Story at a Glance

Image of a chess board

Story as a Chess Game

No, this isn’t a post about Queen’s Gambit, though that’s a possibility since it’s one of my favorite limited series of the 2000s.

It is a post about how bad, or at least unclear, advice about scene construction can lead to some good advice (I think) about story construction.

In this case it springs from another version of the advice I’ve seen dating back to the ‘90s to make sure you escalate conflict between your protagonist and antagonist in every scene. Not just throughout the story. In every scene.

That’s a tall task, isn’t it?  Escalating the base conflict in every single scene?  Sounds exhausting, frankly, both for the reader and writer. Seems like someone’s never heard of pacing.

Story Conflict across the Board

And in fact, if you think back over the great movies you’ve seen, or books you’ve read, you’ll find such direct escalation of the central conflict seldom occurs, usually in only a fraction of scenes. That’s even more apparent to me since I’ve been doing these script breakdowns. 

Instead, attention rotates to all the other conflicts in the story: inner conflicts, conflict between the main and secondary characters, and between secondary characters. Even, in a sense, between the reader and the author, as the reader strives to understand what the author doesn’t want understood yet. And it’s all done incrementally, in different places, from different angles, mostly indirectly but sometimes directly.

Like in a chess game. In chess, each piece moves and interacts with other pieces, both supporting and opposing, ramping pressure and tension up bit by bit in areas across the board. As each of those individual situations are created and resolved with their own small consequences, they steadily create the final, climactic circumstance which resolves the main conflict and releases the tension.

Ditto your story. With each scene in each story line, you have a steady accumulation of irreversible revelation and effects. One scene may in fact openly demonstrate the conflict between the protagonist and antagonistic force, but it could just as well innocently spark a growing love or resentment, or merely reveal a bit of information whose context isn’t known yet. But it all relates somehow and contributes to the climax—from this way, from that way, with a nudge or a shove—continuously elevating curiosity and tension in the reader. Across story lines, they work individually but ultimately in concert to corner the protagonist into that climactic state of tension that has to be resolved one way or the other.

So no, don’t make the mistake of believing you have to ensure every scene contains some kind of escalation of the primary conflict, much less direct conflict between the protagonist and the primary opposing force. Only do so when the play seems right, when the story calls for it. Balance it with all the other conflicts around the story game board, those choices of no return scene to scene, storyline to storyline, that will each steadily propel your protagonist to his ultimate choice, and checkmate.

Whose mate it is, of course, depends on you. But that’s a post for another day

Photo by Vlada Karpovich

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