What do I buy? Stories.

July 11, 2010

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.


  • Chivalrybean says:

    I think I got all those covered in the story I submitted. {:0)

  • Orion says:

    Thanks for laying down rather clearly what you’re looking for in a story submission. Too bad however that it looks like you’re in search of what I consider “formula” stories.

    It brings to mind a conversation I had long ago with a friend about an idea I had thought to develop. He liked the concept but said I needed to give my characters a reason why they had to undertake their course of action. My reply was that it was the only way they could get home. He suggested that I introduce a, to use your requirement, conflict. One option was a time factor. They must succeed by X else they’re doomed!! Or perhaps a splinter faction has plans of their own (mwahahaha).

    The thing is I knew instantly that I could never pull it off. Why? I hate dumb characters or contrived conveniences. Everytime I read such stories or watch such movies I always have the same group of thoughts. They go something like this:

    — Wow, if the protagonist had not done what was clearly a stupid thing this would have been over a long time ago.

    — Of course now that it looks like all hope is lost for our hero they’ll find the weapon/item they thought lost chapters ago.

    I’m much more interested in the story crafted so well that I want to follow the characters through their journey. That the author has shared with me their goals and made me interested to see if the characters reach it.

    Fabricate a conflict then contrive a last second mega dramatic solution and the only thing I’m amazed about is that the antagonist doesn’t stop then and there and speak directly to the reader/viewer and say, “Dude, if you guys are just going to cheat that badly, I’m not playing anymore.”

    Or as Cartman best put it, “Screw you guys. I’m going home.”

  • Scott Roche says:

    But see, Zach didn’t say anything about “fabricating” a conflict or a contrived solution. That’s bad writing and has nothing to do with making sure that there’s some sort of conflict or an overall story arc. There’s nothing formulaic in writing a good story.

    Now of course there are good of stories that are nothing but exposition or two people just hanging out, talking. You can break the rules of plot and conflict, but your writing has to be *expletive deleted* good. Most people don’t have that level of talent and so need to use good grammar, punctuation, and the other things that make traditional fiction work.

  • Orion says:

    Odd because he does call for a conflict to be part of your story else, no dice. Perhaps I’m taking conflict too literally.

  • Zach Ricks says:

    Orion, I think maybe I’ve gotten myself in trouble by citing the examples I did above. So let me address that by pointing to a couple different stories where the conflict was a lot smaller than OMG THE GERMANS HAVE THE ARK!!!!1!1!1!
    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a fantastic story, and it’s dripping with conflict. You’ve got Ferris vs. Rooney. You’ve got Cameron vs. Ferris (and his dad, and really, himself). You’ve got Ferris’ Sister vs. Everyone. And one by one the conflicts are resolved. Cameron resolves his conflict when he decides to stand up to his dad. Ferris’ sister resolves her conflict when she realizes she’s making herself miserable. (Thank you, Charlie Sheen, font of wisdom!) And because of that resolution, she helps Ferris resolve the conflict with Rooney at the end. (He walked to the hospital!) Fantastic conflict, none of which involved world-shattering conflict. Conflict can be small, it has to be present.
    The other example I’d point at is Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share. When I first read/listened to this, I talked about it with friends and we had a hard time pinning down the conflict. The person I was talking to seemed to think that there wasn’t any real conflict in it – nothing really happening. Looking at it now, I realize that’s just not the case. It’s a series of very small conflicts. Horatio needs to get a job and get off planet. Horatio vs. the Coffee Urn. Horatio vs. the tests. Pip vs. the tests. Horatio vs the culture at large, trying to find his place in it. It’s a series of small conflicts, most of which are resolved in the same episode, with a larger question of what’s Horatio’s place in the Universe going to be tying everything together. Overcoming the taste of bad coffee is a far cry from blowing up the Death Star, but handled well (and read well by the inimitable Mr. Lowell), it becomes fascinating as you see Horatio respond to the challenges placed in front of him.
    I’ll add a note to the post above, but hopefully I’ve pointed at a couple of different examples of conflict. And look again at Ferris Bueller. When the conflict is resolved (Ferris makes it back to his room and turns off the stereo just in time to avoid being caught by his parents), there’s a couple of lines, (Life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you might miss it), and the movie ends. Roll Credits. Thank you very much. After the credits, Ferris even tells you – “It’s over. Go home.”
    Resolve the conflict, and get out.