Motive, Means, and Opposition
When people criticize a story as boring they usually mean there isn’t an engaging conflict. A good conflict gives the reader something to anticipate. To create a conflict, start with a character and a goal. Give the character a motive to achieve the goal; a means to pursue it, and obstacles to obstruct the character.
These three forces collide against each other like waves on the ocean. At any given moment one may loom larger than the others, but over time the balance shifts, creating tension. A gradual or minor shift creates a calm, low tension scene. A sudden and severe shift creates a very dramatic, high tension scene. On a larger scale these scenes combine to create the rhythms and currents of the story as a whole.
In the film Aladdin, the protagonist is a young thief who dreams of living in the palace. This dream is his motive, but he lacks a means. Then he encounters the princess, and falls in love. This is a concrete method of achieving his goal, but there is a lot of opposition, until the genie arrives and helps Aladdin overcome every obstacle.
The path is clear for Aladdin to achieve his goal, but everything he’s achieved is because of the genie. This makes him doubt himself, undermining his motive. To make matters worse, he loses the genie, making his goal as impossible as ever. This drastic shift plunges the protagonist into a new low, setting the stage for the climactic scene when Aladdin commits himself to a new, worthier goal, and demonstrates new strength in his efforts to achieve it.
Each scene builds its own conflict, while also advancing the larger conflict of the story. When Aladdin finds himself in a field of snow he has one goal, return to Agrabah and set things right, but once again he lacks the means, until Carpet is revealed, but he’s trapped. Now Aladdin has a new goal, overcome the opposing force by freeing Carpet. He starts to dig, and creates a new, more serious threat. Once all the threats are resolved the scene ends in a quick transition, “Back to Agrabah.”
A character without motive won’t do anything. A character without means can’t do anything, and a character without opposition won’t take long to complete their goal. Together they create an uncertain outcome. Each change prompts the character to adapt, revealing character. As the character adjusts they begin to form a new status quo, i.e. Aladdin will marry the princess. That’s when the story must either make a new change, or move to a resolution.
Most changes focus on means and opposition, creating a back and forth between success and setback, while also testing the character’s resolve. Changing or calling a character’s motive into question is less common because it’s a more significant change. Changing the motive means the character is changing internally. That requires time and powerful experiences to justify the change. Otherwise the character can feel weak and indecisive, making them less admirable to the audience. Most stories culminate in a character change, but they spend the entire story building up to and earning that change.
It’s easy to rush a conflict. Don’t. Draw it out. Use the threat of violence, the promise of sex, but find a way to interrupt or postpone it. This helps build up tension, creating a more satisfying resolution when you do follow through.
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