I was right.
Not that I'm being snotty or appalled or overly smug about it, mind you. But I figured that there would be more than one or two people that would be absolutely torqued with my last tutorial... this despite the fact that the vast majority of the last tutorial was about proper English, rather than my own personal and less objective responses. And yes, I was right. Over the past couple months, I've been hit with everything from my tastes of stories to my knowledge of the fetish to the fact I'm trying to force people to write anti-masturbatory 'quasi-literature'. In fact, I've been told that my own 'quasi-literature' is setting the ASFR scene back because it has too much going on rather than simplifying my stories into "Look! Statue! Yank!" Doubtlessly my tutorials are made after several contracts with dark powers, who either don't like simplistic writing or prefer people not to masturbate.
So here's my feedback: Hahahahah!!! Deal with it! The tutorials and exercises I've put together on this site are aimed at those authors who are looking to offer something a little more literature-minded in their ASFR stories, or who are interested in adding more to their writing on the whole, based on exercises that come from outside the genre. I'm not holding a gun to anyone's head and saying this is how it has to be done, end of story. But if people would like their stories to be a bit more in-depth, a bit more cogent, more "literate", and maybe eventually gain or appeal to an audience outside just the ASFR field, then they have someone to turn to who's been there. I applaud them for wanting to better themselves. I also thank them for the overwhelmingly positive feedback I've gotten from them.
And for those that don't want to change, there's nothing wrong with that, either. If you're happy with your writing style, you're happy with the stories you produce and don't want to take away your audience by delving into things that don't necessarily have to do with ASFR, (assuming after four tutorials you're still here) I'm not going to tell you not to write or how to do your stories... that's your thing, flow with it. You gotta love freedom of choice, kids.
Maybe some of those who spent their writing time piecing together message board complaints about my own writing style would like to throw together their own tutorials on how to write a story geared specifically toward their own tastes. I'd be happy to see other people's opinions. And if I offend a few people by stating that my personal tastes in stories doesn't jibe with everyone's, then people just really need to become more thick-skinned. My tastes aren't necessarily yours, and the same holds true vice versa. Nor do I expect them to be, either way.
Okay? There. Rant over. Now back to bigger and better things.
Enough of that, you say. So where are we going this tutorial? Patience, I say... and you'll need it, because we're treading into especially dangerous waters this time around, boys and girls. We're gonna take a look at what raises the stakes in your stories. What adds drama, what makes the reader root one way or the other, and what makes characters exciting to write and read about. We're looking at Protagonists, Antagonists, and-- most of all-- the Conflict that binds them together and keeps them at one another's throats. Drama. Tension. Jeopardy. Doing that stuff that makes your heroes memorable and your villains bigger than life. Scary-scary. Read on.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, CONFLICT! OR SHOULD THAT BE, GOOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLL!!
Okay, let's start out. Let's say you have a main character, a protagonist, that you really like-- maybe he or she is rich in background, or has a voice you find easy to write, or just flows to you. Let's even go so far, in this example, to call him Jake. He has all his prerequisite background done... he's a world-traveled archaeologist, currently lives in Missouri doing work for a St. Louis museum and specializes in Native American cultures. And of course, he's a closet petriphile. He hangs out with friends on the weekends, especially Jody and Leslie, a blonde and brunette respectively, both of whom he'd love to do the Spanish Tango with, although he's a little on the shy side when it comes to women and hasn't told either. Your story revolves around the three of them visiting a dig site near the Mississippi River. There, they'll find an "interesting" burial ground and Jake will stumble over an artifact that he discovers has petrifying powers. It's a dream come true! From there, you figure, it'll be a romp in the park. Jake petrifies his two pretty friends, and maybe a couple spare archaeologists that are on the dig, and everyone eventually ends up happily ever after, including your readers. Right? Right.
And now you get to writing it, and you discover that...
Well, yeah, it's a great story. The dialogue's snappy: you have a few lines that just reach out and grab you. The description is great: you can smell the loam in the muddy dig site, and have painted a beautiful picture of the artifact itself. The characters seem fleshed out and real, and especially, likable. But still, you're starting to lose interest with the story six pages into writing it, and you know that if you're doing that while writing it, people might get bored reading it... assuming you even finish it. Why is that? The plot's good, isn't it?
So, just on a hunch, (because we know you think of these things before you just axe a story as un-write-able) you look through your story for the clash of ideas, the thing that keeps the hero from getting what he wants throughout part of the story. And that's when you see it. Or rather, you don't. There's no tension, really. It's exactly what you thought it would be... a happy little jaunt into ASFR with no strings attached. The protagonist of your story is doing whatever he wants to without repercussion. He's going to the site in his jeep with his two lady friends, he's immersing himself in Native American culture, he's good-naturedly shrugging off Leslie's complaints about being away from the city and its stores, he's finding an artifact he only dreamed of, and he's happily petrifying women. The only thing that comes up to you that stops Jake from doing anything and everything he pleases is the idea that maybe his moral fiber keeps him from wanting to petrify his friends... and the fact that maybe he's not sure if the transformations are reversible. And his moral fiber bit pretty much snaps on page eight when he turns Jody into a naked statue while she bathes in a creek.
So what to do? Well, there are at least two major ways I can see around this sort of quandary.
The first is to go ahead and draw the story to a close in whatever manner would best suit you... have Jake find the proper second artifact for reversing his friends and keeping them both, have the effects be temporary and have everyone be happy in the end, if it suits you. Or have your other characters be happier being statuary (assuming one can be happy realizing that they're going to be stagnant, stable, and unmoving for the rest of their extended lives. Of course, I assume in this that your statues can still think and feel, despite the physics and biology to the contrary. Magic excuses a lot.) And then go on to your next story. Nothin' simpler. There are a lot of stories in which the protagonist does precisely that. He or she goes on with his life, the status quo remains pretty much unchanged, or marginally changed, and that's the end. If that's your idea, that's fine. But there's another way, which probably will make your story a lot more tightly-knit and enthralling. Footnote 1
The second idea is to introduce conflict into your story. Conflict is simply anything that keeps your protagonist from attaining his or her primary goal. You do have a goal for your protagonist, don't you? Because otherwise, your character is running around for no conceivable rhyme or reason and just is flowing from one section to the next, helter-skelter, with reckless abandon. So if we're touching on how to increase tension and introduce conflict into a story, and we were doing it by steps, this would be:
Step One: Give Your Main Character(s) a Primary Goal.
The good news is that a character's goal is usually fairly easy to touch on, and that a character's main goal can be broken down into a plethora of smaller, interlaced goals that flow from section to section in your story. The important thing is that when you decide on a primary goal for your main character, you should establish this with your audience early. Show that your character has a goal; give the reader something to root for right off. From the get-go, or at least shortly afterward, they should want your character to achieve his or her goal. They should want your character to win.
What could Jake's goal be from the start of this story? Let's just come up with a quick list that you could choose possibilities from:
Jake wants to get his name in the papers for
discovering something archaeologically significant.
Jake wants to get into one or both of the female protagonists' pants.
Jake wants in the Museum Director's pants.
Jake wants to discover a secret to the mystery of who built the mounds in Missouri and why.
Jake wants to be rich.
Jake wants a new job.
Jake wants to get over his shyness and ask one of the two ladies out before this dig is over.
Jake wants to be accepted in the archaeological community.
Jake wants to move to a more productive environment.
Jake wants to turns women into statuary.
You'll note the one I put last here, no doubt. The reason I've put it last (and for that matter, I almost didn't include it at all) is because, in the vein of the story I've drawn up, Jake has no idea he'll come across something in the dig site that will do exactly that. So, at least as I have drawn up the story, there's no way in hell that could be the main, primary goal that motivates him in the first place. It might be a goal that introduces itself later in the story, but it cannot be Jake's main goal from the start. Now, if you want to make that a more prevalent goal, you can find ways around this. Jake can be forced to go on this dig by one of his employers, or Jake might have heard stories about incredibly lifelike statues being found at this site and gets a hunch something might actually be petrificative around there. And if that's the case, it should be explained early, just like any other goal.
Okay, now that we have some idea what his goal is, we know what Jake wants. The reader should want it, too, so either the character himself needs to be likeable-- one we want to succeed-- or the reasons for his goal should be. Now, granted, with ASFR fiction, you have a little latitude here, because your ASFR readers, unlike most other readers, are usually going to be okay with a desire to immortalize beauty as a laudable goal. Most other readers, sad to say, are probably not going to consider that in itself a sympathetic goal, unless there's a damned good reason behind it. And really, if you want to make a character deep and real-- no offense to anyone who deems this a deep and abiding reason for ASFR on the whole-- he or she should have a reason for having such a goal besides, 'they just like it' or 'they just do'.
But let's skip that for right now, and pick a more all-encompassing goal for Jake. Let's start with the very simplistic. Jake wants to be rich. It's an understandable goal for almost everyone, especially the money-challenged, even if it may not be the best goal for this particular story. Now, if you think back to the tutorial on cause and effect, you can begin to see why I placed such importance on it. Just by playing around a bit with cause and effect, you can start to find motivations and reasons for why Jake's going on this dig in the first place.
And so on. Keep in mind a lot of this may be background, and may only make it into the actual text in a few short lines or a couple snippets of dialogue. But it's good background. Already, you can get the feeling right off that Jake's being yanked around a little in his quest to attain fame and fortune. We're raising the stakes already. But that's getting a little ahead of myself. Let's move on to step two.
Step Two: Decide What Will Keep The Main Character(s) From Attaining Their Primary Goal.
This is where we start to break into conflict, boys and girls. Conflict comes from a Latin root meaning 'to strike together', and in essence, that's exactly what will be happening with our main character and whatever we decide will try to keep him from his or her goal. Now note that we do not necessarily have to be talking about a 'villain', per se, when we talk about something that provides conflict for our main character or characters.
There are quite a few manners of conflict that can be introduced, for example:
Man vs. Man - This sort of conflict
is probably the most prevalent that you'll find in ASFR fiction. This
means that another person, be it another supporting character or a bona fide
antagonist or villain, is what stands in the way of the main character attaining
his or her goal. If the goal of the main character is very
straightforward, say Julie wants to buy an ensemble at the store, the Man vs.
Man conflict might emerge as the dressing room clerk who wants to mannequinize
her. Or the thief that steals her purse.
Man vs. Nature - In a Man vs. Nature conflict, the main character is beset by the forces of nature. This can manifest in a myriad of ways, from the elements themselves to the animals of the wild. A Perfect Storm is a good example of this sort of conflict, as is the more animal-oriented Jaws. Take, for instance, Cobalt Jade's opening to Ten Transformations. Although the Basilisk in the opening story could conceivably be considered a 'Man' as far as personalities go, the general concept is that Aurena is going out to kill a creature that exists as natural in a magical setting, and that creature itself is what keeps her from attaining her goal.
Man vs. Society - In a Man vs. Society conflict, the protagonist's views or actions bring him or her into conflict with society itself, or at least certain societal standards. This can be anything from the moral standards of the majority of the people to the Evil Empire. Note that often, Man vs. Society conflicts usually pull the reader closer by introducing a single person or group of people that serve as the antagonists of the story. Note also that 'society' can be anything from the whole of the planet to a smaller group that the main character is a part of. The mutants vs. humanity subplots that are heavy in Marvel's X-Men books are examples of Man vs. Society, as are a lot of the pulp sci-fi stories in which the 'entire scientific community' (except, of course for the main character) thinks that a particular theory or hypothesis is laughable. Society, then, keeps the main character from attaining his or her goal.
Man vs. Self - While Man vs. Society pits a character versus the conventions of society, Man vs. Self pits the character against the conventions he has already set for himself. This is more often an internal conflict, rather than an external conflict. Assume for a moment that a main character has been brought up tightly clinging to a set of beliefs, and then finds reason to question those beliefs. Or the character has a quirk or characteristic that keeps him or her from attaining what will make them happy. That's the sort of conflict we mean. The character him or herself provides the biggest obstacle to achieving their goal. If you select this sort of conflict, be warned that you are going to have to delve a lot into the main character's mindsets, beliefs and thoughts in order to make this conflict worthwhile. Saying that the man is a stingy bastard isn't enough, and he can't have a sudden reversal of his mindset without something groundbreaking happening to justify it. Scrooge didn't change his views until the Ghost of Christmas Future appeared; if only the Ghosts of Christmases Past and Present appeared, he could have gone either way. It took seeing what the future held to melt his frigid heart.
Man vs. The Supernatural - Often, this fits in with the Man vs. Nature subsection, especially if the tone of your world allows for the supernatural to happen. But this is often also called Man vs. God or Man vs. The Unnatural, somewhat cryptically. In this sort of conflict, the character finds the supernatural-- magic, a god, omens, or the like-- barring his or her way in the pursuit of his or her goal. I once wrote a set of short fantasy stories in which a young warrior found his life mirroring almost exactly the life of a historical hero, who lived as a great warrior but ended up dying a grisly death. With every battle and every decision, he found that he was still managing to follow in the footsteps of a fated journey. The conflict, for him, was to try to find a way to buck that fate. That conflict wasn't the only conflict in the story-- obviously, he had physical antagonists and internal conflicts, as well-- but it was a running theme that raised the stakes for my protagonist.
Yes, you can have more than one conflict. In fact, often, it serves your story well to have more than one. But the point right now is to select or create something that will keep your main character from achieving his or her goal. That in itself shouldn't be too hard.
Step Three: Refine and Raise the Stakes.
'Raising the Stakes' almost always refers to giving emotional tension to your story. The amount of tension the reader will feel depends partly on his or her emotional state, imagination, and ability as a reader, according to Orson Scott Card. 2 But the strength of the story's tension also depends on choices you make as a writer. Something to keep in mind is that the tension of your story will increase both with the strength of the conflicting force(s), and the threat that it (they) provides in keeping the protagonist from achieving their goal.
Sounds like a lot of double-talk, huh? So what does it mean, essentially? Okay, look at it this way: Jake wants to be rich, or at least gain fame and fortune, in the story we've set up, right? And we've preset all these contingencies that are leading Jake along a road toward a Native American archaeological dig in the hope of attaining that goal. Now we're coming up with a conflict-- what will be keeping him from that goal? It can be anything: a competing archaeologist, shatty weather, the museum director's attitude, muckups with the camera crew, his own two supporting characters hogging the limelight, a ghost of a Medicine Man. Any of those work.
Any of these can drive Jake and his friends off the dig site. Yet with this being an ASFR story, we assume that the artifact we'd talked about will make its way into Jake's hands at some point. So, in other words, if Jake is driven off the dig site and yet has the artifact in his posession, Jake is no worse off than he was before this all started.
To raise the stakes, we say not only. Not only will the rainstorm screw the TV shots, but it causes a flash-flood that washes out the road and leaves the team stranded at the dig site, and in danger of being caught by the rising river. Not only does the Museum Director tell Jake that taking her friends to the dig is his only chance at gaining fame and fortune, but if he doesn't, she'll fire him and blacklist his name in the archaeological community. Not only does the ghost of the Medicine Man appear to drive the crew off the sacred land, but the ghost wishes the place to remain secret, and the best way it knows to do so is to take possession of the artifact and leave no one to tell the tale. Now, not only is Jake's goal in desperate straits, but Jake himself is (along with the other people at the dig site).
These are the sort of things that increase tension in your story. First, make sure you have an adversary that is legitimate, and the story lends itself to making that conflict's danger real and justifiable. In other words, the more the chips are down for the protagonist-- the more that's at stake, the more real the danger is-- the more tension it creates. And tension is damned good stuff. It turns pages. It makes readers want to know how the protagonist is going to get out of the story okay... or wonder if he or she is going to.
That's tension. That's raising the stakes. Rick not only won't become an artist like he always dreamed if he doesn't turn in a world class statue for the exhibit, but he'll lose his friends if he gives in to the easy answer, which is to pour a stoning formula on one of them. Jane not only risks getting turned into a mannequin, but she knows that the transformation is permanent. The scientist has to find a cure for the odd gilding disease, not only because half the town is turning to gold, but because she's contracted it, as well.
Step Four: The End. The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object.
Okay, you have the tension building and percolating throughout your story. Now here's the key. The audience wants a finale. They want the protagonist to meet the conflict head on, and they want the clash to be memorable. Don't let them down here. Don't have your hero walk all over the conflict, or overcome it without a second thought. Don't give in to a resolution that is too simple for either side.
Often, especially in ASFR and MC-style stories, the collision ends in a whimper, not a roar-- especially when the bad guy (or force or what have you) wins. A lot of times it takes place in Man vs. Man conflicts. The villain is a mind-control artist, or a mannequinizer, or statue-maker, or what-have-you, and the protagonist finally, after all this time, meets him or her. And inside of three paragraphs the protagonist is out of the action. Her or she succumbs to shiny-object syndrome, or is made helpless, and the villain reigns supreme. Just like that.
Hey, if your story calls for it, there's no reason that it can't happen. There's no reason the villain can't win. But make it worth it. If your audience has been following the protagonist for the majority of the story, they need the protagonist to give a good account of themselves, at the very least. They need to do something besides struggle weakly and fall victim themselves. Get a few shots in. Cause a glitch in the main villain's master plan. Something. Otherwise, they're no better than the plethora of nameless or placeholding victims you've scattered throughout the story before this final conflict. The audience has followed along with your story waiting for the outcome. Don't gyp them; make it worth the time they've invested reading.
If it's a villain (Man vs. Man), this is your penultimate fight scene, most likely. If it's Man vs. Nature, this is when Nature erupts in its fullest fury and the protagonist has to weather it out. If it's Man vs. Self, we should get the idea that the protagonist's soul rests on his fateful decision. You can get the picture from there. Just make it worth it to the reader. This is the point that the protagonist has everything to lose or gain in the pursuit of his goal.
Again, going back to Orson Scott Card's view of tension:
Nora stood on the roof. She was only nine stories up, but it might as well be nine miles. There was no escape. Pete came toward her, the long knife glimmering in the moonlight. Nora trembled, but she knew what she had to do. So she reached out, slapped the knife from his hand, picked him up over her head and threw him off the roof. All those years of lifting weights and taking judo classes had paid off at last.
If that last sentence is the first time Nora's weight lifting has ever been mentioned in the story, the audience will be outraged by this scene. (Rightfully so, too!) Here they've been so worried about Pete and his knife, and all along Nora was apparently built like an orangutan. 3
Card goes on to explain that this can be handled in a variety of ways-- from making the actual movement Nora makes more like something a judo student could do, such as avoiding his knife thrust and using his own momentum to pull him off the roof, or giving Pete a gun so that Nora's weight-training still doesn't give her an upper hand-- so that the tension is still viable. (I highly suggest that book. Few other books have given me such a handle on the intricacies of how to make characters likeable and sympathetic.)
He's speaking gospel, folks. Try to remember those four steps, and see if adding conflict and raising the stakes make your stories that much more tight-knit and gripping. I'd be really surprised if they don't.
That's all for now. Other books on writing go into this a lot more in detail than I ever could, so you'd be best off seeing what others write about conflict and tension. As for me, fire me off an e-mail if you'd like to see a particular subject handled in the next tutorial, or leave me a message at the WTF board. And keep writing. Nothing beats practice.
Till then, I'm out, and doing the same.
- Hanging loose with Word open.
i Footnote 1:
(-An Aside Note For People Who Get Their Panties Bunched Up At This Sort Of Thing-) The stories in which that sort of thing happens are what I call Lightweight ASFR Fiction, and that pseudonym has nothing at all to do with the depth or length of a story, or the time or inventiveness the author invested when he or she wrote it. When I say Lightweight or Lighthearted, it means, very simply, the story's not intended to be anything more than just a fun-filled romp with little to no tension. I've also been known to call them TF-du-jour stories. The heroes and heroines of these stories are usually fun-loving, and often warm to their transformations. Often times, the transformations in these stories come rapid-fire and without penalty, meaning people ordinarily suffer no ill effects, either physical or world-oriented, to them... they don't lose their jobs, or their friends, and aren't significantly changed-- emotionally or mentally-- by their transformations before the end of the story. I'm not in any way trying to down this genre of stories... there is nothing wrong with enjoying or writing stories like this. Read that again if it doesn't sink in the first time. I've read a lot of those types of stories, in fact, and am good friends with some of the people who prefer to write them. And while they're not ordinarily my cup of tea, there are quite a few that have been very well-done and I consider them a vital part of ASFR literature. (Just like the fact that I don't read many Westerns doesn't mean that I consider Westerns less a piece of literature than fantasy/sci-fi/mainstream/horror/whatever.) But the point is, that's not the object of this tutorial, and if you're trying to polish your writing for an audience beyond just ASFR readers, you're going to have to have some sort of conflict. That's just the way it is. So for those of you who take great offense at this, please refer your preconceptions and conclusions about what I do and don't like to someone who won't laugh at you and call you an obnoxious twit. Thank you.
Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint (The Elements of Fiction Writing series - Writer's Digest, Editors.), p. 68
Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint (The Elements of Fiction Writing series - Writer's Digest, Editors.), p. 117