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Monday, February 21, 2022

Dramatize Conflicting Wants

This week's writing tip is short, yet effective. And it comes from The Structure of Story by Ross Hartmann.

In most strong stories, the protagonist will, at some point, be struggling with conflicting wants. And if it's not the protagonist, it's at least another character. This can be something small, within a given scene, or something overreaching. Often what the character wants is at odds with what the character needs, and frequently in the third quarter of the story, the character will be trying to get both the want and need. Whatever the case, when the character has opposing goals, there is an opportunity for some great inner conflict.

Sure, a lot of times, this will be rendered in introspection--which is a great way to use introspection. But of course, introspection is rather abstract and well . . . happens inside the character, and therefore doesn't impact the surrounding world as much as action.

Rather than only have the conflict appear internally, it's often more effective to have the character try to take action toward each goal at the same time. Or, as Hartmann says it, dramatize the inner conflict. 

The example he gives in The Structure of Story goes like this . . . 

"Say a character is internally conflicted about whether she wants to go on a date with a man she met at a local café. To dramatize this internal conflict, we want to show her taking action toward the date and then taking action to cancel the date. First she begins to call his number but then immediately hangs up before he answers. After a couple of moments to calm her nerves, she calls again. She suggests a date for tomorrow night and he enthusiastically agrees. But then she decides against it and invites her brother. He's clearly disappointed but says it's a great idea. She decides she wants the date again so she asks him to bring someone else so that it's a double-date. She says, 'See you later, buddy,' and hangs up. Notice the unspoken battle within her. She jumps back and forth between her conflicting desires."

And now, her conflicting desires are affecting others, such as the man and her brother. This gives us more to play with.

Hartmann also points out that showing the character debating and struggling between two wants conveys to the audience that the choice isn't easy. The character is going to have to eventually sacrifice something of value. The audience will want to stick around to see which "something" the character will choose. The whiplash effect of moving from one desire to the other and back again, as they try to make both happen, also makes any part of a story more dynamic.


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