What’s the Price for That Nice Plot Device?

You’ve heard of plot devices, but do you know what they are? Are they good or bad? Can you name any? For answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right blog post.

No, wrong kind of ‘device.’
From www.snappygoat.com.

Before we can define the term ‘plot device,’ let’s review what a plot is, and how a writer develops one. A plot is a sequence of events in a story, events connected by cause and effect. The writer aims to construct this sequence such that it accomplishes at least the following goals:

  1. illustrates the human condition,
  2. introduces a conflict and depicts the protagonist striving to resolve it,
  3. grabs and sustains the reader’s attention,
  4. leaves the reader with a powerful emotion at the end, and
  5. reflects believable cause-and-effect connections.

If you’re a writer crafting your story, it can be difficult to achieve all these purposes successfully. Often a complication develops. Unlike the reader, you know the story’s end and you’re aiming for that point. You might hit a snag where the next logical event in a cause-effect chain will not result in your desired story ending. To put it another way, to get to the end you want, something illogical has to happen. Your options at this point include:

  • re-writing earlier sections to make the strange cause-effect chain believable
  • re-thinking the ending of the story
  • introducing a plot device to get past the difficulty

Often the first two options are undesirable, so that drives writers to the third—the plot device.

The ‘device’ in the term ‘plot device’ refers to its original definition of a plan, scheme, or technique, not its modern connotation of a mechanical or electronic gadget.

Here are some examples of plot devices:

  • Bogus alternatives. This one comes from the Turkey City Lexicon. Sometimes, to make the plot work, the author needs a character to take an uncharacteristic action. An inexperienced author will walk the reader through the character’s mental list of options, rationalizing why the character chooses one action and not the others. This interrupts the story’s pace, pulls the reader out of the story, and is unnecessary.
  • Deus ex machina. A surprise entity comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from a plot problem. Let’s see, Jules Verne thinks, I’ve got the title, The Mysterious Island, and I’ve got my heroic castaways who survive mostly by their wits, except sometimes they need outside help. I know! I’ll let them be aided by an unknown benefactor, later revealed to be Captain Nemo!”
  • Idiot plot. This is another one from the Turkey City Lexicon. If the writers plot problem is serious, one solution would be to set the story in the land of idiots, which would explain any unusual action taken by any character. They can all act to further the author’s plot, no matter how irrational any character’s actions seem.
  • MacGuffin. The protagonist pursues an object, believing it to be important, though (to the reader) another object could work as well. “Listen, Dashiell, I like novel, but can we change this Sicilian Vulture statuette to something else…say, a Maltese Falcon?” “Okay, sure.”
  • Plot voucher. Someone gives the protagonist an object that turns out to be the one thing needed later to get the hero out of a bad situation. “Holy plot device, Batman, why are you loading bear repellent in your utility belt?” “Better safe than sorry, Robin.” <later> “Holy Ursa Major, Batman! We’re surrounded by hungry grizzlies!” “Yes, lucky thing I happened to bring…”
  • Red herring. Anything used by the author to distract the reader’s attention away toward the unimportant and away from the important. Most frequently used in mysteries to lead the reader toward an incorrect conclusion. The term dates from the use of strong-smelling fish to divert hounds from chasing the hare. I haven’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but I understand it contains a character with an Italian name that translates as “red herring.”
  • Shoulder angel. A plot device used in visual media such as comic books, animated cartoons, or screenplays to illustrate a protagonist debating with her conscience, sometimes accompanied by a devil (temptation) on the other shoulder.

 From the tone of my post, you’re probably concluding that plot devices are bad, and it’s best not to use them. I’m not going to take that stance. Most writers try not to need them, but end up using them from time to time. The trick is to write well enough that readers get so swept up by your story that they don’t notice you’ve used a plot device.

To sum up, what is the price of that nice plot device, as I so poetically asked in the post’s title? The answer is, it’s free to use, but if you don’t use it well, readers won’t enjoy your story. Take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Map of All Story Plots

When you’re stuck for a story idea, it may seem like other authors have already written all the good tales. Every time you think of a plot, for example, your head swims with titles that have covered that plot, worn it thin.

Are there only so many plots, you wonder, peopled with different characters, set in different places and times, portraying different themes, and written in different tones and styles?

Others have wondered that before you, and developed their own lists of all plot types. Prepare to be confused, and then (perhaps) unconfused.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker declared there are seven plot types: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, The Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Comedy, and Tragedy.

One year earlier, Ronald B. Tobias came out with his book, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. His list included plots such as Revenge, Transformation, and Wretched Excess.

Much earlier, in 1916, the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti introduced thirty-six plot categories, including Obtaining, Rivalry of Superior and Inferior, and Loss of Loved Ones.

Great, you’re thinking, but how many are there—seven, twenty, or thirty-six? That depends on the way you like to categorize things. You could cut a pizza into seven, twenty, or thirty-six pieces, and they’d still add up to the same pie.

That’s what I wanted to explore today. How do those categorization schemes compare to each other? Can you take Booker’s seven plots and see where Tobias’ twenty fit into them? Do Polti’s thirty-six plots fit somehow with Tobias’ and Booker’s taxonomies?

I couldn’t find any example of someone doing this, so I did it. I designated each of Booker’s categories with a B-number: B1, B2, etc. I did similarly with Tobias’ 20 (T1, T2, etc.) and Polti’s 36 (P1, P2, etc.)

Then the trouble started. Many didn’t fit well at all. In such cases, I read the descriptions the authors gave for their categories and chose the one in the other’s categories that seemed most like the one I was considering. You may disagree with the way I’ve mapped them, and I’d love to know your reasoning.

For your careful study, wry amusement, and utter disgust, here is my mapping of the three plot schema against each other:

By now, some questions have occurred to you. One might be, “Can’t a single story be a mixture of two or more of those plot types?” Answer: Yes, there’s no law against that.

Others of you are asking, “Why are the love stories listed as comedies?” Answer: Booker defined his comedy category as including more than humorous stories, and in particular included love stories in that group.

Lastly, there are those asking, “Of what use is this map? Come to think of it, of what use are the three taxonomies?” Answer: for those who asked that, I have no answer that will satisfy you. Go ahead and just write any old story whether it fits a pre-discovered plot category or not.

For those who didn’t ask that last question, you’re probably comfortable with the fact that some people like to take a mass of data and try to organize it somehow, to create filing categories like a Dewey decimal system or biological taxonomies.

Whether you think there are seven, twenty, or thirty-six plot types, or if you don’t see the point in dividing that pizza at all, there are plenty of stories remaining for you to write. Let’s see if the next one you create will be better than any authored by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 12, 2017Permalink

Do You Know the MacGuffin Man?

What is a MacGuffin, do you want one in your story, and if so, how do you incorporate one? Read on to find out about this literary term.

MacGuffinSimply put, a MacGuffin is the protagonist’s goal. It can also be the goal of the antagonist as well. Perhaps they’re both pursuing it, or seeking to prevent the other from having it. It can be a tangible object, or an abstract idea.

Examples of MacGuffins in literature and film include the falcon figurine in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the witch’s broomstick in the film “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Golden Fleece in Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem “Argonautica.”

Some stories have more than one MacGuffin, and characters seek them in sequence, one after the other. This is common in fantasy stories and fantasy games. Multiple MacGuffins are termed plot coupons.

A character’s goal (the MacGuffin) is different from a character’s motivation. As author Starla Criser explains, a goal is what you want. A motivation is why you want it. We’re mostly talking about the goal here, but it’s important that you convey to the reader that your character has a good reason to pursue that MacGuffin.

There remains some confusion over the term MacGuffin. In the Wikipedia article, director Alfred Hitchcock seems to dismiss it as unimportant—“The audience don’t care.” Director George Lucas disagrees, saying viewers should care about the MacGuffin as much as they do the main characters.

Author Michael Kurland resolves this confusion well in his article about MacGuffins. He says it’s important for the writer to establish why the MacGuffin is vital to the character early in the story. Regardless of the reader’s actual feelings about the MacGuffin, it’s vital that the reader understand its importance to the character. After that point, writers should emphasize the plot and the characters to give life and vitality to the story, and the MacGuffin can fade in significance.

The Wikipedia article states that the protagonist’s pursuit of the MacGuffin often has little or no explanation. I can understand little explanation, but none? The reader has to know the reason for the character’s hunt; otherwise, why should the reader care about the character at all?

Now you know the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Yes, you do know the MacGuffin Man. He lives in Literury Lane, of course! Address all complaints about bad puns to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 4, 2016Permalink

Shunning the Shaggy Dog Story

Someday you might get a comment back from your critique group or an editor declaring your submitted manuscript to be a “shaggy dog story.” What is that, and is it good or bad?

Wikipedia defines a shaggy dog story as a very long tale, with drawn-out explanations of irrelevant events, culminating in a pointless ending. If you’ve written what others consider a shaggy dog story, that’s not a good thing.

Shaggy Dog Story
No Shaggy Dog Stories

The shaggy dog works slightly better, if at all, in joke form. There’s a rhythm to long, story-type jokes, and listeners are willing to settle in and follow along. After the long build-up, when the punchline is a non-humorous anticlimax, that twist on the typical joke format is supposed to be the funny. It usually doesn’t work.

As an example, when I was a boy I enjoyed telling the Bavarian Cream Pie joke. There are variations of this joke on-line, here, here, and here. In my version, a man seeks the best Bavarian Cream Pie (BCP) in the world. He travels very far, meeting people who tell him where to get the best BCP. Finally, he’s told he must climb the tallest mountain in Bavaria, which he scales. He finds a small restaurant on top, goes in and orders Bavarian Cream Pie. The waiter says they’re all out. The man says, “That’s okay, make it an apple pie.”

I’ll pause here to let you finish laughing. Oh, you’re done already? As you can see, the shaggy dog story emulates a story in many respects (character, setting, style, theme), but there is a silly or stupid resolution of the plot. The story says nothing about the human condition, unless the message is that human existence is pointless. Even existentialist literature doesn’t go that far.

You would think it would be easy to avoid writing a shaggy dog story. Here are some ways you might well fall into the trap:

  • As you’re writing, you think of new and interesting events to include, events unrelated to your plot.
  • Somewhere along the way, you forget something about your main character—an internal conflict she or he must overcome, or even what the character’s goal is.
  • You can’t think of a suitable ending that effectively wraps up the story, so your tale just peters out.

Those pitfalls suggest methods to keep from veering toward shagginess:

  • Kill your darlings. Cut out events and even entire scenes that do not advance your plot.
  • As you write, maintain the idea that your story must have a point. There are conflicts, both external and internal, your protagonist must resolve.
  • There are two ways to avoid the pointless ending problem. First, you could write (or at least outline) the ending first, and then back up and write the story that aims toward that ending. Alternatively, if you don’t want to know the ending before you write the rest, check to see if the ending you finally write does, in fact, resolve the conflicts. If it doesn’t, rewrite it.

Remember, no shaggy dog stories. Shaggy dogs themselves, however, are fine. I certify that no dog, shaggy or otherwise, was harmed, nor was its character impugned, in the writing of this post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Hero’s Journey, Oversimplified

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most basic plot types in literature. In 2013, author John Green discussed the hero’s journey in his commencement address at Butler University. In my view, he presented an incomplete view.

Simplified Version of Campbell's Hero Journey
Simplified Version of Campbell’s Hero Journey

In 1949, Joseph Campbell introduced his analysis of the hero’s journey in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s analysis was a complex one, with no less than seventeen stages of the journey.

At the Butler commencement, Mr. Green said that most people consider the hero’s journey to be from a state of weakness to a state of strength. He contended the opposite was true, that heroes begin with strength and end with weakness.

“The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness…Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings coffee to people, or a Steak n Shake waiter…That is the true hero’s errand–strength to weakness. And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery.”

I get what Mr. Green was trying to do in the context of a college commencement. He was preparing the graduates for an upcoming period of weakness. Further, he was telling them they would be better people for having thus suffered. Granted, that’s a valuable teaching point.

Let’s take a moment to define what we mean by “strength” and “weakness.” The most obvious connotation is physical. But we can also speak of strength and weakness in the following areas: mental, spiritual, emotional, overall character, and others.

In most hero’s journey tales, the hero will pass from strength to weakness in at least one of those planes. He or she will reach a place of utter weakness and vulnerability of some kind (or multiple kinds) at some point in the story. Either the antagonist or the environment will bring the hero down.

One Possible Hero's Journey Path
One Possible Hero’s Journey Path

But the story never ends there, does it? It’s not a very heroic tale if the bad guy wins. The hero must pick himself up from the bloody boxing ring mat, or she must summon all her courage from somewhere in misery’s abyss, to rise above the situation. The hero must achieve, through personal toil, a kind of strength at the end.

That final strength can include nuance, of course. The defeat of the antagonist can come with a new understanding of the world’s complexities—the bad guy might have had some valid point among his faults, a point deserving exploration. Or perhaps the hero, having sailed his ship through the perfect storm, might come to a realization that he would never do such a thing again.

Such nuance doesn’t constitute a return to weakness, however. On balance, the hero must end in a position of strength.

With respect to the author of The Fault in Our Stars, Mr. Green should not have stopped at weakness in his address. What a gloomy view of life he gave those graduates! He should have bent the curve upward at the end, should have said heroes move from initial strength to weakness, and on to final strength. He should have told them what happens after the “dehumanizing drudgery.”

Sorry, Mr. Green, but hero’s journey tales have to end with strength. That’s the opinion of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Note: You’ve gone and done it now. You’ve waited until the very last day of the Smashwords ½ price sale. Tomorrow my books return to full price. Today is your day to be a hero. Pick yourself up from the depths ofswlogo procrastination and, with your last ounce of strength, surf here, click on a book or two, and use the code they give you at checkout to get the discount.

What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X

 

Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Shifting the Narrative Arc

That adage about a picture being worth a thousand words really resonates with me. I like pictures and diagrams. It would be great to capture the structure of a story plot with a picture, wouldn’t it?

Luckily, I don’t have to invent one. That’s been done. And redone and redone. Search the web for “plot arcs” and you’ll see many, many ways to depict story plots. I even offered my own picture here.

Today I’ll pick a few representative plot arcs and discuss how they’ve changed through time. First, let me introduce various writers who analyzed plots and came up with their own terms for the various events and phases of a story:

  • Gustav Freytag: Exposition, Inciting Incident/Complication, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution, Dénouement
  • Mark Flanagan: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution
  • Nigel Watts: Stasis, Trigger, The quest, Surprise, Critical choice, Climax, Reversal, Resolution
  • Rob Sanders: Problem, Obstacle 1, Obstacle 2, Obstacle 3, Black Moment, Resolution, Change/Growth
  • H.R. D’Costa: Inciting Incident, First Act Break (25%), Midpoint, Point of Commitment, All Is Lost (75%), Climax, Resolution (applicable to movies)

As you can see, different people use different terms. I’ve tried to line them up in the following chart:

Gustav Freytag Mark Flanagan Nigel Watts Rob Sanders H.R. D’Costa
Exposition Exposition Stasis
Inciting Incident/ Complication Trigger Problem Inciting Incident
Rising Action Rising Action The quest Obstacle 1 First Act Break (25%)
Surprise Obstacle 2 Midpoint (50%)
Critical Choice Obstacle 3 Point of Commitment
Black Moment All is Lost (75%)
Climax Climax Climax Climax
Falling Action Falling Action Reversal
Resolution Resolution Resolution Resolution Resolution
Dénouement Change/Growth

It’s a rough alignment, I admit. What I find interesting is the shift from the way Gustav Freytag depicted the plot arc (his is termed a plot pyramid).

Freytag diagramNote the symmetry. That’s what he was trying to illustrate, that exposition is the counterpart of dénouement, inciting incident is the counterpart to resolution, and so on. His pyramid clearly depicts which terms refer to specific events, and which to time periods.

The weakness of Freytag’s arc is that it might lead a writer to believe these are equal chunks of time (if time is the horizontal (‘x’) axis. More, if Freytag meant for the vertical (‘y’) axis to represent excitement or tension, is it true that the story comes all the way back down to the low excitement of the beginning?

Modern attempts to correct these weaknesses are typified by this diagram of Rob Sanders’s plot arc.

Sanders diagramNote the shift to the right, indicating that you want to conclude the story rapidly after the peak of the action. Most of the time in the story is spent increasing the tension with a succession of obstacles. After the peak, end things quickly.

Also, note that the arc does not return all the way down to the same low level of tension and excitement present at the story’s beginning.

Finally, note the absence of any Exposition. The arc starts with a problem. Bang. No introduction of characters or explanation of their backgrounds. Today, authors hook the reader with a problem right away, and catch up with descriptions and backstory later, either through flashbacks or inference, or working it in via dialogue or character thoughts.

My advice is not to fixate on plot diagrams. Get the general idea of how plots work, then write your story. True, the best stories do adhere to these diagrams closely, but I’m betting the greatest authors didn’t spend much time drawing plot arcs.

A picture (of a plot arc) may well be worth a thousand words, but you’re a writer. Write the thousand words, sez:

Poseidon’s Scribe

Missing People, Unsolved Crimes

Today I’ll let you inside the thinking process of a writer as he tries to flesh out a story idea. In this case, it’s the idea for the story that would become RippersRing72dpi“Ripper’s Ring.”

I had read about the Ring of Gyges and thought it would be a great idea for a story. There’ve been many famous novels with invisibility rings, so I needed to separate my story from those in some way.

While thinking about how to form a story about the Ring of Gyges, I wondered what would happen to the ring over time. It occurred to me that an owner would not pass it to his own child. First, the ring’s owner would be unlikely to tell anyone about it, even his own children. Second, he would be unlikely to relinquish it to anyone while he remained alive. Third, possession of the ring ends up being a curse, so the owner would not want to pass that on.

Therefore the ring would remain on its owner until the owner’s death, and someone would likely remove it from the finger of the corpse, or, if long enough afterward, the skeleton. I realized the ring would leave behind a long string of owners who had either vanished mysteriously, or who had committed crimes no one could solve.

Wikipedia contains lists of both unexplained disappearances and unsolved crimes. I could select any one of these for my story, or more than one if I wanted. As a writer of steampunk, I focused on Victorian times, and therefore to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Although there have been many stories about that killer, I think the addition of the Ring of Gyges sets mine apart.

Still, I was unsatisfied. I wanted to convey the explanation of the ring’s creation, as well as the notion of its passing from owner to owner down the centuries. But how do I do that with a story told from one person’s point of view? I hit on the idea of giving the ring one more property in addition to invisibility—the ring allows owners to see visions of past owners, all the way back to the jeweler who created it. My Jack the Ripper character would see all these visions, and the reader would understand not only the history of the ring, but also project beyond my story, and wonder where the ring is now.

In my story, I briefly mention these visions of past owners. My ‘Jack’ character only gets vague impressions of clothing and surroundings, of course, not names. The ones he sees are the rebel slave Spartacus (71 B.C.), the Roman general Valens (378 A.D.), the Egyptian Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (1021), vague mentions of others, the diplomat Benjamin Bathurst (1809), and finally gun manufacturer William Cantelo (1880s).

Once the reader grasps the idea of a single ring causing strange disappearances and unexplainable crimes through history, it’s a short mental leap to realize such a ring could also explain the unidentified Zodiac Killer (late 1960s), and the disappearances of D.B. Cooper (1971), Jimmy Hoffa (1975), and many others from our time.

Now you see how I came up with the idea for “Ripper’s Ring.” Enjoy the story, and leave a comment with your thoughts about my process for developing and maturing the idea for the story. If I’ve helped you along the way in your own writing journey, that’s the sincere hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Conflict, the Necessary Evil

Ever notice how fiction seems full of conflict? Characters hate each other, fight each other, struggle with problems, strive to survive, etc. Why can’t they just get along together and have nice, trouble-free lives? After all, that’s what we real people want for ourselves, right?

Necessity

You may go ahead and write stories where nothing bad happens, where characters are always kind and thrive in a stress-free environment.

Just one little problem with that notion…no one is going to read those stories. They’d be boring! There is no reason to care about such characters. Their outcome is not in doubt.

ConflictConflict is, therefore, an essential aspect of all fiction. Conflict drives the plot and creates interest in the characters. Since all fiction is about the human condition, and since conflict is inherent in the human condition, your stories had better include some type of conflict.

You might be objecting as you think about great stories you’ve read that didn’t involve any guns, bombs, swords, spears, knifes, or fistfights. Ah, but think deeper about those stories. Did characters disagree verbally? Did a character struggle to survive against Nature’s fury? Was a character conflicted internally?

Conflict comes in various kinds and need not involve violence at all. At its essence, conflict is two forces in opposition to each other. That’s it.

Types

What are the types or categories of conflict? Here’s my classification schema:

  • External
    • Character vs. Character
    • Character vs. Nature
    • Character vs. Society
  • Internal
    • Character vs. Self

Some people add other external conflict types such as Character vs. Technology, Supernatural forces, Fate, or others. To me, those are all included in the basic four types.

How many types of conflict should you include within a single story? Unless it’s flash fiction, I recommend at least two, with one of them being an internal conflict. We live in a psychological age, and readers want to see characters with some depth, some internal struggles, some flaws. Readers don’t even want antagonists to be pure evil; there needs to be some explanation how they turned so bad.

Resolution

I’ve blogged before about the need to ramp up the level of conflict in your story, but what about the resolution of the conflict at the end?

Although I personally enjoy stories where protagonists overcome their adversity through wit, cunning, and intelligence, it need not be that way. Not all conflicts need to be completely resolved at the end. Or the resolution of one major conflict may spark the start of another. Really, the struggle during the bulk of the story is more important than the resolution.

In fact, the protagonist may lose the struggle, as in Jack London’s famous short story, “To Build a Fire.”  That story illustrates that fiction really is about characters contending with difficulties, not necessarily overcoming them in the end. It truly is about the journey, not the destination.

Resources and Summary

There really are some nice blog posts about conflict out there, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Those are my opinions about conflict. You might disagree, and that disagreement itself would represent a type of conflict between you and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 21, 2014Permalink