The Story Thus Far, Part 3

So, the other day I had a story-related epiphany–

Wait. Let’s back up a sec, so I can make sure we’re all on the same page story mechanics-wise.

When writing (or just telling) a story, it’s important to now what the nature of the conflict at the heart of that story is about. Some of you may recall the conflict types discussed in English lit classes but for those who don’t, a quick refresher. All story is conflict. Period. Nice happy tales about people getting along, communicating clearly and always telling the honest truth and never hurting anyone’s feelings are boring.[1] Drama comes form conflict. There are a few archetypal conflicts:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society

A few examples:

Man vs. Man: Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth vs. Darcy, over their true feelings. Man vs. Nature: any disaster movie, ever. Something bad happens (tornado, volcano, killer fog, alien invasion, etc.) and our characters must overcome the world to save their asses. Man vs. Society: 1984. Winston feels compelled, by his own humanity, to rebel against an arbitrary and repressive society that regards him merely as a useful tool. This arbitrary society at various points in the story manifest in the form of characters, namely O’Brian, who is it’s mouth piece and Julia, who is likewise used to seduce him into thought crime.

So. The epiphany: I had the wrong conflict in mind.

I kept thinking that The Man From Planet X was a Man vs. Man conflict, namely it would all resolve down, after much running about doing cool, dramatic bits, two Tom and his idealism vs. Our villain, Victor Malenfant, and his cynicism.[2] But, ahah! It doesn’t. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t break act 4 into a satisfactory conclusion and it wasn’t working, because I was trying to contrive a way for our villain to be responsible for all the other problems that our protagonists encounter. That felt hollow and didn’t ring true but I couldn’t figure out why. Sure, on the most obvious level, having one man be responsible for everything wrong with the world is unrealistic. But beyond that, it’s a cop out. It makes our villain a scapegoat. You kill him and then the world is fixed because all the bad stuff goes away. Except, it doesn’t. The real world doesn’t work like that and neither does this particular fictional world. Malenfant is a villain, sure, but he’s not a magical font of concentrated evil. He’s not Voldemort or Sauron.[3] He’s just this guy, you know?

Which made me realize that the conflict of my story is not Man vs. Man but Man vs. Nature. Tom and our hero protagonists are trying to figure out why the world is so screwed up and how they can unscrew it. Malenfant is not our antagonist, he’s a villain protagonist. He’s trying to take advantage of the fact that the world is screwed up for personal gain. This changes the dynamic of the story a lot. Instead of a major climatic battle between the two characters, they instead will circle each other in ever tighter spirals, eventually meeting and realizing that circumstantial evidence has made them think each other is the cause of their problems. This causes the characters to have to reevaluate what they’re trying to accomplish. More conflict! More drama! But it all comes out of the characters making choices based on faulty information, a classic and ever-relatable story hook that goes back forever, at least to Homer.[4]

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1. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but not by much. This is the reason that the Twilight series is riddled with such bad story telling: it’s not that the vampires are lame (though that certainly is a contributing factor)* it’s that there are no real dramatic conflicts in the stories. Everyone likes Bella. She and Edward are in love. The only moments of pseudo tension wrung out of the plots in those books comes when one character picks up the idiot ball and does something to create conflict for no real reason. Edward runs off, without telling Bella why, making her mopey. This is the basic plot impetus for all subsequent drama in New Moon. It’s sudden, unmotivated and once you learn why he left, doesn’t hold up to a moment’s inspection. He did it just because there was no drama and Stephanie Myer had three more books to write.

*The reason the vampires are lame: Stephanie Myer forgot what vampires represent. They’re dark symbols of sexual predation.They aren’t bad boys or cool. They’re rapists and murders who murder you with their mouth rape-y fangs. Worse: they seduce you into letting them kill you slowly, in a manner that is pleasurable for them by convincing you that you deserve to be raped to death. Falling in love with a monster is not a good thing. See; Buffy: the Vampire Slayer for how that kind of self-loathing relationship turns out.

2. This being a science fiction story, these internal conflicts and ideas will be manifested concretely through metaphor. Because that is what fantastical literature is good at: taking abstractions and giving them a concrete form against which to examine yourself. There’s a school of thought that in sci-fi and fantasy stories, all your metaphors should be walking around in the story, given a voice, and that descriptive passages should contain similes only. I find this intriguing and might need to give it some more thought.

3. The problem with both these villains is that they are too big to be believable. While the respective worlds they both inhabit do not become happy magical fun lands when the villains are defeated, way too much of the evil does vanish. The surviving Death Eaters are still mass murdering fuck heads. Same with the Orks of Middle Earth.

4. Homer never has correct information. That’s why his get rich quick schemes never work, like invading Troy to corner the market on doughnuts.