I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a story interesting to me.
Beyond the structural issues, beyond the skill of the prose, screen-writing, witty banter and scene setting; there are three aspects of a story that when missing, makes me feel as if the story is hollow. Character, conflict and change. These are three story concepts that have to be strong, before the story even gets structured and put to pen.
There’s always a character at the center of the story. It’s their motivation that drives the story. Every character has a life need. The life need is something that the character wants, whether he realizes it or not, something that he requires in his life to change it. It’s not necessarily something that he actually wants, but it’s something missing in his life that will satisfy his story. The most obvious and cliche is the search for love, the life need being the desire to not be alone. Another cliche is revenge, as the main drive of a large number of story. Others include a search of identity, a sense of belonging, or the need to survive.
We have to dig deep into the character’s desire when the story is being told. The usual rules of show, not tell apply of course. A character often isn’t consciously aware of what his inner desire is, and even those that are, aren’t always aware of why exactly those desires motivate him or her. What the story does know, is that this inner desire will drive the character throughout the story, until it is permanently quenched, either by death, or fulfillment.
Every character has this, even the side characters. Stories are all the more richer for multiple character across its cast having their own life need. Everyone is a hero of their own story after all. These motivation may not necessarily be understandable to the general audience. Sometimes, it’s better if it isn’t immediately obvious or relatable. The story then has a chance to build the character, to invite the audience into understanding what drives this character. The more primal the need, the more audience can relate to the need, whether they themselves have felt it at one point or the other.
This need can then be complicated. The desire to be alone is universal, given exceptions, but what the character does in pursuit of this goal can give the character life. Does he built robots, to stave off loneliness by automating conversation. Does he befriend animals, or hit on every girl in the city. Is his loneliness a result of abandonment issues, or a sense of lost identity. Everyone can understand the desire to not be alone, the depth of why that desire drives a character is what sets him apart, and makes him universal to the audience.
When characters life need intersect, they become allies. When they go against one another, it becomes conflict.
Conflict is the theme of the story.
We come for the conflict, that’s usually what makes the story interesting. Is it aliens invading, a giant monsters rampaging, a girl we cannot get, or a murderer we must stop. That’s what story usually is to most people. Who are we fighting, what must we overcome and how do we overcome it.
Conflict is context. It is what builds the plot, since conflict drives most of the action. The characters may have their own desires, wants and needs, but the conflict of the story is what’s stopping them from getting it.
When conflict is build from theme, it can symbolize greater ideas, making abstract concept relatable to an audience. The fight against alien invasion signifies man’s tenacity for survival. The desire to run away might signify the problems of a broker home. Since theme is what the story is about, conflict is a way to highlight that. Interesting themes can produce interesting conflicts. Good vs evil is a common theme, and is the basis for a lot of stories.
Conflict can be between characters signifying different ideals, (Xavier and Magneto), between man and his environment (Twister), man and the unknown (Horror movies). In the best cases, these opposing forces are agents to greater theme and the conflict is brought forth as a way to externalize those themes.
But a good conflict is essential to a story. A hero is only as interesting as the villain he fights, and a story is only as good as the conflict we must overcome.
Change is irrevocable.
It’s is the resolution of conflict brought about by the actions of the characters in the story. Good change doesn’t come from nowhere, (dues Ex Machina), it comes from the action of the players in the story.
It’s the moment where the character and conflict come to a head, and where the events or character will change from here on out. It’s the emotional gut-punch, or the joyous epiphany, or the tragic consequence of all the actions prior. Whatever it is, it is irreversible and it will forever inform the characters and conflict from this moment on.
The change has to be important and it has to be tied into the theme of the story. It may not resolve the central conflict, but it moves it towards a greater understanding of how to resolve the conflict.
Change is cartharsis.
It’s when we feel the buildup of tension release itself; the moment when the guy gets the girl, the monster’s weakness is discovered, or when the hero reaches his epiphany. It can even be when the hero dies, or the girl is lost forever, or the villain finally achieves his plan. Whatever it is, it will radically change the underlying suspense. Good change affects how we fell about the story. It’s whether the story was worth the time or not. Audience may come for the conflict, and they because of the characters, but they love the story because of the promise of change.
When it does change, they will feel their time with the story well invested.
I’ve rambled on enough, I think, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s a 4th C in this write-up, though one that is less often talked about and more in-tuned with the idea of the craft than the concept. Consistency, stories have to consistent with regards to all the above. The conflict cannot be too varied, the character’s too unstructured, or the change too absurd and from nowhere. Consistency in applying these 3 C’s will bring out how they interact, and how the story can be developed to be not only interesting, but relevant and personal as well.