In junior high, my grade seven English teacher taught us about conflict in narrative: man against man; man against nature; man against self; and man against society. To be honest, I never really found any of this worthwhile. Then I decided to study English literature in university and they taught us about conflict in narrative: man against man; man against nature; man against self; and man against society.
I guess what I’m still trying to figure out is whether studying literature has helped me learn how to tell better stories. As usual, I’m going to err on the side of saying: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In improv, when you’re starting a scene, they tell you to assume that you and your scene partner already know each other. No one wants to watch a bunch of scenes about two people getting to know one another … because it leaves very little room for real action to occur. Instead, they encourage you to play family members, boss and assistant, a married couple, a team of superheroes, a pair of vegan hotdogs who happen to be besties, etc. Characters who know each other. Why? Because every good scene (and every good story) is about some characters responding to one another and the world around them.
It could be a character’s relationship with another character; a character’s relationship with her surroundings; a character’s relationship with herself; and a character’s relationship with society. WAIT … SOMETHING SEEMS FAMILIAR HERE. I THINK I GET IT.
(Admittedly, I blew it in Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend, but I feel like Malcolm always knew Ira in his heart. Corny, but true. That’s why he’s basically in the background of every scene just hoping Ira will notice him—Malcolm was the new kid the year before.)
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So, if you start off your manuscript with two characters who already know each other, and you establish 1) what type of relationship they have (Is it a romantic relationship? A friendship? Is one higher status than the other?) and 2) how they feel about one another, you’ve given yourself a great foundation to make things happen. And then, as you write, focus on your characters’ relationships and their feelings and reactions towards the other characters in their world, as well as their feelings and reactions towards whatever’s happening to them.
Characters. Emotions. Relationships. Action.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.