Against the Wind

Imagine this scene from a story:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page. When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk.

She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.

All is good in her world.

Now imagine this one instead:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END. She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose. She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty. So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper. The roll is empty.

Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a post-it note off the refrigerator—one that says BUY TOILET PAPER—and uses it to blow her nose.

Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast to celebrate finishing her book, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge. It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.

And despite this celebration, it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete and utter mess.

Okay.

Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?

Me, I’ll go with the second one. In fact I have, in a wonderful movie from the eighties called Romancing the Stone. And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.

Version one just sits there. Lays there, in fact.

Why?

Because it has no conflict.

Conflict is the cornerstone of good storytelling. Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue reading. And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.

How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories? People thrive on conflict, and anyone who thinks a story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.

Your basic plot line—no matter what kind of book you’re writing—always centers around characters in conflict. There’s usually both an internal conflict and an external one. And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).

If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world, then I might as well watch paint dry. I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat. To give rise to my emotions. To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero. And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.

Your characters must have a goal—no matter how trivial it might seem—and they must have strong opposition to that goal.

Even the simple act of searching for a way to blow her nose makes the second scenario above the more compelling one.

I can’t say this enough. Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. And sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us. What thrills us. What sends us soaring.

As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”

5+

6 thoughts on “Against the Wind

  1. Loved that movie!
    And, what was stated in the first writing workshop I ever attended: “Only trouble is interesting.”
    Give your characters choices, but they should be between “It sucks” and “It’s suckier.”
    Or, “Put your heroine up a tree and shoot at her.”

  2. Ha! I loved that scene and you make a really good point. Can I add one?

    One reason that scene also works is that the myriad little details show us so much about the character we are about to follow.

    She isn’t just happy about finishing her novel, she is emotionally invested in it.
    She is obsessive about her writing to the point that the world falls away so far that she has to stick notes all over her house and she didn’t even remember to buy toilet paper.
    And those airplane liquor bottles! Yes, she could have just reached into the cupboard and taken out a fifth of vodka. But no, she hoards little-bitty bottles because that is somehow more proper to drink and if she only has one little-bitty bottle of vodka she won’t go over the edge.

    Which is exactly what she has to do to Cartagena to save her sister. And what happens there? She has a huge adventure, has great sex with Michael Douglas instead of dreaming about her paper-hero Jesse AND she swigs tequila.

    And her name? Joan Wild-er.

  3. And if I had to choose to trust a story from either of those two writers, all things being equal, I’d choose #2. Because having some fire in your chest for the story you’re writing heats up the whole thing.

    I try to find a hot spot for every scene, and feel it, before I begin to write it. Confession: Once or twice I did have tears make a surprising appearance as I wrote the end of a book. Try Fear was one of them. And I think it may be my best ending.

  4. She blows her nose into a post it note reminder to buy toilet paper, bwahahahaha! Funny and so ironic!

  5. I’ve cried at endings I’ve written, even in short stories. One of my male readers, a screenwriter, told me he cried at the ending of my first novel. One of my editors said that she could see me in the ending and that’s why it worked. Another editor wanted me to change the ending to make it a happy one.

    I’d like to laugh more in my real life (must make some new friends!) so that I could put more humor into my stories.

    I think that if you can make the reader experience emotion in a scene, you’ve gone a long way. The famous editor, Max Perkins, once said that he doesn’t worry very much about the picky stuff in his clients’ writing as long as the writer’s intention for the scene is accomplished.

    P.S. Jim… great idea about finding a hot spot for every scene. Must remember that.

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