A director told me once that if you put two actors together in a scene without directing them or staging the scene, the conflict would begin to diminish. If the actors were on opposite sides of the stage, they would gradually drift toward each other. Their voices would begin to match each other in tone and volume.
It is human nature to want to resolve conflict. We do not like the discomfort of not getting along with others. Human beings are pack animals, and the primal urge to belong should never be underestimated. This is why the role of the writer is courageous, particularly in the first draft. Our job demands that we observe and offer our (sometimes contrarian) dispatches from the fringe. The first time Ibsen’s A Doll’s House played, the audience sat in dumbstruck silence at the final curtain. They could not conceive of a story that ended with a woman walking out on her husband. It just wasn’t done!
There can be a tendency in the rewrite to tame the wildness of our first draft, to make sense of it, to neuter it, to make it something that we hope people will understand, to make it palatable, accessible. In short, to kill it. We don’t want to do this. We want, above all, to preserve the poetry of that initial draft.
Dramatic Conflict builds tension
As humans, we are geared to evolve, to find order in chaos. The seasoned writer understands that their job is not only to maintain the tension, but to allow it to build through complication. The tendency in the rewrite can be to not want to put our protagonist in hot water. We want to put our protagonist in some conflict, but not enough that we can’t control it. Our fear is that if we do this, our story might collapse. After all the work we have put in already, after this great investment, we think that we cannot afford for this to happen. This fear may arise frequently for us in the rewrite, but if our initial premise is sound, we need not be concerned. Our only job in the rewrite is to hold the story loosely and continue to inquire.
When fear arises, it is natural that we want to try and solve the story problem as quickly as possible. Remember what Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If we “solve” this problem with our brain, there will never be a transformation. Simply put, most story solutions are simple, but they are rarely linear. The key in solving the problem is to maintain the tension.
Our protagonist wants to resolve tension. Sometimes, what can happen is that the protagonist and the author’s fear meet in the back room and strike a deal behind the author’s back. We must be willing to follow through to the end with what it is that our protagonist wants.
Our stories are far more flexible than we may sometimes think. When we are willing to explore the vast reaches of our character’s experience, and allow our idea of the story to fall apart, only then is it possible for our story to truly live in all its specificity. We think our stories are only for others to read. At the core, they are nothing more than a document of our growth. We write them for ourselves.
Learn more about marrying the wildness of your imagination to the rigor of structure in The 90-Day Novel, The 90-Day Memoir, or The 90-Day Screenplay workshops.