Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Four – Conflict and Resolution

This week we come to the conclusion of my four part series on the literary basics. For a quick recap see my previous posts on Character, Plot, and Setting. For the fourth and final installment I’ll be discussing Conflict and Resolution.

The definition of Conflict is a choice or situation the protagonist faces at the beginning of the story must be solved or not. Essentially, conflict is the reason for the plot, the characters, and the setting. Below are listed the different kinds of conflict.

Internal – As the name suggests, internal conflict is one in which the protagonist battles himself. Something happens that forces the protagonist to question himself. This may lead to a moral dilemma. The protagonist’s internal conflict can also manifest itself as a battle to overcome a perceived or real deficiency in order to “win”.

External – This type of conflict is a result of some other person or object or concept that the protagonist has a problem with. There several kinds external conflict with some debate as to whether a couple of them should be their own category or included with another one.

Man vs. Man: The most common type of conflict, it consists of one person or a group against another person or group.

Man vs. Nature: Another popular type, it consists of a person against either a force of nature, such as outrunning a powerful storm, or animal, like in Moby Dick.

Man vs. Society: In this type of external conflict, the protagonist is battling an institution, tradition, or laws of his culture in which he struggles with but ultimately either comes to accept his situation, is beaten by it, or overcomes it. Think of such stories as 1984 and many dystopian based novels.

Man vs. Supernatural: Some argue this should be included with Man vs. Nature since the Supernatural is an extension of the natural just unexplainable. Personally, I think this is definitely separate from Man vs. Nature because it’s hard to compare battling werewolves with being surrounded by actually wolves. One’s made up, while the other is real.

Man vs. Technology: A newer kind of conflict thanks to the acceleration in technology from the Industrial Revolution to now. This can be used to show how technology is used against man to enslave him.

Man vs. Fate/God: Like Man vs. Supernatural, this one could be folded into one of the other categories such as either Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Self if the protagonist is battling fate, such as in Oedipus Rex, or the gods, such as in The Odyssey. Again, I personally believe stories in which an earthly creature struggles against fate/destiny or a god/gods in different because those concepts are abstract and don’t fit neatly into any other category.

Many stories often have more than one kind of conflict in them. For example, this is particularly true when the protagonist is on a journey. Not only is he battling several foes before reaching the Big Bad, but also along the way he may start to question their own will, thus creating an internal conflict that they must solve in order to overcome the main conflict.

All of this conflict within a story should ultimately lead to the apex, or climax of the story. What this simply means is everything that has happened in the story leads to one decisive event. Following the traditional three act structure, the climax traditionally comes somewhere toward the end of the middle part of the story.

Once we get the climax, we come to the last puzzle piece. Resolution is all the falling action after the climax and which propels the story to a resolution, or end. In the traditional three act structure a small percentage of the story is spent to tidy things up. Resolution doesn’t always necessarily mean that all a reader’s questions will be answered.

This last point is quite tricky because some believe resolutions and endings should be definitive with no room for doubt. Others are okay with some open endings as long as other things are satisfactorily concluded. Still others don’t mind completely open-ended endings. Of course, if a book is part of a series then some amount of unresolvedness is needed. How to end a story is difficult and is probably one of the reasons why many, many readers often feel dissatisfied at the conclusion. Personally, I’m okay with some ambiguity as life isn’t so nice and tidy and I don’t mind wondering “What happened?”

 

Hopefully this series has helped. I think it’s important as readers to understand the basics so that as we read and reflect we can understand the choices the characters make. Also, when we are having discussions with our friends, our book club, or online, we come across as an intelligent reader who can successfully defend their position. As writers it’s good to have a solid foundation on the basics to not only understand what readers expect, but then how to tweak those expectations. It also makes us look like we know what we’re doing even if at times it doesn’t feel that way.

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Three – Plot

For the third part in my four part series on literary basics, I’d like to discuss something I consider to be one of the biggest areas for misunderstandings. Although characters are what drive my own work and reading, plot is just as important as character to a story. Therefore it’s important for everyone to understand what plot encompasses.

The basic definition of Plot is it is the actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. Easy enough to understand and most stories follow the classic three-act structure. The beginning is sometimes referred to as the exposition and on average comprises about 15% of the story. Setting, conflict, and the main character are introduced here. Next comes the middle which, not surprisingly, makes up a bulk of a story. Through chapters we get rising action as our main character climbs toward the apex of the story. Then our main character spends a few chapters in falling action working toward the ending. Finally, we have the ending, which like the beginning, usually makes up a small percentage of the overall story. While there are plenty of examples of novels experimenting with beginning, middle, and end, the very definition of plot cannot be confusing. However, it’s when we start digging more into plot and its elements that confusion starts.

Let’s start off easy with what a subplot is. A subplot is a mini-story contained within the main plot. A subplot or subplots may or may not involve the protagonist but should be something that somehow serves the overall plot in addition to aiding in character development.

Next, let’s talk about what a plot device is. A plot device is an object or even a person which propels the protagonist, antagonist, or both forward in the plot. This is a rather vague definition so one way to think of it is to give an example.  For example, the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings books is what Frodo believes his ultimate goal to be.

The category of plot device is surprisingly denser then one would believe. For example, a type of plot device is something known as a MacGuffin. A term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, it refers to an object whose pursuit isn’t actually essential to the story. For example, when reading a spy novel, the essential papers which could prove who the mole is seem the most important when in reality it in the search for those papers that’s important. The object itself isn’t the point of the story and it’s the chase that is truly the plot.

Deus ex machina is another plot device and one that greatly irks many readers. More commonly referred to as the Hand of God, it is a concept dating back to ancient Greece when an actor would be lowered by a crane onto to the stage as a God to magically resolve and end the story. Even back then audiences were bothered as it comes across as the author realizing he or she has painted himself or herself into a corner and couldn’t come up with a better resolution. What to do? Poof! Magically swoop in and just make everything better.

Finally, another kind of plot device is the red herring. Mostly used in mysteries and thrillers, it is a way to throw the main character (and reader) off the trail of the real killer or evil plot. Usually the red herring is a person but can also be an object.

There are many other kinds of plot devices but these are a few of the most common types.

Now we get to the one term which makes me cringe when I hear it and that is plot hole. A plot hole is a logical inconsistency within the context of the world of the story. This can include statements and actions which contradict stated facts and that have not been developed to make the current situation plausible. It can also refer to actions and events never hinted at but by using deus ex machina everything is right with the world.

Why this makes me cringe is often times when I hear it mentioned is by people who use it as a means to explain their personal dislike of a character’s action or outcome of the story. Apparently not liking something is the equivalent to a plot hole. Even when whatever it is explained by actions and dialogue earlier in the story, somehow it must still be a plot hole because “I said so and don’t accept your attempt at discounting my opinion with facts.”

Sometimes this term is used when a person doesn’t understand something. It’s okay to not understand everything which happens in a story. It’s hard to catch it all and one of the nice things about literature is through reasonable discussion with others or re-reading, our understanding becomes clearer. That being said, it is not a plot hole if as a reader you don’t understand. It’s highly possible the author didn’t make something clear. But again, it’s not necessarily a plot hole.

 

As you can see within the world of plot it is quite robust. However, once the terms are known and understood we all become better readers and writers. As with the other literary elements I’ve already discussed, without a firm grasp on plot one cannot fully enjoy the story the author has written for us.

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Two – Setting

A couple of weeks ago I started a series reviewing story basics. I started with Character and continue the series this week with Setting. Unlike some of the other story elements, setting is pretty straightforward. A lot easier to keep straight and not confuse terms.

The simplest definition of setting is it is where the story takes place. As we all know, it can be a real place or something fantastical or even a place within a character’s mind. In addition to be the world, setting also helps the reader fix the time, culture, and mood of the world in which the story takes place.

Below are definitions of a few different kinds of settings frequently seen in literature:

Alternate History – This might seem confusing since alternate history is also a subgenre of both science fiction and historical fiction. In this context, alternate history is a setting because it is a world set in a different universe from what our normal history is. This could also be defined as Alternate Universe or Parallel Universe.

Imaginary World – This type of setting is one in which the author has created a world from scratch including its own set of rules, logic, culture, and religion. This is mostly found in science fiction and fantasy. Many authors who have created their own worlds, such as Middle Earth and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, have based them on the real world.

Dystopia – Stories set in this kind of setting feature societies which have completed broken down. Everything is usually bleak and depressing. This is quite popular with examples such as the various districts within The Hunger Games trilogy. While commonly associated with science fiction, literary fiction frequently employs this setting as well.

Mythical Place – As the name suggests, the setting is some mythical time and place found in mythology, folklore, or religious texts. This is different from an Imaginary World in that this setting would be something like Asgard or Camelot or the Garden of Eden.

Utopia – This is the opposite of Dystopia in that instead of a broken down society, society is based upon the principle of equality in all things. People frequently believe that a utopian world means that everyone is happy and everything is perfect. This isn’t necessarily the case as seen A Brave New World and 1984.

 

These are just a few of the different kinds of settings. All of us have read books set in real places with real people yet fictionalized for the sake of the story. And we’ve all read books set in a fictional place set here on Earth but which perhaps takes place during our modern time or a point in history.

While setting is one of the simplest literary elements, it’s easy to see where readers could start to get confused. When connecting it with Character, for example, I frequently see and hear people criticize a character’s actions because the story is set in a time period and culture different from own. I’ve seen this more with new historical fiction readers, but all genres are affected.  I believe this comes down to readers not remembering the context of the world. Characters within the story’s world who behave as good or bad suddenly are deemed the opposite because the reader projects modern values and their own biases.

Setting, while unassuming and operating seemingly in the shadows, should be on equal footing as other literary elements. Without a firm grasp on setting, an author cannot fully convey to the reader what it is he or she wants the reader to not only visualize, but also how Character and Plot are affected by it. The inverse is true for the reader. Without a firm understanding of the setting, all the other literary elements cannot work as well as the author intended. By better understanding its purpose both readers and authors become better.