Friday, September 30, 2011

Know When to Hold 'em, Know When to Fold 'em

How long should you keep pursuing a project?

When does tenacity cease to be a virtue?

How do you know when to set one project aside and invest your energy in something fresh?

During the 2011 WriteOnCon, agents on one panel mentioned projects they'd shopped for years (as in four or five) before finally making a sale.

That surprised me. My impression from comments by writers and agents is that they generally shop a project for a year or so and then, in the interest of maximizing return on effort (or because they've exhausted their list of potential editors), move on to something else. But even with a labor of love, the author needs to move on to other projects to give the agent new material to submit while continuing to shop the the first project.

Then again, I've heard a number of people characterize publishing as basically a game of persistence: if you keep showing up, you'll eventually get a turn. But no one ever specifies the kind of persistence that pays off. Do you refine and polish your master work--there are a fair number of classics that were decades in the making--or do you persist in producing new projects until you find that one that resonates?

The common answer is that it depends on you and your situation. That's neither comforting nor helpful.

If you were a rational economic actor, you would watch for the point at which the opportunity costs of not doing something else approach the sunk costs already invested in the project. Or, in colloquial terms, you'd stop when you realize you're throwing good money (or effort) after bad.

I once read about a couple who had adopted a rule of three for major expenditures. If one or both of them thought they should buy something they'd postpone the decision to see if they still thought it was a good idea. They would do this at least twice on the theory that if the idea came up at least three times then it probably was something they should buy.

My advice, if you're wondering whether to hold or fold a project, is similar (and not unlike the advice to let a draft cool before undertaking revisions): set the project aside for a season. If it's easy to forget, then it's time to be done. If it won't let you go, then you shouldn't let it go either.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

VP4W 4 Dresses the Part

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Thanks to the industrial revolution, which started in textiles and put us on a course to cheap and abundant clothing, we moderns have a weak appreciation of the power of dress. From days playing dress up as children to actors who become the character as they put on their costume and make up, what we wear and how we adorn ourselves has had the power to transform us from naked apes into, say, an officer or lady of the court.

Kim Hudson*calls the fourth beat of the Virgin's Promise, Dresses the Part:
"Dresses the Part provides the viewer with a fun and pleasurable sense that perhaps dreams can come true and life is meant to have joy in it. But it is not a frivolous event. ... Before the Virgin can consciously relate to the invisible energy of her authentic self, that energy has to be transformed into something tangible."
As a sartorially-challenged American (who, unfortunately are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act), I confess that it took me some time to warm to Hudson's label for what is basically an exploratory phase. Having awakened to the possibility of something more in the Opportunity to Shine, the Virgin now tries on the role, sometimes literally.

Clothing, because it is such an integral and intimate part of our experience, is potent on both practical and symbolic levels. It can be an enabler or an impediment; it can empower or constrict. So both dressing and undressing can be the prelude to exploration.

Of course, this talk of clothing doesn't preclude stories where the enabler is some other object, situation, or concept. The key (sometimes an actual key) is that the Virgin now has the opportunity to explore her dream in a safe, non-threatening context.

In the visual vocabulary of film, this beat is often shown as a kind of fashion show montage. Hudson says, "The fashion show is a metaphor for the Virgin's ability to experiment with who she really is until she finds the right fit."

A consequence of Dressing the Part is that the Virgin becomes beautiful--perhaps not all at once, or not in ways that are immediately apparent, but in ways that reflect her internal transformation.
"... true beauty is seen when the soul of a person is reflected in their physical appearance. ... the Virgin's beauty is often described in terms of light such as shining, glowing, brilliant, dazzling, and iridescent. In other words, the Virgin's beauty represents the shining forth of her soul."
Stories often highlight this transformation by showing the Virgin as something of an ugly duckling at the beginning.

It's important to remember that the beauty we're discussing here has nothing to do with the community's definitions or expectations about beauty. This is not the sculpted and manicured beauty of a fashion model, but the natural beauty of a person full of life and vitality.

Dressing the Part for writers has little to do with actual clothing (unless I missed the memo on author uniforms). Nor do we need special equipment--purchasing a computer is far less significant because of its multiple uses than buying a typewriter. But we do need to explore both subjects and disciplines to find the right fit.

Trying different subjects, and by extension, addressing different audiences is the writing analogue of the fashion show. What kind of stories do you enjoy? What kind of writing fires your passion? To which of your pieces do people respond most strongly?

Writing discipline is the less glamorous but ultimately more important aspect of Dressing the Part for writers. Questions like when to write and weather to have music in the background are symptoms of a deeper, primal fear: can I really do this, not just today but for the long run? The only way to really know you can sustain the effort over an entire career is to sustain the effort over an entire career. All authors, even the most successful, wonder if they can keep it up; if the next book will be as successful as the last; if people still want to listen. That said, by Dressing the Part (i.e., treating your writing like a profession) you can learn a great deal about how realistic your dream may be and, more importantly, how well it fits your soul and brings out your inner beauty.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, September 26, 2011

Law 9: Completion - Stepping Aside

In software development we often lament the fact that project sponsors don't understand the difference between done and done. That is, the difference between getting the feature to work and having it ready for public consumption.

In the same vein, I hope you now have a richer appreciation of the non-trivial dimensions of finishing. We've covered a lot of surprisingly difficult ground in our exploration of Completion, the ninth Law of Making.
There is one more challenge--for some the supreme challenge--to overcome before you're truly finished: you must step aside.

I always wonder, when I see a vehicle with a bumper sticker announcing that, "My child is an honor student" at some school, whether the emphasis is on the honor student or the fact that the student is "my child." It's one thing to be proud that your child is doing well, it's quite another to make it a point to let everyone know that it's your child who's doing well. I trust you've seen examples of "proud parents" who were so wrapped up in their child's achievements in school, music, sports, or pageants it's hard to believe they're really doing everything they do only for the child.

After you finish and you let go, there's a subtle, but dangerous temptation, to live vicariously through the work. One indication that you've succumbed to the temptation, particularly if the work is well received, is if you can't let anyone forget who it is that must get credit for the work. Another sign is if you bask in the role of, "Those Who Have Produced."

There is a question, which has been there from the beginning of the project, we all must answer at some point. It's often eclipsed by all the other aspects of the work until the very end. And the full weight of its implied heartbreak and humility becomes apparent only at the end. 

Is it about you or is it about the work?

If you've done any sort of amateur dramatics, you've probably met plenty of bad actors and seen examples of a death scene that takes five minutes and has the soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet corpse literally or metaphorically chewing on the scenery. Leaving aside the critiques, like the observation that understatement is almost always more emotionally powerful than overstatement, one of the times when it is difficult to maintain your grace is when it's your turn to go. 

The deep truth is that every made thing has its own destiny apart from its creator.

The final act of a true maker is to step aside, back out of the limelight, and make a graceful exit.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bookstore vs. The Library in the Cloud

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, we must now always be on the look out for tipping points.

I believe I just experienced one.

Like many of you, I've long had a weakness for book stores. So when we went to see how we could take advantage of the going-out-of-business sale at our local Borders, I expected to come home with an armful of books.

We didn't. In fact, we didn't buy anything.

We made a fairly thorough examination of the store and its inventory, but nothing was quite compelling enough to take home as a stack of paper. Time and again, enticed by the cover, I  picked up a new book, looked at the back, flipped through the text, and put it back because I wanted to read the electronic version first in order to decide if it was something I wanted to add to my library.

I stopped going to first-run movies a long time ago. In retrospect, I made that decision during the pre-Blockbuster era of local video-rental stores. The fact that I would eventually be able to see the movie, at a cost that was easier to bear on my starving-student budget, took the wind of urgency right out of my movie consumption sails.

Now, the same thing has happened for me where books are concerned.

And I think there's more to the analogy: bookstores, at least the ones belonging to national chains, now feel more like mega-plex theaters than cultural institutions.Theaters and bookstores are similar at a structural level: theirs is a business model focused entirely on the present because they provide access to a commodity that is scarce because it is new.

Libraries are fundamentally about lasting value--not in the sense of absolute worth but in the much simpler (and measurable sense) of something in which people continue to find value over time.

The Internet seems well on its way to becoming a meta-library in which anything is instantly available. One of the consequences of instant availability is that being first in line to get something the moment it's released will matter a great deal less. As Elizabeth Gumport's observed, "'Recent' is not a synonym for 'relevant.'"

There was a time when part of the reason you watched TV each night was so that you could participate in the water cooler conversation when the inevitable, "did you see what was on TV last night?" question came up. Now, with hundreds of channels from a variety of providers, DVRs, and video on-demand services, there's so little chance two people shared the same viewing experience that the question rarely comes up.

My point is not that publishing is doomed--demand for new movies and books remains strong. But where movie releases and opening week box-office receipts still mean something, book releases will cease to be significant events. The challenge for authors and publishers in the brave new electronic world will be to create lasting value that attracts an ever growing audience instead of relying on scarcity to create a bubble of demand around the release.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

VP4W 3 Opportunity to Shine

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

We usually say that a story starts with an Inciting Incident--something that changes the protagonist's world enough that it's impossible for them to continue with business as usual.

The inciting incident in the arc of the Virgin's Promise is what Kim Hudson* calls, the Opportunity to Shine:
"The Opportunity to Shine is the action that leads to the first expression of the Virgin's potential. Through the Opportunity to Shine, the Virgin reveals her talent, her dream, or her true nature."
Whether because she was in the right place at the right time, found a place to try something while no one was looking, or had to step up because someone was in need, the Opportunity to Shine is the first intimation that the Virgin might do more than simply conform to everyone else's expectations.

There are several important distinctions between the Virgin's Opportunity to Shine and the Hero's Call to Adventure, the inciting incident in each cycle.

First, the inciting incident comes later for the Virgin. The Call to Adventure is the second beat in the Hero's Journey, the Opportunity to Shine is the third beat in the Virgin's Promise. The motivation for the Hero is straight forward: something threatens the well being of the village and someone needs to do something about it. The situation for the Virgin is more complex. There is much about her Dependent World that is worth preserving, but there's a Price of Conformity that weighs down the Virgin. With the Opportunity to Shine, the Virgin discovers she might have alternatives. This slower start is important because we can't appreciate the Virgin's Opportunity to Shine if we don't understand her world and what it costs her to live there.

A second, and critical difference, is that, as Hudson explains, "The Opportunity to Shine is a compelling event that will not threaten her Dependent World." Unlike the Hero, whose inciting incident involves an explicit threat, the Virgin isn't trying to change her world. She steps up and shines precisely because doing so doesn't (or at least doesn't appear to) threaten her world. Put another way, the Virgin shines precisely because her motive to act is opposite that of the hero.

Many of us follow a similar path to writing. Perhaps its a brochure for a volunteer organization, a report at work, a story for a program at the library, or NaNoWriMo. You certainly wouldn't call yourself a writer, but someone needed help or there was an opportunity to give it a whirl. But people took notice. They said your words made a difference. And you began to wonder, "Perhaps this wasn't just a one-off thing."

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, September 19, 2011

Law 9: Completion - Letting Go

The cultural persistence of maudlin memes from the sappy 70's makes it nearly impossible for me to say, "if you love some thing, let it go," with a straight face even though it's a crucial part of of the ninth Law of Making: Completion.

I don't know if it extends to all human nature, but in our society we spend a lot of time and energy on how to get into something, but very little on getting out. Think of all the books written on how to get into school, land a job, or find your soul mate. How many books can you think of that cover how to finish school, leave a job, or say good bye?

They don't tell you that letting go can be much harder than beginning a project. When you start something, it's all about potential: the world is full of bright prospects and you have no way of knowing or even guessing what it might cost to pursue those prospects. When you finish, you know exactly what it cost: how much time, effort, anxiety, energy, devotion, and love you've poured into the effort.

The temptation not to let go--not to finish and allow the work to stand on its own--is analogous to the sunk cost dilemma: when you have a project on which you've spent considerable time and effort that hasn't payed off yet, do you stop the project and take the loss or do you continue in the hope that it might eventually pay off? Similarly, it's much easier, when you care deeply about the thing you've made, to keep revising and refining than to stop, let go, and declare it to be finished. It takes real courage to face the fear that the work would be been better received if you'd only done more.

There are, of course, a wide range of tasks we have no problem finishing: you do the job and when you're done you forget about it and move on to the next thing. But when you've poured your heart and soul into something, finishing is the last sacrifice you must make. It is an act of humility, acknowledging that you are limited and finite, when you recognize that you've truly done all you can do and set down your tools.

It just might be that the two hardest words you'll ever write are, "The End."

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 16, 2011

Internal Conflict: Sine Qua Non

There's an entire set of words and phrases which have come down to us from Latin that we're slowly losing because a knowledge of ancient languages is no longer a hallmark of a good education. Even Harry Potter hasn't been able to resurrect more than a few spell phrases from that dead language.

It's unfortunate because some ideas are best expressed in other languages. For example, sine qua non is a Latin legal term that we must translate into the more awkward, "without which it could not be." Sine qua non, captures the notion of something so necessary it's definitional.

I thought of that phrase when in a comment on Non-character Antagonists and Conflict, Anne Gallagher said:
Sometimes I think dealing with internal conflict makes a better story. Character driven narrative rather than plot driven.

I'm also under the impression (in my genre I should clarify -- romance) there ALWAYS needs to be internal conflict for either the hero or heroine. One must always be conflicted by love.
Anne is right: internal conflict is the sine qua non of story.

Some of you, particularly if you equate internal conflict with navel gazing or whiny teenagers, may roll your eyes at that assertion. You may say, for example, that your story is about action and plot and your characters neither want nor need to take time off from dodging bullets to inventory their feelings.

I understand your objection, but answer this question: what's the common wisdom about characters and flaws?

If you said (thought) something along the lines of flawed = good (i.e., relatable and interesting), perfect = bad (i.e., boring or self-indulgent), you've been paying attention. (And if your answer includes, "Mary Sue," give your self bonus points).

So why do we like flawed characters?

Is it because they allow us to feel superior?

No. It's simply that flaws produce internal conflict. That's what people really mean when they say they find flawed characters more compelling than perfect ones.

Internal conflict gives us greater insight into character. There's nothing to learn from a perfect character: if we can't compare and contrast the thought processes that early in the character's development lead to failure and later to success, we can't apply any lessons to our own behavior.

Internal conflict also creates a greater degree of verisimilitude (because who among us doesn't have a seething mass of contradictions swimming around in their brain case).

Internal conflict and the expression of character flaws arises from uncertainty. If your characters are certain about how to resolve the problem, you don't have a story you have an instruction manual.

Ergo, conflict is the sine qua non of story.

That said, stories where conflicts at different levels reflect and reinforce each other are the most interesting because their resolution can be the most satisfying..

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

VP4W 2 The Price of Conformity

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The Dependent World, that is the world upon which the Virgin is dependent, provides for her needs. The price for this is conformity, specifically conforming to the expectations of others.

Conformity is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is the foundation of civil society. Conforming, for example, to traffic rules allows us to travel the roads and highways at will and in relative safety.

But as with many things, where a little conformity is a good thing, too much is bad because it suppresses individuality. As Kim Hudson* explains:
"The Price of Conformity is the suppression of the Virgin's true self. When the Virgin subscribes to the views of the people around her, she experiences a loss of self. Even when she is aware of what she wants, she doesn't see how she could achieve it."
One might conform because of ignorance or an uncritical acceptance of the situation (Hudson calls this, "Sleeping Through her Life"). One might understand but still agree to conform because they see no other or better option. One might conform because they're too focused on meeting the needs of others: "Often girls are highly praised for being helpful, beautiful, and thoughtful to others. ... The Virgin is soon so busy meeting the needs of others that there is little time or room to discover her own needs."

How often have you heard someone say, "I once thought I'd [do/make/become] __________, but then life came along ..." or, "I wanted to study art, but my father insisted I study accounting."

None of us, of course, is entitled to have all our dreams fulfilled. But none of us should have to go through life without fulfilling a single dream. This is the scope of the Price of Conformity.

At this point, you might say, "It's obvious that the Price of Conformity for writers is not writing."

There certainly are people who read a book, think, "Oh, I could do better than that," and yet because of the relentless pressure of the Dependent World never get around to stringing words together. 

What most people infected by the dream of the scribbler want is not just to write but to write what they want to write. There's a more subtle, yet far greater, price to be paid for conformity if you never get to write what you want. You may claim to have realized your dream if you find a job that involves writing or even establish yourself as a writer, but so long as you are compelled to write what others expect you to write, you haven't escaped the Price of Conformity.

Writing for an audience is not about your need to express yourself, but if you don't have anything to add to the conversation you're simply parroting back your influences.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, September 12, 2011

Law 9: Completion - Baby Bear's Example

Baby Bear is a good candidate for the makers' Yoda: in addition to being about the right size and easy to underestimate, the diminutive ursine possesses uncommon wisdom. Where his parents veered to one thermal extreme or the other, the bear child had porridge that was just right.

Just Right is much harder than it appears. How many of us have the character, will power, and wisdom to eat just the right amount of dessert, potato chips, or vegetables? How many of us own, rent, or use more than we actually need for housing, transportation, and the tens of thousands of other conveniences money can buy? How many of us blithely accept a public sphere that is wholly dedicated to excess?

This is why finishing--and finishing right--is the highest ideal of the makers.

Lest the litany of things that are not Just Right sound too depressing, let me remind you that we live in an age of unprecedented access to art, science, and technology: we're surrounded by examples of Just Right from every field of human endeavor.

And when we consider those examples, there's one word that recurs in almost all discussions of their aesthetics. Regardless of the art, be it painting or sword-making, dance or naval architecture, the consistent criterion by which all the works are judged is balance.

So how do you know the work is complete?

When it is balanced.

When it is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

Put another way, something that is balanced can stand on its own. Your work is finished when it can stand on its own.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 9, 2011

Conflict: Inner, Personal, and Universal

In a discussion about narrative conflict, someone suggested that there are only three kinds of conflict: inner, personal, and universal, where personal is conflict between persons and universal is conflict with forces larger than your social circle.

As I played with the idea, I hit upon the exercise of characterizing the kinds of stories you get when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict in terms of the nine combinations of the inner, personal, and universal dimensions.

In the following table, read from the protagonist's row to the antagonist's column. For example, if the protagonist's concerns are primarily internal and the antagonists are personal, you have a coming-of-age story or a story about establishing one's place and identity.


InnerPsychologicalComing-of-age; Establishing one's place and identityThe socio-path or super man
PersonalIntervention and healingRomance, mystery, thriller, speculative fiction, etc. (i.e., Most kinds of narrative conflict)Rebels and underdogs
UniversalFatalist and extremistsOrder vs. chaos (anti-rebellion)Epic and political struggles

What I found most interesting about this exercise is that the primary locus of conflict in most stories falls in the center square (personal vs. personal). Many other stories fall on the diagonal (inner vs. inner or universal vs. universal). Asymmetric stories (e.g., personal vs. universal), are rarer.

I suspect this is because as social animals inter-personal conflict is the easiest to understand. Even if your story depends on another kind of conflict, your narrative will generally be most effective if you can put a face on the enemy for your readers. Your band of freedom fighters may be up against an empire, but your readers will identify with the dark lord who makes finding them his personal quest than with the legions of faceless soldiers he deploys. Similarly, readers will find a psychological struggle more accessible if there are other actors who symbolize the inner conflict.

It's also interesting to consider where different genres cluster in the matrix. For example, romance and mystery generally land in the upper left quadrant while speculative fiction and thrillers land in the lower right (with all, of course, overlapping in the middle).

Stories, clearly, aren't limited to one kind of conflict, so this analysis is only useful when we're considering the primary mode of conflict. Still, the moral of this story is that conflict is best when it's personal.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

VP4W 1 The Dependent World

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The arc of the Virgin's Promise, like the Hero's Journey, begins in a community. But where the hero must leave the community in order to protect it, the virgin's cycle of growth and self-discovery takes place within the community. The hero is motivated by a belief that the community is worth preserving. In contrast, the virgin's story begins in a community so intent on preserving its ways that it has woven a web of constricting expectations around the virgin. This web has the effect, whether intended or not, of keeping the virgin dependent and compliant.

This is how Kim Hudson*describes the virgin's Dependent World:
"The Virgin's journey begins with an introduction to the world upon which she is dependent, in which a part of her is lying dormant. The Dependent World is an external authority that provides for the Virgin's existence. It can be a parental, familial, cultural, or spiritual world that the virgin landed in before she knew independent choice."
The young, those who have too little (or too much), and those who are isolated depend on others for physical survival. The virgin may depend on some people to protect her from other people in her society. She may be in a situation where the love she needs depends on her conformity. Many societies have developed attitudes, mores, and conventions that enforce dependence because they depend upon the affected people to fulfill their roles and conform to expectations.**

It is almost always the case that the virgin's dependent world is not so much malevolent as too constricting. The community doesn't need to be overthrown, just adjusted. Put another way, much of the inner conflict the virgin suffers in coming phases arises precisely because she doesn't want to sacrifice the good in her dependent world.

As writers, most of us are past the stage in life (youth) where we depend directly on others. However, many of us have dependents. The people in our world generally depend on us not writing. Whether breadwinner or caregiver, none of those who depend upon us will think spending thousands of hours putting words on paper with no guarantee of a return is a good idea. And for our part, spending our time and attention on the people who depend on us is a good thing: in our Dependent World, the community and our relationships in it matter to us.

But before we were Mom or Dad, we were someone else. And while we love being Mom or Dad, that's not the sum and total of our identity. Yet we often feel guilty about all the things we're not doing when we read parenting advice.

If this rings true, congratulations: you understand the Dependent World and the beginning of the arc of the Virgin's Promise.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

**In many societies, for example, women have the primary responsibility for transmitting culture and traditions to the next generation. Those societies often have powerful sanctions to keep women from taking on roles that would interfere with the transmission process.

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, September 5, 2011

Law 9: Completion - Knowing the End from the Beginning

In some games of pool, it's not enough to knock a ball into a pocket: the player must call the shot before they make it. (As opposed to my version where I make the shot and then claim that whatever happened is what I meant to do.)

Making is about purpose.

Intent is what separates a Jackson Pollock from a mess your five-year-old makes with the paints.

Clearly people are always making use of happy accidents. And learning is very much about trying something and having it come out differently than you expected. Mastery, however, is about control, which is why one of the hallmarks on the path of making is that our actions become increasingly deliberate.

The ninth Law of Making is the law of completion. The first (and perhaps most obvious) aspect of completion is knowing the end from the beginning--or in more colloquial terms, knowing where you're going.

 This is not a veiled argument for the superiority of outlining over discovery writing. You don't have to know exactly how you'll get there, you just need to know what finished looks like. Maybe you only have an image or a feeling that you want to achieve. That's fine. The point is that you have enough of an idea of what you're working toward so that you can know when to stop.

I'm also not arguing that you fall short if you make sketches or trials. Revision, in the literal sense of seeing it again is a critical part of the process of making. But even here, the sketches are attempts at finding the best way to express an intent, not random doodles.

We might talk about the best writing in a number of different ways--image and metaphor, evocative descriptions, spot-on dialog, concise language. Often we'll say that the writing feels confident. But what it really comes down to is that as readers we want to know that we're in the hands of an author who knows what they're doing because they know the end from the beginning.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, September 2, 2011

Non-character Antagonists and Conflict

Commenting on a recent post about Antagonists and the Source of Conflict, Julie Daines said, "This is great information. But not all stories have an actual antagonist character. I'd love to hear what you have to say about conflict that isn't generated by an antagonist but rather comes from inner conflict or from the environment or whatever"

Being completely incapable of not responding when someone says they'd love to hear what I have to say, and guilty of assuming that Julie was speaking for everybody, I decided I should expand on the topic here.

Julie has highlighted the distinction between antagonists and the source of conflict by pointing out that some stories don't (or can't) embody the forces working in opposition to the protagonist in a single character. Even so, those stories still must have a source of conflict, whether internal or external.

If you ask writers about kinds of stories you'll likely get a variation on the classic triumvirate of man vs. self, man vs. man, and man vs. nature. I like to add a few more gradations to the sources of conflict:
  • Self - Internal demons, conflicting needs or desires, psychological dissonance
  • People - Lovers, family, friends (i.e., people with whom the protagonist has more than casual relationships)
  • Society - Organizations, clubs, cabals, conspiracies, churches, companies, bureaucracies, armies, parties, governments, movements, etc.
  • Nature - A particular feature of the natural world: animals, mountains, oceans, storms, droughts, etc.
  • Universe/God - The external world in general
What's convenient about having an antagonist as a character is that it's easier to give our protagonists the moral high ground if the conflict is forced upon them by the bad guy.

But there's a deeper reason that the conflict in the vast majority of stories occurs at the level of people and society: conflict is fundamentally interpersonal.

Before you accuse me of forgetting the question, let me explain: in the same vein as the philosophic question about trees falling in the forest, there are no stories about the world that existed before people. It's not that things didn't happen--indeed, if contemporary CGI-rich dinosaur documentaries are to be believed, there was plenty of red-in-tooth-and-claw conflict--it's that there was no one around to attribute significance to the actors and events. Was it good or bad that the tyrannosaurus took out the ailing duckbill?

Often, scarcity is the source of conflict. A great many sports, for example, depend on the fact that there are two teams and only one ball. But the significance of the conflict depends upon the meaning we assign to it.

"Okay," you say, "what about a man trying to conquer a mountain?"

It all depends on why he's trying to conquer the mountain. If he's trying to get to the other side to find the cure for the fever in his village, then it's a heroic conflict. If he's trying to get to the other side to enslave the village there, then it's a very different sort of conflict.

Put another way, regardless of the source of conflict, the first thing readers want to know is, "Why should we care?" Most people find it very difficult to care about anything unless they can do so in personal terms. When another person or persons oppose the protagonist, readers immediately recognize the personal stakes. When the source of conflict is non-personal--either internal or external--you must show why that conflict matters to your protagonist and, by extension, your readers.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /