That should be pretty obvious, right? However, after looking over the last round of submissions, and over the first wave of the current one, it looks like we need to talk about what I’m looking for. Yeah, I’ve posted a little on that over at madpoetfiles.com, but what I was talking about was the emotional triggers I want to have pulled. I didn’t realize that we needed to get into the elemental basics.
What I’m looking for is a story. (Well, duh). What’s a story? Do you know what a story is? It’s not just words on a page. It’s not even necessarily well crafted sentences, though that’s a part of a product that’s going to stand up to professional standards. I mean, yeah, it’s words on a page, sure, but how do you know it’s a story?
Simple! In a story, things happen. First one thing happens, and then another thing happens. After that, another thing happens, and so on and so forth. That’s a story. Sometimes it’s also referred to as a narrative. It’s another way of saying that you need a plot – a conflict – something that drives the story forward. A plot is that thing that’s happening throughout the story – the reason that these particular scenes are related, and not others. Stories are conflict. You remember back in middle school or junior high, when your teacher was going off about man vs man, man vs. environment, man vs. self? All those different kinds of conflict? You need one of those for it to be a story. At least, you need one of those for it to be a story I’m going to buy. Sure, you could write a story about a white mouse going to the amusement park with her animal friends, and they ride the roller coaster and everyone has a great time. And that’s fine, I suppose that counts as a narrative. But what I want is conflict and resolution.
Now, when I talk about resolution, I need to see that your protagonist has done something to resolve the conflict. Maybe they fired that last second shot into the one vulnerable place on the space station and saved an entire planet from being blown the heck up. Maybe they performed a magic trick that so disoriented the antagonist that she unwittingly turned her banishment spell back upon herself and forcibly ejected herself from the dimension. Maybe they got tied up and forced to watch a ceremony, but at the last moment, remembered that the thing to do was to avert your eyes if you didn’t want to be the recipient of buckets of holy wrath. In each of these – Star Wars, Willow, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the protagonist acted to resolve the conflict. (All right, Raiders is a BIT of a stretch, because if he had looked, the conflict would have been resolved – with his death and the death of everyone else involved, but would that have been even remotely satisfying?) Protagonists act to resolve conflict. I suppose that’s the “man vs.” part of the conflict your junior high English teacher was droning on about. (And ladies, please note, I would love to see a female protagonist, and that the use of the word “man” in my descriptions of conflict are not meant to be gender-delimiting.)
Which brings us to the next part of what I want to say. As a writer, you need to be acutely aware of what the conflict is in your story. Once that conflict is resolved, the story is over. In a novel, you have a chapter or two to wrap up loose ends, resolve subplots (secondary conflicts), maybe get someone married or crowned king or whatever. In Bruce Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, (a great dark fantasy novel) there’s a TON of conflict going on. But when the conflict ends, the story ends. In fact, when the main conflict is resolved (I suppose it wouldn’t be right to say it ENDS, because it is the first book in a three book trilogy), the chapters do too. And you get an epilogue to resolve some subplots and set things up for book 2. In John Ringo’s March to the Stars, (Loved that whole series) the conflict is resolved, and the book ends. I mean, literally, you get maybe a couple paragraphs from the resolution of the conflict in that book for characters to absorb the impact of what’s happened, and that’s the end of the last chapter – with an epilogue to wrap up loose ends. These are paid professionals at their craft. Follow that example. Know your conflict, move your characters through it, and when the conflict is resolved – win, lose or draw – the story is over.
And that’s probably enough to start with. You want to write for me? Give me a story (plot) where someone does something (resolving the conflict), and we’ll talk. Of course, that’s not all I’m looking for, but it’s one… okay, TWO of the things I Must Have.
I’ll be back to talk about what else I want to see for me to consider your work, but for a sneak peek, maybe you should head over to Larry Brooks’ storyfix.com, and familiarize yourself with what he calls the Six Core Competencies. I’ll be back to talk about this some more.
UPDATE: There’s been some feedback in the comments and online about the nature of the conflict I’m looking for. It doesn’t have to be End Of The World As We Know It, James Bond-style conflict. I expound a little more in my comment below, but take a look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a fantastic movie, filled with great conflicts, but none of them are world-shattering. It’s a great film about a kid skipping school. Small conflicts done well. You might also take a look at Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell. I’ve heard people complain that there isn’t a lot of conflict going on there, but I think they’re looking for the explosions, and they miss the conflict of Horatio trying to prove his worth to the crew of the Lois McKendrick. And if he’s doing it through tests, or through brewing a fantastic pot of coffee, the conflict – Horatio’s need to find his place in the ‘verse – is what he has to overcome. Small conflicts done well.