One Ingredient to Make Your Fiction Timeless

As we discussed in last week’s blog, there is a lot more to being a writer than sitting down and pounding out word count. Make no mistake, sitting your tuchus in the chair and getting your work finished is of utmost importance, but those words need to be quality or then you are back to wasting your time. There are other activities we as writers can do to make our story-telling muscles stronger. The fastest and easiest way is to watch movies.

Today, I am going to talk about a critical element missing in many of today’s movies. This is an element that is as vital to good fiction as oxygen is for brain function. It is easier for me to point out in movies for a number of reasons. First, it is easier for you to go watch a movie and see my point than it is for you to make time for another 400 page book. Also, writers are delicate and I am not going to be responsible for a tragic OD of chocolate and pink Peeps. I figure those in the movies make good money, so my little critique has been properly compensated.

So what is this missing element?

Angst (generally found in conflict).

We need angst. The reader/audience needs to be on the edge of their seat from the inciting incident. That is what turns pages. Lose angst and you have just provided a place for a nice fat bookmark because we are no longer worried.

We will use movies as an example.

I just recently watched the remake of Alice in Wonderland. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it. Now I think there was no one better that Tim Burton to make this movie, and Johnny Depp was born to be Hatter. Yet, despite the mind-blowing imagery and world-building, the movie, to me, fell flat. I felt as if I was slugging through scene after scene after scene. I was mildly entertained by what widget or gizmo would greet me around the bend…but I was never worried. Alice could take off right into the lair of her enemy, and no one seemed overly concerned.

Nothing was clearly at stake. Alice didn’t have to face the weakest parts of herself in order to be triumphant at the end. Her only change was to…make up her own mind? Ok.

See, there was no clear vision of what would happen if the Red Queen won. We all kind of got the idea that life was miserable, but it didn’t seem, in fairness, all that bad. And it didn’t appear as if it would get that much worse. Heck, the White Queen apparently just had to move to a different castle, and the only downer was that her old gardens got toasted by the Jabberwocky and she lost some of her favorite help. Bummer.

And the choice presented to Alice made her utterly unlikable if the choice had been made clear. Fight the Jabberwocky—or—scamper off like a coward and save your own skin (but everyone dies and there is no way home). So effectively there was no real choice that would have afforded genuine conflict, thus creating angst. There were no other champions (according to the Oracle), so therefore, no real choice.

To create genuine tension Alice required two choices equally appealing. Then the audience would sit on the edge of their seats hoping that Alice would choose to fight the Jabberwocky because it is the right thing for our heroine to do.

This was done brilliantly in The Return of the King.

Other heroes could have taken the ring to the fires of Mt. Doom. Thus, for Frodo to choose to finish the mission was one of ultimate sacrifice. Samwise could have taken the ring for his friend, but Frodo will not let him because he doesn’t desire the ring to poison more souls than it already had. This makes Frodo truly self-sacrificing.

We, the audience, witness the perils ahead and wonder how little Frodo and Samwise will make it to Mt. Doom in the first place. They are in constant peril physically and emotionally. We see the effects of the ring taking a deepening hold and wonder at every turn if Frodo will give in to the darkest parts of himself. Thus, as an audience, we not only worry that Frodo will not make it to Mt. Doom literally–he and his crew must make it past the Black Gates then face off against orcs and giant spiders all the while evading detection by the ever-watchful Eye of Sauron–but we also worry whether Frodo can make it there emotionally and psychologically.

Will the ring poison him too much before they can reach the fires of Mt. Doom? Can Samwise’s love and friendship conquer the greed and lust of the ring? We see the mounting pressure in the faces of our Hobbit friends as they struggle with physical injury, starvation, and stress…all against a ticking clock.

Then, the camera cuts to the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They are fortified at Gondor, terrified and staring at potential extinction. We see the stress has aged even the spry Merry and Pippin and witness the morale steadily eroding as they keep their eyes fixed on Mt. Doom for some sliver of a sign that the ring has been destroyed. We, the audience, twitch in our seats even though, logically, we know the little Hobbits must eventually win or we would have heard of the tomato-throwing mobs at movies around the country.

Yet, we still worry. Will Frodo destroy the ring before it is too late?

Alice? She had no affect through the entire movie. First, she spent far too long believing she was dreaming. But once she realized she was in another entirely different world, she never freaked out or demonstrated any signs of fear, which killed her authenticity. She was never really worried or concerned through the entire movie, and everything had a way of working out just peachy with very little effort on her part. When placed in situations that could have been fodder for great conflict, a nice contrived coincidence was there to bail out little Alice. Victory came too easily and defeat didn’t have a high enough price tag. Thus, aside from brilliant Depp and amazing special effects, I was bored.

What is a shame is that, had some adjustments been made in the story, this movie could have been another Return of the King. I feel the screenwriters forgot about story-telling and became more concerned with world-building.  Fiction writers face the same challenge.

To create riveting fiction we must put our characters in real danger continuously. They just about solve one problem only to realize they opened a door to a new and even worse problem. At the beginning they must fail because they are flawed. This flaw will be fired out by trial and tribulation by the end of the book. Our characters must be continually presented with two roads. One road ends the story and the other keeps our hero going toward the goal. But, the choices must be real choices.

In The Return of the King Frodo had numerous opportunities to hand over the ring to others who seemed more qualified to use it to defeat Sauron or take it to Mt. Doom. No one would have blamed the injured feeble little hobbit for handing the evil ring to another healthy Hobbit (Samwise) or a wizard (Gandalf) or a human fighter (Aragorn). Boromir even makes a good argument for using the ring to defeat Sauron. Our hobbit friend is in pretty bad shape at the time. He could have given into the logic very easily, but it is through character and the intervention of his allies that he makes the right choice…the choice that leads to his potential destruction.

Your big battle at the end must be something your hero/heroine could potentially lose. And the higher the stakes, the better the victory and the more angst you will create.

Those supporting your protagonist must also be genuinely worried as we see in The Return of the King. Alice’s allies didn’t show enough true worry that she would not be their champion and free them from the Red Queen.

Conflict creates angst which fuels the forward momentum of a story. World-building, setting, and description are all ancillary. I know it is hard to throw rocks at the characters you love. You, their Creator, desire to protect them. Don’t. The audience/reader needs to care about your characters in order to be vested in your story and root for your heroes. For truly great stories that stand the test of critics and time, your hero/heroine needs a tangible goal and a battle that could mean the end.

Exercise: Think of movies that you love.

  • Why did you love them?
  • How did the screenwriters create conflict?
  • How was the scene-and-sequel presented?
  • What are some ways you could use that in your own story?


Happy writing! Until next time…

Need more ways to grow in your craft?

As always, I recommend Bob Mayer’s  Novel Writer’s Toolkit for great writing instruction. Also recommend his warrior Writer Workshops for teaching the business and mindset of the professional author.

I also recommend author Jody Hedlund’s  blog and Candace Havens’ on-line workshops.


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  1. Conflict is rooted in differing motivations that lead to goals. Can be the same goal or different goals, but in pursuing those goals, your protagonist and antagonist come into conflict.
    Angst comes from caring about the characters. We care about their fate.

    • Terrell Mims on June 30, 2010 at 3:49 pm
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    Our job as writers is to create thoughtful, endearing characters and do mean, and evil things to them.

    I agree with you on Alice. The movie was so boring due to lack of conflict and her lack of arc (if you call realizing you aren’t dreaming an arc.)

    It was the conflict and my overall lovefest for Return of the King that kept me engaged when I watched it from midnight to 3 AM on opening night.

  2. So true! Without conflict, there is no story. There are so many fantastic characters created (especially in short fiction), yet all they do is go around either crying in despair, or fist-pumping each other to death.

    • Thomas on July 1, 2010 at 2:25 am
    • Reply

    It is my opinion that your use of the word angst is a poor one. Technically speaking a movie or book cannot have angst, only a character can. One could make a case that a movie or book could personify angst, but then you are getting deep into head games, and frankly better to not go there. Furthermore, the word has little if anything to do with conflict. They are not mutually interchangeable.

    ” We need angst.” — No we really don’t! A book or movie full of angst is insipid. Case in point, Twilight — no real conflict just full of angst.

    “The reader/audience needs to be on the edge of their seat from the inciting incident.” — Sorry but this is such a tired convention. I wish authors, publishers, and agents would stop touting this as if it was gospel. When you write to such a formulated process, you may indeed write a page turner, but you also run the very real risk of missing a moment of genius. It is a fallacy that human’s learn in their greatest hour of strife. Self realizations usually occur in those moments of self reflection and quiet. Why, as writers, are we so hell bent on not allowing real life moments to happen to our meticulously crafted human characters? Jesus does not come to his greatest hour of doubt, suffering, and understanding hanging on a cross. He comes to it alone, praying to his father for enlightenment in a garden. I use this example not as Christian dogma, but as an archetype of good story telling.

    The problem with Burton’s Alice in Wonderland may indeed have been that there was nothing clearly at stake. However, and this is a big however, this assumes one is remaking a classic coming of age story amidst chaos and confusion into a formulaic piece of work. Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while hoards of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of The Lord of the Rings and any number of other such recent ventures. If this was indeed Burton’s attempt, then yes he failed. Here comes another big however, I would argue that the failure of the piece is forcing Carroll’s whimsical story into a formula it never was intended to fit in the first place.

    “To create riveting fiction we must put our characters in real danger continuously. They just about solve one problem only to realize they opened a door to a new and even worse problem. At the beginning they must fail because they are flawed. This flaw will be fired out by trial and tribulation by the end of the book. Our characters must be continually presented with two roads. One road ends the story and the other keeps our hero going toward the goal. But, the choices must be real choices.” — I could write an entire book on why this may be true, but is horribly naive and formulated. Thousand upon thousands years of literature to learn from and this is what we have come to? Sad.

    1. Well, you certainly make a great case for literature and have valid points, but the angst I am talking about is the discomfit that we the writers create in our audiences/readers as they wonder if our hero will have the realizations he needs before it is too late. If you do write a book to elucidate your points, you should let us know about it so we may benefit.

      But, to expound on your point. In the case of Jesus, he didn’t start his ministry and then hang on the cross the next day. There were a lot of events that led up to the Garden of Gesthemane to his Darkest Moment….a lot of choices where he could have gone the other way. He had fed the multitudes, healed the sick, cast out demons and ridden into town a Savior on a donkey, which made the crowds turning on him and demanding his death even more tragic. It was emotionally riveting that the crowds who’d adored him the week before suddenly were demanding he be crucified instead a common dispicable criminal.

      That time in the Garden would have meant nothing without the events ahead. Jesus also asks the Cup be taken from if it is possible, so for an average person who has never seen this story play out, there is a lot of”tension” (en lue of angst) as to whether or not Jesus will allow himself to be willingly captured, or if he will use his superpowers to go free. There are two equal choices…one is to use Jesus powers and be free and the other is to willingly go to a very bad end. Or, say you don’t believe he had powers, he still had loyal followers who would have willingly whisked him off to a safe place. So still another choice…run to the safe place with Peter and pals or allow capture and crucifixion.

      Twilight was full of the characters having angst…not the writing/movie creating angst in us. I could write a book on that, LOL.

      All in all, you make excellent points. However, I think it takes tremendous skill to break formulas and rules. It is best to understand the rules before one goes breaking them. These blogs are to help with the fundamentals so that then writers can take those and create something uniquely their own. It is tough to create a machine to break the speed of light if you have no grasp of the Laws of Physics. Thank you so much for taking the time for such a thoughtful contribution!

  3. I couldn’t agree more with what you say about conflict as the key ingredient of good narrative. My favourite novel and movie for illustrating this point (I used to teach a course on literature & film) is The Maltese Falcon, in the which the characters are continually deceiving each other and coming to blows. On a personal level as well, I love the story (my grandmother reminds me of the femme fatale), as I was reflecting in my blog the other day.

  1. […] To create riveting fiction we must put our characters in real danger continuously. They just about solve one problem only to realize they opened a door to a new and even worse problem.  […]

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