Write: Generating Conflict and Collecting Narrative Debt #ReadySetWrite
If you’ve ever been to a writing class, seminar, workshop, or conference, you’ll have heard this one before: “You need to make sure your story has conflict.” You’re less likely to hear: “Have you collected enough narrative debt—and do you pay off enough of that debt as your story moves along?”
When I was twelve or thirteen, there were several prehistoric “video games” I loved playing on our TRS-80 computer. (How prehistoric? Try on cassette tape!) All of them dealt with overcoming obstacles, but my favorite was one in which you were trying to get out of a haunted house. A few lines of text would appear on the screen. (You are standing in a room. To your left is a door. In front of you is a cabinet. To your right is a bookshelf with three books. What do you want to do?) Each action the player took generated a consequence—and a new conflict—until the task was finally accomplished (finding the key to unlock the front door to get out of the house. The exponential growth of the videogame industry over the past three decades is because of the thrill that comes from coming face to face with challenges (conflicts), working our way through them, and (hopefully) overcoming them to move on to new and bigger challenges.
We like to hear and read stories of real people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to survive—the company that owned the publishing house where I worked for several years, Guideposts, was built on just such stories. Think about it. Christopher Reeve. Lance Armstrong. Scott Hamilton. Survivors of the Twin Towers or Hurricane Katrina. The man who got trapped in a ravine when hiking and cut off his own arm to survive. The mom right here in Middle Tennessee who sacrificed herself to protect her two little boys during a tornado and was paralyzed—heck, pretty much every reality show on TV is based on this premise (that, and our unadulterated love of voyeurism). We love to see—and vicariously experience—victory over conflict.
But the human spirit cannot experience that elation if there are no obstacles to overcome or if conflict is too easily solved. Nor will pseudo-conflicts bring about change. It’s been said that an addict will never want to change his destructive behaviors until he hits rock bottom—sometimes several times. Like the addict, we do not know what we are capable of until we are faced with situations we never thought we would have to face: our greatest fears, a deep dark secret being revealed to the person it could hurt the worst, losing a parent or spouse or child to a debilitating disease or death. People face these crises every day. Some cave. Some look for easy outs and end up miserable, in jail, or dead. The ones whose stories we want to hear are the ones who stood up, learned, changed, grew.
This is what the middle of the story is about: the triumph of our characters over any conflict we as the writers can throw in their paths. Be mean to your characters. Take away from them what they treasure most in this world and give it to their arch-nemesis. Strip them of everything. Treat them like Job and see what they do.
Going into Narrative Debt
I think somewhere back in my education, I took some kind of bookkeeping or accounting course—or maybe it was in a math class. What I do vaguely remember learning is the concept of simple versus compound interest. Now, I know it’s more complex than this, but here’s my understanding of it:
- Simple Interest: Interest accrues only on the original amount of the debt.
Compound Interest: Interest accrues not only on the original amount, but on the growing total as interest that is not paid off builds up each month for however long the debt’s term is.
When we write, every time we introduce a question or a conflict to the story, we are incurring what’s known as narrative debt—in other words, we are building up toward the payoff at the end in the climax, where all of the reader’s expectations will be (or should be) paid in full. When we incur this debt, we have two choices when it comes to the “interest” that goes along with it: simple or compound.
With simple narrative interest, the debt is paid off by the end of the scene/chapter—or, at least, within a few scenes/chapters; in other words, the question is answered, the conflict managed/solved before the next chapter starts. The lost dog is found, the contract on the house comes through, the long-anticipated event goes well.
But the underlying foundation of most plots is compound narrative interest: some conflicts or questions linger and the interest compiles and compiles until you have to pay it off or risk losing your reader. This is like maxing out a credit card and then only paying the minimum payment each month. Yes, you’re keeping your account alive and in “good standing” but you’re not paying it off. It’s a big debt-monster sitting there waiting to devour you—and, if you keep going like that, it will.
Let’s look at this in the Suspense genre. Not only are there going to be breathtaking, spine-chilling scenes where our heroes or heroines are in peril, but then—whew!—are safe again (“simple interest” conflict), there is an undertone, a compounding interest conflict, of unease or fear that pervades the entire narrative. Even when things seem to be going well, the reader can sense something isn’t quite right. This can be done through tone—through the words the writer chooses to use in the narrative. It’s like the duh-dut, duh-dut of the theme song for the movie Jaws. When first watching the movie, you may not even notice the score. But then subconsciously, every time that music starts, you know something bad is going to happen.
If you’ve ever gotten yourself into a situation that required a trip to a financial/debt counselor, there’s a technique that’s taught which is applicable to what we’re discussing: Organize your bills from smallest to largest. Make minimum payments on the big ones, but do whatever it takes to start paying off the small ones first. Not only will it give you a sense of accomplishment, it looks better to your creditors.
Of course, you’ll still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night (or not be able to fall asleep) in a cold sweat thinking about the biggest debt, wondering whether or not you’ll ever be able to pay it off. But then, as soon as you send in a final payment on one of those smaller debts there is not only a sense of relief, the idea of paying off ALL of your debt doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Think about the plot of your current project. While you want to be constantly raising the stakes and generating conflict (and narrative interest, adding to the overall debt) for the characters, it does not follow that the conflict, action, and/or suspense must always be building. Characters must experience some successes along with the setbacks, the obstacles, the thwarting of their desires. They must be able to stop and take a deep breath, so that the reader can, too.
Even though we want to avoid both of them in real life, in writing we want both types of interest, the “simple interest” conflicts—resolved within a few scenes/chapters, to keep the reader satisfied with little payoffs that keep the story moving forward—along with the “compound interest” conflicts that keep the reader turning pages because they have to find out how the ultimate debt of the story will be paid off.
As we solve conflicts or answer questions in our narrative, we should always keep in mind how these solutions/answers feed into the compounding narrative debt. The best way to do this is to create new conflicts or questions with the resolution of the one that came before. If the heroine gets out of one scrape, the escape may create two new ones down the road.
Unlike in life, in writing incurring debt is a good thing.
Just like in life, paying it off is a very good thing.
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