There will be occasions in your writing journey when things will be going well, when words will come easily on paper and you’ll like what you’ve written.
But these occasions are rare. As a writer, most of your time will be spent on getting into trouble and then getting out of it, turning a dull or uneven scene into a compelling force.
To keep the readers invested in your story, they should be able to identify with and care about your characters. Identification is how the audience experience a character, feel his feelings, and become the character as they immerse into the story.
More than concepts and models, stories are experiences. So instead of telling you how a story should work, let me show you. Let’s start with a modern legend – a story which spread by word of mouth, passed from person to person as if it was true.
So why did I start with the story of the choking dog? Because it’s pure plot. It’s not about the characters, the place, or the time. Only about what happens.
A great plot evolves according to audience expectations, not in terms of what will happen, but with regard to how a story should be.
When going through your short story or novel or script, the audience should always feel like the story is moving forward – that it’s going somewhere. Otherwise, neither you nor they will be happy with your writing.
When things don’t seem to be making sense, when you lose your way, the first thing to check is have you adhered to the basics. The Choking Dog has 3 parts: conflict, action, resolution.
If these 3 elements aren’t setup properly, nothing else will work. You can try fixing other things, but it’ll be a wasted effort. When things don’t seem right, go back to CAR (conflict, action, resolution) immediately.
Conflict (Intent + Obstacle)
The first part, also called the beginning or setup, sets up the story by introducing a conflict. The audience can’t identify with a character unless they know who he really is.
And nothing reveals who he is better than what he does in face of a conflict. Barriers draw him out, and pull the reader into the story.
A life full of happiness and no struggles is not dramatic. Without conflicts, the characters are having nothing but a good time, which means the reader is not.
The pursuit to achieve happiness can be good story material, but not happiness itself. And happiness can be the resolution of your story, but it can’t be the whole story. If all is going well, it means the story is going nowhere.
Conflicts turn dull stories into page-turners because they make the characters act, specially in ways that reveal more about them. For a conflict to rise, the character must have two things:
A motive (aka intent or want) – Something that matters to him. Your story should make it clear what each character wants. If there is no want, that’s a problem. That’s because no action can take place without a want. Whatever the want or intent, it should be strong enough to propel the story.
An obstacle (aka barrier) – Something preventing him from satisfying intent. Without an obstacle or series of barriers against the intent, you can’t have the dramatic tension required to propel the story. Just like the intent, it should be determined, desperate and driven to oppose or deny the intent.
In the Choking Dog story, the woman’s intent is well being of her dog. The obstacle is that the dog is choking on something. So there is a conflict.
To make the story compelling, both intent and obstacle must seem equally strong. If one is stronger than the other, than there is no conflict.
A real conflict emerges when something of great value is at stake. If the character doesn’t care much about what he wants, the reader won’t either.
Your character must feel strongly that things need to change, urgently. He cannot be in his current situation any longer. He must be driven, determined and desperate to satisfy his intent and won’t settle for any less.
If the want and obstacle aren’t such that the character is worried or scared, and if there’s any chance that your character can put up with what already is, and if it’s a matter of choice, then the conflict isn’t strong enough. It won’t push the character to its limits.
Without conflict, you will find yourself struggling to keep the story going. This is because you’re making the effort to propel the story, not your characters. Your job as the author is to create strong wants and obstacles, and let the characters do their jobs.
The choking dog story wouldn’t have had the same effect if the dog was merely sneezing or coughing a bit instead of choking.
Another conflict is introduced when the phone rings and the vet tells the woman to get out of the house. The reader guesses the danger is somehow related to the mystery of choking dog. But how?
Action & Impact
In the 2nd part, also called the middle, the character takes action to satisfy her intent or resolve the conflict. The action comes from what happened in the beginning, the conflict. Cause and effect.
Once the conflict is in place, action is what the character is doing to resolve the conflict, to overcome the barrier and fulfill intent.
But anything a character does isn’t action. He can do any kind of ranting, running or smashing, but unless it’s an attempt to resolve the conflict, the readers won’t care.
For an action to really count, it should be a straight attack at the obstacle or problem. Or at least defense against it. When the dog is choking , the woman takes the dog to the vet.
For the readers to identify with a character, a story is supposed to reach the limit, or get to the bottom of the character. That’s why we need to push them and pressure them with intense conflicts, and let them respond in an authentic way.
With each scene or chapter, the character must be stewing and wrestling and fretting with what just happened, contemplating options as to what he’ll do now.
When she gets the phone call and yelling from the doctor, the action is to first try to know why and then get out of the house. The phone call scene works because it has moved the character to a worse, new place, where she is even more worried and scared than before.
The more difficult you make things for your character, the more extreme his actions, and the more is getting revealed about him. So the audience can really experience the character.
Romeo loved and pursued Juliet with all his heart. Hamlet agonized enough over his issues. Ahab went all the way to get Moby-Dick. All these characters took steps to overcome intense hurdles, and in the process revealed more of themselves.
One reason people love reading and watching fiction is to live through the extreme experiences that hardly come in real life. So a great storyteller pushes his characters, conflicts and actions as far as he can at every chance.
In fact, every choice, every action that you’re contemplating to put in your story should be checked against this rule. It must be revealing. When stuck with 2 or 3 choices, for example, ask yourself, “Which reveals more character?” And go with that.
The 3rd part is the end, also called climax, which gives a logical resolution to the events that happened in the beginning and the middle. In the Choking Dog, the vet arrives and explains the theory, which is confirmed by the cops. Everything makes sense.
Many aspiring writers think that endings trouble them. But when you’re struggling with your ending, the ending itself isn’t usually the problem. It’s the beginning.
When you’re struggling with a strong ending, it’s because you don’t have a strong beginning (an intense conflict). Ending is difficult when there’s no real beginning – an intense conflict between want and obstacle.
When you have two equally strong forces going against each other, you have a strong beginning. Get the beginning right, and your characters will propel the story towards a satisfying end.
When the intent beats the obstacle, or vice versa, you get the ending. The ending is resolution of the conflict, which can be either victory, defeat or a compromise.
Building Blocks Connected
So in simple form, whether it’s a single scene or the entire story comprised of several scenes, it’ll have 3 building blocks: conflict, action and resolution.
The main plot of a novel or story will be about a large conflict, followed by an action or set of actions, settled by one big ending. The scenes or chapters are about the sub-plots, with their own conflicts, actions and resolutions.
Every chapter is a little story with conflict, action and resolution. Each scene will have a conflict, action, resolution, but not the final resolution.
In scene resolutions, things should get worse than they were at the beginning. Ideally, you should keep building conflict after conflict, making things worse with ever scene and chapter.
In a good story, things keep getting worse and worse, with layers of conflicts appearing in every scene and chapter, until the end, when things start getting better or disaster comes out on top.
If there are two scenes or chapters in your story with a lot of activity, but things haven’t gotten worse, your story isn’t moving.
Each step should lead to more trouble and threat for the character. That’s what you’ll keep working on mastering throughout the craft.
Cause & Effect
Another important thing to note is that in a strong plot, things don’t happen at random or without any reason. Everything should be connected and make sense.
Any event that’s too convenient or coincidental weakens the plot and turns off the audience. In the Choking Dog, help comes from the vet who has already been introduced and established in the story.
The barriers, actions, or helping hands should come from within the story. Not suddenly out of nowhere. A plot is the simplest answer to the question, “What happened and why?”
In The Choking Dog, the dog is choking. Why? That’s the first why that comes to mind as we read.
It happens again when the vet tells the woman to get out of the house. The reader wonders why. He is already anticipating there is a link between the two incidents. And it turns out there is. So the reader is satisfied.
A series of such links that connect different parts of a story or novel together is the plot. Without these links, without the plot, the reader has disconnected details that add up to nothing.
A Story Without Plot
As I said, the Choking Dog is a story which is pure plot. Because a plot has a sequence of action and reaction. Now let’s read a story which is just a story. There is no plot.
Compare the Choking Dog with the Fisher Husband. Were you gripped? Was it compelling? Did the reader get the experience expected from a story?
The answer is no. The choking dog story arouses readers’ expectations and directs them while the fisher husband does not.
Each event in the Choking Dog is connected to another to form a unified whole. It triggers the question “Why?” at a couple of instances and ultimately answers them.
The Fisher Husband, on the other hand, just conveys what happened and to whom, but not why. Is there a connection between fisherman catching a weird fish and the whale taking the wife? Was it revenge? Or the whale needed a new housekeeper? The reader doesn’t know.
Readers want the second event to happen because of the first event, but there are no clues connecting the two. And why did the shark help the fisherman? Where did it come from? No answers again. A source of help out of the blue weakens the plot even more.
The Fisher Husband fails on what people expect a story to be. There are no barriers keeping the character from saving his wife. The fisherman and shark simply achieve their goal without any resistance. There is no conflict.
Knowingly or unknowingly, readers expect a strong plot. Take another example. “A man died and his mother died.” Two events. Plain and simple. That’s a story.
Now connect the first event to the second. Make the second event a result of the first event. “A man died and his mother died from grief.” That’s a plot.
A story is a sequence of events. The audience asks what happened next. They don’t need to remember what happened before, though they will because they expect a plot.
A plot is more. The audience expects to know why. They remember the events that have led up to here and try to find connections. The mystery entertains them and draws them in. Keeps them invested.
When it comes to our taste in stories, we prefer logic to chaos and order to disorder. When listening to a joke, all the details play a part in building up to the main punchline.
So a story with a plot should have a cause and effect – a beginning, middle and end coming together to make a unified whole.
Let’s take another story. Try to identify which basic element is missing.
Did the story hook or move you? Are you satisfied after reading this? Of course not. Bored or irritated may be, but certainly not entertained. So what did The Choking Dog get right that this story got wrong?
Yes, you guessed it. There is no conflict in this piece. No barriers to prevent the characters from completing their intentions. So it just falls flat.
How can you turn this into a gripping story? By introducing tension and conflict. Let’s see an example:
So what do you think? Better than the first version right? Through conflict after conflict, I gave you an experience that kept you reading. And the stakes got higher with each conflict.
Of course, that’s not the end. The story can go in lot of directions. But no matter what direction you pick, there must be conflict, action and resolution. Or the story will fail. Let’s review another:
How’s this one so far? How’s is the level of involvement? For most readers, it’d be on the high side. Why?
Does the character have a strong intent? Yes, a clean kitchen. Is there a barrier? Yes, the kitchen is a mess. So the beginning has been taken care of. There is a want and an obstacle to that want.
And then comes the middle part, which again does a great job of keeping the readers’ attention. First, the the character took action to resolve the problem. And second, the plot thickened.
What does that mean? It means a new layer of conflict has surfaced. The problem gets worse or more dangerous, in the form of another character called Mike. Let’s go ahead to the next part.
How about this? Do you think the reader will be as invested reading this as he was when reading the previous part? Not at all. He is right in the middle of a tense, dramatic scene, waiting to see what happens next.
But the writer suddenly shifts gear and goes into “most days.” He doesn’t care what happens in most days. At least not for now. The writer just interrupted a scene which was unfolding so great. Here’s the last part:
How about now? Is the reader back into the fold? Most are, and in a big way. The character took action again, this time towards the real source of conflict, the character Mike. That’s all with this scene. It leave it up to you to figure out the end, the resolution.
Mike may agree not make a mess again. Or she may agree to put up with it. Or they both agree to meet in the middle. Or split up. You choose.
There You Go
As you can see, storytelling is about sticking to the basics. If conflict and action are in place, then your story will be moving forward. You will not be stuck.
The fundamentals of conflict, action, and resolution, along with emotion and showing, are all you need to write and fix your work. Making a mess is inevitable. Sooner or later you will get into trouble.
What matters is how quickly you get out of it and get back on track. Speed matters because it determines if you’ll finish your story in weeks or years.
If you want to make sure that most of your time is spent on productive writing, and not trying to write, your greatest asset is mastery in the fundamentals, part of which boils down to CAR.
But remember, understanding isn’t mastery. It’ll take practice. Just write and don’t expect too much from the first draft. Think of it as creating raw material to later turn into a compelling story. For now, it’s about warming up and throwing words on the page.