The Intersection of Story)
In mathematics we learn that one vector defines a single-dimensional space. It is a line or a direction, a single, unchanging thrust into space.
Two vectors, however, can define a two-dimensional space. A field, a landscape, or an infinite blanket of ideas.
Three vectors and you get a three-dimensional volume. Length and width are joined by depth, form and figure emerge, a complex structure that has to be considered from different perspectives to understand the whole.
This principle holds true when developing a story as well. The genesis of most stories occurs when the writer’s mind finds an interesting connection of different vectors. Ideas that had seemed unrelated show a surprise connection, and as the mind explores that space it concocts a story to aid in the process. And like turning the knobs on a faucet we are free to crank one of the core ideas up and dial the other back, to leave one out entirely and then gradually introduce it to full force, each combination has its own potential. Notice how many story pitches are delivered in exactly this way: describing the intersection between different ideas.
“A romantic comedy, but one of the characters is blind and the other is deaf.”
“A classic Western, but it takes place in space!”
“The story is 1980s America, but if the Cold War had escalated to actual combat.”
Through these combinations we find a field of discovery, a curious volume to explore, an entire story of material…maybe even multiple stories of material! Entire worlds are discovered and our story is the spaceship by which we tour them.
In fact, my most recent stories have all been ways to explore the same three ideas’ intersection. The Favored Son: Alternate, The Time Travel Situation, and The Punctured Football are all examinations on the themes of children, conflict, and play.
In The Favored Son: Alternate there was a very specific aspect of children, conflict, and play that I wanted to consider. I thought of all the times that I have seen children playing a game that shifts from innocent fun, to lively competition, to hurt feelings, to an all-out fight. Children at play and children at conflict are sometimes not very far apart!
I explored that concept in this story by continually returning to the competitions that the boys undergo as part of their training. At the outset these appear to be light-hearted affairs, just a group of children pretending at war and hoping to win. But the further the story goes the more these scenes shift into actual conflict. By the end they aren’t playing at all, they are at literal war and not all of them survive it.
Next came The Time Travel Situation, in which the element of play was cranked to the max and never became mean-spirited. There was conflict in the story, but it was only pretend-conflict, a fight where all of the children were united on one side against fictitious enemies on the other. Thus the conflict was never serious, it was all for fun.
It is, of course, an interesting question why we find pretended conflict to be so entertaining, and there are all sorts of theories that have been posited on the matter. For now let’s just accept the fact that we do. Our stories, even our happy stories, are almost always centered around this idea of opposition and conflict. But if we do intend to keep the conflict “fun,” we have to disassociate it from reality. Thus the badguys are totally fictitious beings, like comic book supervillains, or they are extreme caricatures, like moustache-twirling weapon dealers. Conflict is only fun when it is pretend, so I made my story all about a literal game of pretend.
The Punctured Football lays somewhere in between those two others. The conflict in it is not just pretend as in The Time Travel Situation, the characters are sincerely at odds with one another. But it is not nearly so grim as in The Favored Son: Alternate either. The two characters show plenty of hurt feelings, but there’s never any danger to either one. Also the play is more pronounced than it was in The Favored Son: Alternate, but not nearly so exuberant as in The Time Travel Situation. In short this story was all about finding a middle ground that was more realistic than either extreme. The other two stories each had a strong fantasy in their own way, while this one was more firmly grounded.
I am going to write one more piece in this series, and with this one I want to incorporate both forms of conflict: the more realistic and the more fantastic. I am going to therefore have two conflicts that occur, one that is between the children and a fantasy enemy, and one between the children themselves. The first being more pretend, the other being more grounded. As for the sense of play, I am going to incorporate that by having one of the characters explore the rules of a newly discovered world.
And by this I will be following a most popular template for stories. As it turns out, there have already been many tales that explore this same intersection of children, conflict, and play. It is the template that C. S. Lewis popularized with his Chronicles of Narnia series. Consider the first entry, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children have a conflict with a magical queen, but also a more grounded feud between quarreling siblings. And though there is great danger in that tale, one cannot help but feel a sense of playfulness in how the children are able to explore such a fantastic realm.
It is also the template of Peter Pan, where siblings again intermingle their squabbles with the life-or-death conflict with Captain Hook. And all the while there is that same playful exploration of mermaids and the Piccanniny tribe and finding the ability to fly.
It is Harry Potter having a spat with Ron Weasley, while also being hunted by the murderous Lord Voldemort, while also uncovering the magical world of witches and wizards.
And now it will be the template for my own playful, conflicted, coming-of-age tale. Come back on Thursday to see it in action with Covalent.
Great point well delineated, Abe.
Thank you, Mitch.
I’d like to post this as a Featured Blogger or Guest Blog, if that’s OK with you, Abe.
You’ll get no complaint from me! Thank you, Mitch, I’d be extremely honored.
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Great. I’ve posted an abbreviated version as Guest Blog, with a link to the rest. Thanks! https://mitchteemley.com/2021/05/08/tips-for-writers-the-intersection-of-conflict-and-play/
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That abbreviations looks great…
In fact I’m now realizing the benefit a good editor gives to my work 🤔
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And the honor is mine, Abe.
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