Monday, November 28, 2011
Write Better with Four-Top Conflict.
By Donan Berg
Author of A Body To Bones
and The Bones Dance Foxtrot
Conflict attracts and builds fiction readership. The concept is not a mystery, but challenges fiction writers with every story. How can authors master the task?
Conflict as defined for writers is the clash of beliefs, values, and/or moral judgments. Conflict is not a left jab, right upper cut punch combination. Nor is it a hero defeating each opponent at every mile marker post on the interstate between journey start and finish.
The author begins with a story hero, often called the protagonist. If he or she lives in an idealistic state with satiated desires and no worries, the hero may love it, but the reader will be bored. Life’s reality contains ups and downs; the reader expects novel conflict to surpass actuality with greater intensity and proportionality.
In its simplest form, conflict for the hero involves one antagonist or a villain, as mystery writers will label the person or peril of nature. For illustration purposes the villain will be another human. To have the greatest conflict both the hero and villain must seek the identical goal. Both may crave the final say where there’s but one authority position. The hero desires to win the election to provide justice for residents. The villain desires to win the same election to fatten his or her bank account. A detective hero investigates to learn the killer’s identity. The villain uses every trick, lie, and false insinuation to avoid detection justifying the action as self-defense or biblical revenge.
Hero versus villain is a straightforward back-and-forth contest. Like a tug of war, one can have the advantage, then the other, back to the first, the second resurges, and eventually the hero prevails, well most often, except in the tragedy. While this format presents an acceptable template for storytelling, the good versus evil conflict remains largely superficial without engaging character depth. The hero evokes no lasting emotional attachment in the reader’s mind.
How can the author increase the conflict? And expand the emotional attractiveness of his or her characters. Try four-top conflict. Four-top is restaurant terminology for a table with four seats. Authors will have the hero at position one, the major villain at position two, nature’s peril or another adversary at position three, and the third adversary at position four. The potential for competing values is vertical, horizontal, and/or diagonal. The hero must not only face attacks from the major villain, but his or her weakness is exposed to positions three and four as well.
Let’s consider a public safety mystery novel example. The detective hero must solve an accountant’s murder. The major villain must thwart the hero’s murder-solving goal so as not to jeopardize a personal real estate business scam. The major villain tries to pull political strings to have the detective’s boss reassign or not authorize the tools the detective needs. At position three is the actual killer. A winter storm traps and almost kills the hero at a desolate cabin in pursuit of a clue or the actual killer, a gun for hire. The killer becomes unhappy and threatens to expose the major villain unless he’s paid additional money. This pressure intensifies the major villain’s actions against the hero. The hero’s fourth position adversary can be a fellow detective who seeks promotion to the one departmental advancement vacancy. In acting for personal gain, the fellow detective intentionally misfiles evidence, doesn’t pass on evidence tips, and/or tells a potential witness that the witness would be better off not speaking to the hero.
It’s easy to visualize the diagonal possibilities between the actual killer and the hero, often a simple clue detection tug of war. However, utilization of the four-top conflict model allows the major villain to complicate the perils the hero must overcome and aid the actual killer’s actions to prey upon the hero’s weaknesses. For example, unbeknownst to all others, the major villain plants a false clue that causes the hero to walk into a booby-trapped restaurant where the major villain had also induced the real killer and fellow detective to be spreading button on the same bread loaf. If the fellow detective avoids death, the fellow detective can challenge the major villain with exposure as he or she strives for personal promotional glory. The real killer may decide on revenge against the major villain.
The author’s illumination of how and why the hero acts and reacts to three, not one, adds depth to this main character. The same happens to other characters when the author shows how they are challenged or required to respond to the actions of others to attain desired goals.
Can the same four-top concept apply to subplots? Yes, for example, the home life of the hero can have tugs between a spouse, child, and mother-in-law. There are countless possibilities. Forget the mother-in-law and give the hero a serious addiction, your choice. Create the relationships between the hero and others or internally to show the hero with praiseworthy values and a personality flaw as a rounded character.
Don’t forget that the challenges to the hero’s beliefs, values, and moral judgments will change him or her in incremental stages to create a totally different personality when the story ends.