The Difference Between Story and “Stuff That Happens”
And now, a question for main characters everywhere:
“How could you make your lives go from book-worthy adventures, to stories so normal (and boring) they’re not even worthy of sitcoms?”
Hint 1: Removing one thing would accomplish this.
Hint 2: Main characters frequently wish this thing was gone, or never happened.
Frodo’s wishing it right here.
If you eliminated one thing from the story, LotR could’ve been about a guy who goes for a long walk, hikes up a volcano, hurls a piece of jewelry into lava, walks home, then goes on living in the Shire.
Afterwards, Frodo could take up doily crocheting to fill the bland days.
Or maybe chicken husbandry.
Or he could be really venturesome and take up both hobbies.
Yes, this version of “The Lord of the Rings” would be dull, mundane, and purposeless. But, it would’ve been a lot easier on Frodo. And this goes for all main characters. Exterminate this, and your lives cease to be troublesome. Or at least outwardly. Inside, you might still be rather unhappy. You’d still have trouble inside your head and your character, and there wouldn’t be any outward force pressuring those weaknesses into strengths. So, you couldn’t grow. But without this story element, their lives would become much easier. Examples:
– Frodo melts a piece of jewelry, then lives out his days making new doily hats for all of his chicken friends.
– Judy Hopps arrives in Zootopia, and Chief Bogo greets her warmly. He gives her a custom-sized chair, lets her choose what case she’d like to work on, then resigns his job and gives it to her on the spot.
– Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts and Snape ruffles his hair affectionately, Draco transfers to Durmstrang, Quirrel falls down the moving staircases (seriously, they changed position just so he’d fall down all of them) and is killed. Voldy decides to just give up and die. Harry has a peaceful seven years of wizarding education.
Those stories seem … fantastic. Really pleasant and uplifting.
And also really really boring.
Nobody will want to read that. Nobody would want to live that either, frankly. So sorry main characters, but you need this one element. Because although this force produces all strife, the struggle against it also gives life shape, makes it interesting, makes it a good story.
Sorry Frodo. Stop crying.
So what is this magical misery-inducing thing that marks the difference between boring and book-worthy?
Yup, CONFLICT. Opposition. Misfortune. Trouble.
The forces that try to stop the hero from achieving what they want. That apply pressure to your hero’s soul and forge it in fire, creating it into something far stronger. Without conflict, you don’t have a story. You just have “stuff that happens” and more than likely, that stuff will be boring. Remember, story at its most basic level = “A person overcoming difficult obstacles to achieve a goal, and how that journey changes them.”
So! Conflict is an essential element of the foundation of your entire story. So how do you find it? How do you create it?
Ask the following: Who fights who? Over what? And why?
Well, your villain fights your hero. But, when you’re developing your villain, here’s a good trick: make the villain the shadow of your main character. Make them very similar. In fact, make the villain represent what the hero will become if they fail their arc.
Your villain needs a goal, just like your hero. And it’s a good idea to make that goal the exact same thing as your hero’s goal, wanted for very different reasons. Most good stories work that way.
Such as the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Or the One Ring.
At first glance, some don’t seem to be battling over the same thing, but look closer: in a murder mystery, the detective and the murderer are battling over the truth about who killed the victim.
At a deeper level, the fight between your hero and your villain is a fight between two opposing belief systems, or sets of values. Two opposing theories about How to Live Life Well. Your good characters have one thing they believe, and your bad characters have another. The story is going to prove that one is RIGHT, and the other is WRONG. Remember, your story has something to say. It is a dramatized idea, that your reader will learn, through the experience of living the story. Make sure that the argument you’re seeking to prove is, in fact, true. That it is morally and logically sound.
Giving your story this depth, this hidden layer of meaning and truth, will elevate it instantly. Please remember though: Don’t make your villain’s opposing beliefs just blandly evil. His argument should make some sense – but have a fatal flaw in logic. The surface of his beliefs can look great, but the core is rotten. Seem fairer, but feel fouler. (Wow, apparently I’m in a Lord of the Rings mood.)
So! When you’re locating and developing the Central Conflict of your story, think about these three questions:
1) Who fights who?
2) What are they fighting over?
3) Why are they fighting?