“May you live in interesting times.” That’s a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it, but there is no doubt that now we are indeed living in interesting times. And they don’t look likely to take a turn toward the ‘boring’ any time soon. While watching the news this morning, I couldn’t help but feel that we’re all trapped in some author’s crazy story or maybe a long-running Twilight Zone episode.
In storytelling, creating a strong central conflict, and backing that up with escalation along the way, is how you get a compelling story. That can be a real challenge and many first drafts are lacking in that aspect. To establish strong conflict, your characters need clearly defined goals that are in opposition to each other, backed up with believable motivations, and tried by challenges throughout the story.
One of the things we were taught in the McDaniel program (that I have to re-learn every time I start a new story) was the conflict box. It’s a great way to really get clear on what your characters want and what each of them is doing to thwart the other during the course of the story. Whether your characters battle it out to a “winner takes all” conclusion or join forces mid-stream to tackle a bigger conflict, they need to have goals.
A plan doesn’t hurt either.
In the real-life story we’re now living, the cosmic author seems to have started out with an idea, Global Pandemic, and an over-reaching goal of “save the people from a terrible disease.” But who are the protagonist and antagonist? Is the focus of the story the healthcare workers who are battling to save patients while dealing with lack of supplies and resources? Is this a moralistic tale about the battle between individual freedom and the good of the community? Maybe it was intended to be an international thriller with a virus released to create havoc, thwarted by political machinations, and almost insurmountable odds. For some, this has been a heartbreaking story of personal loss; a global story reduced to an individual focus. Currently, I’m rooting for this to be the story of a scrappy scientist who beats the odds and develops a vaccine, despite being continually thwarted along the way by mis-information and the ulterior motives of others. The identify of the antagonist is a little murky, but I have some ideas on that too.
Recently, our cosmic author seems to have decided the first story draft was a little lacking and didn’t have quite enough conflict, so things have been stepped up in this latest version. “Inequality and social justice” have been added to the plot, changing the focus of the story. Now, the Global Pandemic aspect seems more like trouble our protagonist encounters during the course of the story, rather than the main conflict. The inciting incident for this current story draft is clear, but who will our protagonist be? Is this a community story or will someone rise up to be the breakout star? Our antagonist seems to be, not an individual, but our own history. Our scrappy scientist is still working away in the background, but has been reduced to a secondary character as the larger story unfolds. There is plenty of conflict and tension and escalation. The question is: Where is the story going?
Will a nice plague of locusts be next?
All of this is not intended to make light of what is a terrible situation with far-reaching implications. It is a time of great uncertainty, but also great opportunity. I’m not sure what plan our cosmic author has for this story, but we can certainly do our part to help drive the story to a positive resolution.
Now would be a good time to start working on that.