When To Be Cruel

Plot and story derive from conflict – anybody who’s tried writing anything has figured this out at some point. In order for something to happen, you need the character(s) to do something. In order to make that something they do interesting, there needs to be something at stake. Things are only at stake if there is some situation in which Option A is preferred over Option B and yet, with inaction or failure surpass some obstacle, Option B will come to pass or remain. That state of affairs is called “conflict” – I want A, but I have to overcome (whatever) to achieve it, otherwise B.

So concludes your really, really basic lesson in plotting stories.

The idea of conflict is simple enough, but how to go about creating it is infinitely complex. You need things to be at stake, yes, but what constitutes that? Furthermore, how large should the obstacle be preventing the character from achieving their goal?

To present an example:

  1. Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.

With #1, we have our stakes: Bill wants milk. With #2, we have our conflict: in order to get milk, Bill needs to figure out how to avoid his neighbor. In this particular story, the stakes are not very high and the obstacle not too dire (if Bill doesn’t get milk, what’s the worst that can happen to him? If Bill is caught by his neighbor, how bad are the consequences, really?). The conflict, in other words, fits the situation. It seems realistic. But what happens when you mess with that formula?

  1. Bill needs to get to the doctor or he will die.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.

So, obviously, Bill leaves his house. The obstacle (talking lawn care for fear of being rude) no longer seems significant. Bill just points to the giant gushing wound in his side (or what have you) and blows past the neighbor. Here, the obstacle isn’t sufficient to match the stakes, and the conflict doesn’t really work. Let’s try this again:

  1. Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, because if he goes outside he will be eaten by Great Cthulhu.

Here, the obstacle is far, far too great to make it reasonable for Bill to leave. He can go without milk for a little while if the alternative is certain death and madness in the tentacled maw of a Great Old One. The stakes just aren’t high enough to justify the risk.

In order to have a good conflict, you need to know how to balance the stakes and the obstacles appropriately, or the plot begins to break down and become nonsensical or absurd. Things can’t be easy for the characters nor can they be impossible to the point where nothing would happen. As a writer, it is your job to ride that line between the easy and the impossible. You need to be what I think of as cruel.

Your characters must suffer for their goals, yes? Well, it’s your job to make them suffer exactly the right amount to make their victory seem worthwhile. Make it too easy, and there is no payoff. Make it too hard, and everything becomes dismal and sad. You, the writer, are in a certain sense a torturer – you need to rake your main character over the coals just enough that he talks, but not so much that he dies. As any torturer will tell you (well, I presume – I don’t actually know any torturers), that’s a fine line to tread.

I got much of my practice doing this by running role-playing games for my friends and playing in RPGs run by others. The best GMs, I’ve found, are the ones cruel enough to make victory seem impossible but also kind enough to make it possible for you to succeed. I played in one campaign once where our victory was clearly, obviously assured – the GM would not kill us or even maim us terribly, and everything always worked out in the end. It was boring. On the flip side, everybody’s played those Call of Cthulhu games where everybody dies inside of two hours and the monsters win – also a bit boring after you’ve done it once or twice.

Oh...crap...

Oh…crap…

The best games? The ones where you’re counting every hit point and scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as ammunition and special abilities go and yet still, somehow, you’ve got to save your PC’s father from the clutches of the Liche King or he’ll be lost to you forever. You’re sitting there on your buddy’s couch, heart pounding, because you know your character could die and everything could go south and, whaddya know, you actually care what happens (stakes!) but the obstacles seem so impossible (conflict!). What you don’t know (or maybe don’t always realize) is this: your GM is scared, too. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, because yeah, he’s made it crazy impossible and, no, he won’t back down. If he backs down, he loses everything – you lose everything. So he throws you a line here and there, he encourages you, and he prays that the dice go your way just enough so you can win. And what a win that is!

Conflict – writing – isn’t too far off from that. At least, that’s what I think.


Publicity News

Just a reminder to pre-order your copy of The Oldest Trick from anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases 8/11/15 and is the absolute best place to start if you’ve yet to dive into the Saga of the Redeemed yet. Go check it out!

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on July 17, 2015, in Critiques and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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