Monday, January 23, 2012

Something Everybody Wants

In my last installment, we considered a plot structure in which a character desires more than one thing, seeks more than one goal.  It’s a handy trick that not only provides character depth, but also almost guarantees conflict.

It occurred to me later that it might be worth looking at the trick in reverse – what happens when multiple characters all want the same thing?  The potential for conflict is obvious…

There’s a classic American comedy film directed by Stanley Kramer called It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  The movie revolves around about a dozen characters who are all given a hint as to the hidden location of $350,000 in stolen cash.  (It’s a 1963 movie – that was a lot of money back then.) Do the characters cooperate and agree to split the money?  Of course not.

When everybody wants something at the expense of someone else, conflict is inevitable.  The prize doesn’t have to be cash – it can be love, recognition, a scholarship, a place in the sun. The point is, our hero isn’t the only one striving for the prize. The question becomes not just what does your character want, but what will he or she be willing to compete for?  And how  far will he or she go to get it?

The rule of this type of story is this – only one wins the prize.  You can’t split a gold medal and your audience will feel cheated if you try.

But if we, as writers, can make our readers care about more than one of the characters seeking the goal, if we can make it uncertain who is going to finally win, if we can sympathize with the losers as well as the victors – well, that sounds like a darn good story to me.

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