“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin
Good writing is a synthesis of ideas and instincts working in concert. Letting either one of these elements bind you can throw your writing out of balance. We have been indoctrinated to believe that good writing is a skill rather than a practice. When we connect to the aliveness of our characters’ internal conflict, our writing becomes compelling and unpredictable.
Let’s say, for instance, that we envision our protagonist growing increasingly frustrated with the antagonist throughout the story. When we explore the nature of that emotion, however, we see that it actually looks different than we had imagined. In the course of one’s frustration, one might excuse oneself from the situation and then feel guilty for leaving. Or question why they are so impatient. Or struggle between self-doubt and growing fury. In short, frustration contains a multitude of experiences. Mounting frustration is a process and may contain an infinite number of emotional colors, all of which vary depending on the characters in question and the overarching dilemma that preoccupies them.
Our character’s frustration is particular to their situation. By exploring the specifics of their conflict, we are led beyond our idea of frustration. In fact, in the rewrite we may discover that this character experiences rage, apology, embarrassment, soul-searching, despair, hopefulness, excitement, grief, suspicion, madness, and even gratitude at their current situation. The nature of a frustrating experience may differ greatly from our idea of what it means to feel frustrated.
The protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 wants to return home. He fears for his life, stuck in a distant war-torn country. He has to prove that he is mentally unstable if he wants to leave. But this is war! To say that he’s scared is proof of his sanity. To say that he wants to continue flying dangerous missions is praised as patriotic. Either way, he is not going home. As the story progresses, we experience the hero’s mounting frustration as a result of his hope, awareness, grief, and despair.
We are always seeking balance. In doing so we can overcompensate, and this produces drama. There is often a difference between our preconceived notion of a character’s experience and the true nature of that experience. For instance, the nature of passivity includes rage. The nature of confidence includes insecurity. The nature of hatred includes love, and vice versa.
By exploring the nature of our characters’ experiences, our character’s internal struggle becomes more truthful and dynamic. This is crucial to consider in Act Three. Just because our protagonist is aware of their dilemma does not mean they are without conflict. The situation continues to be dire as they struggle to find their way back home.
There can be a tendency in the third act to steer our protagonist away from mounting conflict by endowing them with wisdom they have not earned. This robs our story of rich drama in Act Three. Wisdom is not merely a function of self-knowledge but a willingness to make a new choice in spite of one’s old beliefs.