Building Narratives Using Conflict-Crisis-Resolution
To build a series of scenes into a successful narrative, many writers turn to the classical three-part conflict-crisis-resolution structure.
Reread Pamela Painter’s short prose piece “The New Year” (p. 69). Notice the classic story beats of conflict, crisis, resolution. Painter keeps the reader engaged with her narrative by holding tightly to the time-tested conflict model.
Here are some tips for using conflict-crisis-resolution:
1. Start with conflict right away. Don’t start with a character alone with her thoughts. Don’t warm up, wander around, or muse. Start with a battle: one character’s strong unmet desire set against, and directly opposing, another equally viable character’s strong unmet desire. A battle takes place when two characters have conflicting agendas. The characters must each want something, and the wants must conflict, which means something in one person’s action blocks the desire of the other. Notice how Painter starts the story immediately with problem, after problem, after problem. Readers aren’t interested in the buildup—how the family came to be, what it was like to wake up that morning. Don’t preface, set up, or introduce. Plunge into problems. Throw us into the midst! Readers are interested in how the conflict plays out, and beginnings always contain the first stage of the high-stakes conflict.
Conflict Diagram for “The New Year,” by Pamela Painter
2. Build to crisis. Start with conflict, and then show conflicts that keep increasing in intensity. The most significant conflict in your narrative is called the crisis.
A crisis is when the battle is at its very, very worst. When the loser loses, things can’t get any worse in the narrative. In some large, significant, or subtle and moving way, the world as these characters know it seems to have come to an end. In “The New Year,” the opening conflict is clearly between a husband and wife. The husband is the speaker in the piece, and the news of his affair with Fiona, the boss’s wife, has gotten back to his wife. His wife is no wallflower. She wears shiny gold stockings—maybe she’s a dancer. We know she’s not a slouch. And she’s pissed: Even though it’s Christmas Eve, she’s put all his stuff on the stoop.
Note how the crisis occurs in the second paragraph. In a longer story, like “Cathedral,” the crisis comes later, when the blind man helps the narrator come to realize some important blindnesses of his own. In flash fiction and micropieces, the crisis comes early. The rest of “The New Year” is devoted to the list of all his belongings, which tells us what kind of person he is, and the backstory on how the affair with Fiona was a one-night stand, and the development of loading the car, and driving west with the ham. He tries to call Gilda. She doesn’t take his calls. He sends her photos. He loses the ham. It’s bad. All of it. But none of this is as drastic as his stuff on the stoop—the most drastic moment in your story is the crisis.
The more restrictions you have, the easier anything is to write.
— STEPHEN SONDHEIM
3. End with resolution. Do you have to have a resolution? Well, yes. The story has to stop somewhere. Art is not life. Art demands that you deliver significance to the reader. In her classic textbook Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway suggests thinking about resolution in this way. She lays out six choices for writers looking for ways to resolve the crises in their works:
· The two fighting forces call a truce.
· The two fighters call a truce and agree to fight again later.
· Declaring victory, the hero lives happily ever after, and the loser suffers.
· Losing, the main character offers insight into life with loss.
· The two fighters both realize no one will ever win.
· Each side thinks it has won.
Essential with any of these six choices for resolution is your ability to show the newly changed life of your main character (or in a poem, the speaker). Usually, in contemporary creative writing, the change is small, interior, subtle, psychological, well-observed. Also remember that you don’t have to resolve the conflict itself (stating a clear winner and loser—usually that isn’t how life works). You just have to resolve the story line.
With these concepts in mind, how do you see Painter’s ending? Does the conflict have a resolution? How does the story resolve? Some readers see the husband as defeated. And certainly the last line can be read as a loser’s insight into the nature of his loss: “In this picture, you can’t tell which of us is missing.” The ham washed away. Maybe this marriage’s love washed away. Certainly the husband has disappeared from his partner’s life. At the end, perhaps he realizes he wasn’t present, in some pretty significant ways, to his wife’s life. The resolution isn’t overtly presented in a scene or an image but is implied. We imagine a plucky, righteous Gilda: I sent that asshole packing. And other readers see Gilda as the loser. She needs to forgive: People make terrible mistakes. Answer the phone, at least. Don’t let your husband wash out to sea. Your personal feelings about the resolution may change as you read and reread.
Good artists make their resolutions complex, but not murky. It’s good for your ending to provoke discussion, which is different from confusion. When in doubt, look back to your opening, be sure it links clearly and logically to your crisis, and let your resolution reverse something already established in the piece. Focus on the point of the change. Focus on the psychology of your characters, watching the impact of the battle, the conflict, in their lives. That’s the key to writing resolution.
Mystery, yes. Confusion, no.
Reread Vincent Scarpa’s “I Go Back to Berryman’s” (p. 65) and “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham (p. 335). Locate the conflict, crisis, and resolution. Now do the same for a narrative poem of your choosing, such as “Buying Wine” by Sebastian Matthews (p. 70) or Adam Scheffler’s “Woman and Dogs” (p. 67).
Plan out three narratives, using conflict-crisis-resolution. Always start in the middle of the trouble, bring it to its highest point (crisis), and for each of your three stories, choose a different resolution. You don’t need to write the narratives; just practice building. You can plan narrative structures using words, diagrams, or three-panel comics.
Get in the habit of paying attention to conflict-crisis-resolution by creating a “beat sheet.” Watch any television show or movie in a format that lets you rewind and review. Create a “beat sheet”—a list of the emotional turning points. Simply make a list of the point or purpose of each scene. For example:
1. Joey leaves with hot chick; Ross jealous.
2. Chandler lies to Monica; she doesn’t realize.
3. Cake flops; Phoebe distraught.
Film and television writing is highly structured, and you can learn a lot about narrative structure watching television with pen and paper in hand.
Pulling It All Together: Writing Scenes for Narratives
To write a scene, it helps to prepare. House building requires blueprints, the ordering of materials, and staging. Just as an actor prepares before she goes onstage, a writer can plan and save writing time.
Before you write, you will want to make some notes on each of the following aspects of scene. Here’s a recipe you can use throughout this class:
1. Draw the problem. Conflict drives scenes and gives them shape and dramatic interest. (The four-year-old’s dream story lacks conflict—things happen freely, randomly, with no opposing force.) As you already know, weak characters without strong agendas (desires, needs) will not generate much conflict—or much reader interest. Your main character needs a clear problem, and he or she must be opposed by a worthy opponent. As in football, a blowout is not much fun for the audience; readers want a fair fight between equally matched characters. So do a little sketch on notebook paper. What, visually, will your readers watch on the movie screen in their minds when they are reading this scene? Artistic talent does not matter. But it does matter that you can see people, in action, and that the action is intriguing. For some examples of scene sketches, see pages 364, 371, and 373 in Chapter Nine.
2. Consider polarity. Polarity is the direction the fight goes, the impact of the solution to the problem, the energy of the scene. Every scene has to move from one point to another point (or else it is static and not effective). To find out the polarity of a scene (think of a battery, with the + and the − on either end), ask yourself how it starts, up or down. And then where does it go? Do things get better, or worse?
As you sketch your scene, consider the effects you can create. Will your scene be more creative and interesting if it has a POSITIVE polarity? Or will it be more surprising and original if it has a NEGATIVE polarity? You don’t want neutral scenes. You want juice. You want scenes that spark. “The New Year” moves from something very positive, the gift of a ham, to something superbly negative: That ham washes away to sea, leaving its owner the loneliest of men.
3. Tighten up the time. You must be clear on when the scene starts—right down to the minute. Note that time, and the day, and the season, on your sketch. You want to know when the scene ends, too. Jot down that time. Scenes in which there is time pressure—the boss is coming, the rent is due, you’re late getting home and the fairy godmother is going to freak out—are stronger than scenes where time is not a factor. Dark is falling, the clock is ticking, capture is imminent: Consider ways to tighten the time around your scenes. Every scene starts at a certain precise time, but there should be a kind of time pressure, too. If your characters are blithely wandering through their lives, you’re going to lose your reader’s interest. Imagine, in each scene, there is a scoreboard at the end of the field, and the clock is ticking. Before you start writing, add a clock to your sketch: What’s the time pressure going to be? “The New Year” and “Cathedral” both take place in very short time frames.
Structure is more important than content in the transmission of information. — ABBIE HOFFMAN
4. Pick a place. Scenes take place in specific, boundaried settings: a kitchen, a park, a car, a living room, a cliff. The writer must be able to see, in her or his mind’s eye, every detail of the setting before she or he writes the scene. Good scenes take place in tight spaces. Your trip down Route 1 to Key West—that’s not a scene, it’s a saga, and sagas are often boring. The tighter the “walls” of your scene, the more interesting the scene is. The hallway, the rooftop garden, the bathroom, the walk-in freezer—as you practice, you will develop an eye for what makes an exciting scene location. To tell the story of your Key West trip, what are the three most interesting scenes you could use? Make a list of potentials, and choose the most vibrant three. You are looking for space limitations, and also keeping in mind conflict: At what point are the problems between people most interesting? That’s how you find the scenes you need to write. The rest? You don’t need it.
I think that as a director you have to at the very least shape the script; structure it. Otherwise you’re not really doing your job. —JOHN BOORMAN
Read the opening scene in the story “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham (p. 341). Notice where the first scene starts—when the author writes “Here is Carlton,” locating the characters in space, starting the movie. Now we see the boys in action. What’s the polarity? The scene starts with “cold” and “shocks” and drugs and terror; it ends, right before the space break on page 343, with “how real everything is” and Carlton as a source of deep comfort and security. It goes from negative (death) to positive (life and heightened sensory experience).
Plan out four different scenes. Using the four-pronged recipe above, do a sketch, determine polarity, anchor time and space, and list out the small conflicts that will build to the larger conflict that ends the scene. Choose your favorite and write it as a play, graphic, story, or memoir.