Storytelling is as old as human DNA. As old as language. As old as Joe Neanderthal sitting around the fire at the mouth of his cave, telling the group what happened that day.
“Me went hunting, threw rock at rabbit, killed it, brought it back. Good day. Ug.”
Okay, that’s a story, as far as it goes. Short, sweet, direct. But what’s missing? How might Joe have ramped up the tension in his story? How might he have grabbed the interest of his fellows, and pulled them in emotionally so they were invested in the outcome? Conflict.
How about this:
“Me went hunting today. The four-leggeds have been scarce lately; family starving. Need meat. Me felt weak from lack of food, not sure me had strength to kill. Saw rabbit hiding in brush. Picked up rock to throw, moved slowly so not scare rabbit. Suddenly saw saber-toothed cat stalking rabbit. Rabbit, or me? Throw rock at rabbit, or at cat? Me throw at rabbit, cat may jump me. Me throw at cat, rabbit will run off. Need meat, but if cat kills me, my family will starve. What me do?”
Okay, now we’re talking. We’ve got the challenge (getting food) + the consequence of failure (starving to death) + the obstructions (weakened condition, rabbit’s ability to dodge, cat’s ability to kill Joe) = tension. Setting aside the fact that, since Joe is telling the story, we know he didn’t die, his cave mates are hooked and eagerly awaiting the end of the story.
By the time humans developed a written language, their sense of storytelling evolved, as well. In the story of Gilgamesh, thought to date to 2100 BC, the protagonist battles gods and goddesses and monsters as he searches for immortality. From that point on, we, as humans, took the figurative bit of conflict in our mouths and ran with it.
But is it really that simple? Provide a challenge, throw in some obstacles and voila? Of course not. Although the formula may seem simple, it’s the way the story is told that counts. I can remember back to the days of early TV movies, before everyone and his brother had a network and made movies. The TV movies then were about 90 minutes long, expanded into a two-hour time slot with plenty of commercials thrown in for filler. You could always tell a TV movie from a big bucks feature film; within the first ten minutes you knew all two dimensions of the characters, who was good and who was bad, what the challenge was and who would win. There wasn’t time (or the movie-makers didn’t take the time) to allow the conflict to develop naturally.
Enter popcorn movies. These are your typical summer check-your-brain-at-the-door movies. Fun, exciting, but you’re more apt to get a headache from the constant explosions than from trying to figure out the deeper meaning. Like the old TV movies, these are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. No one, I’m pretty sure, is going to confuse any of these with classic storytelling.
So if these stories are using conflict in less than stellar ways, what’s the right way? What’s the best way?
To my mind, the secret to building conflict is allowing the tension to grow organically. Instead of having the Starfleet Commander telling Private Duncan that he has to go destroy the Death Warp or the entire universe is toast, I’d rather see the conflict evolve little by little with small markers and foreshadows sprinkled here and there along the way. Instead of being hit over the head, I’d rather feel the tightening in my body long before my mind has fully comprehended the danger. I’d rather feel that low, heavy dread in my stomach, knowing something was going to happen — but what?
One of the earliest examples of this in modern times was Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. A short story published in The New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery was a masterpiece of organically growing tension. The story unfolds slowly, quietly, starting with a perfect summer day of picnics and socializing, children playing — children gathering pebbles into small piles. Then the rumors start, the talk begins; some are talking of discontinuing the lottery, discontinuing the tradition. Before you know it, without yet understanding why, the reader’s guts are tightening into knots of dread. The seeds of tension, planted in the first few paragraphs, are now pressing against the soil around them, straining to burst free. You can’t really put your finger on it, but somehow, somewhere, this went from a carefree summer day to a deadly game of chance. Suddenly the story has become a loaded gun, and it could point to anyone — even you.
It’s a testament to Jackson’s talent that the initial reaction to the story was strong, negative, and visceral. The New Yorker received countless notices of subscription cancellations, and Jackson herself received hundreds of letters of hate mail. No one complained about her writing; there were no recriminations about the story being badly paced or clumsily told. No, they complained about the story itself. It was horrible, it was negative, it was un-American. They complained about the way it made them feel.
As a writer, that’s when you know you’ve hit pay dirt.
It’s hard to write this way. Hey, if it was easy, we’d all do it, right? But it’s hard to ration out those little clues through the early part of the story, hard not to telegraph, hard not to succumb to telling instead of showing. I was reminded of this recently while reading A Sudden Gust of Gravity, the new book by IU’s own Laurie Boris (which is what got me thinking about this to begin with). Boris does a masterful job of tightening those screws, increasing the tension on the wire ever so slowly, gently, almost imperceptibly. At three-quarters of the way through the book, I realized that I was practically holding my breath, nearly gnawing at my fingernails, turning pages as fast as I could to get to the climax. She had woven the story so subtly, so easily, I didn’t even realize it had me in its thrall until I was forced to set it aside for something or other and was notably angry about having to do that. I couldn’t wait to take care of whatever that business was and get back to the book. I was completely captivated, so wound up in the soft lace ribbons of the story that it was a shock to realize those ribbons had become a straitjacket. That’s what good writing does. That’s what good handling of conflict and tension does. It pulls you in so gently that you’re not even aware of it, until, suddenly, you can’t get out. Not only that, you don’t want to get out.