The audience snickers and then walks away.
Scene: A shepherd boy, armed only with a slingshot, his faith in God and his faith in himself, confronts a belligerent giant. He smacks the giant in the forehead with a stone from his sling. The giant falls, unconscious. The shepherd borrows the giant’s sword to decapitate him. The end.
The audience cheers. Then starts grumbling: is that it? That’s the whole story? Seems a bit thin.
Scene: in a bar in the harbor district, a large, belligerent roughneck is giving a smaller sailor a hard time. The little guy decides he’s had all he can stand and he can’t stand it anymore. Fisticuffs ensue. The big guy turns out to be powerful, but slow. The little guy, through sheer tenacity, holds out until he can land a single powerful punch. The big guy falls.
The audience cheers. Except the ones who’ve seen it before, which is most of them. They grumble: “it’s been done to death!”
There are all sorts of theories about plots. Three basic plots. Five basic plots. Seven basic plots. Thirty basic plots. I don’t have much use for any of them.
Everyone who writes about plot says it’s driven by characters facing conflict. No conflict, no plot. (Some call it tension, but whatever.) The story begins when the conflict is introduced, and it ends when the conflict is resolved. I say that’s all fine so far as it goes, but it’s not enough. The reader needs a reason to start caring. Then he needs a reason to keep caring. Then you need to wrap it up before he gets tired of it all.
So let me give you some reasons to care.
They all tell you your story needs conflict. What they don’t tell you is not just any conflict will do.
For starters, I’m going to ignore those forms of conflict, such as man against nature, that don’t involve an adversarial character. There aren’t that many of them, for good reason. They’re just not as compelling as those with identifiable adversaries. So let’s rumble…
Scene: your crazy aunt is screaming about the elves hiding under her bed. Again. You get up and leave the house.
Scene: two drunks at a bar are arguing politics. Neither one knows what he’s even talking about. You pay off your tab and get out of there.
There’s drama, and there’s drama. Everyday drama is tedious, irritating, pointless. It is absolutely not entertaining. Let’s try again…
Scenario: you desperately seek a decent job so you can move out and away from your crazy aunt. There are many difficulties to overcome, but you are motivated and you persevere. Eventually you succeed.
Now there’s a story people might want to be told. But you need an adversary.
Scenario: you get involved in political activism. You see some nasty stuff and become disillusioned by the sort of people you run into. But you learn a few things. Like whom to avoid. You find a better group, less idealistic but more effective. You drum a corrupt politician out of office.
You tell this story, and your audience just might cheer. Or sulk, depending on the audience. Every corrupt politician has fans, believe it or not. But there’s no pleasing everybody.
See the difference here? The difference is the protagonist does something. That’s what drives plot. No plot, no story. Plot makes tension go somewhere. It elevates tension from irritation to excitement. And then you have action. Tension plus action is conflict.
But that’s not enough.
Scene: Bambi is a smear on the ground. The forest creatures gather around and mourn. You have to admit, it has a gritty realism to it. But it’s kind of depressing. Also, short.
Still, it’s a resolution. You need that. This is why family drama is boring – unless someone gets killed. Agatha Christie understood this.
Scenario: Miss Marple arrives, and vows to help the forest creatures track down Bambi’s killer. She follows some extremely large lizard footprints, until she comes face to toenail with Godzilla. Godzilla stomps her. The audience gets fed up and storms out.
Here’s another thing that a good story needs: an ending that isn’t a foregone conclusion. The protagonist doesn’t need to win, but she needs to stand a chance.
Scene: a bar down by the docks. A drunken runt of a sailor picks a fight with a large, burly man. Bluto tries to bear it with patience, but Popeye just won’t let up. Finally, Bluto snaps and punches Popeye’s teeth out. Now everybody’s calling him a bully. Including the audience.
That’s a foregone conclusion going the other way. It’s even worse, because it’s human nature to pity the weak and resent the strong. The weak can get away with anything. Your crazy aunt? Try suggesting she be put in a home, and see how that goes over. Suddenly you’re the bad guy.
Well, then. No mismatches.
Scene: two belligerent drunks, both the same size, are punching either out. Like most drunks, they are not good fighters. Many punches are thrown, none are blocked, but through sheer bad aim, few land. Then they both fall asleep. The audience, bored, has already left.
Oops. Forgot about the resolution. Try again.
One of the drunks has a heart attack and falls down dead. The audience boos.
No, we’re still missing something here. What could it be? Oh. Plausibility.
Scene: Superman, using his superpowers, easily defeats Lex Luthor. Um, no. First off, Superman isn’t all that plausible. I guess you could suspend your disbelief. But we’ve forgotten: no mismatches.
So, to recap: no mismatch, a resolution, but not an implausible one. No deus ex machina or other silliness. Does it seem like these all contradict each other? Well, they certainly interfere with each other. Maybe this is why good stories are hard.
Let’s look again at a couple of scenarios that came pretty close to working. First, David and Goliath. The big bully giant up against the plucky shepherd boy. Plausibility? More than you would think. First off, they’re not using the same methods or the same weaponry. Even their trash talk has a different emphasis. This is asymmetric warfare. In asymmetric warfare, underdogs rule.
Actually, smart underdogs rule. David is simply more clever than Goliath. But let’s move on.
Bluto has been bullying Popeye. Popeye snaps. Bluto swings and misses. Popeye swings and connects. Pow. Bluto goes down. The little guy won the fight! Who could have seen that coming? In real life, this would be a surprise. In storytelling, it’s simply cliche.
But how did it get to be cliche? What it is, is a wish fulfillment fantasy. Most of us have felt bullied at one time or another. We fantasize about revenge. Or, if we think we’re above that, we fantasize about vindication. We want to win the fight in a way that proves God is on our side.
Well, something is on Popeye’s side. I won’t get into theology here. Popeye is backed into a corner. Some people go to pieces when cornered, and some people go berserk. Popeye goes berserk.
There is a power in desperation. It is intimidating. This isn’t fantasy. It happens in real life. When you’re backed into a corner, you have far less to lose than the bully has. Showing that you’re willing to go down fighting is a deterrent. The bully doesn’t just want to win. He wants to win without getting hurt. The berserk response ups the ante.
Scenario: Popeye goes apescat. Bluto gets nervous and backs off. Popeye calms down a bit, starts muttering to himself, and the fight is over. The audience shrugs.
That’s how it works in real life, in case you don’t know. But it won’t work in narrative. The audience wants to see Bluto go down. And maybe they’re right. Who’s to say Bluto won’t sucker punch Popeye later? Who’s to say Goliath won’t cut David down as soon as David’s back is turned?
Scenario: Popeye suddenly stops muttering and sucker punches Bluto. The audience boos. No, not like that! Now Popeye looks like the bully!
If not for the optics, sucker punching a bully would make perfect sense, strategically and ethically. But public opinion matters. You have to beat him according to the rules. No, you won’t find these rules written down anywhere. They’re the sort of rules nobody ever writes down, because if you wrote them down you’d have to look at them and then you’d realize they don’t actually make a whole lot of sense. But these rules are very, very real. Violate them, and you will be a pariah.
What you need is a loophole in the unwritten rules, and here it is: make your protagonist an underdog. The underdog can do no wrong. He gets a pass because he seems weak, but not so weak that the audience is disgusted by him. There are two types of underdogs. There’s the clever underdog who outwits a big, dumb enemy. And there’s the plucky underdog who fights like a cornered raccoon, takes his licks and beats his enemy in the end.
I really like smart underdog stories. But they’re hard to write. And there’s a problem. People often hate the smart underdog. When he wins, he’s called a weasel. The implication is he’s cheated by breaking some unwritten rule (those things again) that everyone is a bit vague on. Nobody likes a smartypants. The problem with David and Goliath is David wins way too easily. And this after he gave a big, pompous holier-than-thou speech. Nobody really likes that guy. He’s just too smug.
Now the plucky underdog? Lots of us can relate to that. This is why some storytellers try to cast David as a plucky underdog. It’s all spin, really. David’s plucky enough, I suppose. But that’s not why he wins. He wins because he’s a mean shot with a sling, and Goliath is a schmuck.
So, plucky it is. But no sucker punches, remember? Let’s think that through. In order for the hero to beat the bully in a “legitimate” way, the bully has to refuse to back down. If he backs down, no knockout punch, and we’ve ruled out the sucker punch, leaving us with nothing but an unsatisfying ending. Curtain falls, no closure. But in real life, Bluto will not refuse to back down. If you think he might, you don’t know bullies. It is not in the nature of a bully to stand his ground.
This is a fantasy. A revenge fantasy. But it’s also a righteousness fantasy. Popeye gets to claim the moral high ground. No one can paint him as the aggressor, rightly or wrongly. But he gets to beat Bluto up, and he gets a free pass for beating somebody up. Bluto is fair game, so long as it’s a “fair fight.” Whatever that is.
Children love this. That’s why it’s in cartoons. It’s hackneyed, but children don’t know that. Grownups know it’s hackneyed. It got to be hackneyed because they all loved it when they were kids. And grownups knows it’s fantasy, because bullying doesn’t work like that. Bullies don’t give a damn for your revenge fantasy, and they won’t follow your script.
So… how to create a story conflict that your audience will love? Sorry to have to tell you this, but it depends on your audience. You can’t please everyone, so know your audience.
If it’s a story for little kids, go the plucky route. That’s a no-brainer.
If it’s a story for average grownups, you want the clever underdog. But there’s a problem: make him too clever, and they will resent him. No smartypants protagonist. Make him just clever enough to win, and not one whit smarter than that.
This may be culturally determined, by the way. They seem to have a lot more respect for clever protagonists in the Philippines:
Workaround: make him really clever, but nice to his friends so you can’t hate him. This is the Harry Potter strategy. The trick there is not to make his friends look useless. Oh, and the story will need to be a doorstop novel, because there’s no way to cram all this chumminess into anything less.
Variant: have a gang of clever protagonists who are nice to each other, because they respect each other. For some reason, writers feel a need to inject some family drama into this. They have the Righteous League of Righteous Superheros get into some stupid disagreement over the last donut or something. Maybe it’s because the writers can’t write the villain clever enough to be an adequate adversary, so they compensate by making the protagonists dumb. Or maybe they just want to know if Batman can beat Superman.
If it’s a story for sophisticated grownups, forget the underdog. Make both sides strong and clever. This way either one can win, but one of them will. There’s the suspense of finding out who wins in the end, and how.
If it’s a story for cynics, make both sides evil. And smart. Now the audience isn’t rooting for anyone, but just enjoying the fight. And whichever one loses, they’re happy.
If it’s a story for sophisticated cynics, make both sides good, but at least one side is stupid. Why would good fight good? Because stupid. It happens in real life. It’s enough to make you wonder if being smart counts for more in the universe than being good. Or just make both sides think they’re good. This also happens all the time. It’s called ideology. It’s pretty much standard procedure in politics. Each side’s thinking is so alien to the other that each sees the other as insane or morally depraved or both.
With this kind of story, it’s a foregone conclusion: good will win in the end. It’s also a foregone conclusion that good will lose in the end. This will confuse and upset most people. Before you risk this, make sure you know your audience well.
Let’s look back over the landscape we’ve traversed and get the lay of the land. We’ve got two sides in conflict. Each side’s nature can be defined by two axes: clever-to-stupid, and good-to-evil. What combinations have we not covered?
Stupid good versus stupid good? I think we can skip that. I can imagine an audience who would enjoy that, but I can’t imagine myself wanting to cater to them.
Stupid evil versus stupid evil? That can be fun at first. But like two drunks fighting, it gets monotonous after a while.
Stupid good versus smart evil? That’s just depressing. Never try to root for the stupid. That’s the wrong sort of underdog. Pity the stupid good. Despise the stupid evil.
Stupid good versus stupid evil? I think we covered that. See that bloody smear under the lizard footprint?
The stupid do not prevail. You can write a story where the stupid triumph against the clever by sheer dumb luck, but it won’t be remotely plausible. That plot only works as a joke. And it’s an old joke. Peter Sellers had already done it half to death before Leslie Nielsen finished it off. I recommend to avoid stupid protagonists entirely.
The smart usually prevail, but not always. It seems a safe bet to make your protagonist smart, as far as plausibility goes. But watch out for audience resentment.
You might be tempted to include a courage-cowardice axis. There’s no need. Cowardice is really a kind of stupidity. It’s a failure to analyze risks properly. So is recklessness, in the opposite direction. Courage isn’t on that axis. Courage is a kind of practical intelligence, an ability to analyze risks and payoffs and then calmly do what makes sense.
There’s your road map. Know your audience, consult the road map, and choose your narrative. Good luck.