I’ve discovered a new voice that I loved reading all weekend.
Victoria Mixon, she’s an editor and her new book The Art and Craft of Story is wonderful. Much of it is essays about writing rather than a traditional how-to format. Boy, does this gal have a voice. And strong opinions. I appreciate both.
The thing that’s smacked me upside the head is her discussion of Two Conflicting Needs. Mixon says on page 71 that Internal Conflict comes from dual, opposing needs. “No matter what happens in a story, our protagonist’s fundamental conflicting needs keep them from achieving the aim they’ve set themselves to achieve and, even worse, force them into the nightmare they so desperately want to avoid.”
In my story, my protagonist Dani is looking at the two goals (needs)–take care of the family vs take care of myself. Dani is always busy taking care of others and neglecting herself. Her fatal flaw being that she neglects herself. Throughout the story, the family vs self butts heads.
The definition of family changes in Dani’s story, which is a one of my main themes: Family of Choice can be stronger than blood-ties. But the family vs self conflict is the core throughout the story.
My weekend epiphany was that I hadn’t created the family vs self nightmare at the climax that Mixon talks about.
Mixon says a bit later on p.103, “I tell writers: identify your protagonist and their greatest need, then from that identify their worst nightmare, which always involves not being able to meet their greatest need.”
“That’s the Climax.”
“But there’s a little more to it than that, because the reason a protagonist can’t meet their greatest need is that they have a second equally-great need, and the two needs are in mutually-exclusive conflict with each other.”
“And the conflict between these two needs both blinds them and drives then relentlessly forward.”
The story is the alternating attempts of the protagonist to meet these needs.
Mixon talks about how Character creates Plot.
On Twitter, Mixon asked for a story in a sentence with three aspects of a story and was given: a death, a birth, and a mission, the protagonist a woman.
Her question then was, “What does this woman need?”
“It turned out what this woman needed was forgiveness for a death due to the mission, specifically the death of the father of her baby. Somehow, she’s done something that makes her think she’s guilty, that she needs to stick with the mission in order to redeem his death, to prove to herself and others he has not died in vain. To earn forgiveness.”
Then Mixon asked, “What else does she need? What prevents her from completely fulfilling her original need now?”
“And it turns out she also needs to survive–in particular she needs her baby to survive.”
So they discussed what kind of situation could happen in the story to force that woman to CHOOSE BETWEEN earning forgiveness and protecting her baby.
“What situation could force this woman to choose between her loyalty to her dead beloved — that fierce need to redeem his death, to earn forgiveness for what she cannot undo — and her instinct to protect her baby.”
Sounds like a no-brainer. Save baby trumps everything, so no real conflict, end of story.
But that’s the challenge of the writer:
“Creating a need for forgiveness in our READER as powerful as their need to save babies’ lives is what this story is all about.”
“Write it–the story of how this one character, this realistic, three-dimensional, internally-conflicted woman, becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in this mission, with her dreadful, transcendental need to prove her beloved did not die in vain. Give her a series of catastrophes as the mission progresses, earthshaking developments to put the reader on the edge of their seat. Make her engagement with this mission, her pursuit of forgiveness, as detailed and real and vivid as humanly possible.”
“At the same time, bring in the baby, but keep it secondary to the main plot (undercut the reader’s natural investment in saving babies). Let her pregnancy be a subplot running through the story of the mission. Let her get pregnant (or discover her pregnancy), let her suffer a major setback in her pregnancy, let her give birth under terrible, almost deadly circumstances, and then, for a short time at least, let her believe everything is finally going to be all right. She made it. She’s almost there, with both forgiveness and child safe. That’s the Faux Resolution.”
“Then when we put the baby in danger and bring the woman all the way to the brink of her nightmare, where she must choose between forgiveness and child, we’ve got our reader exactly where our protagonist is: trapped between inescapable choices, forced to face themself in their darkest and maybe, brightest hour, tormented by the sheer reality of existence.”
Wow, I’m exhausted just typing Mixon’s words out. But I’m so excited by this made up example, I’m chomping at the bit to read the story. How powerful this idea of two conflicting needs is.
For my teenage protagonist Dani, the major developmental stage is separation from family. So becoming Self is a driving Need. But that need for love and belonging is strong in all of us and so my story is about the warring of these two needs.
What happens when the dysfunctional family doesn’t have the good of the individual at heart?
The same needs are at the center of the movie Ordinary People.
It’s important to understand universal needs are what we want in our story. So when we distill it down to this need vs that need many stories may sound similar. The ART of writing is in the details. The characters and situations only WE can create.
Our individual experiences are what give OUR stories their uniqueness.
So look at your WIP. What are the two opposing Needs that will keep your reader on the edge of their seats?
Come back next week for another hike.
Enjoy the journey…. Lisa