Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Depiction Part 2: Conflict And Resolution

Depiction Part 2:
Conflict And Resolution
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

In Depiction Part 1,
we defined depiction at some length.  Here's a short excerpt to remember this working definition.

It's the brain trick that lets us look at a scrambled page full of LINES and "see" a map, and understand it as a depiction of a territory (real or imagined).

Writers depict both concrete and abstract elements in mere words.  Readers agree to accept the emphasis the writer's selection of certain attributes and omission of other attributes to "depict" a character, situation, philosophy, threat, conflict, or the stakes in a transaction.

If the writer writes, "It was a dark and stormy night ..." the reader may KNOW there were some street lamps or car headlights (or carriage lanterns) but at the same time understand that the main character's emotional "place" is inside the primal threat-zone that dark and stormy nights were for cavemen.

The character is aware of the light, but seeing only the dark. 
---------end quote----------

So a depiction is NOT a photograph.  It is not a complete analysis.  A depiction deliberately leaves elements out in order to exaggerate the role of other elements in determining the materialization of results.

A depiction is a work of Art.  We've discussed fiction as Art and the methods the writer uses to create that Art -- the how, and the why of the writer's job has been covered in many long posts here, especially in the various series on Worldbuilding


...and how to blend the Worldbuilding skills into various individual craft skills (such as theme, characterization, etc). 

Once you've built your multidimensional alter-reality, you must then depict it for your reader.

To depict the World you have built, you must select certain attributes to mention outright and others to leave as implied.  That process produces a depiction of an alter-reality that depicts our own -- a First Derivative, mathematicians would call it.

So in Part 1 of this series we looked at how to depict Relationships. 

Romance is a process, Love is a Relationship.  There are all kinds of Relationship, "Buddy," "Adversary" "Mortal Enemy" "Brother-Rival" etc etc. 

And in every relationship we work with in fiction you will find the seeds of Conflict.

Conflict is the Essence of Story, but it generates Plot  (where Story is the character's change due to impact of Events, and Plot is the sequence of Events caused by a character's actions or inactions).

Books on story craft or writing will all use different words to refer to a moving-part of a story-construct, but all the vastly commercial kinds of fiction have the same moving-parts -- Setting, Character, Conflict, Theme -- and all the English language ones have 4 types of word-usages: Exposition, Narrative, Dialogue, Description. 

A writer's "Voice" is established by the proportions of those word-usages employed to convey the structural components.  That proportion establishes pacing, which is a part of the genre signature. 

We've delved deeply into the details of how to do each of these individual things, and how to pair them, blending two into one seamless whole.

Many beginning writers launch their first story attempts already able to synthesize these skills into a sellable page and chapter.

But very few of those confident in their story-telling skills have thought through or mastered the Art of Depiction.

Teaching writing workshops, I get manuscript after manuscript of very interesting, intriguing, wildly commercial stories with great premises, delightful imagination, and strong romantic intrigue -- but they are unsellable because they start with a massive Expository Lump, a huge pre-history of the entire world the writer has meticulously built or a long personal history of the characters and their ancestry.

It is easy to point to page 25 or 55 and say, "This scene is page 1 of this work."

But the author will not know how we (the professional writers at the table) all arrived at that same conclusion.  And it is spooky how much unanimity a group of professionals have when analyzing the same manuscript for a beginner.  The beginner often thinks it's a conspiracy -- even when the professionals haven't spoken to each other about this manuscript.

Most professional writers don't know how they learned to do that analysis, and just shrug it off as "experience."

I remember learning this technique, and hope I can explain it.

It isn't enough to point to an interior page and say, "This is page 1."

The author of the piece will fight that, tooth and nail, because you see the reader MUST KNOW all this other stuff before that point or the reader just won't understand.

And that's true, absolutely true. 

The professionals at the table will all suggest different solutions to the problem.  They all agree on the problem -- but never, ever, on how to solve it.

How you solve that problem changes the nature of the story, the plot, the target audience, and most of all the characters themselves, very often it changes the theme, and requires the Worldbuilding to undergo major revision.

The beginning writer must learn what to do with that initial expository lump before that lump is formed into words, before those words at set down -- in fact, before the World for this story is Built.

I am using the term DEPICTION to represent that arcane process of solving that problem of the Expository Lump that has to be conveyed before the story starts.  I've never seen this process described exactly this way in books on writing craft.

I wasn't taught it as such.  All my teachers (professional writers and editors) could do was point at where the story really starts and say, "cut all this other stuff, start here."

And my response was always a (very silent) "NO NO NO!!!"

So I invented this method of "Depiction" -- and many years later, I see what appears to me to be many other writers using this method.  The end result, regardless of the process of arriving at it, has to be that uniform STARTING PLACE that all pros agree is where the story starts.

Expository Lumps are often strewn throughout a novel.  This method of Depiction will solve those problems, too. 

Here are some previous post on Expository Lumps









Assuming you've been reading this Tuesday blog series since 2008, and have thought about those posts, here is the advanced lesson in depicting Conflict and depicting Resolution that will solve the problem of the 25 pages of throat clearing before page 1 of the story.

This method often does away with those "Introduction" or "Prelude" additions that editors resort to when they can't get the author to depict.  Understanding depiction and how to do it is not in the job-description of editors.  Those who can teach this come to editing via another path. 

Like everything else in Art and Story-craft, it's a learn-by-doing kind of thing, so we'll work with the "Real World" around us to extract elements that could be used in depicting a conflict and a resolution.

PAGE 1 of any piece of fiction starts with defining the Conflict.

That's actually what pros teaching writing workshops look for to spot that page 26 opening scene error.

The story starts where the Conflict kicks off the plot.

Depicting Conflict is the missing skill for such writing students.

The opening of any novel is where the This vs. That or Her vs. Him is first depicted.

Now remember -- a Depiction is not the whole, entire, complete, multiplex Situation.

Depiction is done by leaving important, vital, crucial elements out of the picture, then presenting elements of that picture that merely hint or suggest the presence of those crucial elements.

This artistic skill leverages the reader's simple, human tendency to make assumptions.

You give them this; they assume that.

It is the human brain's short-cut mechanism at work there.  It is the mechanism that causes us to be prejudiced and intolerant, and it is responsible for our ability to appreciate Art in all its forms and media.

So after you've defined the Conflict, you depict that conflict on Page 1.

Remember, an "outline" contains only the moving parts of the plot, Beginning, Middle, End Events. 




Depiction as I'm using it here is the Art of creating Verisimilitude -- the illusion of reality.

It works the same way that caricature works -- the eye sees a few sparse lines and fills in the rest.  A caricature is not a photograph but a representation of certain, carefully selected features of the subject.

So when Depicting a Conflict for your opening, you carefully select Features of that Conflict to incorporate into your opening Dialogue, Description, Exposition (yes you are allowed to use some exposition, just not in lumps) and Narrative. 

Your Conflict, on Page 1, is distributed among those 4 language elements, and that single conflict must be present in all instances of those 4 language elements -- usually throughout the entire novel, no matter the point of view.  Conflict pervades the work -- that's what makes it a story.

How do you select what Features of your Conflict to include on Page 1 and which other features to explore in depth later?

To select the elements of Conflict on Page 1, you look at the last page (that you haven't written yet.)

That's where the outline comes in. 

The outline you scribbled down when you had this Idea flood into your conscious mind should have little except the 3 major points, Beginning, Middle, End.  The rest is commentary.

1. Pandora sees a Box
2. Pandora Opens the Box
3. Pandora gets shut up inside that Box. 

The Conflict is Pandora Vs. The Box.  The Middle (the worst thing that could happen) is Pandora Opens The Box.  That doesn't resolve the conflict, it escalates it as a good Middle must.  The End resolves the conflict by blending Pandora and the Box into one, removing her "issues" from the world.

Of course the Situation just sits there begging for a sequel.  That's good plotting.

At this stage of Depicting a Conflict and its Resolution, the beginning writer will likely discover that the Last Page doesn't match the First Page she has in mind.

That is the conflict that is Resolved at the ending as envisioned is not the same conflict that begins on Page 1.

Many writers will handle this problem by ignoring it -- or pointing to Masterwork novels where many conflicts are braided into a complex mulch-layered plot to justify their choices.  Most beginning writers want to be that sort of Masterwork writer.  Depiction is the art form that must be mastered to create such a Masterwork.

It isn't that you must already be a Big Name writer to get away with bait-and-switch plotting.  It's that you must have the skills that make Names Big.  Some of those skills are writing skills.  Some aren't.  Writing skills can be learned.

So, take this rich, multidimensional, braided plot and multiple viewpoint story you have in mind, and choose a few, sparse elements of The Conflict to depict on Page 1.

Then craft the last page out of a specific Resolution to that Conflict.  Yes, you may have to revised that ending a few times as you write, but having a target depicted lets you revise that depiction as you go.  This is the skill that lets professionals hit deadlines, to predict when signing a contract how long it will take to write that novel. 

It's not that you always stick to an outline -- it is that you have an outline to revise as required. 

Given the immense World you have Built in your mind, how do you sort out which of the conflicts that seethe within that world to depict on Page 1.

You look to your THEME.  The Theme is the philosophical statement about life, the universe, and everything that this work of fiction makes.  It is the moral of the story, or the proposition to be debated. 

That statement about The Universe and its underlying Reality dictates how your Conflict will be resolved.  That statement defines the ENDING EVENT of the story.

For example, if you are writing a Romance, your philosophical statement, your Major Theme, is "Happily Ever After Is Attainable In Reality" -- or maybe "Only Happily For Now can be Attained, and that's enough."  or maybe "HFN is not enough."



If your theme is HEA is Real, then your Page 1 must depict the ABSENCE OF HEA -- people wanting something, misery for lack of whatever, a big problem that is major because of the absence of a partner (example: unwed pregnancy).

The Ending is then HEA Realized (wedding in the offing, commitment, birth, whatever solves the problem).

The Middle would then be the point in the focus couple's life where the partnership is just not working out - that internal and/or external forces drive them apart (deployed to Iraq, denied Military permission to marry).  Or maybe what drives them apart for the Middle Event is some kind of Political Campaign or issue.

Love And Politics always equals EXPLOSIVE ACTION.  In fact, Love and Politics is sometimes more explosive than Religion and Politics.

Perhaps your Couple is divided by their stances on hot-button-political issues of today, even though they live in a Galaxy Far Far Away.

By using today's Headlines, but depicting those headlines rather than just copying them into your story, you can lift today's social conflicts out into the galaxy, place them between human and non-human, and have a whopping series of novels that sells big.

How do you do that?  How do you "depict" a political conflict torn from today's headlines?

Remember, depiction is the art of lifting up certain elements and suppressing others.  It's not distortion, but point of view.

Each person sees the world around them from a unique point of view - their own.

Humans tend to regard what they see as the whole reality that is there -- but what they see is a selected depiction. 

We have a brain mechanism that selects reality for us, so we can free up brain space for handling more critical life-or-death decisions.  And that brain mechanism is the source of both our Art Appreciation and our deadly-to-each-other prejudices. 

So you, the author, must replicate the effect that point-of-view has on the Character's convictions.

Take, for example, our real-world political situation.  In order to avoid having to fill up our brains with thousands of data points, in the USA we "reduce" our reality to two political positions.  In other countries, there are many political parties with similarities to each other and some differences their constituents consider critical.  Voters there have to think about many more abstract concerns than those in the USA.

In Europe, for example, "Far Right" means Nazi.  In the USA, the "Far Right" means anti-Nazi.  But because of the Internet, many voters in the USA have adopted the European definition of "Far Right" and now point the finger at the Right in the USA as being Nazi oriented.  Those targeted by that finger object.  Conflict reigns.

Consider the Conflict breaking apart your Soul Mate Couple that has its origin in that kind of linguistic mislabeling.  They fall in love. 

The Conflict becomes clear. Opening Scene: they are walking to an ice cream shop after seeing a wonderful movie they both enjoyed, but it had a woman in it who went for an abortion for well-depicted reasons. 

The guy admits he always votes Republican, and that movie explains exactly why the Republicans have the correct approach -- because abortion shouldn't be legal. 

She, however, always votes Democrat because, after all, she's a woman, and "how dare you" is her bristling response -- nobody is going to tell her how to manage her own biology.

Why do I mention this?  Because International Sales and Translations are where the professional writer actually, finally, turns a profit.  It's vital to keep the world market in mind when crafting a depiction.  Abortion is a good example because the yes/no argument is very different in the rest of the world.  This intimate argument by a couple where marriage is a looming issue uncovers a Foreign Policy Issue between them which could break that couple up.

Should a man be allowed to force a woman to have his baby? 

If he's to be disallowed, who does the disallowing?  Government? Religion? Neighborhood busy-bodies? Doctors?

THEME: how do I get you to do what I want even if you don't want to?

MASTER THEME: There Are No Objective Criteria Of Right And Wrong Use Of Force (if I can get away with it, then I can do it). Or put another way Pride vs. Humility makes a great Conflict:

Today, in the USA, it's merely a case of seeing "people" (on TV mostly) doing things you don't want to let them do, and getting "The Government" to force them to behave the way you want.

Government is The Power that the people use to force other people to behave properly.

A long-long time ago, there was a comic strip everyone read because it was syndicated in all the newspapers, There Ought To Be A Law.

It DEPICTED (and from it you can learn the Art of Depicting) activities that nobody had the power to stop, so they'd throw up their hands and declaim, "There Ought To Be A Law" against that activity.




There Ought To Be A Law and They'll Do It Every Time (two syndicated comics) depicts a world where people can't use government to control other people's behavior, but they want to because something has to be done.

The urge to control other, misbehaving, people is universal among humans and a source of Conflict you can tap repeatedly.  Life and morality can be "depicted" as either a fight for control of others or the results of people being "out of control."

How many times do news stories about an urgent emergency requiring an Act of Congress contain the phrase "the situation is out of control."  And not one reporter challenges that by asking, "when was the situation in control?" or "who controlled the situation before this" or "was the old controller of the situation doing a good enough job?" 

Why does this situation need "controlling" from outside the situation? 

Watch The News -- watch it carefully and keep asking questions like that to find ways to depict your story's conflict and a satisfying resolution.

So here's half the conflict between the serious couple coming out of the movie Theater:

He says, "You can't be serious! You vote Democrat? YOU??? I don't believe it."

She says, "Republicans are superstitious idiots."

He says, "I am not!"

She says, "Then how could you possibly believe all those lies?"

He says, "What lies?  It's the Democrats who lie rather than take responsibility.  It's the Democrats who think government has to solve every problem with more and more money!" 

She says, "I do not think that!!!  How can you say that?"

Note that each of them is accepting the depiction of their own party as the truth about the other's party.

That is, the Democrats (whom she trusts as a primary source) depict the Republicans as superstitious idiots, so she repeats that depiction without treating it as a "depiction" (i.e. as a statement that leaves something out in order to emphasize something else.)

Anyone who identifies as Republican must be a superstitious idiot.  Anyone who identifies as Democrat must be a person who won't own up to responsibility for the results of their own actions -- "unintended consequences" means "I'm not guilty."

Neither one is penetrating that depiction of the opposite party.

Go watch some TV news and analyze for that tendency -- especially political ads.

So let's list some points He could point to as Democratic dogma.

a) Government Is The Solution
b) It's an Emergency therefore the usual rules are set aside and we can do "whatever it takes" (therefore to get rid of onerous rules, one has to create an emergency.)
c) Got a Problem? Give us a lot more money and we will fix it for you
d) It's just one rotten apple who broke the law. The system is sound.
e) It's proven science so the government must impose it on everyone
f) Only government can protect you from actions of your neighbor
g) If it should be done; then therefore government must do it because nothing else is powerful enough to accomplish it.
h) The Experts know, so we have to believe them and act as if they are correct
i) Income Inequality is a travesty that government must prevent
j) We must educate all children in identical values because otherwise we won't be able to control the resulting adults and then we'd have anarchy.

Now think about those (each could be the thematic foundation of a long series of long novels). 

Would any Democrat accept that phrasing as a statement of their own beliefs?

Would any Republican accept the opposite statements as their own beliefs?

We routinely use the brain short-cut mentioned above to avoid having to learn a lot of facts and then think with them -- and instead, we extract a couple visible facts and imagine what fills in the blanks.

That "fill in the blanks" process is "prejudice" -- it's the basis of "racism" (all Blacks are lazy bastards), "ageism" (all people over 60 are technical illiterates), and of War (all Germans are Krauts; all Japanese are Japs, all Muslims are Islamists).

Study the political fracas in TV Ad Blitzes to look for the "depiction" of your reality then compare that depiction with the underlying reality as you see it.

When you can see the pattern of how the Advertising "lifts" elements from the pea-soupy reality of the opposition (CONFLICT) party and presents to you a mere depiction OF THE CONFLICTING ELEMENTS, then turn to the huge World you have Built in your mind, and do that exact same thing to present your fictional world to your very real readers. 

That will generate your Page 1, your middle, and your Last Page conflict resolution.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Stephen King's UNDER THE DOME (the novel) uses a fantasy premise (a town is trapped under a transparent dome, and the community's cohesion quickly deteriorates) partly to depict a situation analogous to post-9-11 America, in which a supposed state of emergency -- fear of terrorism -- is used to justify extraordinary government measures. In UNDER THE DOME, the local politician Big Jim plays the role of a government leader using a state of emergency to grab power. The TV series doesn't depict this analogy so clearly, if at all, because Big Jim has been changed into a much less horrible person.