaneously come to me didn’t agree with what I was trying to do with the story, my first inclination was to reimagine the scene with it being my character’s right arm rather than his left. After dealing with my story for a few days with these new images, I came away thoroughly confused. Neither seemed right. What to do?

Today I had another thought. And this one comes about because of resistance I got from my character himself. It has to do with him not wanting to deal with having lost his right arm. After all, he was right-handed, and losing his right arm just seems to be more than he can bear. I now believe that it really was his right arm that he lost, but he just can’t believe it. It can’t be. In the Old World, being left-handed was a bad thing. As a matter of fact, in many instances adults wouldn’t let their children be left-handed because you cleaned your butt with your left hand, and did assorted other unsavory things with it. Having only one arm and that being the left was a humiliation with which my character does not want to deal.

My problem with my right arm may have been crucial to me decoding what is going on, and it may have nothing to do with my story. It seems to only have been a catalyst that allowed the true story to precipitate out of the chaos that is the Unconscious. If I’d been successful at changing the scenario, I would have crippled the story.

But for an author, all this character mental anguish can be a mechanism for going deeper into the character. Now I know that he still has difficulty believing it was his right arm he lost. He still has dreams that it was his left. He’s willing to accept the fact that he lost an arm, but it has to be the left. As a matter of fact, the image of his severed arm lying on deck with the ship’s cat licking blood from it is purely his imagination. I’ve known from the first that the arm was blown overboard. They never found it. The cat never licked blood from it.

My protagonist was the ship’s bosun. He had command of many seamen, and although he knew how to take orders, he was used to controlling the action. This is also a big part of his problem — no longer being in control. This also tells me that he’ll have difficulty accepting events as they unfold in the story. He’ll be at odds with what’s going on in his life — conflict, the essence of story. And this one is internal but plays out in his external relationships. How he learns to deal with this will be his character arc. I can already see his “Five Types of Deep Awareness” formulating in my peripheral vision.

This is the essence of character. I would have never located the defining element of my character if I hadn’t paid attention to the contradictory elements I was getting from my Unconscious and decoded what it was telling me.

Story Ideas that Won’t Leave You Alone

On page 15 of Story Alchemy, I make the case for the author having a personal affinity for the story s/he is going to write. Here’s what I say:

What is crucial in all this is that the idea must be your own and something that intrigues you. This conflict must come from within you, and interest in it then is the reason you’ve selected it above all other possibilities. This “affinity” will have implications downstream. Without that personal connection, it’s doubtful that the idea has the relationship to you and your psychological makeup so important during the difficult task of imagining the material to flesh out the story.

Writing someone else’s story may work, but it’s a sure bet that it’ll be more difficult to find that creative force within you that generates the material. Agents are famous saying they can’t sell your stuff, but if you’d just write such-and-such they could. Agents believe that’s what it means to be a professional. Writer’s should write what sells. They can be so clueless concerning the nature of the creative process. That’s why so many of us write on our own and take our chances. We write what we have to write because we can do aught else.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel set in 17th century London. Why would I do that? It was a dream that triggered the idea. Here’s what I wrote as soon as I woke from the dream:

02:15 am. I just woke from a dream of having found a book about the Philosopher’s Stone, not the one in my book Story Alchemy, but a different book about the “real world” Philosopher’s Stone that turns lead into gold and gives eternal life. The problem was that the book seemed to be corrupted. And I do believe it was a digital book. I was putting it back right, fixing the text, but when I came to the part where it revealed the secret behind the Philosopher’s Stone, the book skipped a page as I went forward. When I went back, it skipped back two pages, so that I still didn’t get to learn the secret. And that’s the way it remained. I could learn everything but the actual secret itself.

This dream not only got me to thinking about a concept for a new novel, it immediately hooked up with some research I’d done several years ago for a non-fiction book I was writing but never finished. Somehow the material was still seeking an outlet, and perhaps the fictional route was what it intended all along. Anyway, I immediately thought of a 17th century historical novel set in London. The digital book of my dream seemed to be a copy of a very old book on the Philosopher’s Stone. I already had a couple of characters in mind, not a protagonist or an antagonist, but turns out they were just around the corner.

Here’s the curious thing. I’ve never wanted to write a novel set in 17th century London. Yet this story just will not leave me alone. Particularly at night, the story comes to me unbidden, and before I know it, I’ve been ruminating over it for an hour or so. It keeps building, characters stepping forward, plot points materializing, settings popping into view. Even during the day, I find myself researching some aspect of the time period with google and Wikipedia. I can’t shut it off. Last night it kept bugging me, and I thought I was never going to get any sleep. Looks like I’ll have to write it, and I don’t really get a say so.

I’m not ready to reveal the plot line as yet, and I probably won’t until I’m finished writing it, which will probably be a couple of years. But I will keep you up to date on my progress. I just wanted to reinforce the point that the “affinity” we have for a story can be, and usually is, crucial to a successful creative endeavor.

On Writer’s Block

[The following is a comment I made to the NY Times article titled, “On Not Writing,” by Bill Hayes.]

Thank you for this. It’s a great article. I’ve been writing for 43 years, and I’ve only had one time that I absolutely could not write. That period went on for four or five years and followed my wife leaving me and the divorce. And then a second divorce, actually, a few years later. My life was in turmoil. My daughter disappeared, and we didn’t know if she was alive or dead for two weeks. These events threw me into the old midlife crisis. So I didn’t get anything down on paper for a few years, but then I got really serious about writing, changed jobs, moved to Boulder, Colorado and took classes at the University of Colorado, attended writers’ conferences. Got a poem published in The Paris Review. Life has its way with us at times, and it can detrimentally effect our creative output but eventually seems to renew it.

The only theory that I have found that even comes close to describing the creative mind is Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. His theory of the Unconscious, and in particular his Active Imagination techniques, tells me he knew all about it. It’s unfortunate that so much New Age mumbo jumbo has grown up around it and has discredited it in some people’s minds.

What Is Story?

Now, just to prove how oblique I really can be, I want to present a little story that appears in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Someone one named Lauchlan told the story during one of Natalie’s evening story circles in which the participants sat in a circle about a single candle and told stories. Here’s Lauchlan’s story:

There was one summer that I was a forest ranger in Oregon for four months. I was alone for that whole time and I hardly ever wore any clothes that summer, because there was no one around. I was deep in the woods. By the end of the summer I was very tan and very calm. It was late August and I was squatting, picking the berries off a berry bush and eating them. Suddenly I felt a tongue licking my shoulder and I slowly turned by head. There was a deer licking the sweat on my back! I didn’t move. Then she moved next to me and together we silently ate berries off the bush. I was stunned. An animal trusted me that much! [page 147/8]

This is an amazing little story. But it doesn’t seem to qualify as a story in the sense I’ve been talking about story as arising from opposing wills. Where’s the conflict? It’s what I would call an incident, but to characterize it as such would seem to trivialize it.

Upon closer examination, we can see that it represents the resolution in some small but profound way of a conflict humans have with the animal world. We have separated ourselves from the animal world and our own animal nature. Lauchlan’s experience of being an isolated forest ranger stripped him of all remnants of civilization and brought him back into the wild, our most natural state. In doing so, he had given up the ongoing conflict with nature and was rewarded through being accepted by a wild being. As such, conflict is still at the center of this little story, but its focus is on resolution, the final stage of our plot pentagon.

Another thing about the story that causes it to resonate so powerfully is that both the man and the deer are eating, feeding themselves. Our interaction for so much of our history together has been of man eating the deer. Here they eat together from a berry bush. It would be easy to imagine a state of peaceful coexistence where such an event would be commonplace and insignificant instead of being highly charged with meaning. By focusing on conflict resolution the story has exposed the peace, perhaps even love obtained without conflict.

From a purely craft perspective, the more important thing this one paragraph story teaches us is the way in which an author can say things that are so pregnant with meaning that it’s better to not explain it away with more narrative. Even the last two sentences of that one-paragraph story are not needed, and to my way of thinking take away from the impact on the reader.

Take Hemingway’s (unverified) famous one-sentence story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The first two words give it the feel of an ad in the classified section of a newspaper, and therefore it’s difficult not to surmise that the baby died either in the womb or so soon after birth that the parents never had the chance to put them on their child. So sad. Again we are confronted with just the resolution of a conflict, one that resulted in the death of a child. And that’s just what I bring to those words, and you may make completely different connections. Since we all have a feel for the way conflict gets played out, its five plot points, this one sentence carries the full weight of a novel, and given the motivation, we could flesh out these six words into 600 pages, but that could limit the reader’s imagination and in many ways take away from the significance and impact. It all depends on the execution.

I guess what I’m saying is that even if we don’t use all of the plot pentagon in our story, it can still, and probably will, allude to the complete conflict, plot points and sequence of events dictated by it. The human psyche is equipped to experience it this way. That doesn’t mean that we can tell just part of a story and get away with it. Hemingway’s six words feel complete because they allude to the resolution of a conflict and therefore the end of a story.

Are Puzzle-Plots Conflict Driven?

Okay, this is one of my favorite questions: Where is the conflict if the story is really about solving a puzzle? I’ve written a lot about what story is and isn’t, and I’ve always said that the story doesn’t really start until the central conflict is locked. In many stories the conflict is clear cut. We have a specific protagonist and a specific antagonist. They are at each other’s throats all the way to the end when the conflict between them is resolved. But some stories are about solving a puzzle, or about discovery. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama seems to be about discovery and has little if any conflict. It’s been decades since I read it, so I’ll have to revisit it someday. For these puzzle/discovery plots the question is: Does the plot pentagon still apply?

Basic RGB

To illustrate the problem, I’ve identified a television episode, one of my favorites, that minimizes conflict between characters to such an extent that it’s hardly present at all. Everyone works toward a common goal of solving a deadly puzzle. That episode is Star Trek, The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 18, “Cause and Effect.”

But since this is going to prove to be a really difficult question to answer, let’s first take a look at a similar but simpler generic story, one we’ve all heard of that involves nature. I always say that true conflict is about opposing wills. Therefore, “Man/Woman against the Mountain” isn’t a true conflict because a mountain has no will. Yet it is a story, so what is opposing the mountain climber? Well, I contend that it’s a contest between his/her desire to climb the mountain and the fear of the danger involved and is an internal conflict. The climber locks the conflict the instant s/he decides to climb the mountain. A premise then might be: Desire overcomes Fear. In this formulation, the mountain is just an inert physical entity, which is the actual situation. The mountain could still be personified and used metaphorically, and the mountain will still be a huge part of the story, but it would never have a will. The climbers can still discuss the difficulties of negotiating the cliffs, crevasses, and contending with the bitter cold, but the mountain could never want the climbers to not make it to the top. The mountain cannot change to make it more difficult and is indifferent to the whole enterprise. Even though the mountain won’t change, the weather can and that is also a part of the story, but none of it is purposefully directed at the climbers. (Unless of course if you’re talking about a fantasy mountain like Caradhras in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but that’s a whole different thing. In Peter Jackson’s movie, climbing Caradhras becomes a struggle against Saruman, but that’s not so in Tolkien’s novel.) In our case, the desire to reach the top of the mountain could overcome the fear of death, and the climber could die on the mountainside or make it to the top. Both outcomes frequently happen on Everest. Also, fear could overcome desire, and the climber could give up, go back down the mountain, and live to try another day or walk away for good. In all of these cases, the Desire-to-Climb-the-Mountain is pitted against the Will-to-Live. The crucial elements of the story will then center on how the climber increases her/his own skill level at mountain climbing and understands the nature of the terrain so as to minimize the risk to life and limb. But also, and this is crucial, the climber must become psychologically tough and the methods used to gain this emotional strength should be a part of the story. Again, it’s a balancing act between desire and fear and is an internal conflict within the character.

At this point it might be instructive to ask why it matters at all that the mountain doesn’t have a will and can’t actively engage in the conflict. After all, the mountain is still an obstacle that has to be overcome. Can’t we treat it as the other half of the conflict? Of course, you can and in many ways you must. The story can be written with just this false conflict, and some readers/viewers will enjoy the story, but bringing in the true internal conflict also will expose what is actually going on and end up being infinitely more interesting because it will have truth and meaning on its side. We then get into the conflict going on inside the climber and can see how the character changes as the war between desire and fear inside her/him rages as the situation becomes more difficult the farther up the mountain s/he goes. In that way, the story becomes more character driven and is more meaningful. Afterward, the climber could talk about how they had overcome their own physical and emotional shortcomings and reach the top. But for the climber to say that they had defeated Everest would sound silly.

Having cut our plotting teeth on the mountain-climbing plot, what about that Star Trek episode? In “Cause and Effect,” the Enterprise encounters a space-time anomaly that causes a situation that ends with the Enterprise being destroyed along with all the people onboard. But here’s the thing. As soon as they all die, time is reset to a day or so before the catastrophe, and it all happens again, and again, and again without any of them realizing that they are caught in a time loop and have been in the situation before. (Something similar to the new Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow. I’ll talk about it a little further down in this essay.) After several repetitions, the crew of the Enterprise starts experiencing déjà vu and hearing voices and realizes that something is wrong. Eventually they solve the puzzle, but it is just a puzzle with seemingly no conflicting wills involved, or at least a will only on one side of the conflict, the crew exercising the will-to-live. Even the crew members don’t have conflicts among themselves over how to respond to the situation. So what structures the story? Since they have no choice in dealing with this natural phenomena, they have no desire to walk into the danger as do the mountain climbers. They’d walk away from this danger in a heartbeat, if they could. So what’s going on? And here I’m looking for something definitive that we can take to the bank and not some patched-up thought-exercise to rationalize it into a conflict. This is an important part of some types of storytelling, and we must get at the truth.

Okay, now let’s take another step back and look at what is and is not a story. Let’s provide a scenario, a sequence of events, that does not rise to the level of story. Let’s say that our character goes to the supermarket. He drives to the store, gets out, goes in, does his shopping, gets everything he needs and returns home. It does have a sequence of events, but it doesn’t rise to the level of story because no conflict is involved. If we had some angry person who tries to keep him from going to the store, we can immediately see that we have a story. And the level of conflict can go from just being an irritant with no change-of-life involved or it can escalate to the death of one or even both parties. That’s what conflict does for a sequence of events. What we have with “Cause and Effect” is essentially a man going to the grocery store and runs into a space-time anomaly that destroys his car and kills him, over and over again, until he finds a way around the anomaly.

If we draw a parallel with the mountain climbing story, we see that the Enterprise crew is also up against a physical phenomenon, a phenomenon of the natural world, which therefore has no will. What makes the Star Trek episode different from the mountain climbing story is that the crew has no choice but to go forward, to keep trying again and again to save themselves, and even when they fail, as they do repeatedly, they always get another chance. That would mean that the crew members are coming together and pitting their combined intellects against a problem. But where is the clash of wills I contend must be present to have a true conflict? My thought is that it is another part of the crew’s mental makeup: their own will-to-live versus their deficient knowledge of the physical world. It’s an internal conflict. The premise could be: Will-to-Live overcomes Ignorance. But ignorance has no will. The crew’s ignorance isn’t willful because they’ve never encountered the situation before as far as they know, and once they have, they jump on the problem by trying to gain knowledge about it. We can also say that nature isn’t trying to kill them because they got caught up in something accidentally, and the situation never changes, just as the mountain never changes; therefore, nature isn’t upping the ante.

To help us get a better handle on the situation, let’s take a look at another movie that has a similar plotline, specifically, Groundhog Day. In that movie, our protagonist Phil, a weatherman for a local television station, played by Bill Murray, relives Groundhog Day, February 2, again and again. And here’s the conflict: Phil isn’t satisfied with himself. He has a horrible attitude, and the reason he becomes so dissatisfied with himself is that he has fallen in love with his producer, Rita. But she won’t have anything to do with him because he is such a jerk. Unlike the crew in the Star Trek episode, Phil retains all his memories of what has happened to him during his previous experiences on Groundhog Day. He is the only one who knows it is repeating. So he starts trying to change his reactions to the same situations that occur day after day, all on the same repeating Groundhog Day, of course, just so he can please Rita. (In this way, Rita is this story’s thematic character.) This internal conflict is between Good Phil and Bad Phil, and eventually Good Phil wins and also gets the prize, which of course is Rita. Note that this central conflict does have opposing wills. Phil wants to be both good and bad. Rita gives Good Phil the incentive to overcome Bad Phil. Once that occurs, Groundhog Day quits repeating and Phil and Rita go on with their lives, only this time together.

I know what you’re thinking. You believe that the central conflict is between Phil and Rita. It is true that Phil and Rita are continually in conflict over Phil’s bad behavior, but it is only her actions that change and always in response to something Phil has done. Rita’s remains herself throughout the movie, as does the mountain in the story of the climbers. Phil’s basic nature changes. He becomes a better person. But the Phil-Rita conflict is a real one, has opposing wills and does have an arc. But this is a subplot or what I call a sub-conflict. It is prominent enough that it runs a close second to the Good Phil – Bad Phil conflict. But the movie has several scenes where Phil is just doing his own thing, and it doesn’t involve Rita. The scenes with Nancy Taylor come to mind.

In the second chapter of Story Alchemy, I talk a lot about finding the “prima materia,” the primal substance that constitutes the premise of a story. The prima materia is composed of two opposing forces in search of a resolution. But initially they are not separated into opposing forces and they have to be to get the story started. In my mind, this separation occurs when they lock the conflict. Here’s what Jung has to say about the prima materia:

…there was first of all an initial state in which opposite tendencies or forces were in conflict; secondly there was the great question of a procedure which would be capable of bringing the hostile elements and qualities, once they were separated, back to unity again. The initial state, named the chaos, was not given from the start but had to be sought for as the prima materia.

So maybe we can find an answer to our dilemma in this initial condition. For us, the initial step is “locking the conflict,” and the procedure for bringing the elements back together again is plotting, which results in conflict resolution. (For Jung, the procedure is Active Imagination.) The central ingredient in conflict is theme. Theme is what the conflict is about, or what it is over, e.g., a military secret, the love of a man/woman, slavery, abortion, a strip of land (a farm or a country), winning (as in a baseball or football game), etc. Nowhere in a story is theme more exposed than in the beginning when the conflict is locked. In our initial situation, the crew members don’t know what they are up against, and they are all killed. At this point, they don’t know what the situation is about. They just want to live. So the conflict in “Cause and Effect” seems to be over the will to live, and the theme seems to be about knowledge. It is their insufficient knowledge of the physical world that costs them their lives.

The premise then for this story at the theme level would be Knowledge versus Ignorance. At the start of the story, the crew does not realize that they have been caught in a time loop for some time and have been killed over and over. The space-time anomaly actually has nothing to do with them since they only happened upon it. The anomaly still exists after they extricate themselves from it and go on their way. But as the story progresses, the crew gains knowledge, and in the end makes the correct decision to save their own lives.

In the case of solving puzzles and also when on a mission of discovery, the conflict seems to always involve Knowledge versus Ignorance. In this way, it appears that the concept of the opposing wills has its limitations. The desire-to-live drives them forward, otherwise they could have just accepted the situation and continued on in the time loop. But the desire-to-live goes unopposed by another will. The crew had no desire to remain ignorant. Gaining knowledge saved them.

Of course, “Cause and Effect” wasn’t plotted using the plot pentagon. No one had even heard of it until I discovered it long after that episode aired. But conflict tends to have that shape in a well-told story, and we can also see the plot points in the story. Here’s my take on it. In the opening sequence, before the credits roll, the Enterprise is destroyed, which constitutes Plot Point 1, Locking the Conflict. Plot point 2 Fully Defined Conflict occurs (at the 27% time point) when they have déjà vu and know something is going wrong but are again destroyed and time resets. In the middle of the episode, the action experiences a reversal (Plot Point 3) when the crew, in addition to gathering information about the anomaly, actively starts looking for ways to solve the problem. This occurs at the 52% time point. Captain Picard orders a local phase-space scan, and when doing so, Geordi learns that they are in a time loop. They first cure their ignorance, and then they act on their new knowledge. Plot Point 4, Anguish of Choice, occurs when they take the radical step of modifying Data to send information back in time to themselves, sort of a “message in a bottle,” to warn themselves of the impending destruction of the Enterprise. This occurs at the 70% time point. The solution to the problem (Plot Point 5, Conflict Resolution) comes when Data uses this “message in a bottle,” which has come to him subconsciously, to make the correct decision to save themselves. This occurs at the 94% time point. The last 6% of the episode is devoted to the denouement. All five Plot Points are as close as can be expected to that predicted by the plot pentagon. So the plot pentagon method works even if the theory of two opposing wills seemingly falls a little short.

Now let’s take a quick look at that Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow in which Cage (Cruise) and Rita (Emily Blunt) battle extraterrestrials for planet Earth. The extraterrestrials have the capability of resetting time, and Cage experiences such an event the first time he is killed in battle. He immediately wakes at a time a few days earlier and remembers that he’s already lived this and the coming battle is going to be catastrophe. Just before he is killed a second time, Cage meets Rita on the battlefield, and she sees that he knows something is happening and tells him when he wakes (as a result of the next time he is killed and the extraterrestrials reset time) to come find her. She previously had his ability to remember through a time reset but lost it. The next time he dies and time resets, he locates Rita, and she teaches Cage how he might be able to finally defeat the ETs because she has been around in this loop many times. In this way, Rita is the thematic character, in the same way Phil’s Rita is his thematic character in Groundhog Day. (Interesting name coincidence, by the way.)

Edge of Tomorrow, definitely has opposing wills because the earthlings are in conflict with the extraterrestrials. Again, it is a puzzle, but this time solving the puzzle will enable them to defeat the invaders. In the Star Trek episode, the protagonists are being killed by a natural event that has no will, but in Edge of Tomorrow, the extraterrestrials definitely have a will. Still, the crucial element is the change Cage goes through to be able to solve the puzzle. When the movie starts, Cage is a non-combatant. He is only a motivator of troops and doesn’t engage in combat himself. But he is forced into a combat role, and it is his transformation that makes all the difference. He is just like Phil in Groundhog Day. Courageous Cage has to overcome Cowardly Cage to solve the puzzle. In the process, Cage also falls in love with Rita, and at the end of the movie, we know they’ll be together.

Okay. I know I’m flogging a dead horse here, but that’s the way I am when it comes to story theory. I’m like a dog with a bone, so I’ll excuse you if you want to break away from the discussion. I also know that some people are just like me about this story theory thing and will be willing to tag along. So here we go again.

The stories are so similar, and yet my analysis involving opposing wills works for Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, but for “Cause and Effect” falls a little short. Let’s try yet another approach. In Chapter 7 “Becoming Worthy” of Story Alchemy, remember the graphic illustrating the connection between conflict (the vise), theme, and meaning?

ViceWhen both sides of the conflict have will (protagonist and antagonist), either can force the action. When only one side has will, the one can force, but the other can only passively resist as does the inanimate mountain and the space-time anomaly. But what this graphic shows is the effect conflict has on theme and how it leads to meaning. The mountain has no meaning associated with it. Meaning is a purely human thing.

So let’s look at theme in the four stories we’ve looked at and see if that provides more information on what’s going on. Here are the themes as I see them for each of our story examples. Remember that theme is what the conflict is about, sort of the existential meaning of the conflict:

  • Man vs Mountain (actually Man vs Himself): courage
  • Groundhog Day: integrity
  • “Cause and Effect”: intelligence, social cohesion
  • Edge of Tomorrow: courage, integrity, intelligence

Man/woman vs the Mountain is quite clearly about courage because the climbers are engaged in the conflict of their own volition. In Groundhog Day, Phil has no choice but to engage because he can’t get out of the loop otherwise, and besides, he wants to get the girl. I believe in Phil’s case, it’s a matter of integrity. “Cause and Effect” seems to thematically be about intelligence and the way the Enterprise team work together. They must find the answer to the puzzle, and it takes all of them to do it. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage also clearly has no choice because he is caught in a time loop and is dying again and again. Yet, it takes real courage to fight in the battle for Earth, integrity to accept the responsibility, and the intelligence to outwit the extraterrestrials. It seems to me that Edge of Tomorrow, with its complex of internal and external conflicts, is thematically a very complex movie.

The reason I like “Cause and Effect” so much is that it has pushed my definition of story (that it is always composed of opposing wills) to the limit, and made me question the very essence of what I believe. It’s an extremely simple plot that exposes what story is about.

I’ll keep thinking about these stories and others like them, and if I gain further insights, I’ll post my thoughts on this blog. In the mean time, the best I can do is to say that the central conflict in “Cause and Effect” is defined by Knowledge overcomes Ignorance. Perhaps someday I can come up with a better theory of why it works so well even though it doesn’t appear to have two wills opposing each other.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject. Leave a comment below.

The Conflictinator

Yes, we’ve all heard of the Terminator and the Governator. Some writers who’ve actually studied craft (and read Novelsmithing) have even heard of the Thematic Character, which might be termed the Thematinator. Now I want to introduce a new character to Storyville: the Conflictinator. While the other “-inators” definitely add to the story, the Conflictinator is someone for a writer to avoid.

No, I didn’t invent the Conflictinator, thankfully. I’ve only observed this beast in the wild. Although the Conflictinator can be found in print, in movies, and on the stage, I’ve observed it most in TV series. That’s where I found the latest example, and it caused me to quit viewing the series after a few episodes. I just couldn’t take the Conflictinator any more. The series is Orphan Black. I realize that at some point I’m going to have to get over my objection of the Conflictinator in that series, brush him aside, and get back into the series. Tatiana Maslany is an amazing actress, the story is great and well plotted, so I’ll just have to swallow my proclivities against this character and get on with viewing it. Someday.

The Conflictinator in Orphan black is Felix Jordan, played by Jordan Gavaris. Mr. Gavaris is an excellent actor, but this particular character he is portraying in Orphan Black is so crudely and carelessly drawn that he is difficult to stomach. And it has nothing to do with who the character is, but it has everything to do with the way he acts. The character himself seems to lead an interesting life. But he is a negative-minded character who does nothing but argue all the time. He is a Conflictinator. This is knee-jerk characterization and not thoughtful character creation. I’ve been told that his attitude changes in upcoming episodes, so I do have hope that he’ll mature into someone worth following. One can only hope.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I am a big fan of conflict in all genres of storytelling. And bickering has its place. I even believe that a story without conflict is a story without a story. Story does not exist without a central conflict. But continuous unmitigated character conflict isn’t storytelling. As Monty Python would have said, “It isn’t an argument; it’s just contradiction.” Here’s the way I described the problem and what I believe to be its origin in Story Alchemy, Chapter 2:

Unmotivated conflict can be irritating for the reader, and conflict for conflict’s sake isn’t what we’re after. And yet it frequently happens, particularly in television series episodes. Here is how I believe the source of the problem came about, and it comes from one of our most brilliant teachers. Richard Walter is a professor and screenwriting chairman at UCLA. Here’s how he introduces the subject matter for Chapter 5 “Conflict: Violence and Sex” in his highly acclaimed book Essentials of Screenwriting, The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing:

Must movies marinate in sex? Must they wallow in violence?

No, but many, probably most — including some of the finest films ever made — are positively saturated with sensuality and eroticism. Likewise, worthy movies must forever be violent.

If you prefer, you may think of violence as conflict or tension or stress. Screenwriters are urgently advised to consider the general disquietude essential to film as full-tilt, mean-spirited, straight-ahead violence. I urge them also to remember that enlightened, reasonable, rational discourse and courtesy, consideration, and consensus occupy an important place in our lives. In movies, however, they’re boring.

I don’t suggest that movie armies must perpetually beat out each other’s brains, nor that all good films must provide an endless succession of looting, shooting, and rape. Neither do I hold that all movies must be greasy, oily sex orgies. All the same, however, emotional unrest must be integrated into each and every frame of each and every scene of each and every movie. [page 48]

Something is wrong in Movieville, and this is it. The last two sentences in the next to last paragraph, “I urge them … they’re boring” is what I object to. Granted you can’t build a story off of courtesy, consideration, and consensus but you can use it to build likable bonded characters. If you don’t, you’ll have hateful, mean-spirited, unsympathetic characters no one will care about. Not only that. Conflicts that follow what those two sentences tell us are banal, superficial and can totally ruin a storyline.

Now, I’ve called the Conflictinator an “it” on purpose because it’s not a real character, even though it comes disguised as one. It is the dark shadow of a character. The writer has put the Conflictinator in the story only to generate conflict when none would normally or naturally be present. As everyone knows, the only thing interesting in storytelling is conflict. Right? Every word on the page or in the air has to project heated conflict or the reader will quit reading or the viewer will get up and leave. Or so the story goes. Straight from the experts. The Conflictinator is as persistent as the Terminator because the Conflictinator has no free will. Its only purpose is to provide petty social conflict when none in fact exists. And they just never stop arguing regardless of the circumstances. The characters talk past each other and nothing ever gets resolved. It’s like petty sibling rivalry on a colossal scale.

Conflictinatorism can also be an attitude that suddenly overcomes a character when they least expect it. After all, it occurs because the author thinks he/she needs a little conflict and pulls it out of thin air, not from character motivation. It occurs when a writer suddenly realizes that he/she has had a few kind words between characters, perhaps they bonded a little, panics, and just throws conflict into the dialogue for no specific reason other than the fact that he/she has been told that the only thing of interest is conflict. Yes, it’s an artifact of the education process.

I provide more information in Story Alchemy, Chapter 2 and even give some examples where conflict has been handled much more effectively. Good luck with your own efforts at coming to terms with the tricky conflict problem.

What is Theme?

If you look up the word “theme” in the Oxford Dictionary of English, it is defined  as: “an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature: love and honour are the pivotal themes of the Hornblower books.” If you lookup “theme park” you get: “an amusement park with a unifying setting or idea.” As in Disneyland or The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Thinking of theme in relation to these theme parks is a good way to understand what the central theme means to a story. To further understand this central theme concept, we can turn to Wikipedia, which has a good summary of the subject:

In contemporary literary studies, a theme is the central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work’s thematic concept is what readers “think the work is about” and its thematic statement being “what the work says about the subject”.

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

A story may have several themes. Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas, such as ethical questions, and are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example of this would be whether one should live a seemingly better life, at the price of giving up parts of ones humanity, which is a theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the components of fiction.

For a novel, movie, or stage play the theme would be the central topic or idea treated by the story, and it should conceptually hold the story together, focus it so that it doesn’t ramble off the rails. How an author accomplishes this is another matter. I’m really big on finding ways to make the elements of story structure actionable. No one actually treats this subject adequately, so I’ve tried to find a way of making it actionable in Story Alchemy. I’ve done this by realizing that the story elements plot, character and theme are not separate entities but indelibly related. Theme is what the central conflict is about. This isn’t  an opinion. It is a fact. It focuses the story and keeps it from wandering off topic.

Theme is exposed by the central conflict, and the central conflict is a result of opposing wills, i.e., the protagonist and antagonist. Character, conflict and theme are not separable, and to talk about which comes first is to misunderstand the basic nature of story. This is true  not only of the central plot but also of the subplots, which unsurprisingly spring from sub-conflicts. The plot is the evolution of conflict. Conflict has certain attributes, and those attributes are defined in Story Alchemy by the plot pentagon:

Plot Pentagon

Plot Pentagon

This diagram defines the different phases, plot points 1-5, through which the conflict must pass before it can be successfully resolved. Of course, the characters (protagonist and antagonist) experience not just the conflict but also the central theme, which is what the conflict is over. The protagonist experiences theme during the conflict, and it also evolves along the same lines as that conflict. This evolution is defined by what I call the Five Types of Deep Awareness, as shown in the following graphic, where each wisdom (replacing the plot points in the plot pentagon) is represented by a Buddha:

The Five Types of Deep Awareness

The Five Types of Deep Awareness

The protagonist’s relationship with the theme results in enlightenment that enables her/him to either overcome, or succumb to, the antagonist. This relationship between conflict, character and theme is all contained within the story’s premise, or what I call the prima materia in Story Alchemy. See Chapter 2. It also describes what that dragon circling the Buddhas represents.

As stated in the Wikipedia quote above, we have other uses for the word “theme” as it applies to stories, and these uses are more limited and less defined. For example, Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby uses the colors green and gold frequently and is specific enough that we realize that they are “themes” in the story but in a more limited sense. They have a connection to “greenback” and the expensive and fashionable metal, and also imply something about the central theme, which concerns the American Dream. Gatsby has a huge library but has never read any of the books. He claims to be an “Oxford man” but has never actually been to Oxford. He is very rich but apparently he got his money from being a drug dealer. We start to realize that the title The Great Gatsby is ironic. Gatsby is a fraud, a nobody. Or worse, a criminal. Ill-gotten gain is a theme in the story, and it has a supporting role to the central theme.

The Hook

This little essay is about the term used by practically all story theorists, which they call “The Hook.” God in Heaven! I hate that term. And the reason I hate it is that not only is it misleading, but it is the impetus behind some of the worst storytelling ever created. It’s generally defined as an event right up front that “hooks” the reader’s/viewer’s/audience’s interest and pulls them into the story. Having been told this, the author will then simply add something grossly sexual and offensive, or some horrible act of violence, and think now that that is done s/he can then get on with the story.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s a much better approach. First of all, the hook is not something separate from the rest of the story. Your story should have a central conflict that spans its entire length. The story really begins when the author locks that central conflict and ends only when that central conflict is resolved. Here then is what theorists are trying to get across to the author but don’t know how to conceptualize it. And that is to lock the central conflict with some event that is interesting and meaningful to the full storyline. Locking the conflict is the hook. It is the only hook.

This leads directly into what makes a good trailer. It must indicate both the central conflict and what that conflict is about. The distinction I’m making is that you can have two people fighting without knowing what they are fighting over. It can be just two people in close proximity who want to demonstrate physical or some type of social dominance, but it can also be over something more profound, e.g., slavery, poverty, feminism, sexual preference, a teaching position, etc. What the central conflict is about constitutes the theme of the story. The point is that when you lock the conflict, theme should be apparent. Just telling someone they should have a hook to get their reader/viewer/audience interested is a really poor way of describing what should happen up front. On the other hand, if you say to lock the central conflict and tell what it’s about, this is something actionable. Otherwise, it may just result in being a shot of a girl pulling off her panties, which will certainly hook the audience’s interest, but if her sexual proclivities aren’t the cornerstone of the central conflict, the reader will lose interest when the true story starts to unfold.

So the word “hook” is a poor description of what has to be accomplished at the very beginning of a story. Now, as a little illustration of what I’m talking about, I’ll write the first lines of novel, or you could view it as a voiceover at the beginning of a movie, about that girl I mentioned in the previous paragraph. We’ll assume it’s a first-person narrative with the girl telling her own story:

As a freshman and as some said the prettiest, best built girl to ever hit high school, I promised myself that I’d save my virginity until college and for a man of substance, so what am I doing on New Year’s Eve pulling off my panties for Tommy Wooster, the lowlife, bottom-feeding, trash-talking skateboarder from down the street that I’ve hated since third grade? I’m a senior now and only have five more months to go before I’m out of here, and there goes my virginity, my reputation, undoubtedly college, and my life because he doesn’t have a condom and I lost my willpower when I let him put my hand down the front of his pants about ten minutes ago and felt my whole world throb in sympathy with his physical condition.

As is readily discernible, this young woman’s intellectual plans are in direct conflict with her physical desires, and undoubtedly, since she is so pretty, with the intent of every boy in her high school. This then better be the story of how her willpower finally failed her and how her plans for the future either melt in a puddle of bodily fluids or if she learns how to come to terms with herself and the young man or men in her life. On the other hand, if it’s a story of how she won the district debating competition, the reader/audience will soon abandon this story because they have been misled. This is the problem with “the hook” as usually conceptualized because it’s half-baked and needs further definition before you can act on it with any degree of certainty that it will work as it should.

Sometimes the author will pull a crucial event from within the story, put it up front as a hook and then flashback to the beginning. I don’t like this approach although I must say some really good storytellers use it. I will even agree that for some stories it’s a necessary approach, but generally it’s used as a crutch to cover up poor storytelling. It does have the distinct advantage of being tightly connected to the story.

How to integrate this central conflict and turn it into a complete story plot is covered in Chapter 3 The Plot Pentagon of Story Alchemy.

I’ll leave you with just the opening sentence of my novel, The Escape of Bobby Ray Hammer, one that echoes throughout the novel:

Papa had a pistol.


You might wonder why so many people love to tell stories. Yes, some of it is to become famous in Hollywood or to be the next Stephen King, but potential authors with motivations disconnected from the writing process itself will hardly ever stick with it. They really don’t have anything to say, or at least the fire isn’t burning so hot that they can’t quit writing. True storytellers have to tell their stories. It’s a compulsion.

What’s behind the compulsion?

Without a doubt this is a problem for the super-sleuth psychologist, and sure enough, Carl Jung knew all about this. Although, he didn’t actually address the subject within our context. So let me expand a little upon what he said.

Life has its problems. Most of us, in addition to living a cordial life among friends, are in rather constant conflict with those around us. But we make compromises for this cordiality. Rarely do we have a conflict that is resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, so that one party or the other is left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Some of this dissatisfaction is traumatic, particularly that we experienced with our parents, the conflicts with whom can be resolved with the parent putting his/her foot down and imposing a dissatisfactory solution. It can produce trauma. This can and does happen at work, where the boss imposes a resolution that is unsatisfactory to the worker. It happens everywhere, all the time. These unresolved conflicts are suppressed, eventually forgotten, and fall into what Jung termed the Personal Unconscious or the Shadow. The discontent of the Shadow has the potential of being activated by future real world events, and when it is, the person can respond with an unrelated and inappropriate intensity. But we’re not here to address this emotional problem relative to the real world. Elements of the Shadow seek expression, and their main purpose in doing so is the quest for resolution. The Teller of Tales can dip into this cauldron of discontent to build her/his story.

But this isn’t the full situation, or perhaps even the bigger part of the situation.

These “real world” conflicts that involve our conscious living state also can resonate with another type of conflict that comes from a deeper psychological state: the Collective Unconscious. These are the inherited conflicts that come down to us as unresolved through the millennia of human existence. This is the collective psyche that we all share. Jung termed them archetypes. It’s the world of mythology. When you tap into some of this material, it’s as if the entire human race speaks through you. As I discuss in Chapter 5 of Story Alchemy, Mary Shelley did this when writing Frankenstein, and her little story has never gone out of print.

Here’s the thing.

All these fragments of conflict from both the Shadow and the Collective Unconscious seek resolution in the worst way. They latch onto the author’s psyche and will not let go. They want resolution at any cost. They will come to you in your dreams. They will cause insomnia. And they will weasel their way into your stories. What they want is process, one that leads to resolution. For that resolution to be satisfactory, it must be fully explored since it was not when it originated. Conflict doesn’t have some amorphous form. It is a specific entity and has specific requirements for resolution. It also seems that it must be resolved both ways, i.e., one time the conflict must be resolved in the protagonist’s favor and the other time in the antagonist’s favor. Two separate stories, as it turns out. I believe that’s why in modern times up until the later part of the 20th century, stories were mostly about heroes. But since then we’ve come to tell more and more stories about antiheroes, and some of them are really dark, as in the television series Dexter, where the “protagonist” is a serial killer.

As another example, consider that most of the stories in our time and also that of the past have been about men. But within the last few decades, stories about women are coming to the surface. We’ve heard all the stories concerning men before. Those situations have been explored ad nauseum. We’re experiencing a time of women heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the two sisters in the Disney animated feature Frozen. We have female police officers like Detective Becket in the series Castle. Where we at one time had doctor shows like Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare now we have Nurse Jackie. Yes, I know, House, and we’ll always have men centered programs, but shows about women are really coming forward.

All these psychic forces are working on the author to produce a story that resolves their conflicts. To do that, the conflict must be put through the processes of the plot pentagon below, which comes from Chapter 4 of Story Alchemy.

Basic RGB

In providing such a structure for our story, we explore the conflict fully and provide a satisfactory resolution. Anything less results in an unsatisfactory story. This helps provide a satisfactory experience for our readers, but it also satisfies the deep-rooted conflict buried in the Shadow and/or the collective human psyche and hopefully leads to a more promising future.

For more information go here.