These days, amateur writers are under the impression that they can write about nothing as long as it’s “written well”. That the story engine is less important than trendy subjects with realistic conversation.
If you’re a comedian with twenty years of experience under your belt, you might be able to pull off a Seinfeld… for everybody else, it doesn’t work.
One major issue compounding this problem is the typical novice writer’s lack of objectivity (one of the three key traits of any writer worth their salt–honesty, objectivity, passion).
When you’ve been in your head for days and months and fully comprehend the entire story, writing about nothing has far more weight in your mind. In contrast, these same scenes fall completely flat to someone coming to the story for the first time, with no familiarity or knowledge of the bigger picture.
So how do you avoid this trap?
Easy. Fall back on your fundamentals. Enter the Super Trifecta.
Conflict. Jeopardy. Stakes.
KEEP ONE OR MORE OF THESE PRESENT AT ALL TIMES.
Two main characters discussing and agreeing about the latest social trend is not engaging.
The same two character’s conflicted about the latest social trend, is.
Conflict is king.
Characters discussing in agreement–without conflict–almost always comes across as exposition.
When conflict is injected, the interaction becomes a direct clash of viewpoints–a boxing match for all intents and purposes. A battle between opponents, each trying to prove and dominate the other. It’s hard not to be engaged by that dynamic.
So you’re sitting there thinking, this is stupid, not every scene needs to have conflict.
I could have a compassionate moment between lovers, or a suspenseful moment between detectives trying to decipher a clue–something where the characters are not barking at each other.
Firstly, notice in these instances, the narrative has direction, “compassionate, suspenseful.” You’re already writing with a distinct emotional emphasis (one of the 4 Essential Elements talked about in the Writer’s Guide). So in these instances, we’re not writing about nothing.
Second, not all conflict comes in the form of barking and argument–though that almost always works.
Revisit some of the compassionate and suspenseful scenes, or any other scenes you feel come across without conflict, and double check. Though they may not be barking at each other, I’ll put money that the scene is filled with conflict.
Conflict isn’t always about anger or two opposing physical forces.
Two lovers lying in bed. Agreeing how wonderful their time together’s been and what they want to have for breakfast. That’s boring.
Two lovers lying in bed. One wants to get up and make breakfast, the other wants to stay in bed for round two.
That darlings, is conflict.
Conflict can be subdued, presented with low physical energy. It can even be in the subtext of a character interaction. But the key is, that it’s there.
Danger is primal. Everyone understands it. We’re all hardwired to spot it and pay attention to it. <Read those three lines again.>
Jeopardy is often the bridge or conduit between conflict and stakes.
The hero hanging from a broken catwalk, suspended over a vat of acid. The stakes are clear, if he falls into the acid, he’s gonna melt down to goo–life over.
How does the character get out of trouble? Does he get out of trouble? Assuming we care about the character to some degree, jeopardy can create an empathetic bond–instantly, we start thinking, how could I get out of that situation?
Jeopardy by its nature is engaging.
As a general rule, milk your jeopardy for all it’s worth.
As I mention in Threat of Violence, threats generate tension. Consequences (results of jeopardy) diffuse them.
When a character faces jeopardy, don’t just stop there and move toward the resolution. Let it stew and build. Make the reader unsure of the outcome.
While our hero dangles over the vat of acid, he reaches for his action belt full of gadgets to save him, but the catwalk abruptly shifts. Our hero desperately forced to hold on with both hands, drops his belt into the acid below! Now he’s got no outs, this is horrible… but we’re not done yet.
There’s some milk left in that teat. Squeeze!!!!
In the background, atop the catwalk still securely held in place, our villain emerges from the shadows… holding a giant two headed axe in his hands.
We just doubled down on our jeopardy and I’m betting if you were reading this in a comic, nothing would stop you from flipping that page.
Stakes are directly related to the potency of a scene.
The greater the stakes, the closer the consequence of the stakes take effect, the more potent the scene.
Pretty much anything can be developed as stakes.
Obviously, a scene where picking up the laundry before the laundromat closes as stakes, is far less engaging than a life or death situation… which in turn is less engaging than a life or death situation where many lives are at risk… or where an entire galaxy is at stake, or an entire planets way of life, etc. etc.
One of the key things to keep in mind when establishing stakes is to ask what happens if the character involved simply fails or simply walks away from the situation.
In the laundry example above, having to wear dirty clothes the next day hardly seems life changing… but stepping away from fighting an evil tyrant, could get the world population enslaved–that’s pretty potent.
The distance at which the stakes are resolved, from the point at which their established/utilized also have a large bearing on their relevance.
Let’s say you have a scene where your main character whips out a cigarette while he’s talking to a pal. Smoking is likely to kill you (life and death being solid stakes). But how potent are the stakes from smoking in a scene with a young healthy character? Do you feel any sense of action and consequence?
Not very… and probably not.
The lethal effect of smoking is too distant to add any real impact in the scene.
Now look what happens if we shorten that distance.
Instead of a young healthy MC, what if our protagonist is an elderly, sick guy. What if smoking a single cigarette increases his chance of an immediate heart attack. Now how does weight of that scene feel? How tangible does the character’s action and consequence become?
Notice how we’ve used the bridge of jeopardy to bring the stakes closer to the present moment.
Of course, this is a very narrow example just for purposes of illustration. In the realm of Super hero, sci-fi, fantasy comics, the stakes you put into play aren’t likely to hinge on something as mundane as a cigarette.
Don’t fall into the novice writer mindset and think these elements don’t belong in every scene. They do. They are the razor sharp hooks of reader engagement. Get them in your script and hook yourself some new fans. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.