1. Story or Plot? Choose the Structure for your Narrative
In Aspects of the Novel, novelist E.M. Forster wrote, “The king died and then the queen died. The king died and then the queen died of grief.” The first sentence describes two events of a story, while the second sentence describes two events of a plot.
As many writers and critics have noted, the essential difference between a story and a plot is that the first is a series of chronologically ordered events, while the second is a series of causally related events. Think of dominos being placed flat next to each other one by one in a line versus a standing domino flicked against another standing domino, knocking it down against the next domino and against the next, and so on and so on down a long line of dominos.
Here is longer example of a story, from the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. He enters Jerusalem to preach. He is betrayed by Judas. He is crucified.
The basic structure of this chronology is: this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on, like a news report. Because of its high stakes, intrigues and brutal tragedy, this story is dramatic.
Often, however, many stories fail because they are only a chronicle of events, a series of loosely connected episodes. A news story, for example, is a story, not a plot. And nor is a history, or a biography. Stories often lack direct and long-term back and forth conflict between two lead characters.
Let’s look briefly at some of the excellent plot of the film Saving Mr. Banks.
Walt Disney wants to keep his promise to his daughters to produce a film about Mary Poppins, but he needs writer P L Travers to sign over to him the screen rights to her Poppins story. Solely out of a need for money, Travers accepts Disney’s offer to come to Los Angeles to discuss the project, but she is very negative about giving him any rights.
Travers’ conflicts with Disney and his creative team are difficult, but they try to charm her and show her their good intentions re adapting her story. Travers remains unconvinced and rejecting.
To help her understand his vision and to learn more about the deeper meaning of her disagreement, Disney takes Travers to Disneyland.
And so on, back and forth between these two forces, these two motivated and toe-to-toe conflicting characters. In the climax, Disney finally understands the motivation of his antagonist and goes to London to confront her in one last effort to achieve his goal.
Episodic chronicle stories can be very dramatic and sometimes they are the only way a specific story, because of its genre and nature, can be told. See for example The Odyssey, High Noon and The Searchers. I believe, however, that plots are generally more dramatic than episodic chronicles.
So when starting to develop your new story, one of the most basic choices you will face is: Will I structure my events as a story or as a plot?
If you choose to construct a plot, one key way to guide this is to create your central conflict as a clash between character A and character B. After doing this, you will then need to organize these two character’s choices and actions as a back and forth line of conflict.
Here is a simple (imaginary) example of that: In a western, character A, a Saloon Owner, wants to take over the town. He orders his thugs to drive character B, the Marshal, out of town. The thugs threaten the Marshal and his allies.
The Marshal reacts by confronting the thugs and arresting them. The Saloon Owner now reacts by hiring a famous gunfighter to kill the Marshal, whom he challenges to a showdown. The Marshal responds and kills the gunfighter.
Needing evidence that the Saloon Owner is behind these threats to his life and town, the Marshal has a sidekick work for the Saloon Owner to uncover the truth. The Saloon Owner exposes this spy and in reaction he…. And so on back and forth, action-reaction, between these two antagonists.
You get the picture: a plotline, on a very simple level, is an escalating, back and forth conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist over a long series of logically related choices and actions.
Such a plot-based structure creates drama because two distinct, personal and motivated forces are actively battling each other. This allows great suspense, strong character conflict, and forces your characters to make harder and more perilous choices as their conflict progresses. The plot is climaxed in a direct, personal and final confrontation where one character defeats the other.
To see a few good examples of the character A vs. character B nature of a plot, watch Die Hard, Shane, Notorious, and Les Miserables.
By explicitly deciding if your script is a plot or a story, you will better understand and controls the best way to organize your characters’ choices and actions. You are now ready to fully create a central conflict, the seed from which the story or plot will be developed.
2. Create a Layered Central Conflict
Essential to writing a dramatic narrative is creating a high-value, layered, and integrated central conflict.
A good central conflict is often more than A vs. B, such as Batman battling some villain to save Gotham City. In this example, it could also be that Batman has always previously been defeated by this villain (so is insecure), or that the villain is the woman that Batman loves.
So now Batman is in conflict with himself. He has an internal conflict. This adds layers of conflict and complications for our hero. That is, it adds drama. To stress the point, take the literary example of Les Miserable: Jean Valjean wants to help the miserable ones of France, such as Fantine and Cossette, but in doing so he risks revealing himself to Inspector Javert, and so being arrested and sent back to the galleys. Valjean’s internal conflict is essential to the drama of Les Miserables.
High-value and complex central conflicts are the core of stories by celebrated and popular English playwright and screenwriter, Terence Rattigan. What Rattigan does is to drop his characters into hard situations that bring their traits and values into their worst possible self-conflict.
Consider John Malcolm in Separate Tables, who is tormented by desire for his frigid, manipulative former wife, Anne. Part of him desires her, part of him fears and loathes her.
The best and worst thing that can happen to John is for Anne to reappear in his life. And when she does, his love for her and his fear of losing whatever equilibrium and peace of mind he has found while hiding from her puts him and Anne into a terrible conflict.
John cannot pursue one value, act on one trait, without conflicting deeply with another. We see part of John want to ravish Anne out of love and the other part want to attack her with loathing and fear. This central conflict (and its torturous self-conflict) forms the basis of their relationship and the soul of their intensely dramatic story.
Or consider Andrew Crocker-Harris’s situation in Rattigan’s play/film The Browning Version. As a retiring, failed teacher, it is Andrew’s last day of term and his last chance for redemption.
Rattigan drops this terribly hurt and frozen man into purgatory: Armed only with his sense of ethics, Andrew must face the truth of his malicious wife, his failed teaching career, his traitorous school colleagues and an innocent student he may have hurt. If Andrew does not finally face them and himself, then his very soul and physical life are at risk. He literally has to choose between life and death.
Such high value internal conflicts and soul-wrenching relationships are the seeds from which Rattigan grows his poignantly dramatic stories. In fact, the core of many great stories is the protagonist’s high value internal conflict.
3. Create Multi-layered, Self-conflicted Characters
To create layered characters who can truly be the heart of a powerful central conflict, who can truly complicate a plot, a writer must give these characters explicit premises and high values.
These premises and values must be designed to create difficult self-conflicts within characters, and strong conflicts between them. This was brilliantly done in the film classic Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Ben Hecht.
The film’s central conflict is: To stop a Nazi plot, an American agent teams up with a woman he loves but for their mission to succeed he has to pimp her to a dangerous Nazi.
In the film, Hitchcock and Hecht masterfully establish the two lead characters’ premises, their beliefs that they choose to act on. Alicia and Devlin are both given premises that make it very difficult for them to love someone. These premises are intrinsic to their internal conflicts and cause the relationship conflicts between them.
Specifically: Devlin can’t forget Alicia’s tramp past so won’t declare his love to her. Alicia in turn believes that Devlin doesn’t truly love her.
As the film’s main plot line of Devlin and Alicia working together to trap a gang of Nazis progresses, Alicia and Devlin are both torn between their values and premises. On one hand, both support the mission to defeat the Nazis, Alicia because of her patriotism, and Devlin because of his patriotism and career as a federal agent. But this mission value directly conflicts with Devlin and Alicia’s premises about love.
We watch in suspense as Devlin and Alicia are forced to make choices between their mission and their love. Each choice and action Devlin and Alicia take to attain their mission goal escalates their internal conflicts and the romantic conflict between them.
For example, because Devlin can’t express his love to a former party girl, his silence presses Alicia more and more towards her assignment to befriend the Nazi villain Alex: from meeting him, to sleeping with him, to finally marrying him.
As Alicia makes these ever-harder and more dangerous choices, Devlin’s mistrust of her romantically becomes more entrenched, pressing him to further support her assignment and reject the idea of her as his lover.
Alicia and Devlin’s internal conflicts are fundamental to the drama of Notorious but these conflicts and this drama would not be possible if Hitchcock and Hecht had not so explicitly conceived and so well set up and played their lead characters’ premises and values.
4. Use Disguise and Deception
One the most important (and least discussed) ways to create conflict and drama in a story is by using disguise and deception.
Disguise and deception were central to much of the best plotted literature of the 19th century. Witness their importance to Les Misérables, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and A Tale of Two Cities.
In Les Misérables, crucial to its drama is Jean Valjean assuming a false identity and living in fear of his lie being uncovered by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. If Valjean’s disguise/deception is unmasked, he will be destroyed.
In the earlier cited Notorious, much of the suspense comes from Alicia and Devlin deceiving the Nazi Alex. Will they be found out?
Another example of a film brilliantly using disguise and deception is The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power. In this film classic, Don Diego Vega has three personas in his characterization: the strong (in private) Don Diego, the public foppish Diego, and the swashbuckling Zorro.
The protagonist having multiple, conflicting personas is integral to creating drama in the best costumed-hero stories. Take, for example, Clark Kent in the Superman stories. There is the real Clark, a strong and intelligent man mostly only experienced by himself and his parents. Then there is the Clark Kent public disguise, the mild-mannered reporter. And, of course, the public hero in suit and cape, Superman.
A similar three part personality also makes up the character Batman.
Having three personas in one character is an important reason why Superman, Batman, and Zorro are amongst the most interesting and popular of the costumed heroes. One character having three personas creates internal conflict in the character, dramatic and amusing irony for the audience, and difficult complications for the hero as he battles for justice in the world. Using disguise and deception is one of the surest ways to create layers in your characters and heighten conflict in your story.
5. Create Ingenious Complications
Good plots need more than intensely dramatic central conflicts that complicate their characters’ main values and premises. A plot’s conflicts and events also need to be dramatized in ingenious ways.
Take, for example, an ingenious complication in the play Ross, again by master plot writer Terence Rattigan.
Ross dramatizes the exploits and self-conflicts of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence becomes so successful a raider and saboteur against the Turkish forces during World War 1 that the Turkish General (the villain of the play) places a reward of £10,000 on the head of “Emir Dynamite.”
The General then sends his Captain to inform famed Arab bandit and warrior—and highly paid ally—Auda Abu Tayi about this reward, believing that Lawrence is soon to meet with the bandit to persuade him to join his war against the Turks. In a powerfully suspenseful and multi-layered scene, Auda allows Lawrence into his tent, torn between his honor as a great warrior to help “El Aurens” fight the Turks, and his desire for the gold and gifts the Turks are buying him with.
Auda’s choice to join or betray Lawrence is greatly complicated when the Turkish Captain arrives with a bribe Auda has much desired. While the three men are alone in the tent, Auda admires the nerve, wit and choices that Lawrence demonstrates during the great danger of his being recognized by the Captain. Outfoxed by the cool Lawrence, Auda makes his choice, for Lawrence and war.
This scene is ingenious because it uses one clever, integrating event to climax important lines of conflict, and it is an event that makes the choices of these characters the hardest they can be.
A poor way to have climaxed these conflicts would have been to do it in two separate scenes. One between Auda and the Captain, and then one between Auda and Lawrence, for example.
By having all three characters in the one scene, and by making it life changing for Auda, and life threatening for Lawrence, and by playing Lawrence in disguise with all the ironic suspense that flows from that, this scene is gripping and entertaining.
The stakes are high for all three characters at once (one—the Captain—doesn’t even know it but we do), and Auda’s final choice influences the rest of the story. Such condensed high drama played on many levels pulls the audience to the edge of their seats.
Rattigan’s prodigious skill in this scene demonstrates an important lesson regarding drama: Imagination + integration + irony + stakes = great drama.
Featured image: Russell Crowse as Javert in Les Misérables (2012) © 2012 – Universal Pictures