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.

Comments are closed.