Monday, November 28, 2011

The Elements of Story

Years ago, in my English classes, we learned that Story = Protagonist + Antagonist resulting in Conflict.

Conflict creates rising Tension ultimately resulting in Climax and (hopefully) Resolution. With resolution comes Denouement or gradual reduction in tension.

These are all arbitrary guidelines for the beginning writer at best and in my writing, they’ve been thrown out the door a number of times.

But as Kristen Lamb says in her blog today, “Antagonists – the Alpha and the Omega of Story,” the antagonist of a novel has to be well thought out in order to create and maintain the kind of tension for a really good story—not just the proverbial “whodunit,” either. She maintains the writer should spend plenty of time in her initial structuring of the book on that particular element of story with a definitive profile and the full development of the character. It makes sense and since I don’t have the experience behind me that she does, I have to say, okay, Kristen, I’ll give it a try. But what happens when your novel takes a side trip from your planned itinerary and you have to go back, pick up and try again? I was not able to control that.

In my novel, “When the Eagle Flies with the Condor,” the antagonist is not a person, but a situation arising out of emotions such as feelings of abandonment, estrangement and love; similarly, a powerful antagonist can be a storm, a flood, the summit of a major mountain, a family disgrace, a mental disability -- war. In my book, the antagonist is unrequited love. Sound corny? Not when the love is between brother and sister. Their love is more representative of “agape” (from the Greek) than romantic, but the point is, it wasn’t planned that way. It happened and I wanted to be as honest as I knew how to be, thus allowing the antagonist to become whatever it needed to become.

I do agree that having a good idea of what your story is going to say and knowing how it will end is one way to write a novel. But I also agree (with one of the commentators on the blog) that allowing the mind to soar uncontrolled into unexpected regions can be very satisfying and productive and end up perhaps being more. . . well. . . maybe. . . less -- formulaic?  It's my understanding this is called the "panser" method rather than the "plotter" method.  You get the idea. 


  1. Kristen Lamb is nothing if not formulaic -- and I don't necessarily mean that pejoratively. She by her own admission is writing about a very specific type of fiction: commercial fiction.

    In fact, though, conflict in literature can be psychological or inner, as in some of Dostoevsky's best novels, or it can be external, or it can be a combination of all three. A conflict is simply a clash, a struggle, a struggle that must take the form of action, yes, but this action needn't be purely physical.

    Which is why your antagonist can legitimately not be a person.

    And I don't think it sounds corny.

  2. Hi Ray,

    By definition, commercial fiction would have to have sales as a primary function; ie, write in order to sell and entertain along the way; I agree there’s certainly nothing wrong with entertaining and commercial fiction, but I also agree that art is a means to communicate deeper and sometimes impenetrable truths, which in a way, renders structured “story” unnecessary or secondary at best.

    Not only can the antagonist not be a person (as you say), but it can be as amorphous as the wind: an anguished search for the meaning of morality, existence and God conveyed through words that rise from the writer’s mind at a precise moment of inspiration. You can’t anticipate it; you simply have to be aware when it happens.

    Thank you for your comment, and for your informative blog discussing “Literature as an Art Form” @