Undoubtedly, the beginning of story creation comes with the author’s idea for a writing project. In alchemical terms, this is the prima materia, the primitive formless state of all matter and the seed of enlightenment — the original material from the origin of the universe, so to speak. But how would an author know a good idea, one that can be developed into a full story, when she/he found it? Here’s what Jung had to say about this beginning state for the alchemist:
For him 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. And just as the beginning of the work was not self-evident, so to an even greater degree was its end. [Mysterium Coniunctionis xiv]
If we didn’t know better, we could mistake this for the initial step in storytelling. The second part of this statement tells us, by analogy, that the idea comes from the “chaos” of one’s internal psychic state. It may be triggered by an external event or just pop into one’s mind out of nowhere. It may even come to mind from a thoughtful search of newspaper headlines that emotionally resonate. Jung has given another clue in the first part of the paragraph: a good idea should contain “opposite tendencies or forces were in conflict.” It can come to the author as an unusual scene, exotic setting, or an intriguing character. Regardless of the source, for it to qualify as a good idea for a story, it must at least have the possibility of opposing forces, i.e., animated characters with clashing wills. This requirement is actionable in that we know we must have conflict.
Is conflict as necessary for storytelling as it was for Alchemy? Syd Field says:
All drama is conflict. Without conflict you have no character; without character, you have no action; without action you have no story. [Screenplay, page 12]
That pretty well settles the issue. When you take away conflict, the entire story doesn’t just fall flat. It disappears entirely. It loses its sense of foreshadowing. The reader responds to conflict with anticipation.
But what if the idea doesn’t seem to have conflict? This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an inferior idea. It may simply mean that the conflict is subtler than one would expect. Stories that start out like this can end up being some of the more profound. If this is true, then the author must apply something to separate the subject matter and develop, as Jung stated, its “opposite tendencies or forces.”
The way to come into closer contact with your idea is to close your eyes and see it as an image. It may well be impossible for an idea for a story to form in the mind without images. After mentally picturing your idea, concentrate on it. The mere act of contemplating should cause it to animate. Follow the movement wherever it takes you but continually look for evidence of conflict. Perhaps other characters will pop into view, and you can see how they come into disagreement. In this way, you should be able to envision what the conflict is over. You should also be able to better define your characters after witnessing them in this context.
This is the prima materia.
I practiced this little exercise to come up with an example. What immediately came to mind was a US Civil War soldier conflicted over whether to fight and if so, for which side. This idea had its origin in a story my mother used to tell. She had an uncle who lived on the Mason-Dixon Line, and although he did own a few slaves to work his fields viewed himself as a part of the North rather than the Confederacy. The image I had that took on the form of prima materia was of him running with a shotgun to the cane break to hide as Confederacy soldiers came to force him into service.
You may find that this little visualizing exercise will work better in the evening just before sleep or during the night when you wake. It also may be approached in the early morning just after you wake but before getting out of bed. Any time will work actually, but these times seem to produce the best results. In a later chapter, I’ll provide more detail on this technique. For now, trust the process and your ability to activate your imagination through animating psychic images. 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. To be “intrigued” by an idea is to see its possibilities and be willing to put in the work necessary to fulfill its potential. Creative writing is an exceptionally sticky subject. Just when you think you’ve succeeded in getting the story “out there” and “away” from you, after all it is about other people, you learn that it has crept up behind you and somehow attached itself to your backside, or perhaps your underbelly.
Assuming the idea has your approval, you’re ready to take a closer look. You should be able to intuit the nature of the conflict and put it into a more useful form. Don’t be deluded by thinking that it should be an all out, no-holds-barred conflict to the death. Some conflict is like that, but it isn’t always or even generally true. Conflict isn’t even necessarily hostile. Conflict between two friends or family members can be over something each views as being in the best interest of the other party. Conflict within this context is a multi-sided phenomenon and one well worth studying, so invest a little more time in understanding the essence of conflict.
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.
Take a movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and remove three scenes: (1) where Charlie is welcomed into his little band of misfits, (2) where Charlie gets kissed by Sam (Emma Watson), and (3) Sam in the back of the pickup with her arms in the air like she’s flying while David Bowie blares over the radio “We Could Be Heroes.” Without those scenes, which have no conflict, the movie wouldn’t capture the viewers’ love for the characters.
I want to go a little deeper into that scene where Sam kisses Charlie. A little background. Charlie, as a freshman who is emotionally disturbed and struggling, has never kissed a girl. But Sam, a senior, had her virginity taken when she was fourteen by her father’s business partner, and she has felt degraded and not worthy of someone nice ever since. Sam doesn’t want Charlie to have a bad experience the first time he kisses a girl. Sam tells Charlie that she wants the first person to kiss him to be someone who loves him. She sets him down on her bed, puts her arms around him and kisses him. She then tells him that she loves him, and he tells her that he loves her too.
This scene is so beautifully setup and executed that it just melts your heart. It does carry the “emotional unrest” of which Richard Walter speaks in his last sentence, and this comes about because of both characters’ previous traumatic experiences. People carrying for each other and acting in their friends’ best interests is not something to avoid but something to exploit and is too frequently overlooked. Some of these master storytellers feel immune to criticism by virtue of their professional position. But Richard Walter is wrong about this.
Another good example is the recently cancelled series on the SyFy channel titled Caprica (2009-10). As a prequel to the highly successful Battlestar Galactica as re-envisioned by Ron Moore and Remi Aubuchon, it had an eager viewership from the beginning, and it appeared to be on its way to hitdom when SyFy presented the pilot. But as the story developed, all the characters deteriorated into mean, evil people without a sympathetic side. Though the series was steeped in conflict, few viewers wanted to watch it. High ratings for the pilot plummeted when the series hit its stride and viewers saw how ill-conceived the characters and plot were. Conflict is a necessary ingredient but not a panacea.
One last example. Pixar had a near fumble with the development of Toy Story. And this illustrates that conflict with its many ramifications and character implications can make or break a story. It should be ever-present, but at the same time, it can destroy the story if it doesn’t fit both the proper mood and the characters it engages. Walter Isaacson in his biography of Steve Jobs talks about Pixar’s near miss when it allowed Disney to get involved in the evolution of Toy Story. The big problem was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney’s film division at the time.
The two main characters went through many iterations before they ended up as Buzz Lightyear and Woody. Every couple of weeks, Lasseter and his team would put together their latest set of storyboards or footage to show the folks at Disney. … At each presentation by Pixar, Katzenberg would tear much of it up, barking out his detailed comments and notes. And a cadre of clipboard-carrying flunkies was on hand to make sure every suggestion and whim uttered by Katzenberg received follow-up treatment.
Katzenberg’s big push was to add more edginess to the two main characters. …he kept pushing for what he called “edge,” and that meant making Woody’s character more jealous, mean, and belligerent toward Buzz, the new interloper in the toy box. “It’s a toy-eat-toy world,” Woody says at one point, after pushing Buzz out of a window.
After many rounds of notes from Katzenberg and other Disney execs, Woody had been stripped of almost all charm. … As Tom Hanks, who had signed up to be Woody’s voice, exclaimed at one point, “This guy’s a real jerk!” [Jobs, page 286/7]
The story and characters were in such a mess that Disney stopped production. Lasseter talked Disney into letting him take Toy Story back to Pixar to be reworked. They took the “edge” off the characters, made them work together, and produced an endearing story, satisfying to both children and adults. Steve Jobs had to use personal funding to keep the project going because of the rework. When it was finally released:
…Toy Story opened to blockbuster commercial and critical success. It recouped its cost the first weekend, with a domestic opening of $30 million, and it went on to becoming the top-grossing film of the year… [Jobs, page 290]
What I wish to point out is that continuous, mean-spirited conflict is always reflected in the characters, and this may sell a story to a studio, but it’s not what sells a story to its audience. And yet, the statement that “in fiction, the only thing of interest is conflict” contains more than a grain of truth. But mean-spirited conflict can destroy characters, as Pixar learned with Woody, and other avenues of developing conflict must be explored to allow character bonding. Sometimes characters are in conflict over their concern for each other.
For an example of this, let’s take look at a single scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that, although steeped in conflict, is irresistible viewing. The scene I’m thinking of comes at the end of Season 5, the very last episode. Buffy has been battling a god, Glory, who is trapped [Glory-OtherGods conflict] in a human body and practically invincible. Although in the scene I have in mind, Buffy has defeated Glory [Buffy-Glory conflict], Glory has captured Dawn, Buffy’s sister, [Glory-Dawn conflict] and has her held at the top of a tower where an instability in the fabric of the universe has occurred. Dawn’s blood will open a passageway between this reality and the demon dimension that will cause them to merge and subject human beings to immeasurable suffering [Human-Demons conflict]. When Buffy gets to the top of the tower, she finds that Dawn has already been bled and that drops of her blood have already opened the crack between worlds through which demons are now streaming. The only way Buffy can close the crack is to stop the flow of Dawn’s blood by killing her [Buffy-Dawn conflict]. This is something Buffy refuses to do [Buffy-Buffy conflict]. She’s already told Giles, her Watcher, that if Dawn has to die, she’s through being a Slayer [Buffy-Calling conflict], and that if anyone tries to hurt Dawn, including Giles himself and her friends, Xander, Willow, or Anya, she’ll kill them [Slayer-Watcher conflict, Buffy-friends conflict].
The two girls stand there at the top of the tower, and Dawn, realizing that she has to die to stop the influx of demons [Dawn-Demons conflict], tells Buffy that she (Dawn) has to jump. But Buffy won’t let her [Dawn-Buffy conflict]. At this point, Buffy doesn’t care about the world or anything in it, if those are the choices [Buffy-Reality conflict]. She stops Dawn from jumping.
Then Buffy remembers something she was told by the First Slayer: “Death is your gift.” Buffy also realizes that Dawn was made from her [can’t really get into that] and that Dawn’s blood and her blood are the same. Dawn doesn’t have to die, if Buffy dies. Death is her gift, not only to Dawn, but to the world.
When Buffy realizes this, Dawn can see it in her eyes and tells Buffy no. She won’t let Buffy die in her place [new Buffy-Dawn conflict]. But Buffy explains to Dawn that this is her [Buffy’s] calling, that this is her job. She has to do it. And in true heroic fashion, Buffy is so pleased, because now it all makes sense. Her life is not meaningless. She can give it to save Dawn and the World. She tells Dawn that she loves her, that she will always love her, and to be brave, that the most difficult thing in the world is to live it. Then she turns, makes the short run along the ramp, and jumps into the crack between worlds. We get one last view of her, her face as she goes down, grim with determination to do this as she’s always done her Slayer duties: giving it everything she has within her, waging her war with every ounce of energy.
It took giving her life, but Buffy saved the World, again.
This scene is so steeped in conflict that hardly a word or an action isn’t a reaction to some form of conflict. And yet, the two girls each have a chance to stand up for each other, to fight for each other’s survival, each to try to prevent the other from dying, and all while saying they love each other.
This is a scene to rip your heart out. The tears shed by Buffy fans because of this one scene would fill an ocean. But you don’t feel mad, drained, or beat up. You feel uplifted, loved, amazed that we have such a hero. Conflict, along with courtesy and consideration, has done its job, again.
The point I’m making is that story conflict isn’t always a character looking out for their own wellbeing nor is it necessarily mean-spirited with everyone hating each other. Conflict has many facets, and the storyteller should be a student of the art of opposing wills. Richard Walter is wrong. Enlightened, reasonable, rational discourse and courtesy, consideration, and consensus are not necessarily boring. If you don’t believe in them, you will make them boring, but if you are talented and have your heart in the right place, you can use these concepts to make your story irresistible. Let me turn this is into a general rule, an axiom that you can trust:
Any aspect of human nature and social interaction, when used properly, can be valuable and may even be indispensable in telling your story.
Of course, the real problem is that — and I believe this is what Richard Walter is reacting against, and reasonably so — we live life with the softer elements of social discourse ingrained in us. They are the behaviors we have adopted to become civilized. Most movies, most stories really, are not about the civilized. Something like George Clooney’s The Descendants and Robert Bendton’s Kramer vs. Kramer belie this, even though the stories are deeply dependent on conflict. But most first-time storytellers won’t have the skill to execute a worthwhile story if they don’t concentrate on the sorrier side of humanity. We’ll address this issue and why it’s necessary at times to expose humanity’s underbelly rather indiscriminately, as well as its pitfalls, in Chapter 5.
Another thing to realize is that a relationship exists between these people who are in conflict, the protagonist and antagonist. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other. Just as you, the author, have an affinity for the conflict you’re making into a story, these characters lock up because they feel strongly about something they have in common. They are the two components of a yin-yang relationship. They interrelate and give rise to each other as primary characters. This is very much in keeping with the symbol I uncovered with my visualization technique I described in Chapter 1.
Not all conflicts are external to the protagonist, i.e., directed at someone else. Many conflicts, some of the more intriguing actually, are internal. The protagonist is “conflicted” about something. A woman may have a desire to have a child but still be apprehensive of how it might affect her career. When she approaches forty, she can hear her biological clock ticking and feel the pressure to make a decision. It could be the Civil War soldier mentioned earlier, who may be internally conflicted about killing people, even the enemy. Internal conflicts are just as interesting and multi-faceted as are external conflicts, and they all have a protagonist and an antagonist. The internal conflict just has staked out opposite sides of the character’s psyche.
Another aspect of practically all conflict between individuals is that it may well be a metaphor for a higher-level conflict, i.e., the individual may represent the universal. The protagonist may be the symbol of good and the antagonist the symbol of evil. Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Some writers will tell you that all stories ultimately come down to good versus evil. This black-and-white world can be simplistic and not intellectually challenging. Look for philosophical nuance within the cast of characters. Your protagonist may also have flaws, and your antagonist some endearing characteristics.
Now we’ll take a quick look at what some of the most influential writers have to say about this initial story idea. We’ll draw from what the most accomplished storytellers and educators tell us, particularly those from the world of cinema where the pressure to produce good structured stories is most intense.
Both Lajos Egri, a playwright and teacher, and Erwin R. Blacker, a screenwriter and professor, tell us that we must transform the idea into what they call a premise. Blacker says, “The premise is the basis of the conflict.” [The Elements of Screenwriting, page 6] Egri says that the foundation of a story is built on a premise that has three parts, and those parts reflect character, conflict and conclusion. In other words, you need to know both the beginning and ending of your story. Egri gives an example: “Frugality leads to waste.” He says “frugality” implies character, “leads to” implies conflict, and “waste” implies the ending [The Art of Dramatic Writing, page 8]. I don’t see how “leads to” necessarily implies conflict, and I’ll take a somewhat different approach.
The basic formulation of all conflict is: protagonist versus antagonist, which implies conflict between opposing wills. The premise then might be expressed as: “Protagonist overcomes Antagonist.” Both characters show up in this presentation of the premise, and the word “overcomes” implies both conflict and the outcome. In this example, the protagonist rules, although the opposite result would be equally valid for a story. Egri’s formulation has the advantage of containing thematic material. “Frugality” and “waste” point to subject matter and character attributes that take the premise out of the generic realm and into real-world concerns, and as such, the story starts to take on meaning, and that meaning is a result of the theme.
Imagine my Civil War soldier who grew up on the Mason-Dixon Line and had family members on both sides, some siblings fighting for the North and others for the South. With the war as the background conflict, this story would have several levels, each governed by a separate premise. The man could not only be fighting for the South, but wondering if he should be fighting for the North and also arguing with his wife and kids over the same issue. What we should learn from this is that a premise can work at different levels, even within the same story. Here are some possibilities, framed only in terms of conflict:
Opposing Countries: America versus the Confederacy
Opposing Cities: Washington DC versus Atlanta, GA
Opposing Families: North Family versus South Family
Opposing Siblings: Brother versus Brother
Opposing Family Members: Wife versus Husband
Soldier Internal Conflict: Join North versus Join South
One story could, and in this case should, have all these levels of conflict. As a matter of fact, it’s next to impossible to tell a story that doesn’t at least imply several levels of conflict. Another thing you might notice about all these examples is that the identification of the protagonist and antagonist depends on perspective. One man’s hero is another’s enemy.
Of course, these formulations do not address the nature of the conflict, what it’s about. Many experts who teach storytelling fail to understand that the essence of the conflict is the theme of the story and says everything about character. Those who do not have a vested interest in the story they are telling frequently don’t get this. If all we talk about is the North at war with the South, we have opposing wills and the soldiers will definitely kill each other, but why? If we don’t address the theme, along with the conflict, that has brought these armies together, we have a story without a soul. It’s meaningless. In many ways, conflict is a mechanism for exploring theme. Here are two formulations that deal directly with theme for this Civil War story:
Opposing Cosmic Forces: Good versus Evil
Opposing Issues: Freedom versus Slavery
The conflict involving “good” versus “evil” give the story a cosmic scope, and once slavery is mentioned, it flavors everything because it concerns the philosophical differences that cause the central conflict and sub-conflicts clustering about it. This is theme, the narrative’s unifying subject, and it leads directly to character development. But none of these are actually a premise. Here are two possibilities for the premise:
Good overcomes Evil
Freedom overcomes Slavery
These formulations in addition to indicating conflict also address the result, i.e., they take a position relative to the outcome of the story. With Egri’s and Blacker’s formulation, a premise for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings might be “Quest [Sauron] for absolute power leads to Destruction.” In my formulation, the premise could be stated as “Evil Immortal succumbs to Hobbit.” Or on a character level, “Sauron defeated by Frodo.” The basic idea behind The Lord of the Rings is that absolute power can only be safely put in the hands of those who do not wish to have it. In this perception of story, the subject of the central conflict is the theme. And in the case of The Lord of the Rings, the theme concerns the nature of power. The nature of the central conflict constitutes the underlying philosophy of the story, the intellectual content that constitutes meaning.
Let’s state it again: Conflict is a mechanism for exploring theme. And theme is the unifying idea behind the story. Graphically, that mechanism looks like this:
Nothing I say could overemphasize the importance of understanding the nature of the central conflict. This is the basic theme of the story, and a firm grasp of it will allow you to instill meaning through characterization. We’ll address this issue further in Chapter 5.
To help understand what theme is, I’ll list as many as I can think of right now: slavery, greed, power, love, compassion, forbidden love, abortion, global warming, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, betrayal, rape, murder, terrorism, war, religion, education, unemployment, human dignity, hunger, arrogance, vengeance, loyalty, etc., etc., etc. Themes speak to the human condition and unify the subject matter. Conflict puts the protagonist and antagonist under stress and reveals their strengths and weaknesses relative to the theme.
Now that you have established the prima materia, know what your story is about and that it is meaningful, you need to go a step further and plot your overall storyline.
End of Chapter 2