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Monday, July 2, 2007

Block Number Three: Story Problems

Okay, so our house has a plan, and it has people. Now what is its purpose? For some , the answer is obvious--to be lived in! But that wasn't quite enough for my husband and I. We wanted a home our one day grown children would want to come back to--to visit. We wanted them to feel welcome there. To have things to do (hence, we have a farm, a game room, a theater--all still in various levels of completion), and we wanted them to feel like there was room for them and their families (several bedrooms). Hence, our goal became: We wanted a gathering place.

Understandably, this is not everyone's "house" goal, nor should it be. But what is important is that we have a goal and we are working toward it. It's the same with the characters in our stories.

Every well-structured story must contain two MAIN goals, or "problems"; i.e., a "surface" problem and an "inner conflict." In simple terms, this means that your protagonist must have a goal she desperately wants to accomplish, and she must grow--emotionally or phsychologically--as she reaches for it.

Consider these examples:

In Disney's "Mulan," the protagonist, Mulan, seeks to save her father from going to war and later seeks to save her country (her surface problem). She also doesn't understand who she is, nor does she recognize her self-worth. This is her inner conflict.
If you know this story well, you can readily see how her struggle to complete her surface problem leads to the resolution of her inner conflict.

When the classic movie, "The African Queen," opens, the main character, Rosie, is religiously staunch, naive, and totally dependant on her preacher brother. This is her inner conflict--or where her "character" begins.

Inevitably, however, her brother dies, and she is thrust into the "care" of an uncouth ship captain. Together, they decide on the story's surface goal--to sink a german warship. This goal is not easy--which is the way we, the audience, want it--and as they work together, Rosie and the captain not only fall in love, but Rosie's character grows; she learns independance, acceptance, and how to love unconditionally.

In both these examples, the protagonist's inner conflict was "introduced," not "thoroughly discussed" prior to the surface goal. There is a reason for that. Inner conflict is directly related to the character, and these two stories are character driven stories. If you are writing a plot driven story, however, it might be appropriate to begin with the surface problem. In fact, that is how my short stories for the Friend usually begin, but I say that with caution, especially in relation to books, because, it is a story's character combined with his problem that "hooks" readers.

And that, after all, is the writer's initial goal. To hook readers.


ali said...

Ronda, reading your blog makes me realize I have a fear. At conference, talking with all you writer-types (lol) I realize, I don't *think* about my writing like you do. I'm worried that's not good.

I've never thought about my stories in the detailed sort of way your blog makes me think I should. The most forethought I've given is to my Middle Grade book where I knew I would need a plot point basically every chapter to provide a hook to get the reader to move on to the next chapter.

Do you think that's bad? Do all writers think about the CRAFT of their work like that? Hmm ... I don't know what to think!

Oh and btw, I'd sure love to see a picture of this house of yours! Perhaps I ought to go check out your other blog ...

Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen said...

Ali, every step we take in learning to write is a good one. Yes, I believe that all serious writers think about their work in a structurally detailed way; however, some are more concerned with their favorite elements (like character or plot) than elements they find less interesting and are still published. My suggestion is to look at the books or stories you really enjoy and try to analyze how they've structured. That way you know what elements worked to "hook" you so you can try to implement them in your own writing. Thanks for your comments. I love to read them.

Aneeka said...

I didn't think of craft at all when I wrote my first book, but I discovered (as I revised it) that I did a lot of the needed tricks naturally. I think it's because I read too much and it just sunk in my head on its own.

Though, after reading this blog, I just realized why I've never liked one of my main characters. She has no inner conflict! She has a great 'surface' conflict, a great personality, and fits well with the other characters, but she has nothing 'inside' to aspire to.

So thanks for the blog! I now know how to fix the character. Yay!