Monday 17 June 2013

The Power Of Yes To Ruin A Story

A character in a story will want something. In order to get it they will at some time or other need the assistance of other characters. Information, permission, objects or help of some kind will be required and the character will have to ask for it.

If the person holding the power just says yes to the character, giving them what they need, it won’t make for a very interesting story. Getting what you want quickly and easily, while certainly preferable in real life, leads to a simplistic and dull tale in fiction.

But that doesn’t mean a flat ‘no’ and slamming the door in the character’s face will make things any more interesting.

Creating drama in a minor situation that’s meant to be short and functional can sometimes seem unnecessary, especially if doing so is going to turn into a long involved scene. But getting what you want is behind pretty much every story narrative and not using that dynamic to its full potential is wasting a golden opportunity to draw the reader in deeper.

If our guy is a detective on a murder case and he goes to a bar and asks the barman if he recognises the lady in the photo, and the barman goes, “Sure, she was in here last Tuesday. Left about midnight with a guy wearing a monocle and a top hat,” it’s all going to feel a bit convenient (unless you’re watching Law & Order, where the barman with the perfect memory is a New York staple, apparently).

Similarly, answering in the affirmative to ‘Mom, can I go to the party Friday night?’, ‘Are you going to tell me where the bomb is?’ or ‘Did you kill the victim?’ will pretty much bring your story to a swift conclusion.

But being contrary just for the sake of it is not particularly interesting. Refusal to cooperate because sometimes people aren’t in the mood to help is more a delaying tactic than a well thought narrative approach.

It all comes down to this: the person who has the thing your character needs should not want to give it to them. And for a specific reason.

Working out what that reason is will lead to getting what they need, and that can happen in a single line of conversation or take the whole book, but it provides a dynamic between characters that a simple yes or no doesn’t.

So, if Milly asks her mother if she can go to the party and Mom says no, that that will make sense and we all know parents are wary of letting their children go out late at night, but that’s an unremarkable scenario. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Many stories have clichéd and obvious scenes, in fact a lot of genres more or less require them. Readers may expect parents to be unfair and unreasonable. But it’s still a cliché.

On the other hand, if Milly’s mother doesn’t like the stuck up parents of the boy who’s having the party and Milly wins her over by promising to block their toilet and flood the bathroom, then not only do you get a quick moment of conflict, but you also get an idea of the kind of people these characters are.

Ultimately that’s the real reason for any conflict in a story, to allow your characters to reveal who they are.

 If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Block their toilet - funny!
Giving the characters many hoops to jump through for what they want is fun sometimes.

Sarah Foster said...

You don't want to make everything too easy for your characters--where's the fun in that? A few bumps in the road makes the story more interesting.

Linda King said...

No pain, no gain! Applies to pretty much most things! (Except possibly weight-gain!)

mooderino said...

@Alex - i think most people do this for the big moments, but not for the little ones.

@Sarah - best parts of the story, usually.

mooderino said...

@Linda - oh, the pain arrives eventually.

Melissa Sugar said...

Well written. When I visit your blog I always, either learn something new or I revisit (with a new and fresh perspective) something I already knew, but hadn't given enough thought to. I enjoy your informative post and love that you give such easy to follow, examples. I learn best with examples.

You made it all very clear with:
"It all comes down to this: the person who has the thing your character needs should not want to give it to them. And for a specific reason."

Thanks for sharing another bit of useful writing advice.

LD Masterson said...

Like playing fetch with the dog...throwing the ball is a simple yes. Putting it away is a no. But hold it up high, just out of reach, and I'll keep his attention all day.

I love the plugging up the toilet thing, too.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - thanks for the kind words.

@LD - my mind's always in the toilet.

Sarah Allen said...

It's like the opposite of the Improv rule. NEVER SAY YES. I like it :) And it's true, both powers must be doing everything they can do get/keep what they want/have.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Unknown said...

This is so true. There's nothing I love more than adding tension and conflict between the characters to every scene. Great post, as always! :-)

dolorah said...

Every novel needs something different - and I detest cliche, even when I know it is SOMETIMES necessary.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I ran into this with Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy. Everything just seemed to conveniently fall into place in the third book. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Lydia Kang said...

Yep, if it's too too hard, that doesn't quite work either. Great post, Moody!

mooderino said...

@sarah - plan A should never be successful, unless you're writing a really short story.

@lexa - cheers.

@donna - i think it can be comforting to get what you want immediately, but not very satisfying in the long run.

@mike - I'm seeing more of that sort of rush to the win type of story ending.

@Lydia - thanks.

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