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Monday, December 7, 2020

Crafting Convergence

The concept of convergence is something I wish I was introduced to earlier in my writing journey, which is why I'm writing this post to introduce it to you now. I first ran into the concept a little more than a year ago (why so late in my journey? 🧐), and it's been in the back of my mind a lot lately. 

Don't get me wrong, I've heard convergent-related ideas--like ticking time bombs and deadlines--before, but they were never connected to the broader concept of "convergence." 

"To converge" means to meet at a point, incline toward each other, or to come to a common conclusion. 

I also think of it as having a kind of collision.

In crafting our stories, we often want a degree of convergence.

Convergence is about getting the audience to look ahead to a specific moment that promises a (potential) collision. This is very effective on the plot level, as it draws the audience into the story and keeps them around as they anticipate that collision.

So how do we bring convergence into our plot?

In his book, The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann breaks down different ways we can do just that.


Limited by Time

We can get the audience to anticipate a future event by restricting time.

This might be something like a deadline. (My capstone presentation is due on Monday.)

It might be a countdown. (We gotta defuse the bomb before it reaches zero.)

Or it might be something like having to save Christmas before Christmas morning. 

As Hartmann points out, the audience typically needs to be able to envision the potential consequences. If we don't fix X on Christmas Eve, Christmas could be ruined. If we do fix X on Christmas Eve, Christmas could be saved. (This is how I like to think of stakes, with my favorite "If . . . then . . ." approach.)

When the audience can imagine the different significant outcomes, they get invested in the story and are drawn in by anticipation. 

Sometimes the potential consequences can be left out to create mystery (but keep in mind that in order for this to work, there needs to be some drive. If the audience is left with little to no context for most of the story, the story isn't usually effective).

As time begins to run out, the situation begins to feel more intense. And having the characters struggle up until the last moment is usually a good idea.

The time may not always be a set time so to speak, but a near-future event. For example, in Star Wars, the Rebellion needs to succeed before the Death Star is fully operational. This is still a concern of time. It's just that it's a countdown to an event, rather than an explicit day, hour, or minute. Each Death Star update draws us closer to the end.

Diminishing Resources

But really, time is just a type of resource. So another way to create essentially the same effect, is to have a diminishing resource. 

This might be fuel.

It might be food, water, or oxygen.

It might be money.

It might be blood. 

It might be ammunition. 

As the resource becomes more and more depleted, the situation becomes more and more intense. As Hartmann says, we are "forcing the stakes." The stakes must draw closer as the resource gets lower.

He also points out we might show the lack of resource explicitly, like with a measuring device (such as a gas gauge), but it can also be dramatized, such as characters stuck on a raft that is heading toward a waterfall (where distance is the resource). 

Again, ideally, the resource should be continuing to diminish, which creates a sense of urgency. If it stays the same the whole time or even goes the other direction, that lessens the intensity (though perhaps in some situations at the right time, that might be what you are going for).  

The longer you can hold off a resolution, as the resource continues to diminish, the more intense the moment becomes.

(Arguably, being limited by a resource also overlaps with time, in the sense that once you run out of the resource, you run out of time.)

Driven by Destination

Convergence can also be created through a set destination. In The Land Before Time, it's established that Littlefoot and his friends must make it to the Great Valley (aka, paradise), and they must survive a perilous journey to get there. The audience sticks around to see if they succeed. Similarly, In Dante's Inferno, there is a spiraling path into the depths of Hell, with the destination being the ninth circle.

Hartmann explains that we can also create a sense of convergence by showing two characters journeying to the same place. As an audience, we watch as each person draws closer and closer, and we anticipate each character's arrival.

Even something like a map is effective, as it conveys to the audience that there is a place the character is moving toward. 

On the flip side, I'd like to add that the arrival of a threat works too. Rather than the protagonist going, it could be an antagonist coming.

In Galaxy Quest, the writers pull off something meta with convergence.

Convergence can work well at any structural level--scene, sequence, act, or overall plot

When the audience has the promise of a future moment, it sets up a sense of direction. 

And as writers, we want to give the audience a sense of direction.

Because remember, often what's effective isn't having no idea of what's going to happen, but not knowing which is going to happen. Even if you want to be "surprising," the most effective surprises are ones where different expectations have been set up. (More on that concept here.)

Once we have promised convergence, we want to remind the audience of the impending moment (without going overboard of course). Elsewhere, I have heard this referred to as giving the audience forewarnings--we want to show that we are getting closer to a definitive moment that forces significant stakes. In Back to the Future, people disappearing from a family photograph is used to remind the audience of an impending moment, the instance where Marty no longer exists.

In an early draft of my first novel, I made the mistake of undercutting and diminishing convergence, in part because it felt too formulaic and like a "convention" to me (you know how writers can be about such things in the beginning). What I didn't understand is that it's part of good storytelling--whether it's the journey to pirate treasure, making it to the end of the school year, stopping the permanent affects of a curse, meeting an application deadline, saving Christmas, preparing for the arrival of a dragon, or running out of water. 

Beyond that, I also feel that convergence plays a wider role; in a well-structured story, you'll see that multiple elements of the story will come together and "converge" during or near the climax. For example, often the internal conflict, the external conflict, the thematic conflict, and (in some cases) even the relationship conflict or societal conflict or nature conflict, will all come to a point at the climax of a story, for maximum impact. Similarly, the climax often marries the "Ordinary World" with the "Special World." But I don't want to muddy the concept too much today! As that's sort of a different school of thought on the concept.


In other news, if anyone is looking for a new writing book to read, I do recommend checking out The Structure of Story. I pretty much never do ARCs*, because it's extra reading time, and it's gotta be pretty amazing for me to endorse. But when Ross at Kiingo asked me to check it out, I kept getting the feeling I needed to say yes. I'm so glad I did. It became quickly clear that each chapter was loaded with wisdom. So many things he said resonated with and validated my own ideas on writing, but he also put words to concepts that I hadn’t yet nailed down. 

The book openly admits it may not be for everyone. I wouldn’t use it to introduce someone to writing--for me the ideas would have frankly gone over my head back then. But I know it's a book I'll be revisiting time and time again, along with some of my other favorite writing books

You can get a copy of The Structure of Story here.  

The book released a few weeks ago and became one of the top screenwriting books on Amazon. 

Finally, don't forget that I'm participating in this year's advent calendar for writers, where I'm giving away a first-chapter edit. The best part is, if you already follow me, you only need to click a few times to enter. Learn more here

* For those unfamiliar with industry terms, ARC stands for "advanced reader copy." These are books sent out ahead of the release date to garner reviews and exposure. Please know that I was not asked to share anything about the book in a blog post or on social media--I just really liked the book that much. Plus, I've been wanting to do an article on convergence anyway, so when I saw he had a section on that, I knew now was a good time.


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