The perfect story escalates smoothly from scene to scene, creating a sense of rising action.
I’ve spoken before about ways that stories can escalate. There really are only two ways—through deepening a conflict, making it so that it affects the protagonists more profoundly; or through broadening, so that the conflict affects more people.
But a good story will deal with more than one conflict. There might be issues of life and death, but there will be smaller issues that deal with a protagonist’s sense of self worth, or loyalty, or morality. So typically an author will need to switch gears during the course of a story, handling one large conflict in one scene, then moving back to a smaller but more personal conflict in the next. Because of this, it often feels to the reader that the story doesn’t just drive powerfully toward its conclusion, escalating ceaselessly, even though in reality every individual conflict in the story might well be moving forward inexorably.
Readers don’t connect with all conflicts on the same level. In other words, if you write a gut-wrenching scene in which a man tries to save his daughter from a sinking car, as a father I might react to that quite strongly. I’m a dad. I have two daughters, and so I can relate. Yet a teenager who has no children might not be as greatly affected by that scene as I would. Similarly, if you write a scene in which a wealthy matron feels so horrible about her nose that she risks plastic surgery to get it taken care of, I really won’t care. From childhood I’ve been taught to think of people who go through plastic surgery as being rather vain and selfish. In a world where children are dying from nutrition, why should I give a hoot whether you get a nose job?
So even though as a writer you might have every scene escalating nicely, the reader won’t necessarily connect with each one at the same level.
However, it is your job to make sure that your stories escalate.
Now, typically, the first escalation of a story comes in what we call the “inciting incident,” the incident where the protagonist recognizes that he or she has a life-altering problem that must be dealt with. Often the recognition comes in phases. In the first phase, the protagonist might recognize that he or she has a problem but just might not realize how great it will affect him or her.
Often times, we are introduced to what I call “bridge” problems before we get to the major conflict, and that's fine.
Just keep in mind that whatever conflict you are working with, the important part is to escalate.
A past student of my Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop recently had this to say:
Over Christmas, I sat down at the kitchen table to write. I was surrounded by the scent of pine, the chatter of my family, and the gaudy shine of tinsel--but all I could see was a glowing violet spaceship with the appearance of a giant jellyfish.
7,000 words later, the middle grade short The Sting of the Irukandji was born. It was gobbled up by my test audience, who said they couldn't put it down. It was immersive. It was cool. It was also the first story that I had written after participating in Dave Farland's Writing Enchanting Prose workshop, and it was executed every step of the way with Dave's lessons in mind.
In fact, the clear and striking concept of the ship was an idea conceived during the settings component of the course. I usually suck at settings, but Dave convinced me how important they are, provided a
few techniques, and made me work at it over the week.
And folks, he was right. The Sting of the Irukandji was accepted at pro rates by its target market on its maiden submission. One more sale like this and the workshop will have paid for itself. High five Dave -
you are The Man!
I will be teaching my Writing Enchanting Pros workshop in Dallas this fall.